The Circle of Life is such a big symbolic deal in The Lion King that it actually gets its own song:
It's the Circle of Life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the Circle
The Circle of Life.
The Circle of Life isn't a concrete thing you can point to or look at. Rather, it's a symbolic term for the series of events that unfolds on earth, bringing us from cradle to grave, through ups and downs, love and misfortune, and so on.
It also refers to how events tend to repeat themselves: Simba grows up, learns about manhood, and becomes the Lion King—and then he has a son who in turn will grow up, learn about manhood, and become the Lion King.
The Circle of Life is greater than all of us, and yet we're all connected to it. (Pretty trippy, huh?) From the smallest ant to the largest antelope, we're all just living in this world and trying to make our own way. The opening sequence makes this super clear for even the most casual viewer of the film: we see animals of all shapes and sizes traveling to Simba's presentation. Although they're all extremely different, these animals exist together in a peaceful and beautiful harmony that mirrors the Circle of Life itself.
This also ties in neatly with many of the themes of spirituality and interspecies inter-connectedness in The Lion King: Mufasa's opening lecture to Simba speaks to the power of the Circle of Life very eloquently:
"When we die, our bodies become the grass. And the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life."
Whoaaa. That's deep.
Water is everywhere in The Lion King—everywhere that there's life, at least.
Allow us to explain. Water and water-specific imagery show up in places that are safe and nurturing. For instance, there's the watering hole and winding rivers in the Pride Lands and the giant lake in front of Timon and Pumbaa's jungle mountain.
As Simba is falling in love with Nala, the two of them romp around in a mini-waterfall. All of these places tend to be positively connoted with love, safety, and security.
Where there isn't water, however, there's bound to be evil or danger. Simba and Nala wander into the bone-dry elephant graveyard and nearly get eaten by a pack of hyenas. Scar plans all of his evil plots in the very same elephant graveyard, where green lava flows everywhere. Simba nearly dies in a waterless desert. The absence of water means our characters are in trouble.
One of the strongest themes in The Lion King is the importance of family, especially when it comes to Simba and Mufasa's father-son relationship. We are constantly reminded through Mufasa's wisdom that young Simba has some big paws to fill.
Which is why this crucial image is all the more excellent. After Mufasa rescues Simba from the hyenas, he tells his disobedient son that he'd like a word with him. Cowed, Simba approaches his father. As he walks forward, he steps in Mufasa's paw print and sees that it's basically 10 times the size of his.
This image serves to remind Simba—and the audience—that he has a very long way to go before he will have the wisdom and bravery necessary to become king.
Dandelion seeds are magic. No, really—they actually symbolize magic in The Lion King. The animators use them as a visual allegory for the way magic works in The Lion King's world.
Remember that scene where Simba flops down in the grass and sends a bunch of dandelion seeds and pollen flying off into the night sky? And remember how Rafiki manages to actually catch those very same dandelion seeds and divine from them that Simba is alive and well somewhere? Yeah … that's not exactly the way nature works. That's some pure hocus-pocus.
The interesting thing about The Lion King is that although it's an animated film, it's still a pretty true depiction of the way things are in nature. The lions walk on all four legs and move around like real lions. There are no spaceships or birds in business suits or waterfalls that fall upward.
But there is magic. The dandelion seeds are a subtle element that somehow manages to defy the way we know—or think we know—nature actually works.
A lot of the imagery surrounding Scar is intended to communicate his utter vileness. There's the scar on his face, for one. And then there's all the green smog and oozing lava that show up whenever he's partying in the elephant graveyard.
But there's one Scar scene that's downright iconic. When he's first rallying the hyenas to kill Mufasa and Simba, he sings a song called "Be Prepared." The hyenas get pretty jazzed by the song, and they form an ad hoc army, marching past Scar while he sings from atop a giant outcropping of rock. Here's a little memory refresher.
