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One of Disney’s masterwork films is The Lion King.  While some may dismiss it as nothing more than a children’s movie, they fail to see that like most fairy tales it contains much deeper themes.  It’s a classic bildüngsroman, or coming-of-age story, that describes how a son matures into his father, or how men mature and become more like God.
The first image in the movie is a rising sun.  This is consistent with the theme of “The Circle of Life.”  The sun represents a never-deviating pattern of death and rebirth through its daily rising and setting, an eternal constant that embodies the “Circle of Life.”  The movie primarily deals with the Scar’s attempt not only to disrupt the entire cycle in his seizure of power, but also the internal cycle of growth in Simba.  Only by reclaiming his lost Self can Simba restore balance to the Pride Lands and to himself.
Scar is quickly characterized as the sinister antagonist.  His fur and mane are darker than the other lions’, and he constantly lurks in shadows.  He’s cruel to animals, as shown by his tormenting of a mouse which directly contrasts with Mufasa’s admonition to respect all creatures.  While all the other lions normally have their claws retracted, Scar’s alone remain constantly drawn.  However, his nefarious nature is made demonic in his song “Be Prepared,” where he descends into the underworld of the hyenas and stages his coup.  The same eerie green lighting used to depict the Underworld in Hercules is used here, as well as the skeletal dancing and gradual change to red lighting reminiscent of hellfire.  The director even makes an allusion to Hitler when the hyenas are marching past him in high-step.  All these forms of characterization serve to show the maniacal megalomaniac for what he really is.  
Simba’s education and growth begin by following the normal pattern of father instructing son.  Mufasa is the perfect king.  His fur is golden while his mane is red, both regal colors.  Every step he takes is full of majesty, a noted contrast from the skulking walk Scar has developed.  Simba’s maturation will be complete when he is like his father.  However, he still has a long way to grow, as illustrated when Simba places his tiny paw into his father’s larger paw print and when juxtaposing Simba’s ineffectual growl with Mufasa’s deep-throated, awe inspiring roar.  It is not only a physical growth required, but a spiritual growth as well.  As a cub Simba does not understand the role of being a king.  “But I thought kings could do whatever they want,” he says.  At the end of the movie, Scar paraphrases Simba’s words, showing that he never developed the true wisdom and maturity of a king.  “I’m king. I can do whatever I want.”
Water is a strong motif throughout the work.  Scar consistently tries to place Simba in waterless places to kill him.  Instead of going to the watering hole, Simba goes to the Elephant Graveyard and is nearly eaten by hyenas.  When he goes to the gorge, a place that once held water but no longer does, he is nearly killed by the stampede.  At last Simba collapses in a wasteland where the earth is hard and cracked from the arid climate.  Water is a symbol of life, a vital component of any creature’s survival.  When Scar tries to force Simba away from water, he is in essence trying to force him away from life.   After the stampede, the gorge is filled with obscuring dust, akin to the grief that now clouds Simba’s mind.  It is through this confusion that Scar is able to manipulate Simba’s emotional state and exile him from the Pride Lands.  The thorn brambles Simba passes through could be interpreted as the mental tangle of lies that Scar places him in and remains with him well into his adult life, preventing him from returning and reaching his full potential.  The broken tree Mufasa lies under is not only a clue to his lifeless state, but also a breaking of son from father and a break in the normal cycles of life.  Mufasa can no longer directly aid Simba in developing.  While some may believe that Simba’s initial leave from his kingdom was abandonment, it is in fact a necessary respite so he can seek a new way to strengthen physically and psychically to defeat Scar.  If he were to continue to fight Scar without maturing, he would lose.
Water is also a symbol of change and it provides life by allowing people to change or develop.  When Timon and Pumba revive Simba, they do so by splashing him with water.  Their home is filled with water that allows a lush jungle to grow.  Similarly Simba continues to grow in the sheltered environment the two provide, as well as gain a respect for the other animals as his father had directed.  The obvious visible symbols showing his growth is the montage of Simba’s ageing as he crosses the log.  The three images shown behind him are first trees, a symbol of constant growth, a waterfall, signifying constant change and finally a full moon, another symbol of change with its constant waxing and waning.  However, the moon shown is full, indicating his physical growth is complete.
Dandelions are a motif used throughout Disney movies.  In Beauty and the Beast, Bell sings “I want adventure in the great, wide somewhere” as she releases dandelions into the wind.  As though in response, the horse Philippe comes to take her to the Beast’s castle.  Similarly in The Lion King, when Simba has outgrown his childhood sanctuary, his discontented sigh and dropping body release dandelion seeds that summon Rafiki.  The releasing of dandelion seeds signifies that the protagonist has completed what growth he can accomplish on his own as a child and now needs someone to bring him into the world to complete his maturation.  It is his call to the outside world that he is ready to join it.
The monkey Rafiki serves the role of prophet and spiritual guide to Simba.  At the beginning of the movie, Rafiki is the one to anoint Simba, an allusion to the Hebrew prophet Samuel anointing the young David in preparation of his future regal role.  The monkey also carries a staff, similar to that of Moses.  Just as a prophet leads people to God, Rafiki leads Simba to Mufasa.  As Scar earlier entrapped Simba within the brambles of lies, Rafiki guides him back through the branches, back to the living father Mufasa that Simba had left for dead.
Mufasa has now taken on characteristics of the divine, dwelling in the heavens as a star and looking down on mortals.  But as Rafiki reveals, “He lives on in you.”  Simba’s inherent royalty and divinity had been forgotten through a combination of Scar’s lies and his own interrupted initiation into adulthood.  Again it is through water that Simba is first able to see this inner quality and it allows him to make the final change necessary to complete his psychic development.  Mufasa’s only advice to Simba is to remember who he truly is, the son of a king.  Similarly, humans must remember that they are sons and daughters of God in order to become more like Him in their own development.
