Theology in “The Lion King”

A Religious Analysis of the Classic Disney Animated Film

Disney’s classic film tells the story of a lion cub named Simba who is heir to the throne of a kingdom known as the Pride Lands. Simba lives an idyllic life until his father is murdered by his uncle Scar in a ; Scar convinces a grieving Simba that he is responsible for Mufasa’s death and must run away, allowing Scar to usurp the throne in Simba’s absence. After growing up in exile, Simba is finally convinced to return to the Pride Lands to reclaim his rightful claim to the throne.

The film draws inspiration from a range of popular literary works. The story of was heavily influenced by Shakespeare’s , which tells the story of a Danish prince ousted from the crown by the murderous uncle. The comedic side characters of Timone and Pumba could be compared to Hamlet’s foolish messengers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Aside from these obvious allusions to , Disney’s also pays tribute to which featured the Christ-figure and king, Aslan the lion.

Mufasa is more than just a king, but also a god to the Pride Lands. His right to the crown comes from his divine placement at the top of the food chain, which the movie explains as “the circle of life”. On the other hand, Scar becomes king through murder and treachery. Although Scar holds physical power over the other animals in the form of an obedient hyena army, the other lions still believe Mufasa was the superior ruler. Under Scar’s rule, the Pride Lands are plagued by drought and famine, whereas Mufasa’s reign enjoyed an abundance of food and water. The starving lions in the Pride Lands are desperate for Simba to return; however, since Simba is living luxuriously in an oasis during his exile, he is blissfully unaware of the strife back home. This demonstrates the important role of basic existential needs in the film. Mufasa is a beloved king due to the prosperity of his reign; meanwhile, Scar is resented for the scarcity resulted by his incompetent rule. Scar brings about the famine since the natural order and balance of the kingdom was disrupted. Upon Simba’s return to claim the crown, rains wash over the Pride Lands to symbolizes rebirth after death.

The film both opens and closes with a key depiction of religious ritual. The shaman baboon Rafiki performs a ritual on the newborn Simba, which bears a resemblance to the Christian tradition of baptism. Rafiki marks Simba’s forehead with some type of paint, similar to how Catholic priests mark churchgoers’ foreheads with ash on Ash Wednesday. To finish the ritual, Rafiki holds up the newly anointed prince to present before a crowd of animals gathered to witness the birth of their next king. The entire scene is visually and musically stunning, highlighting the central role religious rituals hold in our lives. The same scene is repeated at the film’s conclusion, this time with Rafiki baptizing Simba’s son, who will be the next to continue the so-called circle of life.

Many Biblical allusions are present throughout . Several interpretations of Biblical figures can be read from the characters. The most obvious interpretation is that Mufasa represents the Christian God, who sends his only begotten son to bring salvation to his people. There’s also the scene where Simba first meets his companions Timone and Pumba, which can be compared to a well-known story from the Bible. After Simba runs away from the Pride Lands, he is lost in a desert and on the brink of death when Timone and Pumba stumble upon him and consider whether or not to save him. Taking note of his poor health, Timone proclaims “Lions eat guys like us”, but the two ultimately decide to help him anyways. This is similar to the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan, a man who decides against his better judgement to help a member of a rival tribe in need. The Biblical symbolism runs much deeper than shallow coincidences, though, and is explored on multiple levels.

Scar’s jealously of Mufasa mirrors Lucifer’s envy toward God in Lucifer’s lust for power leads to his fall from grace and banishment from Heaven, whereas Scar’s similar arrogance results in his banishment from the Pride Lands by Simba. Scar’s jealously toward his brother can also be connected to the story of Cain and Abel, which also involves a man driven to murder his brother by envy. Many others parallels are drawn between Satan and Scar, such as the scene with the elephant graveyard. Previously forbade from wandering outside the safety of the Pride Lands, Simba is ultimately tempted into visiting the elephant graveyard after Scar peaks his curiosity and assures him that Mufasa won’t find out. This scene calls to mind the Biblical story of Original Sin. God forbids Adam and Eve from eating fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, whereas Mufasa forbids Simba from leaving the Pride Lands; Satan tempts the two into disobeying God by peaking their curiosity and reassures them He won’t find out, whereas Scar tempts Simba into disobeying Mufasa by peaking his curiosity and reassuring him Mufasa won’t find out; however, both God and Mufasa find out about their disobedience and are furious.

Strangely enough, the most developed symbolism is perhaps the least linear religious allegory. Mufasa and Simba represent both God and Jesus in various ways. Like Jesus, Mufasa is killed as a result of betrayal by someone close to him. Simba’s subsequent exile also invokes the imagery of the crucifixion when he runs through thorn bushes, similar to the crown of thorns Jesus donned. Mufasa is temporarily “resurrected” in the night sky, much to Simba’s disbelief. Simba experiences his own resurrection moment when his return to the Pride Lands is met with shock from friends and family who thought he was dead. Simba’s exile could also be viewed as the story of Lent, in which Jesus spent forty days and forty nights in the desert; Timone and Pumba teach Simba to eat insects instead of meat, just like how Christians do not eat meat during Lent. Timone and Pumba are both outcasts until Simba brings them back into the Pride Lands, not unlike how Jesus cured a leper so he could reintegrate into society. Timone and Pumba could also be interpreted as Jesus’s disciples, who follow him based on blind trust.

Simba can be compared to other Biblical figures as well. Simba is prompted by long-lost childhood friend Nala to reclaim the throne, but Simba instead tries to escape from his destiny. Much like in the story of Jonah and the whale, in which Jonah attempts to hide from his destiny until he realizes he must fulfil his duty, Simba is also finally convinced of the importance of his destiny.

One of the more complex Old Testament allegories in the film is a loose retelling of the story of Moses. Simba, like Moses, was a prince until he blames himself after witnessing an accidental death and fleeing into the desert to start a new, simple life far from home. God takes the form of a burning bush to tell Moses he must return home and liberate the Jews from his brother’s oppressive rule while Mufasa appears before Simba in the night sky to urge him to return to the Pride Lands and save the kingdom from his uncle’s oppressive rule.

Despite these numerous examples of Biblical symbolism, the most important theme in approaches religion with a broader scope. This vital symbol in the film is the cleansing power of rain and water. After Simba is presented to all the animals by Rafiki, it rains in the Pride Lands, signaling that a pure baby has been born to continue the circle of life. Later, when Simba and Nala are reunited in the oasis, they fall in love and go swimming, which washes away Simba’s guilt and trauma of the past. Soon after, Simba meets Rafiki, who claims that Mufasa is still alive. Simba follows Rafiki, who takes him to a pond and instructs him to look into it. Simba gazes into the pond and sees first his own reflection, but a closer examination reveals Mufasa’s reflection staring back at him. Since Mufasa represents the ultimate purity, the pond cleanses the guilt from Simba’s image of himself, giving him the courage to face his past. When Simba returns to fight Scar, a wildfire is ignited by a lightning strike and overwhelms the drought-ridden foliage. After Simba defeats Scar, the storm finally hits and pours down rain. The wildfire subsides and all the lions come together. Bones are shown being washed away by the rain, cleansing the Pride Lands of Scar’s evil.

Whether intentional or not, is a deeply religious film, with many themes prevalent throughout. It is also one of the most popular and successful animated films of all time because it drew so much inspiration from the powerful religious myths that made the Bible the most popular book in the world. So long as people are reading the Bible, our media and entertainment will be expanding upon these timeless religious myths.

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