One of Disneys masterwork films is The Lion King. While some may dismiss it as nothing more than a childrens movie, they fail to see that like most fairy tales it contains much deeper themes. Its 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 Scars 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. Hes cruel to animals, as shown by his tormenting of a mouse which directly contrasts with Mufasas admonition to respect all creatures. While all the other lions normally have their claws retracted, Scars 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.
Simbas 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. Simbas 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 fathers larger paw print and when juxtaposing Simbas ineffectual growl with Mufasas 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 Simbas words, showing that he never developed the true wisdom and maturity of a king. Im 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 creatures 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 Simbas mind. It is through this confusion that Scar is able to manipulate Simbas 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 Simbas 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 Simbas 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 Beasts 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. Simbas inherent royalty and divinity had been forgotten through a combination of Scars 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. Mufasas 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 Scars defeat, Simba walks up the rock face to take his place as king. Its only now that his steps are filled with the same majesty that accompanied Mufasas every movement when the old king ascended the same rise and only now that his roar is as fierce as his fathers.
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 worlds paradisiacal glory. That is the true tale of The Lion King.