The unequivocal star, protagonist, head honcho, and general attention-seeker (and -getter) in this story is Simba.
Over the course of the movie, we watch him go from sweet and silly lion cub to brave king of the Pride Lands. In a way, The Lion King is kind of like a Simba biopic. (Just don't tell Scar.)
When we first meet Simba, he's an adorable little lion cub who pretty much doesn't know anything about the world. He thinks it's okay to wake up his sleeping parents before dawn, even if they're gonna look like this. He's excited to become king of the Pride Lands, and even sings about it:
"I juuuuuust can't wait to be king!"
And, who knows, he probably coughs up a ton of hairballs. He is a cat, after all.
We first get a glimpse of the downside of Simba's curiosity when he deliberately disobeys his father in order to play in the elephant graveyard. In fact, Mufasa actually says as much when Simba returns from his romp: "You deliberately disobeyed me!" Harsh.
And let's get this straight: if you're a lion, there is nothing cool about the elephant graveyard. It's musty and scary and populated by a bunch of hungry hyenas. Not surprisingly, Simba can't handle himself, and Mufasa has to come and bail him out.
If young Simba has a tragic flaw (or hamartia), it's pride. We see this when he sneaks into the elephant graveyard, and we see it again in his naïve assumption that his creepy uncle Scar is always on his side. Especially after Scar encourages Simba to disobey Mufasa, who's always got Simba's best interests at heart.
Blinded by his childish self-confidence, Simba allows Scar to lead him into a giant gorge with the promise of a surprise. The only question Simba asks of his devious uncle? "What's the surprise?" (Scar promises him that it's "to die for." Oh, Scar, you wit.)
As it turns out, that "surprise" turns out to be a wildebeest stampede that kills Simba's pops. Simba allows Scar to convince him that he (as in Simba) was the one who caused the wildebeest stampede with his puny cub's roar. It's worth saying that if Simba has a second tragic flaw, it's probably got to be gullibility.
When Simba flees into exile, we know he's doing so because he lacks the self-assurance it takes to be king. If he had his father's wisdom, he'd know that Scar is a manipulative liar (and nobody's got time for that). But Simba has got to grow up in order to figure that out. And what better place to grow up than in the jungle with Timon and Pumbaa?
And so Simba enters his "Hakuna Matata" phase: he's chilling with a meerkat and a warthog and enjoying all kinds of freedom from responsibility (and crunchy bugs). Needless to say, he's not exactly ready to become king of the Pride Lands.
Why? He feels way guilty about causing the death of his father—which he didn't exactly cause, by the way. He can barely even bring up the subject of his dad without completely losing it. When he's trying to tell Timon and Pumbaa about the whole "kings-watching-us-in-the-sky" thing, he can barely bring himself to mention that it was his dad who first introduced him to the concept.
It's only after a chance encounter with Nala and Rafiki that Simba realizes he's more than a belching dude who eats slugs all day. First, Simba spends an incredibly romantic evening with Nala, swimming in a waterfall and engaging in heavy nuzzling (bow chicka wow wow). Then, Nala's persistent urging about Simba's responsibilities as king causes Simba to freak out and wander into a field, where Rafiki is lying in wait for him.
Rafiki makes Simba speak to the ghost of his father, who has—shocker!—some pretty good advice for him. Simba comes to a realization:
"I know what I have to do but going back means I'll have to face my past. I've been running from it for so long."
This is the part in any coming-of-age story where the main character actually comes of age by facing adulthood's responsibilities head on. And man, does he ever face them.
After returning to the Pride Lands and confronting—and besting!—Scar in a final battle, Simba officially reclaims his title as king. This is a pivotal moment in the film because it reminds us that Simba is part of an ongoing cycle (or "circle") of life: he is his dad's successor now, and soon he'll be a dad and his son will succeed him. And so on. Forever.
Or, at least, as long as lions are still on the planet. Which is hopefully forever.
Dripping with sarcasm and cynicism, Scar is the typical Disney villain: we love to hate him, and whenever he does something, we can't look away. Voiced by the incomparable Jeremy Irons, Scar is an inexplicably British-accented lion who hates his family and loves power.
He is a liar, a manipulator, and very likely a sociopath. He's also super fun to watch in action.
When we first meet Scar, he's moping around in his modest cave, refusing to attend the presentation ceremony of his newborn nephew. Is he sick? Hungover? Agoraphobic?
No—he's just jealous that Simba is now successor to the throne:
"I was first in line … until the little hairball was born."
Boo hoo. He's so jealous that he has bribed an army of overzealous hyenas to do his dirty business.
