Biblical Parallels in The Lion King Essay
Walt Disney and his brother Roy, made it a firm policy that their animated films were designed to appeal to a mass market – Biblical Parallels in The Lion King Essay introduction. In order not to offend any group, Disney did his best to keep religion and God out of his enterprises. 1 Those who have inherited the Disney legacy are tying to live by the same motif, albeit with a more humanistic, politically nuanced and multi-cultural prospective. 2 Mark Pinsky, a writer on religious content from the Orlando area, researched the Disney organization thoroughly and concluded that there is a Disney Gospel and it should be called “Secular ‘Toonism”.
Pinsky notes that, “while religion was never at the center of Disney’s animated features; faith was often the unseen framework”. Disney does have “… a consistent set of moral and human values in these movies, largely based on Western, Judeo-Christian faith and principles … Good is always rewarded; evil is always punished. Faith is an essential element – faith in yourself, and even more, faith in something greater than yourself, some higher power”. 3 The supreme force in the Disney world order is not God but often providential magic.
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The characters must reach deep into themselves for strength but once they do that, they are aided by a more eminent power. This is certainly evident in The Lion King. While Simba is living the good life in Hakuna Matata, he is confronted by his future mate, Nala who challenges him to return to the Pride Land. As Simba struggles with his decision, he reaches a low point in his life crying out to the stars in heaven (where his father Mufasa told him he would be). Simba laments that he has been deserted by all, most especially Mufasa.
Than, just like magic, Rafika appears and literally knocks some sense into him and sets Simba on the correct path towards greatness. Simba still has numerous challenges to overcome, but essentially he plays out the script as Pinsky predicted of good triumphing over evil. Despite Disney’s studios avoidance of religious topics, John Armstrong notes that far more children have been taught the Disney gospel than the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Disney myth shapes popular culture in ways that remove the radical demands of the biblical good news which features “the way, the truth, and the life”. Disney’s focus is on the fun, the feel good, the now. Disney films do so by using “universal archetypes – theme or images found in dreams, myths, religions, philosophies, and works of art. ”5 The Disney company is not trying to advance a particular brand of religion; in fact they are not trying to promote religious values at all. What Disney is attempting to do is to touch people at the core of their being. Some of the loci of contact are the same building blocks, or archetypes used by the great religious leaders. Therefore it is not surprising that both Jesus and Disney would have a “sermon” on the effective use of one’s talent.
Mufasa tells Simba “you have become less than you are;” whereas Jesus tell us that he has come so that we may have life to the fullest (John 10:10). While the advice might be similar, the rationale behind the message is different. In the case of Disney one uses their talents for the here and now; Jesus focuses on the hereafter. Whenever Disney did introduce explicitly religious themes into movies he sought to achieve balance by using beliefs from various religious traditions. In The Lion King there are plenty of Judeo-Christian features, as we will explore in this paper. There are also non-religious and non-Judeo-Christian motifs.
For example the film opens with the Hindu influenced theme song the Circle of Life, which speaks to the secular world order. Later in The Lion King, the John the Baptist like figure, Rafiki is seen in a Buddhist pose. It seems that Disney is always sensitive to give each their due. The Lion King was the first animated Disney feature to be an original story. Rob Minkoff, the director of The Lion King said that the film attempts “a level of spirituality, something slightly metaphysical. ”6 The filmmakers acknowledge that they were inspired by the Joseph and Moses stories in the Bible as well as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This spirituality was not intended to be religious in nature but none-the-less they succeeded in crafting a story with many analogies to the Hebrew and Christian texts. As Armstrong notes, “just as Jesus of Nazareth used allegories, anecdotes, and illustrations to teach about the kingdom of God, Christians can find plenty of valuable content in The Lion King – loss of innocence, sacrifice leading to resurrection…”8 This paper will concentrate on the opening scene which has numerous interwoven scriptural references then conclude with a table summarizing the many biblical adaptations in The Lion King.
Biblical Parallels Scene 1 -the baptism of the Lord (Matt 3:1-17; Mark 1:2-11; Luke 3:1-22; John 1:19-34) -the birth of the Lord (Matt 2: 1- 23; Luke 2: 1 – 21) -the presentation of Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:22 – 40) This ninety minute, animated, anthropomorphic film opens with a fade in of a brilliant sunrise (perhaps to symbolize the rising of the son, the son of the King, be it God or Mufasa) followed by pictures of the magnificence of the African continent, replete with plains, a mountain (perhaps to recall Mt Sinai where Moses spoke face to face with God and received the commandments), and waterfalls.
