Mere Anachrony: The Lion King and Disney’s Greatest Villain

In “Mere Anachrony,”–the title of which is derived from a play on words of this–we review non-contemporary works of culture.

From its opening scene of a yellow incandescent sun crawling above a reddening horizon to its thematically circular culmination, The Lion King tries hard to emerge from the mold of other Disney animated films. Released in 1994, it is, in my cursory memory, the only Disney film that does not center on romance. Instead, it’s a leonine take on Hamlet, complete with regal ghosts and recalcitrant brothers.

The Lion King is decidedly dark; of course, all Disney films when viewed retrospectively feel this way. But what separates The Lion King from the Disney canon—and indeed, from its Shakespearean source material—is the depth of characterization it lends its villain. Scar, voiced fantastically by Jeremy Irons, is a deeper and more complex villain than Disney colleagues such as Jafar or Ursula; surprisingly, the same can be said when we compare him to Shakespeare’s Claudius. Hamlet lends precious little time to Claudius, who is nothing more than a foil against which Hamlet can brood (it is notable that we see Claudius essentially through the eyes of Hamlet and his dead father). Claudius is a perpetrator of regicide/fratricide, and yet we are given no stark motivation for this (beyond the implied “Hey, I want to be king!”). We see none of his interaction with Hamlet’s father (himself barely characterized). Plus, Claudius isn’t even clever about the murder: He poisons the king in the garden, then marries his widow two weeks later. Who wouldn’t be suspicious? There is no possible way to root for Claudius.

Scar, meanwhile, has the first speaking role in The Lion King, his opening line of “Life’s not fair” immediately following the “Circle of Life” introduction of Simba and the title shot. We get to know Scar in a way that makes his reprehensible actions a bit more comprehensible. He is a younger brother that has to live up to the unreasonable standard of Mufasa, who is perfect. Mufasa is stronger than Scar, he is better looking than Scar, he is a dutiful father, and, when voiced by James Earl Jones, every sentence Mufasa says comes out sounding like a maxim (“Everything the light touches is our kingdom”). In the canon of fictional lions, Mufasa only trails (and it’s arguable) C.S. Lewis’ Aslan, who we all know is Jesus Christ. Suffice it to say, we’d be jealous, too.

This doesn’t even mention that Scar now has to deal with little Simba, who is petulant, arrogant, and weak.* As if Simba’s very existence, which precludes Scar from taking the throne, weren’t bad enough, the cub has no qualms rubbing his regal future in his uncle’s face.

*He is pinned so frequently and so similarly by Nala that this is how he recognizes her later in the film. Her physical domination of Simba is her calling card.

Scar is thus the outcast of the royal family. He’s a loner with no leonine companions—perhaps because of the physical deformity that lends him his name—and instead is forced to hang out with the hyenas.* This all drives his plan to kill both Simba and Mufasa (if only Claudius saw that far down the line of succession), and do so in a—shall we say, more subtle—way than Claudius. Scar’s outlining his plan during the song “Be Prepared,” capped with what might be my favorite lyric from a Disney song (“My teeth and ambitions are bared”), is one of the film’s standout scenes. Scar sings with the hyenas in a cave or cavern or something full of geysers—symbols for Scar’s own underlying potency. The scene ends with Scar silhouetted in front of a crescent moon, a shot that looks frighteningly similar to Tim Burton’s contemporaneous Nightmare Before Christmas.

*who are treated by the lions as a sort of caste of the untouchables (Scar’s plan to coexist with them in the Pridelands is met with gasps) and, since their voices are done by Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin, have been accused of some sort of racism.

The plan itself—to kill Simba and Mufasa in a wildebeest stampede—is, if not quite genius, good enough for Disney and good enough for Scar to escape suspicion.* Even when it doesn’t quite work and Simba survives, Scar is quick enough to improvise: He guilt-trips Simba into running away for years.**

*Let’s be honest: Other Disney villainy plots are things like: make Cinderella do housework, make Sleeping Beauty eat a poison apple, hypnotize the dim-witted sultan, etc.

**I’m not quite sure of the chronology lion life expectancy: How old is Simba when Mufasa dies, and how long does he spend away from Pride Rock? It seems as if it’s a long time, but the way Scar’s reign is portrayed, it’s doubtful he could have lasted that long as king.