Over the course of Simba's cubhood, Scar tries a total of three times to kill him. The first time, he convinces Simba to travel to an elephant graveyard where Scar has arranged for some hyenas to kill him. When Simba escapes the hyenas, Scar tries again: he attempts to kill both Simba and Mufasa with a massive wildebeest stampede. Simba survives, but Mufasa perishes.
Scar almost always relies on deceit and brute force to get what he wants. Blaming Simba for Mufasa's death, Scar tells Simba to flee into exile and then orders the hyenas to murder him. Once again, Simba manages to escape. Unbeknownst to Scar, of course.
After Simba's (presumed) death, Scar informs the other lions that he's assuming the role of king of the Pride Lands. He wants to usher in a warm and fuzzy new era of cooperation between hyenas and lions. And provide his subjects with plenty of food. And other king stuff.
Not surprisingly (perhaps because he's a chronic liar and manipulator?), he fails to make good on any of his promises. Scar basically drives the Pride Lands into the ground, squandering resources and leaving his subjects to go hungry. Before long, Simba returns to the Pride Lands to reclaim the throne. Caught off-guard, Scar tries to turn the other lions against Simba by making him admit that he killed his father:
"Well, Simba, now's your chance to tell them. Tell them who's responsible for Mufasa's death!"
Except there's one problem with that: just as Scar is about to kill Simba himself, he tells Simba the truth about who killed Mufasa.
Empowered by the truth, Simba puts up a fight. Ever the liar, Scar tries to blame his weak leadership on the hyenas, who overhear and become angry. This doesn't exactly serve him well when Simba defeats him and he's thrown into a pit with those very same hyenas. Because they're hungry. And Scar … well, he's Scar.
Tall, strong, and—can a cartoon lion be handsome? Fine, we'll say it—handsome, Mufasa is the very picture of nobility. He is a just and beneficent leader. He loves both his wife, Sarabi, and his rambunctious son, Simba, and he understands and respects the natural world around him.
At the beginning of the movie, the Pride Lands flourish with Mufasa as their ruler. Mufasa has everything a guy could dream of: a newborn son, a beautiful wife, a giant rock palace, and a right-hand man who's actually an annoying British bird.
As Simba grows up, Mufasa tries to teach him important lessons about respect for nature and the importance of family:
"Everything exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance, and respect all the creatures—from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope."
Although Simba is a pretty rambunctious kid, Mufasa is still able to instill some good values in him.
Okay, now we're going to throw something crazy at you: Mufasa and Scar represent the dichotomy of good and evil in The Lion King. That was a mouthful, right? Let's unpack that into English.
Scar is basically evil personified (or lionified), and Mufasa is that same thing but for good. And when they're together, they're super contrast-y with each other. Where Scar likes to lie and cheat, Mufasa always believes in behaving ethically and caring for others. Scar is all about the use of senseless violence and brute force, and Mufasa would never use force unless absolutely necessary.
When Scar kills Mufasa, it looks as if evil has won out over good. But, that's not exactly true: Mufasa's ghost visits Simba and inspires him to follow in his father's footsteps. Remember that whole thing about The Lion King basically being Hamlet? Well, here's yet another point in the film where it couldn't possibly be more obvious.
In Hamlet, our young prince actually confers with the ghost of his father about the evil Claudius—the ghost confirms that it was Claudius who killed him, and that the throne is rightfully Hamlet's. In The Lion King, Mufasa's ghost reminds Simba:
"Look inside yourself, Simba. You are more than what you have become. You must take your place in the Circle of Life."
Simba does, and good is eventually avenged over evil.
Even though she doesn't get a whole ton of screen time, Nala is The Lion King'sresident kung-fu expert (think back to the time when she and Simba wrestled, and she was all like, "Pinned ya! Pinned ya again!") and Simba's best childhood friend. She's just as tough as the boastful young prince, plus she can pin him to the ground whenever she wants.
Despite being stronger than Simba, she's still got mad respect for him: when they were escaping from the elephant graveyard together, he saved her from getting bitten by a hyena by swiping the hyena in the face.
When Nala runs into Simba in the jungle, she's shocked that he's still alive. But, she gets over her shock fast and reminds him of his responsibility to the throne. This is partly because Nala is very much a force of moral good and partly because of that mad respect we mentioned earlier.
When Simba finally hauls his butt back to Pride Rock, Nala is right there with him, ready to help him overthrow Scar. Although Nala was Simba's friend long before the two of them grew up—and once said, "Ewww," when informed by Zazu that she and Simba would marry—this does not prevent her from eventually having some romantic feelings for him.
When Nala discovers Simba in the jungle, the two realize that they're a little more than friends, which is an adult thing to do and a huge part of Simba's coming-of-age story: with Nala's help, he matures socially, emotionally, and romantically, coming into his own as king of the Pride Lands.