During this four-minute musical sequence, featuring Elton John’s Circle of Life, not a single line of dialogue is employed but “much is communicated by the delicately crafted visuals and the poignant lyrics that accompany the music. ”9 The structure of the scene includes the orderly movement of numerous species of animals traveling to Pride Rock to acknowledge the new born heir to the throne. Accompanied by musical instruments, the Circle of Life is sung through out the episode.
The lyrics of the song speak to the delicate balance affecting all living things and the importance of each one playing their part. Birth and death are an indispensible part of the circle of life. As the animals approach Pride Rock, the visual on the screen is an establishing shot of Mufasa standing alone on the edge of Pride Rock. As the camera moves from a long shot to a close up, the hornbill Zazu flies onto the ledge and bows in reverence to the lion king. Next we see Rafiki, the wise old mandrill with his staff which has two gourds tied to the top.
Rafiki walks through a path the animals have created and climbs up the boat like structure that is Pride Rock. Rafiki, Zazu and Mufasa are shown at what would be the bow of the boat. Rafiki warmly greets Mufasa then walks into the cave where the cub Simba is being lovingly cradled by his mother, Queen Sarabi. Rafiki proceeds to break open one of the gourds and anoint Simba with the liquid. Finally Rafiki picks up Simba, and with Simba’s mother and father trailing behind, Rafiki walks to the edge of Pride Rock and presents Simba to the assembled animals.
The opening scene is rich in biblical references. The mise en scene has the multitude of animals at the foot of Pride rock looking up at Mufasa – the father of Simba and the reigning king. These animals connect well with the shepherds in Luke and the magi in Matthew’s account of the birth of Christ. According to Raymond E Brown, the shepherds and the magi are considered symbolic figures to represent all mankind coming to acknowledge the birth of the Savior. 10 The shepherds standing for the people of the Jewish faith who had had a long, covenant relationship with the Lord.
The magi represent the gentiles who also will be admitted to the kingdom – the Kingdom of Heaven – through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Symbolically all people, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, learned and illiterate were present at the birth or Jesus Christ. So too are all the animals – zebras, monkeys, flamingoes, rhinos, elephants, turkeys, birds, giraffes, deer, bobcats and more – present at the birth of the heir to the kingdom of the Pride Land. The Bible (Luke) tells us that Jesus was born in a cave with his mother and father nearby to love and protect him.
Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus shows his eagerness to defend Jesus by traveling with Mary and Jesus to Egypt to avoid Herod’s wrath (Matthew). The Lion King visually shows a loving and protective relationship between Simba and his proud mother and father. Arguably the most critical character in the initial setting is the John the Baptist figure represented by Rafiki. In biblical accounts and in religious art, John the Baptist is frequently portrayed as an eccentric but revered character. John was living alone in the desert, eating strange food and dressing differently than others.
Rafiki fits the mold of John the Baptist based not just on his distinctive looks (beard, big eyes, colorful appearance) but his living alone in the wilderness and his exulted stature among the animals, including Mufasa. John quotes the prophet Isaiah before baptizing the Lord. Without words the animal acts out that same message of Isaiah “prepare the way of the Lord; make straight his pathway”. The animals do just that – they make a path for Rafiki to walk straight to Simba. Once Rafiki gets to Simba, we get close ups of both Rafiki and Simba. We look deeply into Rafiki’s eyes and “see” the wisdom he has to offer.
We are able to perceive this wisdom because of the juxta-positioning of various images. The deference the animals show to Rafiki; the fact that Rafiki has the clear admiration of the king; all these visuals and more prepare the audience to accept Rafiki as one bestowed with much depth and breath of being. Rafiki studies the new heir to the throne and then anoints Simba with a liquid substance before picking up the cub. Rafiki, perhaps like Simeon in Luke’s presentation of Jesus at the temple, holding Simba close, before walking to the edge of Pride Rock and presenting Simba to his future subject.