That image isn't exactly unique. It's drawn to resemble the Nazi rallies of the late 1930s. The hyenas are goose-stepping Nazis. And Scar is supposed to be Hitler. Yep, you read that right. Here's a photo of the real Hitler for comparison.
It doesn't get much more evil than a Nazi rally, Disney. You got your message across.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Simba is a little cub who gets to live in his ordinary world doing ordinary-world things. You know, just stuff like being a prince and using the entire African savanna as his playground. Super ordinary.
Scar banishes Simba from the Pride Lands.
Instead of challenging Scar, Simba runs away with his tail between his legs. He lives for many peaceful and wondrous years in a jungle sanctuary with his friends, Timon and Pumbaa.
Simba has a fateful conversation with the ghost of his father, who tells him fatherly things like "be responsible" and "seek revenge on your evil uncle."
Simba returns to the Pride Lands.
Simba does battle with Scar's henchmen. Scar tries to deceive the other lions into thinking that Simba is a patricidal maniac, but Simba corrects that misconception quickly.
Simba and Scar circle each other, preparing for their final showdown. Simba tries to banish Scar from the Pride Lands, but Scar kicks some flaming embers into Simba's eyes, starting a fight.
Simba fights Scar and wins, throwing his uncle into a pack of hungry hyenas.
Simba climbs Pride Rock, his role as king restored.
The Pride Lands return to their normal lush and green state.
Simba is accepted as the rightful king of the Pride Lands.
Simba and Nala welcome a son, the new prince, into the world.
Although it's never explicitly stated, we know The Lion King is set somewhere in Africa. How? Prepare for some serious headcanon:
The setting, with its tall grass and quadrupedal wildlife, resembles the African savanna pretty closely. The opening song and the phrase "Hakuna Matata" are in Swahili, which is a language spoken in a number of East African countries, including Kenya and Tanzania. And since the producers researched the film in Kenya, we can probably conclude that Pride Rock and all of its animals are somewhere in Kenya.
Excuse us while we push our nerd glasses up a little higher on our noses.
Unless you're a scholar of anthropomorphic animal history (more universities should offer a degree in that), it's difficult to place The Lion King at any one point in time. All this could be going down in 1100 B.C. or 2080 A.D.—we'll never know, and it doesn't seem relevant to the plot that we do know.
Richard Hudson, the stage designer for The Lion King musical, confirmed this fact in an interview: "One of the most remarkable things about The Lion King is that it is not set in any specific time … the design possibilities were endless, so long as the scenery evoked Africa, and so long as it helped to tell the story."
For The Lion King, the micro elements of the setting are a lot more important to the development of the story than the macro ones. The time period is irrelevant, but Pride Rock, the elephant graveyard, and Timon and Pumbaa's jungle are extremely relevant.
The micro universe of The Lion King (i.e., its setting within Kenya) is a super moralistic one. It's basically a testing ground for rooting out good from evil.
In the film, we know that Pride Rock is the seat of goodness because Mufasa rules from there and the colors associated with it—gold, amber, yellow—are all regal in nature. To make things even more literal, we know from Mufasa himself that everything the sun shines on is his kingdom, which is to say that everything the sun shines on is good. Even when we leave the immediate vicinity of Pride Rock, this seems to be true: Timon and Pumbaa are good guys, and they live in a sunny place.
And where doesn't the sun shine? The elephant graveyard, for one. In case you don't remember, it's the place where Scar hangs out with the hyenas and makes dastardly plans to kill his relatives. We can safely assume that this part of the world is bad. To recap: sun = good. No sun = bad. The setting of The Lion King = highly moralistic.
The Lion King's narrative technique is pretty conventional. You've got your hero (Simba), and you've got your villain (Scar). We alternate between their two stories several times over the course of the film.
Why? To build tension. And to emphasize the fact that the hero and villain are just circling each other for the entire duration of the story, waiting to finally face off in the end. Every time we cut from Simba to Scar, the audience wonders: what's Simba going to finally do to stop him?
If The Lion King is anything, it's a coming-of-age story: we're watching a young cub grow into an adult lion and assume all of the responsibilities that come with adult lionhood.
