Disney’s Law of The Jungle

Here’s a piece first published in the Independent almost 15 years ago to the week.

DISNEY will earn more from The Lion King than from any other cartoon in history. That’s not just because Disney is the best marketing machine in popular entertainment, but because this movie offers a fantastical solution to that most vexing political problem of our time: the role of fatherhood.

This fantasy is far more important than the accuracy of the film’s detail. As it happens, The Lion King is an insult to lions, hyenas, Africa and children. My cinema was packed with children who were forgiving and enthusiastic; they quarried the cartoon for laughs and filled the place with the sound of their own pleasure. They forgave this cartoon its formulaic score and crass zoology. They rewarded Disney and their adult relatives with the goodwill of having a good time.

But The Lion King demands something of them that they don’t deserve: that they minimise their literacy as spectators of nature. Children are now more informed than Disney about lions, hyenas and Africa. The science of natural history, popularised in nature programmes, and politicised by the Green movement, has transformed the way humans interpret animals. But Disney has deployed discredited anthropomorphism for a project that has nothing to do with Africa and everything to do with a psychic crisis in America.

Lions are inscribed in human myths of power and pride. So it has been a hard lesson for Man the Hunter to learn that the lion community is sustained by Lioness the Hunter.

Climatic changes 25 million years ago created grasslands, and with them the great grazers – wildebeest and zebras. They were stalked by cats and dogs – the lion and the hyena. The lioness can run at only 80mph. But she is strategic, she stalks, she plans, she organises among her sisters. The lioness is the only cat to co- operate. She is a swift, surgical killer. Lions aren’t kings, they are studs. They hang around their communities, driven not by social mastery but genetic survival. Any addict of David Attenborough knows all this.

But in The Lion King we get a shocking reinterpretation of lion culture: in a story that has been dubbed Bambi in Africa, the narrative of mother and child has been displaced by father and child. King Mufasa fathers his cub and rules his community. The lionesses are almost erased: they slink, elegant, enigmatic and marginal. The death of Mufasa, the blond king with flaming mane, is plotted by the black prince, Scar. This thin, camp Polonius inhabits the shadows between lion territory and the cavernous ghetto of the hyenas. The racism is palpable. Scar mobilises the hyena horde to overwhelm his kin and cast them, with him, into the dark ages.

Now for the hyenas. Not so speedy as wildebeest or lions – they go at about 65 mph – hyenas are known to be the most sophisticated communities, organised around mother hunters. Their language of sound and sign is elaborate, their sociability renowned. What they lack in speed they make up for in strategy: they pre-plan their stalking and killing, they collaborate, they ambush, they are successful. Humans have reinterpreted their conviviality with contempt – the laughing hyena.

Because humans needed their myths of mastery and majesty they misread the relations between lions and hyenas. Humans assumed that hyenas scavenged their morsels from the great white hunter, the lion. We now know hyenas are so assiduous that lions often prey upon the hynenas’ harvest.

What does The Lion King give us? Hyenas as slithering and sly, squatters in an apocalyptic ghetto. This could be Compton, LA. When they celebrate Scar’s coronation, the hyenas are represented as not only Faustian but fascistic, dependent sidekicks of the royal cats. And the cats? Well, they can’t live without their kings.

Finally there is the landscape. Disney didn’t care that lions don’t live in jungles – we’ve got Simba living, like a happy hippie, in the jungle anyway. There is more to this than artistic licence, there is contempt for a continent: Africa is merely the set for an American parable.

The great Disney feature- length cartoons transformed landscape from a still life to an ambient star in its own right. Forests were not just the gothic maze of the fairy story, a lair of fright. Landscape became an April shower, a storm and, most magnificently, Tyrus Wong’s dense, misty meadow in Bambi. In The Lion King, the landscape is once again subordinate, flat and inert.

Not only has the West appropriated someone else’s prairie, it has subliminally scripted its own problem on to it. In the US and the UK there is a crisis of the flawed, flaky father; from this chaos The Lion King has rescued the royal father. This figure is simultaneously powerful king/president and paternal authority, presiding honourably and dutifully over his territory.

Oddly, the film lacks the passion of parenting. There is nothing so subtle and devastating as the mother’s murder in Bambi or mother love in the all-singing, all-dancing Dumbo. In this movie mothers are the disappeared ones in a populist fantasy whose object is to redeem the father and the reputation of presidents.

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