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The Lion King is widely considered to be one of the greatest animated movies of all time, and one of the most popular Disney movies ever made. Loosely based on William Shakespeare‘s Hamlet, the story centers on a cub named Simba (voiced by Jonathan Taylor Thomas as a cub and Matthew Broderick as an adult) who is convinced by his uncle Scar (Jeremy Irons) that he caused his own father’s death, forcing him to runaway and never return. He does, and finds refuge with a sassy meerkat named Timon (Nathan Lane) and a flatulent warthog name Pumba (Ernie Sambella), who teach him to have no worries and enjoy life no matter where he goes. This mantra of “Hakuna Matata” has profound effect on Simba and he lets go of the past until one day, it catches up with him when the pride-lands lie in ruins and he needs to go home.
Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, The Lion King is a fun family adventure film with a solid message for children. There’s lots of colorful characters, great songs (written by Elton John and Tim Rice) and some truly inspiring animation. There’s also one curious moment.
As an adult, Simba has grown accustomed to the hukuna matata lifestyle, sleeping under the stars, laughing with his friends and enjoying plenty of cream-filled bugs. They live the good life until one day, Pumba gets chased by an unexpected new predator in the neighborhood, a lioness who is decidedly very hungry. That lioness is Nala (Moira Kelly), a girl who is the same age as Simba and was his best friend before he ran off. After they recognize each other, she explains that Pride Rock, the kingdom he left behind, is under Scar’s rule and is decimated by the hyena population he lets run amok. Simba needs to go back and reclaim what is rightfully his.
But before the curious part though, one quick observation: Simba is a carefree, vegetarian lion now, bond to a lyrical creed of worry-free days, living the Bohemian lifestyle with two pals he should have eaten a long time ago. The songs says:
Hakuna Matata, what a wonderful phrase
Hakuna Matata, ain’t no passing craze
It means no worries for the rest of your days
It’s our problem free philosophy
There’s nothing in there about hunting for survival and learning the art of war. Timon even files down his claws. When Nala bursts onto the scene and the two fight before realizing who they are, she should have laid him out with one punch. She’s spent her life struggling to find food, out there in the thick of it surviving on her skills. One, two, goodnight, Simba. (Admittedly, she does knock him down, just like she did when she was a cub. It’s how they remember each other.)
But we’ll let that go. Maybe Simba’s a natural. Who knows? They get over the fight thing and she explains the situation with Scar. Time to go rescue the pride, right? Not yet. First, things get curious. The old friends, who last saw each other when they were kids (cubs), are all grown up, and as they saunter off into the jungle together to catch up on old times, Timon sings a song to Pumba that helps kids understand that when two lions like each other very much, they abandon their friends forever. Disaster’s in the air.
We cut to Simba and Nala frolicking in the basin of a nearby waterfall, as their thoughts are sung over the soundtrack. The two are troubled about their pasts and want to reconcile though don’t know what to say. Their knowing glances tell them everything they need to know. We are also getting the feeling that they are more than just old friends who are happy to see each other. They are old friends who are really happy to see each other.
They run about and wrestle a bit, whipping through the tall grass and then a bamboo grove before tumbling down a steep hill together, rolling to a stop at the base. Nala is pinned beneath Simba who is cheerfully smiling, perhaps feeling a bit of the old days when he and she would play together as kids.
Now before this get’s heavy, we understand the whole falling-in-love thing between the handsome ‘hero’ and the beautiful ‘princess’, a staple in so many children’s stories. These are archetypes of the genre, and Disney has made it a core plot point in many of their films. We expect it and even anticipate it. With Nala and Simba, we knew even when they were cubs that they would end up a couple. How could they not? And when they do meet again and the sparks of romance fly, we cheer a little inside and laugh at Timon’s funny song. Love finds a way. Nala and Simba. Of course. And then this happens:
Wait. Why is she . . . ? Oh. Ohhhhhhh.
While all the kids were laughing at the cute kiss Nala planted on Simba just before, and the wide-eyed look of shock on the lion’s big innocent face, all the adults are themselves wide-eyed at the come hither lover eyes Nala flashes a moment later. It’s a look we all know and is surprisingly touching and genuine. With only her gentle eyes, we hear everything she is saying. It cuts quickly to Simba, who with one nod of his head makes the leap from boy to man, and the two then cuddle up close as we return to Timon and Pumba, singing how Simba’s life of carefree days are over. In short, their pal is doomed. Cue the tears.
There’s no getting around the sexual implication of Nala’s sensual expression, and it’s a bold move by Disney to add it, even if it’s only for a moment and is segued to a hug. The relationship and obvious bond between the two are clearly set in the preceding montage so there’s really no need for this glance from the lioness, though it’s amazing how less effective the moment would be without it. The look serves one purpose, taking the already convincing kiss she delivers just prior and giving it a powerful sense of invitation. This is an adult moment, and while Disney often tackles adult themes in their children’s movies, most especially death and loss, sex is generally taboo. It’s a powerful moment that implies a lot, and cements the relationship with a subtle cue of deep, emotional and physical love. The story quickly settles back to the pressing matter of the crumbling kingdom, but for one brief, curious moment, The Lion King was a whole different story.
Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff
Irene Mecchi (screenplay), Jonathan Roberts (screenplay)
Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, Moira Kelly, Nathan Lane, Ernie Sambella