As Simba is held aloft we get a close up of Simba who has an expression of concern on his face, perhaps signifying that he too must suffer as the soon to be leader of the Pride Land. The camera then shifts to an over the shoulder shot, before moving to a view from the animals in the valley; then concluding with a shot from the heavens. Finally, just as in Mark’s gospel account, the heavens open and a ray of light shines on the anointed to confirm the heavenly blessing – – only the words of the father – – “you are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11) are omitted.
However, later in the film, we do have a brief scene where Simba’s father does appear in the clouds in heaven and exhorts his son to greatness. The opening scene of The Lion King is undoubtedly scripted to suggest a Christian baptism. However, there are staunch differences. In the bible it was not until the beginning of his public ministry that Jesus was baptized. During the past two millennium, however, baptism for Christians has shifted from a sacrament one receives as an adult, to one reserved primarily for children.
Furthermore, the baptism of Jesus started a journey towards redemption and resurrection; the anointing of Simba was a furtherance of The Circle of Life – a Hindu tradition that every existence is part of a never ending cycle where animals must find their proper place with no reference to redemption or reincarnation. Jesus came not as a ruler but as a servant. Simba came as an earthly king. Everything in the opening act sets up Simba’s power. The camera angles show the animals from ground level; the animals are in the valley looking up at Simba and Mufasa.
The animals in the valley are filmed in panorama and long shots until Simba is held high then the director creates an accelerated montage to demonstrate Simba’s future subjects’ excitement about the heir to the throne. The animals close the episode by bowing down in worship, even to the point of genuflecting as Catholics would do when entering into the sacred presence of Jesus. Karen Schwalm in her provocative article, Patriarchy in the Pride Lands: A cultural analysis of The Lion King, notes that The Lion King is all about hierarchy and patriarchy.
Beginning with this opening scene, women start to fade into the background. 11 Sarabi, the mother of Simba is not on Pride Rock when the animals start to gather; rather she is in the home with the baby and the other women. When the opening scene ends, Sarabi’s presence on Pride Rock is almost impossible to detect as she is deep in the foreground of the shot, blocked from vision by Mufasa’s large frame. In The Lion King there are 14 characters – 10 males and 4 females. Most of the male characters have very visible and vocal roles while only two of females play more than a bit role.
The women appear in less than half the scenes and even then mostly as bystanders. As Vicky Wong notes, in “The Lion King the male domination in society is further depicted and reinforced in the mind of the audience” 12 While Schwalm did not take her thesis of hierarchy and patriarchy in The Lion King any further, one might suggest even here there is great parallelism with the Bible. Certainly in the Hebrew Scriptures but also in the New Testament (with the possible exception of John’s gospel) women are given much less importance and significance, relative to their male counterparts.
Before we conclude this analysis of scene 1 a few comments are in order on the shape of Pride Rock. One can readily detect that Pride Rock is constructed to resemble a boat. Often the film has an establishing shot of Mufasa and later Simba on Pride Rock to demonstrate their dominance over those in the Pride Land. In the gospel stories, a boat is repeatedly featured whenever Jesus is demonstrating his power– whether it is authoritatively preaching to the masses, or showing his puissance even over the forces of nature.
The boat has become a prominent symbol in the church, just as the boat-like Pride Rock servers as a device to graphically project the primacy of Mufasa, Simba and Scar. Furthermore, combining all the animals in this opening scene with a boat-like Pride Rock, it is not hard to image the story of Noah’s Ark. Many of Disney’s Christian and Jewish devotees, particularly the children, would be very familiar with this passage from the Hebrew Scriptures. Conclusions
From the initial scene to the dramatic concluding sequence of the battle between Simba and Scar, there are significant uses of biblical stories, parables and message points. The opening four minutes sequel ends with a dramatic presentation of Simba in a manner that would be very familiar to anyone who has ever attended a Christian baptism of a child at a Sunday morning service. Even the director Minkoff acknowledges that the script was influenced by scripture, especially the Moses and Joseph stories. Disney productions have a unique and powerful way to reach out to all, especially children.
It is not always easy to instruct children on the bible but using Disney films might be a profitable way to connect with children. If children can visualize the Noak’s Ark story after watching the opening scene of The Lion King, parents and ministers might be able to move the children to another level of comprehension. Disney can set the stage and communicate a basic understanding of Noah’s Ark or the battle of good and evil, or the temptation in the Garden of Eden. Trained parents and skilled preachers can then transfer the Disney gospel of Secular ‘Toonism into the true gospel of Jesus Christ.