Scar’s problems as king are threefold: 1) He is a terrible, terrible king. There is no way to overstate this. King Scar is lazy and paranoid; he makes Peter Stuyvesant look like an effective ruler. This forces the lionesses* to reach further into the forest for food, which leads to: 2) Nala, with the help of Rafiki, helps Simba see through the childish naivete of “Hakuna Matata.” This is one of my favorite features of the film: How many other Disney movies write a catchy song performed by likeable characters that espouses a philosophy the movie itself pans? I never noticed this as a kid, but “Hakuna Matata” is a ludicrous motto; it’s a faux-losophy that allows Simba to ignore deep psychological trauma for… days/weeks/years? (I’m not really sure.)

*Again, I’m not quite sure how lion prides work: How come there are NO males outside the king? Like, none. Is that normal?

And finally: 3) When the time comes to defend his throne, Scar resorts to violence. This is one of the most disappointing aspects of the film. Scar had hitherto scoffed at being part of a world so dominated by its physicality. He laments in his first scene that while he has the brains, Mufasa has the brawn—and that Mufasa’s status proves the latter is more celebrated in their society. Scar’s cleverness is borne out in his murder of Mufasa (in a rare time of physical weakness for the king), when he convinces Simba to run away, and when he again convinces Simba to confess his non-existent culpability in Mufasa’s death to the pride. It’s notable that when Simba elicits the same confession (of a very existent culpability) from Scar, he has his paws around his uncle’s neck. Simba needs the physical advantage; Scar makes his own psychological one. Scar could have gotten away with banishment (remember, this is a kid’s movie; its ending is not supposed to be fraught with the death of its source material, or at the very least, not death at the hands of its hero) if not for his last-gasp attack of Simba, who hurls him over the cliff, where the hyenas finish him off.

The problem with the ending is that it, like all movies that involve a minimum of action, glorifies the physically strong (and, in this movie, the aristocracy). My biggest problem at the end of The Lion King is a feeling of emptiness toward Simba: What exactly did he do to earn back his kingdom? He wallowed in self-pity for [insert date range], felt zero compulsion to avenge his father or confront his past (or even off himself “to be or not to be” style) before being prodded by Nala to return and beat up his uncle, whose physical frailty has long been established. What exactly is likable about Simba? We’re led to believe Simba is a good king because the final scene shows the Pridelands have returned to the verdant green they boasted during Mufasa’s tenure; but there’s no indication throughout the entire film of the leadership skills necessary to rebuild an empire (Simba’s best skill seems to be his ability to inspire precipitation).

If there were any justice, Nala would take over: She is stronger than Simba both mentally and physically and is the only other character in the film who even approaches Mufasa’s perfection (plus, you know, she could have fit in as Fortinbras, to go along with her other roles as Horatio and Ophelia).

But in the final five minutes, The Lion King takes the Disney way out, and that’s to be expected. For the first 82, however, it’s a film that tries hard to be more than that. Its teeth and ambitions are bared; be prepared.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by lawgorrhea on August 8, 2009 at 5:57 PM

    Tim, I thoroughly enjoyed this post (especially since I JUST watched The Lion King).

    As for your question about why Simba is so likable, I think it’s because he’s just a really hot lion (and before he was a lion, he was a really cute cub). The fact that he only eats bugs throughout the movie also makes him an intriguing character. You, of all people, should know why.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Wey on August 8, 2009 at 10:23 PM

    so…the lion king is…better than hamlet?

    Reply

  3. Posted by John S on August 9, 2009 at 5:23 PM

    First of all, Hamlet’s dad is also named Hamlet. He’s not nameless.

    Also, how did you not realize, even as a kid, that “Hakuna Matata” is a ridiculous motto? Obviously, “no worries” is inevitably going to fail, particularly if there’s a drought. The more interesting question is whether or not going through this midlife crisis of sorts is necessary for Simba’s evolution into a great leader. “Hakuna Matata” is almost like a kid-friendly version of Hamlet’s nihilism.