Nala finally ties the knot with Simba at the end. Which is good, 'cause we were shipping them really hard.
Good, old Rafiki: you can always count on him to have a giant gourd full of beans, a head full of prophecies, and a disarmingly red butt. His name actually means "friend" in Swahili, which speaks volumes of his character.
Although he can be kind of goofy, Rafiki is basically the spiritual center of The Lion King: he alone is connected to both the earthly world and the spirit world, the past and the future, the heavens and a magical river that can reveal the ghost of your dad if you look into it long enough.
Rafiki plays a crucial role in the film. Without his hocus-pocus, Simba would not have been able to "reunite" with his ghostly father and realize that he's wasting his time lounging around the jungle with Timon and Pumbaa.
When Simba first runs into Rafiki, he's a little peeved about everything, especially since Rafiki keeps hitting him in the head with a giant stick in order to teach him a lesson about how we must learn from our pasts. But then, Rafiki enables Simba to see and speak with the ghost of his father, which gives Simba the strength he needs to return to Pride Rock and fight the good fight.
Rafiki also delivers the most important lesson Simba will ever receive about his past:
"Oh, yes, the past can hurt. But, the way I see it, you can either run from it … or learn from it."
Both a soothsayer and a noble fool—i.e., someone who acts silly but really knows a lot—Rafiki is a true source of goodness and wisdom in The Lion King.
Timon and Pumbaa are a pair invented for comedy: one's a tiny, wisecracking meerkat, and the other is a giant, emotionally honest warthog. Timon sounds like a used car salesman, while Pumbaa sounds like what would happen if John Goodman got swallowed by a giant pig. They brought the world "Hakuna Matata," delighting generations of children—and driving their parents absolutely insane.
When we first meet Timon and Pumbaa, it's under (darkly) hilarious circumstances: Timon is literally riding Pumbaa through the desert in search of carrion. When they find Simba, the big-hearted Pumbaa asks: "Can we keep him?" Timon eventually concedes, and the two teach Simba how to eat bugs and burp threateningly loudly.
Simba loves their freedom—according to Timon, "home is wherever your rump rests"—and their comic versatility. We find out that Timon can rock a hula skirt and Pumbaa can do a mean De Niro impression.
But Timon and Pumbaa are more than comic relief—they provide Simba with crucial emotional support at the moment he needs it most. In fact, if they hadn't found poor, exiled Simba roasting in the desert, he might have died out there. And when it comes time to take back Pride Rock from Scar and his cronies, Timon and Pumbaa are ready and willing.
In a way, these two are the unsung heroes of the film, a pair of Horatios to Simba's Hamlet.
If we're gonna stick to the whole The Lion King-as-Hamlet thing here, then Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed occupy the roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (and Guildenstern?).
Hungry and eager to please, they wind up as Scar's evil henchmen when he promises them a meal ticket. Scar manipulates them to do some pretty awful stuff, and the hyenas obey. Hey, they've got to eat somehow. According to Shenzi, they're all "dangling at the bottom of the food chain."
Unlike Scar, however, the hyenas aren't evil through and through. They begin to lose faith in their leader when he fails to deliver on his promise of a bountiful, food-filled future. By the time Scar tries to pin the blame for the ruined Pride Lands on the hyenas, they've had enough.
In an ironic and fitting twist, Scar is devoured by his very own henchmen. Although by then, they're more arbiters of justice than they are henchmen.
The red-billed hornbill who is both Simba's tutor and Mufasa's majordomo, Zazu can be a little shrill ("Step lively! The sooner we get to the watering hole, the sooner we can leave!"), but ultimately, he's just trying to protect the people he loves.
Because of this, he's strongly aligned with the forces of good.
Zazu is always reminding everyone to be cautious and careful and reciting the kind of dumb, embarrassing "words of wisdom" you'd expect to hear from a really annoying uncle. In Hamlet, he'd be Polonius. Although he doesn't have a very active role in the story, his tutelage and (attempted) witticisms help to set the scene for Simba's sheltered royal childhood.
Sarabi barely gets any screen time, but her role as a nurturing, motherly presence shouldn't be ignored. She is, after all, the lioness who gave birth to the future king of the Pride Lands. And, she's been through a lot: the deaths of her husband and son, Scar's reign of terror, the surprise return of her son, and the birth of her grandson. She is very much a force of good in The Lion King. Like her husband and son, she's loyal to her family and the animal kingdom. She's a tender and loving mother, but she's also willing to fight evil whenever she has the chance. Come to think of it—someone should make Sarabi: Queen of the Pride Lands. Are you listening, Disney?