The Ethics of ‘The Lion King’

Movies Disney
Movies Disney

For many of us, The Lion King is simply a beloved movie which we remember fondly from our childhoods, but still recognize as a wonderful film. What is less commonly known is that this film was based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I loved this movie as a child, but now I question that move in the writing. Hamlet had so many people die in the plot, that I think Shakespeare wrote it as an experiment to see how many characters he could kill in one play. John Waters would later replicate this idea in his usually delightfully vulgar manner with Desperate Living.

But I’m not here to make fun of an over-rated playwriter or obscure films, I’m here to look at the ethics of The Lion King’s characters. This is presented as a simple child’s good/evil story. However, it goes deeper than that. We know that the pride lands were an area of peace and plentiful resources. We know the pride claimed it and some outlying territories. The Hyenas had been forced to live in the elephant graveyard, a desolate place of scarce resources. Scar’s promise to the hyenas was simple: “I will be king. Stick with me, and you’ll never go hungry again!” That’s why the hyenas supported him.

The ghetto of the Hyenas, AKA the elephant graveyard.
The ghetto of the Hyenas, AKA the elephant graveyard.

So the Hyenas have been forced to live in, what is frankly, a craphole; and are forced to live with scarce resources. All they wanted was food. Yet everyone else can live in the pride lands. I’m going to go out on a limb and call that an apartheid. We know Mufasa endorsed this system. Then Scar came back in and told them that if they supported him, they wouldn’t have to starve anymore. Is there anything really wrong with that?

Now contrast that with Mufasa. Mufasa may or may not have created that apartheid, but he definitely actively maintained it. Scar was trying to end that. As a counter, yes… Scar manipulated Simba into mortal danger. And, yes… he let his brother fall to his death. But let’s look at those deeper and ask ourselves: Were those really wrong? Scar knew that Simba would likely maintain the same rules as his father, which meant the apartheid of the Hyenas. And the ethics about letting Mufasa die are dubious. If Adam Czerniaków “the guy who ran the Warsaw Ghetto for a while” was murdered, would the murderer have really done something wrong? Like it or hate it, this is the same.

Now let’s montage into Simba’s adulthood. The pride lands are in a massive drought; many animals have left due to lack of food. But look at the lions. Despite this massive drought, most of them are alive. And while they’re skinny, they aren’t starving. The Hyenas are in the same boat. Despite a massive drought and a mass exodus in population, those who’ve stayed behind are managing to survive under Scar’s leadership, and they’re being treated as equal members of society. So we have effective leadership with better social equality. Scar’s drought was meant to show the viewer how evil Scar was, but it shows how awesome his leadership is, with social rights improving and the population surviving despite harsh conditions.

Starving political exiles
Starving political exiles.

Simba was a different character. When Mufasa died, under the rules of the Pride, leading the group was Simba’s job. Simba bailed on his duties, and yet is treated as the protagonist. He returned to the pride where, despite the drought, the population was surviving and there was social reform. Simba’s first act, seeing this, was to kill the leader that kept them alive and reinstitute the apartheid. But that’s not where Simba’s acts ended.

Back in the ’90s and early 2000s, there were a plethora of crimes-against-art direct-to-DVD sequels made by Disney, which tended to be made by the B-list animators. One of these was The Lion King 2. But I’m going to assume this sequel isn’t terrible and analyze it in the same manner.

More starving political exiles.
More starving political exiles.

In The Lion King 2, we find out that some of the lions actually supported Scar, even after Simba murdered him. Simba sent these supporters into exile in what appears to be a poorly-animated termite mount, among other dumps, and this exile partially continued, even after his own daughter questioned it.

In many ways, Simba’s actions are comparable to the gulags of Stalin. Whenever we see one of the exiled lions, they are NOT doing well. Many of them are horribly malnourished to the point you can see bones where you normally shouldn’t on a lion. On several occasions they search for food, which is difficult because their exile area is a bunch of badlands.

So the regime of Mufasa was a regime of an apartheid. The regime of Scar was an era of responsible resource management and social reform. The regime of Simba was an era of active political suppression, complete with dissenting members of society being exiled in USSR-esque means. Scar wasn’t an evil character. Simba and Mufasa on the other hand were. Scar is still the antagonist of the first movie, but he’s not a bad character.

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