The Lion King is a good movie, and its success and enjoyment should be credited not to the thin veneer of eastern philosophy woven throughout the film, but rather to the Christian themes that its most critical moments and lessons are built on.
To analyze the movie, it is helpful to examine it through the lens of the five-point biblical covenant model. There are only two types of worldview: the Christian worldview, and the unbelieving worldview. There are multiple variations of the unbelieving worldview, but all of them have answers to these five points. The five points of covenantal Christianity are summarized as follows:
- Sovereignty – God created all things. He is sovereign over his creation, predestinating all events that will transpire within it, writing the end before even the beginning.
- Hierarchy and representation – God created mankind in His image to take dominion over God’s creation. Mankind fell into sin, however, and in order to be reconciled to God a substitutionary sacrifice must be made on our behalf. Jesus Christ is our substitute, and he is also our king, priest, and prophet.
- Ethics / law / boundaries – God established his law with Moses at Mt. Sinai. His law is a reflection of his holy character. It is meant to be a guide for us on how to live our lives in accordance with Christ’s example.
- Sanctions / oath – God enforces positive and negative sanctions for obeying or disobeying his law. Our baptism is a self-maledictory oath, a promise to obey God’s law and gain access to His promises, including eternal life (heaven). We call down his curses (hell) upon our heads if we disobey. God’s sanctions apply to individuals, families, churches, and nations.
- Succession and inheritance – Covenantal continuity is established when Christian parents baptize their children into the covenant under Christ. God has also made a promise about historical inheritance: the meek shall inherit the earth, and the wealth of the wicked is laid up for the righteous. Not only do sinners suffer the ultimate negative sanction of hell in eternity should they never convert, but they will also lose their material wealth in time and on earth to God’s people.
God’s covenant ensures that history is imbued with meaning and purpose. Great stories parallel these five points. The Lion King succeeds because it follows this formula.
Though only mentioned briefly in two short scenes in the movie, the sovereign force guiding history is revealed to be the Great Kings of the Past. They are transcendent to history in that they speak from beyond its boundaries of time and space, and yet they do actually interact with — and seem to exert some kind of presence within — history. Mufasa explained to Simba:
“Simba, let me tell you something my father told me. Look at the stars. The great kings of the past look down on us from those stars…So whenever you feel alone, just remember that those kings will always be there to guide you. And so will I.”
That is the first scene the great kings of the past are mentioned. Later on, Simba relates this explanation to Timon and Pumbaa, who ridicule him for believing such a thing. Later still, we see Mufasa communicating to Simba from within the storm clouds.
We discover that these Great Kings have a purpose for Simba’s life. Not only do cloud-Mufasa’s words to Simba have real historical consequences — they motivate him to return to the Pride Lands to challenge Scar — but there is some, if slight, link implied between Mufasa’s presence within the clouds and the weather in the Pride Lands. Immediately after Scar is defeated, the rain begins falling. Simba looks up, and a small patch of sky is cleared between the clouds. From within that patch he hears his father’s voice again: “Remember.”
Maybe the Great Kings of the Past, in the guise of Mufasa, created the drought in the Pride Lands when Scar ascended to power, and maybe they also broke open the heavenly storehouses to release the rain waters after Scar’s rule had been overthrown. If so, they exerted pressure on Scar’s kingdom that created the tensions between him and the hyenas which ultimately led them to turn on each other.
Mufasa’s character is a model of majesty and righteous rule. He is a kingly lion who always does the right thing, and he is worthy of imitation. He is a good father. He takes time to play with his son; he teaches him about the world, about the difference between right and wrong; he trains him so that he may hone his skills (e.g., the pouncing lesson); he disciplines his son when Simba has broken the rules; he trains him up in the way a lion of kingly stature ought to behave; and he is always there to rescue his son from danger.
In short, Mufasa is the ideal father. He ultimately sacrifices himself to save his son’s life. He dies so that Simba may live. He ensures the kingly succession path by ensuring Simba, his only son and heir to the throne, is not killed. He knew that if he were to live, but Simba died, that although his kingship would last a little while longer, its long-term certainty would be thrown into serious jeopardy. But he also loves his son very much, and his motives for saving Simba weren’t purely to keep the kingship alive; he was clearly motivated out of fatherly love.
