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Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick)
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.
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