    As for your glorification of Scar, that’s a little excessive. He’s really not that much different from other Disney villains. Disney always has a trend of portraying intelligence as “craftiness” and making its villains clever but selfish (Jafar and Ursula are portrayed this way too, despite your insistence to the contrary), so Scar is not really unique. I don’t think the characterization of Scar is supposed to make his resentment of Mufasa seem “natural” or realitic, it’s just supposed to illustrate how inferior he is to his brother.

    With regard to Simba, he doesn’t really “bring” the rain at the end; the rain symbolizes that the universe’s order has been restored. It’s true that this a very conservative “order,” since the only thing that makes Simba “fit” to be king is lineage. This is Disney’s most ethically conservative movie: There is no egalitarian message, as in Aladdin, or anti-commercialism as in Little Mermaid, or anti-supeficiality like Beauty and the Beast. There is only anti-insurrection/maintain the status quo message. Simba should be King because he is SUPPOSED to be King.

    Finally, I get that it’s facetious, but enough with the comparisons to Hamlet. Are Scar’s motivations really BETTER than Claudius’? (Aren’t his of the “hey, I want to be king” variety, as well?) And the point of Hamlet is never “Hamlet v. Claudius,” it’s more “Hamlet v. the ultimate meaninglessness of life” which wouldn’t make for a very good kids movie.

    Reply

  4. […] Of course, this is ridiculously unfair. Including endnotes in a novel is a pretty weird thing to do, and it’s a totally reasonable objection to say that including them is stupid or silly. For me, however, trying to imagine the novel without endnotes is like trying to imagine The Lion King without Scar. […]

    Reply

  5. Very thoughtful look into the Lion’s Den(mark). As another person who’s spent a bit too much time thinking about Hamlet and The Lion King, I thought I’d add a few thoughts. I agree with you about the way Disney re-imagines—imagineers?—Hamlet. Specifically, I think they replace Hamlet’s preoccupation with transience with the much sunnier talk of the Circle of Life.

    Here’s Shakespeare:
    HAMLET: We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service – two dishes, but to one table. That’s the end.
    KING: Alas, alas!
    HAMLET: A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.

    And here’s the Lion King:
    MUFASA: Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures – from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.
    SIMBA: But, Dad, don’t we eat the antelope?
    MUFASA: Yes, Simba. But let me explain. When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we’re all connected in the great Circle of Life.

    The similarities are clear, but the differences are noteworthy. In Hamlet, we have a younger man distressing an older man by talking about maggots and worms. (Irritating English major aside: Hamlet’s “a man may fish” line is a string of 24 consecutive monosyllabic words. Decomposition of language = physical decomposition?) In The Lion King, we have the old lion reassuring the young lion. There are no fresh-devouring creepy crawlies. Instead, transience is affirmed and celebrated. (Does the stretching of ANT into ANTelope represent the triumph over monosyllables? Eh, probably not.)

    There’s a similar idea at play in each work’s “Remember, remember” scene. King Hamlet is in a prison house where the lightest word harrows souls, freezes young blood, and the like. Mufasa seems generally content in the clouds with his parents and ancestors and buddies and whoever else goes to lion heaven. In fact, Rafiki tells Simba: “He’s alive. I’ll show him to you.” Rafiki’s paradoxical comment that Mufasa is alive, when he is actually quite not, reverses Hamlet’s equally false (one would assume) “Horatio, I am dead.”

    Although this substitution of life-even-in-death for death-even-in-life is largely a product of Disneyfication, the effect is to put a different philosophical system in place in which Simba doesn’t have to answer any existential questions but merely has to take his place in the Circle of Life. Scar’s problem is that he is an enemy of the Circle. Instead of affirming life, he seeks to break the cycle. After all, a scar is a symbol of that which cannot be healed or rejuvenated. (Actually, the super pomo version might try to claim that Scar is writing and thus perhaps more desirable than the logocentric world of Simba and Mufasa.)

    Anyway, all Simba really has to do to succeed is continue the circle. So I’m not all that troubled by the fact that Simba is more pussy than lion but still gets to be king. A badass Fortinbrasian Simba or even a sicklied-o’er-with-the-pale-cast-of-thought Simba would seem somehow superfluous.

    Reply

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