Haunted by shame and guilt, Simba spends his early adult life running from his father by running from his father’s example. But Rafiki, the loyal family companion, brings Simba into contact with his past so that he can heal and move forward. Rafiki is literally a mediator between the Great Kings of the Past and Simba, between heaven and earth, so in that way he performs a priestly function similar to the Old Testament priesthood. He resuscitates Simba’s destiny by resuscitating the image of Mufasa that dwells within him.
By a small pond and under bright moonlight, Rafiki asks Simba to look into the water’s surface. At first, Simba sees only his reflection, but after being exhorted to look harder, Simba’s reflection transforms into Mufasa’s reflection. Simba is essentially resurrected to new life after being regenerated by this watery rite. He then turns away from his life of irresponsibility and embraces the one taught to him by his father, becoming not only a hearer, but also a doer, of Mufasa’s word.
The transformation is interesting. When, as an adult, he encounters Nala, despite being best friends in their childhood, she has a hard time recognizing him. But after embracing his destiny and returning home, both Scar and his mother at first mistake him for his father, Mufasa. Though Simba’s outward appearance had not changed, something within him had.
The thing that had changed is that he had embraced the image of his father which had always been within him, but which he had suppressed for a very long time.
The Christian themes here are abundant and significant. The story of Jesus Christ is the story of mankind, made in the image of God and set forth to take dominion over creation to God’s glory. Man was made in God’s image so that he could be God’s representative on earth, in history. But because of our ethical rebellion, we fell into sin, and God cursed us. His image within us was never fully eradicated by our sin, but it was surely blemished beyond repair. Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension restore the image of God within us when we become reconciled to Him. We are then exhorted to be hearers and doers of Christ’s word, to live our lives by his example. James wrote that, as sinners, we have forgotten who we are:
“For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like” (James 1:23-24 ESV).
This is exactly what Mufasa’s ghost in the storm clouds tells Simba:
Mufasa: Simba, you have forgotten me.
Adult Simba: No. How could I?
Mufasa’s Ghost: You have forgotten who you are and so have forgotten me. Look inside yourself Simba. You are more than what you have become. You must take your place in the Circle of life.
Adult Simba: How can I go back? I’m not who I used to be.
Mufasa’s Ghost: Remember who you are. You are my son and the one true king. Remember who you are.
He surely had heard Mufasa’s words and lessons to him as a child because they hounded his conscience into adulthood. And yet, he did not do them. By throwing off his Hakuna Matata lifestyle and donning his robe of responsibility, he restored Mufasa’s image within him: the image of the one true king.
A brief word on symbolism is in order. Simba’s regeneration as an adult is initiated by the small pond. Water, then, plays an important symbolic role in the movie. It parallels the symbolic role of water in a Christian’s life, which begins with his baptism. The baptismal waters symbolically wash us of our sins and resurrect us to new life, indeed to lead a new life and walk in the paths of righteousness. Waters represent blessings:
“It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore” (Psalm 133:3).
These waters mark Simba’s entrance into resurrected life, and they later mark a return of prosperity to the Pride Lands.
Last, but certainly not least, Simba undergoes a death-and-resurrection process. He symbolically dies when he abandons his post after his father’s death; this is made clear to us when Rafiki blots out Simba’s painting on his tree-house wall. The beginnings of his resurrection are marked by Rafiki’s moment of joy and excitement in which he paints in Simba’s mane. Simba never physically died, but he lived in ethical rebellion for a time; it was this time of self-imposed exile that marked his symbolic death, much as did Jonah’s time that he spent in the belly of the great fish at the bottom of the ocean.
LAW AND BOUNDARIES
Boundaries play an important role in the movie. The Elephant Graveyard is a shadowy, barren wasteland that is said to exist beyond the boundaries of the Pride Lands.
It is the domain of the hyenas. It represents the movie’s central conflict: can the hyenas, under Scar’s rule, expand their boundaries by gaining jurisdiction over the Pride Lands?
