Among many American audiences, the Disney corporation has a certain cachet when it comes to nostalgia. They made many of the films that informed or even defined our childhoods, and that brings with it an intrinsic pull. We all love reminiscing, which is why the Dinsey corporation has been reviving all of its old properties with a vengeance (e.g., Maleficent, Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, Aladdin, and now The Lion King). The Mickey Mouse corporation is going full speed ahead even though many of these old movies came from a white, and often reductive, lens.
The 2019 Lion King reboot doesn’t do much to challenge these original misconceptions. There isn’t an attempt to pull from a singular mythos or adjust the structural problems that came from the original. The reboot is taking a white story about Africa and updating it with modern sensibilities
Chances are you already know the story (that’s kind of the point), but for the uninitiated, it’s about a group of African animals living on a savanna called the Pride Lands. It centers on a young lion named Simba as he attempts to reclaim his late father Mufasa’s throne from his duplicitous uncle, Scar. Along the way, he makes friends with a meerkat and warthog pair named Timon and Pumbaa, as well as a de facto spiritual adviser in the form of an old mandrill named Rafiki.
The 1994 Lion King was a movie written, directed, and acted by mostly white people. Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff were the directors. Matthew Broderick was Simba. The only main black character was Mufasa (played by James Earl Jones) who dies before the first act of the film. The other black characters had bit roles like the mystic Rafiki (Robert Guillaume), a young Nala (Niketa Calame-Harris), Simba’s mother Sarabi (Madge Sinclair) and the hyena Shenzi (Whoopi Goldberg).
Besides a generic “Africa,” it’s not clear where this film is supposed to be. The characters in the original movie have Swahili names, but we can hear Zulu spoken in the background in the opening song The Circle of Life. It’s important to note that these two languages are spoken in regions far from each other. The creators reportedly went to Kenya to scout out locations, and while Swahili is an official language there, Zulu is barely spoken.
There doesn’t appear to be a distinct mythos from which the original movie pulls. Rafiki acts as a spiritual adviser for the Pride Lands, but we have no idea where those traditions specifically originate from. The closest we get is Rafiki using the fruit of the Baobab tree (i.e., the Adansonia digitata) to anoint the young Simba at the beginning of the film. The tree has a wide range throughout eastern and central Africa (though it is sadly dying off). Many cultural traditions surround it, and at best, Disney was attempting to amalgamate several of them.
Like many Disney movies, the first Lion King is set in a culturally ambiguous location. As producer Don Hahn told Premiere magazine in “jest”:
“It’s a combination Moses-Hamlet-King Arthur Meets Elton John in Africa,”
There does not appear to have been a genuine attempt to refine the premise at all. Africa was one big place for Disney. To this day, the 1994 movie remains a white company’s imaginings of what Africanness is.
The 2019 film attempts to update the original in some meaningful ways. The graphics are great. The opening scene stunningly renders a realistic-looking savanna replete with gazelles, giraffes, as well as more elephants than might currently exist on the planet Earth. This computer-generated brilliance especially applies to the young lions who are simply adorable. There is a scene where Alfre Woodard’s Sarabi licks a young Simba that can best be described as CGI perfection.
The cast is also a whole lot blacker this time around, and that’s undeniably a good thing. The talented Donald Glover voices Simba. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Scar radiates seething resentment in a way that is far more human than the cartoon version. The Queen Bee herself, Beyoncé plays Nala. The once bumbling fool Shenzi (Florence Kasumba) has now become a minor antagonist. Despite not having as many lines as Scar, she manages to steal every one of her scenes.
The film casts many of its buffoon roles such as the meerkat Timon, the warthog Pumbaa, and the over-talkative red-billed hornbill Zazu with white actors (Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, and John Oliver, respectively). There is a tendency to make black people comedic fools in movies — it is a comedic tradition that has painful roots in blackface minstrelsy — and making these roles white quite frankly allowed Disney to sidestep this discussion in a good way.
The comedic characters that were voiced by black actors had a great deal of emotional depth to them. The hyena characters Kamari and Azizi (played by Keegan-Michael Key and Eric André respectively) had a running bit about personal space that felt very real (note: in the original these roles were depicted as crass lowlifes that served as a racist and poorly-concealed stand-in for “urban” black people).
Additionally, the energetic Rafiki (John Kani) may still tell jokes throughout the film, but he also has a depth of spiritual wisdom about him. Rafiki is, importantly, not depicted as a fool.
