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Watching 'The Lion King,' All I Can Think About Is Extinction and Death

The "circle of life" glosses over environmental destruction and colonialism as viewers ogle the savannah from the comfort of an air-conditioned mall.

by Patrick Marlborough
Jul 22 2019, 2:49pm

Photo: Getty Images

We are in the sixth mass extinction in Earth's history, and human activity is a known cause. Anthropogenic climate change, population growth, habitat destruction, hunting, and the myriad of carcasses rotting in the elephant graveyard of late capitalism are causing animal populations to plummet faster than Mufasa from a cliff's edge.

Ecological collapse is all I could think about as I watched 2019’s The Lion King (well, that and what did they do to "Be Prepared"!?) . The uncanny valley holograms of Simba and co. offer up soulless simulacrums of species on the brink of annihilation. Rhinos, elephants, giraffes, and yes, lions: In the future, these animals will only exist in the vague haze of intergenerational memory, their shapes to be dimly made out in cloud formations—ghostly and cartoonish.

As Simba sang “I just can’t wait to be king!” I thought: king of what, the ashes? Because Apple’s bought a cobalt mine in the Pridelands, it’s worked by children, and the resulting water shortage is fuelling sectarian violence everywhere the sun touches. Run away Simba, run away and never come back!

Perhaps it’s my clinical depression, but the nostalgia that powers 2019’s Lion King stank of nihilism. Though it's almost a shot-for-shot remake in parts, why is it that the themes that lent the original film such life lend this remake an eerie sense of death?

I was 4 when I saw The Lion King at Queensgate Cinema in 1994. I was a weird kid, emphatically telling my parents I was going to be a paleontologist, or zoologist, or comedian, or perhaps a combination of the three. So The Lion King—replete with its monolithic rock formations, cartoon menagerie, and Rowan Atkinson—felt tailor-made for me.

Like the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, the animals of The Lion King embedded themselves in my, and my generation’s, imagination. I memorized the songs; I filled sketchbooks with drawings of Timon and Pumbaa; and I played the Super Nintendo game obsessively (I somehow still remember the cheat codes). My grandma gifted me a zoo membership, and we’d go every other week and attempt to talk to Perth Zoo’s aging elephant, Tricia.

When I was 7, I traveled through Africa with my parents. At a hotel in Zimbabwe, they handed me a checklist with all the characters from The Lion King. Can you spot Timon? Did you see Pumbaa by the outdoor buffet? The golf course is closed: Scar is sleeping on the green of the ninth hole. Seven-year-old me was unable to reflect on the post-colonial weirdness of the Zimbabwean hotel staff regularly saying the Swahili phrase “hakuna matata.”

Africa, surreally, felt like Disneyland.

The 1994 film was a global phenomenon, even by the House of Mouse’s standards. As they had with Bambi, Disney disnatured an ecosystem for art and profit. It impacted conservationism, environmentalism, and tourism within and outside of Africa. The seeds of this impact were sewn into the very production of the film itself.

Disney’s original vision for the film was more in line with a nature documentary than the Bambi- Hamlet adventure musical it became. The crew traveled to Africa to research the sights, sounds, and smells of the savannah. As during Walt’s reign, live animals (a cub and an adult lion) were brought into Disney’s studio for the animators to study. The observational would collide with the traditional as tribal designs, patterns, and coloring worked their way into the film’s visual landscape—a merger bolstered by its phenomenal soundtrack, a collaboration between composers Hans Zimmer and South African producer Lebohang “Lebo M” Morake.

The final product managed to be both presentational and representational in that way only 2-D animation can be. It envisioned an energetic facsimile of mythic pan-Africanism, appealing to Western audiences as would-be consumers and would-be conservationists alike.

The Lion King gave us endearing mascots to plaster on grim realities. The West’s erroneous homogenized Africa of poverty, famine, and conflict now coupled with one of sunrises, spiritualism, and showtunes. The Lion King depicted a land untouched by colonialism and its malcontents, untouched, even by colonialism’s soft-reboot: neoliberalism.

The animal characters of The Lion King lived and died in accordance with the circle of life, and so the chaos of life and death was given a comforting cosmic cushion. Just as Mufasa assuages Simba’s guilt as to their role in the “delicate” circle, so, too, does the film assuage the guilt of any audience member taking in the splendor of the animated savannah from the comfort of an air-conditioned mall. You must take your place in the circle, and you must accept it.

In the year of its release, Disney earned approximately $1 billion from Lion King merchandise, including $214 million from toy sales during Christmas 1994 alone. The film had 186 licensed products stemming from tie-ins with Kodak, Mattel, Burger King, Payless ShoeSource, and Nestlé. According to Disney, the original Lion King grossed more than $8 billion. It reigns as the best-selling home video release of all time to this day, with 47, 500,000 units sold.

But according to Disney’s ‘Protect the Pride’ website, since The Lion King was “first released in theatres 25 years ago, half of Africa’s lions have disappeared.” Disney has donated $1.5 million dollars to the Lion Recovery Fund (they’re inviting fans to double that). It is estimated that they have given roughly 0.02 percent of their profits from the Lion King franchise to conservation programs. In 2015, the IUCN estimated that fewer than 20,000 lions remain in the wild, with only 2,000 remaining in West and Central Africa. They are expected to be extinct by 2050.

A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society uses 20 years of data from the Kalahari Meerkat Project to predict that climate change will wipe meerkats out in 50 years. Mandrills like Rafiki are being over-hunted for their meat. The Kordogan and Nubian giraffes were listed as critically endangered late last year, in part due to an increase in trophy hunting, and the dissolution of import regulation under Trump. One hundred African elephants are killed each day by poachers who are after their ivory, meat, or, in the case of Donald Trump Jr., a souvenir. The western black rhino, like the one which sits on Zazu, was declared extinct in 2016.

One of my favorite moments in The Lion King has always been when Simba realizes the inherent selfishness of hakuna matata, "no worries for the rest of your days." Inaction is destruction: of home, of family, and of self.

Hakuna matata is a wonderful phrase, sure, but its meaning has changed, just like our climate. In the face of the sixth mass extinction, it really means: No—worries, for the rest of your days.