The next scene shows the sanctuary Timon and Pumba provided the young lion, but now it is enveloped in mist.  While Simba required this place as a retreat for growth, he now no longer needs it, and it has receded into misty obscurity. The sun is shown as Simba rushes back to the Pride Lands.  The internal cycle that he possessed at birth was then represented by the sun.  Now that the break in his psyche that Scar inflicted has been healed, the sun has returned.  His own internal cycle is complete once more, and he can now fix the external break that Scar has imposed on the Pride Lands.
This disruption is clearly shown through pathetic fallacy.  When Mufasa reigned, the land was vibrant, but under Scar it has become grey and lifeless.  The fire that ignites under Simba does so just before Scar reveals his crimes and later consumes him and the hyenas, for now Scar is no longer veiling his demonic nature from Simba.  In addition, or perhaps in tandem, to its symbolic representation of Hell, fire is often used as a symbol of cleansing because it removes impurities.  The following rains not only revivify the land, but wash away the bones left by Scar and the hyenas.  This dual baptism by fire and water serve as a reconsecrating of the land for good or God.
Both Scar and Sarabi mistook Simba for his father.  It was not only his physical resemblance, but his maturity that makes him appear as Mufasa.  He has become like his father and obtained the wisdom of a true king.  After Scar’s defeat, Simba walks up the rock face to take his place as king.  It’s only now that his steps are filled with the same majesty that accompanied Mufasa’s every movement when the old king ascended the same rise and only now that his roar is as fierce as his father’s.
Like Simba, humans bare the divine within them.  If we shelter this nature and allow it to grow despite the lying and murderous antagonists in our lives, it can blossom into something amazing.  By remembering that we are offspring of deity, we can bring this nature forth into the world when it is grown and restore a portion of the world’s paradisiacal glory.  That is the true tale of The Lion King.
This was some stuff I noticed when watching Disney's the Lion King for the 100th time. Note that literary interpretations are subjective, though I've been careful to keep my findings within reason. I'll admit that my own theology is expressed here, which was probably outside the origional writers' intentions, but that does not necessarily exclude it from being a viable interpretation.

I'm sad that Disney has since ceased to draw on older myths in their current films. Their older ones were so charged with archtypal energies that they could resonate with the much deeper psyche. Their newer films are good, but they lack the same depth. But The Lion King has always been a favorite of mine, so perhaps I'm just inclined to find more depth in it.
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:iconleaffly:
leaffly Jun 6, 2013  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
well said, well said
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:icongentlefoxes:
Nice interpretation of yours!
As for the symbol of trees, I believe they stand either for Simbas spiritual bounds shared with Mufasa or the struggles between 'good' and 'evil' forces in this movie, as the same sort of tree is shown multiple times, first after the stampede scene when Mufasa died.
This tree is shown broken and dried out, indicating the desolate overall situation; Mufasa is killed, Simba has to run away and the movies' evil character, Scar, wins.
There is the same sort of tree lying around when Simba, Nala, Timon and Pumba come back to the destructed Pride Lands but now not totally broken into pieces, yet dried out. The overall situation has gotten better because Simba has gained maturity, ready to challange the 'evil' Scar. One scene later, the four even hide behind a half-broken tree (That's the scene I got the importance of this symbol for the whole story :slow: ).
At the very end, there's another tree, kracked but not broken. After a cross-fade, this tree is green and healthy again, which is a symbol for the happy ending of the movie.
This fits very well in your interpretation, or does it not? :D
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:icongryffindora8154:
gryffindora8154 Oct 6, 2012  Student Artist
nice by the way xD
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:icongryffindora8154:
gryffindora8154 Oct 6, 2012  Student Artist
What about the moon?
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:iconmapodaca:
mapodaca Jan 16, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Wow, your essay definitely has enlightened me. Thank you for sharing!!! :)
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:iconvamperotica:
Vamperotica Nov 10, 2011  Student Digital Artist
Hey, such a nice interpretation. I study English Literature and we analyzed the movie as well. It is a little boring that many writers focus at only the political symbols in the movie. Even though I might agree at some point, i think it's overrated most of the time. I liked your interpretation. Thanks for sharing it. :)
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:iconnancymae:
Why aren't there more comments? Thank you for this beautiful interpretation, my fellow avid Lion King lover. Have you seen the Lion King musical? :D
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:iconsuicidalconsepts:
very interesting,the repeated mentioning of ''God''(capital G) in a african tale was somewhat annoying(but understandable)i mean,the writers made a point of only having a spirit,not a entire heaven behind it.and the water connection was very insightful,i never noticed it but your absolutely correct,same with how you interpreted scar,once again,i never noticed the nails,or that the walk was akin to Hitler
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:iconkai-kun1:
While it's true that the writers may not have intended to write about God and heaven, they have grown up in a culture that is heavily influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition. It's inevitable that some of that tradition would bleed through into their work, African themed or otherwise. Thank you for the comments though.
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:iconfreakycracker:
FreakyCracker Dec 17, 2010
I absolutely adore the Lion King, as well as the Lion King II! I am so very pleased to have found your interpretation of the movie. I agree with a lot of it, and some of it I was very open to. I had analyzed the movie, sure, but not quite as much or as well as you have. Thanks for this! It truly is amazing. Oh, and I loved how you compared it to a Beauty and the Beast scene as well. B&B and TLK (I and II) are my favorite Disney movies, by far. Thanks again, Kai-kun1!
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