These improvements are welcome, but fundamentally the movie refuses to pick apart Disney’s more appropriative aspects. The director of the film (Jon Favreau) is still white, and so are many of the writers (i.e., Jeff Nathanson, Brenda Chapman, Irene Mecchi, Linda Woolverton, and Jonathan Roberts). It’s a telling and bad sign when the creative team behind the rebranding of Disney’s flagship African IP is almost exclusively white. The story is more or less the same. There is no structural attempt to center The Lion King on specific African stories or traditions.
The majority of the film faithfully reproduces every plot beat of the original Lion King, and only really chimes in to make self-referential commentary on the 1994 version. The characters Timon and Pumbaa are the worst offenders of this trend. The warthog and meerkat duo occasionally interject to make jokes that only really make sense if you watched the original film.
In one scene they introduce Simba to the phrase Hakuna Matata — a Swahili phrase roughly meaning “no worries” and the basis for the pair’s nihilistic philosophy — and when Simba gives a noncommital response, they act surprised.
“Some people start clapping immediately” chides a slightly offended Timon.
This joke is referencing nostalgically-obsessed Disney fans who love the song Hakuna Matata, and it only makes sense if you have watched the first film. The Lion King doesn’t appear to be made as a standalone piece. It’s a product for people who follow and keep up with the larger pop cultural zeitgeist. It serves no real audience but devoted Disney fans, and essentially amounts to fanservice. Did Disney really need to spend $260 million to do that?
More to the point, why did this story need to be retold in this exact same way?
Lion King didn’t have to be a beat-for-beat retelling of the original. We don’t even have to go outside Disney’s IP to find a property that manages to remix an existing story while holding on to what made the source material great. The Marvel film Black Panther made sweeping changes to the original comic book story in order to place more of an emphasis on its black characters.
Black Panther is a Marvel movie about the newly anointed king T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) of the technologically advanced African kingdom of Wakanda. The primary dilemma T’Challa faces in the film is fending off a challenge to his throne from his cousin Erik Stevens aka N’Jadaka aka Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Wakanda has been an isolationist nation throughout its history and has effectively tricked the rest of the world into thinking its a developing country. Stevens was raised in the African diaspora (i.e., Oakland California) after his father, Prince N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), tried to smuggle Wakandan technology out of the country. N’Jobu did this to help black people in the diaspora and was killed for it. Stevens now advocates for using Wakanda’s superior technology to violently dismantle white supremacy around the globe.
In the comics, however, Stevens family is an exile after a series of misunderstandings. The white supremacist character Ulysses Klaw or Klaue captured Prince N’Jobu’s wife and forced the prince to assist in an invasion of Wakanda. The family is exiled after the attack fails, and this leaves Prince N’Jobu’s son Killmonger to resent T’Challa for what basically amounts to a miscommunication.
The movie smartly sidesteps Klaue altogether. His invasion becomes a heist that occurs offscreen. He is promptly killed before the end of the first act so the audience can spend more time on Killmonger’s motivations. The film may have changed the basic plot beats of the comics, but in the process, it centered the movie on a far more nuanced discussion on how far it is okay to go to undo white supremacy.
Black Panther was written and directed by black men. While white people can make a good story too, the lack of representation in the creator’s room for the 2019 Lion King reboot didn’t help the film in regard to telling a good story about Africa. Black Panther was hailed as a celebration of black culture, while the Lion King was critically panned for being a bland, passionless exercise in branding. Instead of merely removing aspects that have become dated and problematic, new voices would have provided the prospective to challenge and remix the original story into something greater.
Disney could have used the Lion King franchise as a vehicle to center or uplift new cultural traditions. It could have told a new story altogether (one created by actual black people). There are countless myths and tales from which to draw inspiration from. The plot beats this movie uses, however (as Don Hahn remarked all those years ago), still come from Hamlet and King Arthur. The Lion King tries to give us the impression of something new without challenging the elements that make up this story’s foundation. It tweaks where it could be breaking ground. The movie consequently comes off as a bland product sold for the sake of capitalizing on nostalgia, and nothing else.
Disney has a long history of appropriating other cultures for commercial gain. In the past, the company has attempted to trademark the Latinx holiday Día de Los Muertos, and even the Swahili phrase Hakuna Matata. This new chapter doesn’t appear to be bucking that trend. The Lion King is telling familiar story tropes found in Western culture and veiling them with a vague, African aesthetic.
From a historical standpoint, that does appear to be this company’s circle of life.