Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

The Lion King
(September, 1994)

Several issues ago in Apatoons, I wrote a piece on Disney villains and talked about the nature of conflict in Disney films. My opinion is that Howard Ashman brought more sophistication to the characters by making some of the conflict internal and by making the characters' choices difficult instead of clear cut. The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast exhibited this tendency. Aladdin slid backwards towards the standard Disney approach.

The Lion King slides backwards even more. What's worse is that the film goes to great lengths to set up a situation that is internal - Simba's belief that he has caused his father's death an his fear of being found out - and then empties Simba's head for the rest of the movie.

This film has no second act. The part of the film that should have been most concerned with developing Simba's personality is filled instead with comedy relief. More than anything, this prevents a very stylish and handsome film from achieving the impact of the Ashman films.

Here is a character who believes he caused his father's death. This action completely transforms his life. Besides burdening him with guilt, he fails to become king and must live in isolation. Certainly this is a defining moment if ever there was one.

Simba hooks up with a wart hog and a meerkat who befriend him. This portion of the film should develop how Simba's trauma affects his behavior as he grows. Has he lost his self confidence? Is he wary of risking his life for his friends or having them risk their lives for him? Is he capable of leadership when his size and ferocity would make him a natural leader of this motley group? Does he pine for the company of lions? Does he suffer further failures which convince him of his worthlessness or does he experience a success or two that hint that he can put the past behind him?

The film ignores these possibilities and instead has Simba adopt a philosopy of no worries and no responsibilities. He has nothing to do in this portion of the film that reflects in any way on what's happened to him. There are no hard choices for Simba to make. The toughest thing he has to learn how to do is eat bugs. Not exactly a choice that deepens his character.

I don't necessarily disagree with the film's move to comedy in the second act. It should have been possible to create a comic mirror of the wildebeest stampede, where even though the audience was laughing, it would still see Simba growing into someone who is more capable and responsible.

Simba's decision to return to the lions and regain the throne does not come from anything he's learned or experienced in exile. It comes because the past intrudes on the present. His old girlfriend has stumbled on him and a mandril shaman has determined he's alive and finds him. Simba has a vision of his father which urges him to remember who he is.

These are plot contrivances. They are completely external to the character. There's nothing to indicate that left to himself Simba would ever have returned. For this reason, his eventual victory over his uncle carries no emotional weight. There is nothing driving him forward beyond the box office need for a happy ending.

The Lion King, for all it's production values, is similar to a film like Oliver and Co. or The Rescuers Down Under. It has its moments and it holds an audience's attention but it's far from being a great film. It benefits from the artistic and box office momentum Disney has built up, but it does not capitalize on the direction that Howard Ashman took the studio. This is a great shame.

The Disney studio has travelled this path before. The early features like Pinocchio, Dumbo and Bambi represent an emotional high point that the studio could never recapture even though it continued to make popular films. I fear that Ashman's death may have caused a similar situation. There's no question that Disney will continue to make successful films, but will it ever again make films as good as The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast?