The Circle of (My) Life

The first time I ever cried in a movie, as far as I can recall, was when the wildebeests trampled Simba’s dad to death in The Lion King.

I was at the theater near the house where I grew up, then known as Hampden Centre 8. This was the theater where I also watched Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire, Robin Williams in Flubber, Robin Williams in Patch Adams, as well as a fair number of movies that presumably did not star Robin Williams. I have many memories of laughing myself silly at that theater — while eating Junior Mints smuggled in via my mom’s purse — from childhood through my teenage years.

But the primary thing I remember from The Lion King (besides the soundtrack, which I totally bought) was the sheer devastation I felt when Mufasa died. That scene rocked my 14-year-old world.


Fast forward a quarter of a century to an era when Disney is raiding its animated coffers for remake fodder. It’s no surprise that the 1994 mega-moneymaker about a lion cub’s rise to power was high on Disney’s list of movies to reinvent for a new generation. In fact, both The Lion King and Aladdin have now been repackaged and released in the same summer, with The Little Mermaid and Mulan hot on their tails. Long live the ‘90s!

Hollywood cynic that I am, I spent this summer sniping about Disney’s greed and unchecked power. Their willingness to do anything for a buck (or a few billion bucks), pilfering pennies from our pockets by exploiting our carefully nurtured nostalgia. Their lack of originality, cynically peddling the exact same product to generation after generation of easily conned consumers. I really had Disney pegged.

But then the opportunity arose for me and Danielle to go to the movies. And wouldn’t you know it? All that high-minded stuff went out the window. Because I mean, come on. THE LION KING. What child or teenager of the ‘90s could resist?

It turns out Mickey has me wrapped around his gloved finger — one of the 4 of them — just like everyone else.

I could gush and gush about the extraordinary visuals (every hair follicle! and good heavens those backdrops!) or the mostly marvelous voicework (Chiwetel Ejiofor! James Earl Jones! John Oliver!) or the still-stunning soundtrack (Beyoncé and Donald Glover singing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”!).

But I’ll focus my attention on that seminal stampede scene. Because that’s the emotional centerpiece of the movie, and it’s the main reason we won’t show the movie to our kids until they’re well into their 20s. (Just kidding.)

All joking aside, though, we were 14 and 13 when the original movie came out and we plan to wait until our kids are pretty close to that age. Because let me tell you what — that scene, including its aftermath, is Dark with a capital D.

The obvious comparison from a half-century earlier is Bambi, in which a very young character learns that his parent was killed. I would imagine that scene was the same kind of emotional touchstone for our grandparents’ generation that The Lion King was for ours, offering a wrenching catharsis wrapped up in the guise of a cute kids’ movie. But the darkness of Mufasa’s death is more intense in several ways.

For one, Simba sees his father get caught up in the wildebeest stampede while trying to rescue his wayward son. So Simba is forced to watch the traumatic event unfold, while Bambi is spared at least some of that visual trauma.

Also, Bambi is gently ushered away by his father before he can see his lifeless mother with his own eyes. Simba, on the other hand, finds his father in the ravine and in his grief, he (*gasp choke sob*) nuzzles up against his limp body. That’s a brutal sight to behold, both for him and for us.

But perhaps the starkest thing that makes The Lion King’s death scene a particularly bleak one, and something that I had forgotten about from the original, is that Simba is immediately made to feel that his father’s death is his own fault. That is what felt most like a gut-punch to both Danielle and me this time around. Especially now that we’re parents.

A child losing a father is devastating enough, but a child who grows up thinking he’s personally responsible for his father’s death is a tragedy on top of a tragedy. I could sense Danielle’s discomfort as she shifted in her seat while this unfolded. We were both floored. And I’ll tell you what — that Scar is one evil dude.

Having said that, I do think that both iterations of The Lion King jump too quickly from the emotional carnage of the wildebeest stampede to the carefree credo of “Hakuna Matata” — a Swahili phrase which translates to “there are no troubles” — just 2 scenes later. I know it’s a kids’ movie, but if they’re going to show a father being killed, they need to do proper justice to the grieving son’s emotional aftermath before breezing right along to Timon and Pumbaa’s (admittedly memorable) goofballery.

I ardently support kids’ movies that help kids to feel bona fide emotions rather than just laugh at wacky shenanigans and fart jokes. That’s one of the biggest reasons why Pixar is high atop the animated game, including one movie that boldly and specifically addresses the need for kids, and their parents, to openly embrace their more difficult emotions.

So I see a great deal of value in the catharsis offered by The Lion King. It will help children who have lost a parent. And by depicting a child’s (cub’s) grief, however briefly, it will help all children to learn one of the most valuable traits of all — empathy.

But we’ll wait a solid decade before we give our little lion cubs that particular emotional jolt. After all, we want them to take their sweet time growing up as they explore the majestic, windswept savanna of central Pennsylvania.

Greyson and Violet will learn about Matata soon enough. Hakuna need to rush them into it.

That’s our problem-free philosophy. (At least for a few more years.)

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