Although coming-of-age stories are about kids, kids aren't their only audience. James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which chronicles the young life of Stephen Dedalus, is one of the most famous coming-of-age stories in the Western canon. Portrait has a whole lot more adult themes in it than The Lion King. So does Hermann Hesse's Beneath the Wheel, another excellent coming-of-age story. But don't take our word for it: read them yourself!
And, let's not forget about the very famous coming-of-age story The Lion King is based on: Hamlet.
When his father was killed, Hamlet the Melancholy Dane was but a wee lad unsure of his place in the world. But, as he grows and matures, he better understands those around him … especially whom to trust when it comes to politics and power. Likewise, Simba grows up to realize that the uncle he thought he could trust had been tricking him all along.
You know that old saying: "With age comes experience. And with experience comes the ability to doubt your uncle."
This family loves drama. Constant drama. It's a miracle this movie wasn't actually titled The Drama King (although that might be a better title for Scar's biopic).
Simba comes from a royal family, which means he comes from mad power. His father is estranged from his brother, a conniving and power-hungry lion who wants to rule the Pride Lands. Simba is a naïve and easily manipulated prince—at least while he's still a little cub. If that doesn't spell family drama and intrigue, then we're not sure what does.
Since a family drama is basically just a drama that centers around a family or family conflict, plenty of stories qualify for this category. Shakespeare wrote a ton of them: there's Hamlet, which we've already mentioned a bajillion times, and then there's King Lear, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet: all are tragedies involving inter-familial greed and power.
But not every family drama has to be about the struggle for power—some families just go crazy. Ever read The Sound and the Fury? It's basically just about a family imploding.
Although The Lion King may be about some pretty serious stuff, it's still on the lighthearted side. After all, how serious can a movie about a bunch of talking animals actually be?
A lot of the characters in the film are designed to be inherently hilarious. Zazu is an uptight talking bird with a British accent. From the moment they enter the scene, Timon and Pumbaa provide much of The Lion King's slapstick. You've got to admit there's a lot LOL-worthy about a meerkat riding on the back of a giant warthog. And the hyenas get their share of the slapstick action, too: Banzai ends up with a ton of thorns in his butt, and Ed is always rolling on the ground and laughing insanely.
While The Lion King may not be a straight-up comedy, it's still got enough comedic elements to place it in the genre. It's got this in common with a lot of Disney movies. Remember Aladdin? That was a movie about a princess and a pauper defying all of the odds to be together. But it was also about a young man's relationship with a crazy genie who does Jack Nicholson impressions.
And The Little Mermaid may be another love story, but it could just as easily be a buddy comedy about Ariel and her friend Sebastian, the wisecracking crab.
This movie's title is really straightforward. The Lion King is the title given to the male ruler of the Pride Lands. Not only is that ruler the alpha lion of his pack, he's also a widely acknowledged symbol of goodness and justice (which is why Scar couldn't hold onto the title for that long). The Lion King is about Simba realizing that he needs to become … the Lion King.
The ending can be summed up pretty easily in three words: Happily. Ever. After.
Simba battles and defeats Scar, which means good wins out over evil. Then, Simba and Nala get together and have a cub, ensuring that the royal legacy will continue.
In the movie's final scene, Rafiki, Simba, and Nala appear on Pride Rock, with Rafiki holding up Simba and Nala's son and heir apparent to the throne. This scene is meant to serve as a bookend to the first scene, which is basically identical except Simba is the cub. This parallel imagery underscores the Circle of Life theme, implying that all events continue in a perfectly symmetrical and self-contained cycle.
This is a Disney film, folks. If we could give this movie a rating that meant "less scandalous than G," we would.
All of the violence is pretty tame, and there's no blood—even where common sense tells you there should be blood. And you can forget about sex: Simba and Nala don't even kiss. They nuzzle. Once. Maybe twice.
Basically, you could show this movie to a newborn, and the kid would still turn out okay.