With the rare exception (‘Casino Royale’ springs to mind) movie remakes suffer the fate of critical comparison. Characters we loved are ruined forever by another actor. Scenes we memorised are deleted, or worse, reimagined. So, you can imagine the trepidation with which I approached the new version of ‘The Lion King’.
We love the original (1994). And yes, I did cry when I first saw it. But then give me 5 minutes of ‘Little House on the Prairie’ and I’ll be bawling my eyes out.
So, heading to the cinema 25 years later, I had to wonder if the new version would have the same impact? Put simply – would it be as good as the original? However, part way through the film, that question no longer occupied my thoughts, replaced by something as surprising as it was poignant.
The opening to the 2019 version of ‘The Lion King’ is faithful to the majestic beginning of the original (without the slightly wonky giraffe which always slightly disturbed me). The heart-pounding crescendo leading into the ‘thump’ of the title screen makes you want to rise to your feet and applaud. However, this being England, we just sit in appreciative silence.
And so the film roles on. Faithful to the original, almost line for line. When Mufasa first says ‘Son’ in the way only Mufasa and Darth Vader can, I turn to my 8 year old son with a shared grin of satisfaction.
The comedy is still good, and it was refreshing to hear them riff off the jokes of the first screenplay, creating new gags for those who knew the original lines.
However, there was one thing that had significantly changed, or perhaps developed, since the 90’s Lion King, and it created, for me, an interesting dynamic as I reflected on it and our modern world. We live in a confused age. We want to embrace the idea of collective responsibility for our natural world and yet reject a responsibility towards each other that might inhibit my personal ‘freedoms’. This tension is played out quite clearly in the 2019 version of ‘The Lion King’.
To butcher another James Earl Jones line, the theme of ‘the circle of life’ is strong with this one. This is all about shared responsibility. When Scar begins to ‘over-hunt’, the land is ravaged and this results in famine. It’s only as the Lions hunt responsibly that balance is brought back to the land (sorry – I’ll stop with the cinematic cross-overs). This theme resonates as much with our present age as it did in 1994, and even more so with Sir David Attenborough on the eco-rampage and the Extinction Rebellion protests.
We like the idea of responsibility towards the land, however we don’t like the idea of responsibility towards each other, at least when it impedes my freedom. This is most clearly seen today in the realm of identity. No person or circumstance can ultimately dictate who I am – the ultimate freedom is to be free to be who I want to be.
This fits far more with the other world-view put over in the film, and is encapsulated in the immediately singable motto ‘Hakuna Matata’. Do what you want. No responsibilities equals no worries. You’re answerable to no-one. You can decide who you want to be and that will lead to happiness. Apparently life is, to quote the film, as a ‘meaningless line of indifference’ not a circle of responsibility. As Pumbaa says, the line of life simply ends in death and it’s only logical that death renders life ultimately meaningless. All there is is to enjoy the journey along that line in whatever way you choose, free from outside constrictions. Sound familiar?
On one level this looks so wonderful. The land is almost eden-esque. The animals live in harmony, no longer eating each other (though it seems that memo didn’t include the slugs and bugs – sorry Randall).
However, even in Eden, responsibility is inescapable. Pumbaa and Timon feel responsibility for Simba when they find him in the desert. When Simba falls for Nala their ‘trio’s down to two’. Their identity is actually in relationship with each other, and friendship equals responsbility.
This is where the biggest theme of identity comes into it’s own. And it is distinctly African. ‘Ubuntu’ is the idea that a person is a person through other people. That is, I am uniquely defined by the relationships I have. I am son of Melvin and Heather, husband to Jo, father to Eleanor, Jonathan and Benjamin. No one else enjoys those relationships in the way that I do and that makes me unique. But this uniqueness doesn’t create individualism as my uniqueness is found in community.
This is what Simba discovers. As son of the King he has a responsibility towards others. It isn’t what he wants to do, it isn’t in line with the new identity he has forged for himself and yet he is compelled to live it out for the sake of others. He is Simba because he is son of Mufasa, the Lion King.
The circle is now complete (sorry…) The life of the Pride Lands is restored as Simba takes responsibility. The ‘meaningless line of indifference’ is shown to be inadequate. Life lived taking the responsibilities that are handed to us by birth is where true life is found.
This of course resonates, but only because it is a half truth. You see, I’m not entirely convinced that the ‘circle of life’ brings responsibility. In fact I’m not sure it offers much more meaning than the ‘meaningless line of indifference’. Do lions really consider the population levels of antelope when hunting? I have a feeling the balance of species has more to do with the survival skills of their prey. And is the idea that lions ‘become grass’ when they die a comfort to a wildebeest as it’s being torn apart in the jaws of a lion? ‘Don’t worry fellas – we’ll get our own back when my children are munching the foliage!’ It feels more like a meaningless circle of indifference. What else could a circle be? It just goes on and on and on. It never starts, it never stops. It doesn’t go anywhere. To borrow from another film – live, die, repeat.
However, we have a better story.
Life is not a circle, it is a line.
Life is not indifferent but designed.
You see, both visions of life in the Lion King have elements of truth and are also lacking. On the one hand life is linear – it’s not a relentless circle. Like any good story it has a beginning and an end. But it’s not meaningless. Like any good story it has an author, design and purpose.
I did wonder how modern viewers would respond to the idea that life is found in relational responsibility. That is the climax of the story. It’s the moment when we’re meant to say ‘yes’ and yet our modern age consistently wants to say ‘no’!
However, ‘yes’ is the reaction of the audience. Why? Because here is where ‘The Lion King’ most clearly reflects the true story. We want the king to realise his responsibility towards his kingdom. We want him to see his identity not in individualistic hedonism, but in self-sacrificial heroism. We want him to defeat evil, whatever the cost. We want peace and harmony to once more reign.
Thank God that’s how the true original story goes.