Scar, as a lion without a royal office, has no ultimate authority in the Pride Lands, but he seems to have ultimate authority in the Elephant Graveyard where he rules at the top of the hyena hierarchy. Scar’s hierarchy of authority over the hyenas is, like the Elephant Graveyard even in daylight, hidden from his brother through a shroud of deception.
Mufasa sets some boundaries of his own for Simba: never go to the Elephant Graveyard. Not only is it beyond Mufasa’s official jurisdiction, meaning that a different law rules there than Mufasa’s, but it sets up a test for Simba: will he submit himself to his father’s rule, or will he disobey him?
Mufasa doesn’t explain to Simba why he must never go there, but parents, having authority and, therefore, responsibility over their children, do not owe their children explanations for all of their actions. The parents are always concerned for their children’s health and safety, and in this case Mufasa’s reasoning was clearly to protect his son. But children are rebellious, and they naturally and continually test the boundaries their parents set for them. Simba disobeyed not only his father, but also the king.
Though Simba imagines it as what his kingship will be like, “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” finds its fulfillment in Simba’s living “Hakuna Matata” with Timon and Pumbaa:
No one saying, “Do this”
No one saying, “Be there”
No one saying, “Stop that”
No one saying, “See here”
Free to run around all day
Free to do it all my way
Hakuna Matata, what a wonderful phrase
Hakuna Matata, ain’t no passing craze
It means no worries for the rest of your days
It’s our problem free philosophy, Hakuna Matata
He abandoned his responsibilities while he was trying to run from his past. But he never could get over his prickling conscience.
Mufasa’s death wasn’t Simba’s fault. Even if Simba had not of gone to the Elephant Graveyard, it is unlikely Scar’s ambitions would have been stifled. His wiles would have appeared one way or another. But Scar makes Simba feel responsible for Mufasa’s death on the basis of his initial act of disobedience. Because of this, despite surviving the hyena attack, Simba abandons his responsibility to the kingdom by refusing to take up the kingship. As heir to the throne, the law is clear on the succession path. By fleeing the kingdom, he surrenders the throne to presumably the next in line, Scar. This is probably the legal arrangement, but this legal succession comes about by ill-gotten means.
The final boundary worth mentioning is that between life and death. The movie’s worldview is clear: murder is wrong. Scar violates that principle in order to usurp the kingship.
Scar actually mentions “law” in general in one scene: “You know the law: never, ever mention that name in my presence.” He was referring to Mufasa’s name, of course. Scar’s lust for power, driven by a deep and long-festering envy, isn’t satisfied with just killing Mufasa; killing him isn’t good enough. Scar banishes Mufasa’s name by decree of law, as if doing so could banish the memory from Scar’s Pride Lands. Though he has issued a decree that outlaws any lingering jurisdiction Mufasa or his memory may have in the Pride Lands, his law conflicts with reality. More than once Mufasa’s name and memory are invoked, once even by his top hyena henchmen, much to Scar’s chagrin.
Because of Scar’s evil acts, though they resulted in his ascension to the throne of power, the consequences would be severe.
We see the Bible’s edenic imagery on prominent display throughout the movie. In the movie, we see dramatic transformations in the very land itself. Under Mufasa’s rule, the Pride Lands are a flourishing land, full of green grass and leafy trees and herds of animals of all different kinds, all punctuated against the backdrop of a beautiful blue sky. It is the picture of a healthy, prosperous environment.
But after Scar and his hyena henchmen move in, we see a great change take place. In no time at all, under Scar’s rule, the Pride Lands become barren. They become dark and gray. The grass and the trees have died. The animal herds have left. Evidently, some kind of drought has taken hold of the land alongside Scar’s tyrannical rule.
The darkness that had been confined to the small area of the elephant graveyard during Mufasa’s reign had, under Scar’s, spilled over its boundaries and soaked the Pride Lands.
After the evil is vanquished from the land with the return of the king, we are shown that, in a short time, the land’s beauty and fruitfulness have returned. In fact, it is as if nature itself is linked to righteous rule, for the drought that had taken hold during Scar’s reign is suddenly broken with Simba’s victory. The clouds open and the healing rains pour forth as Simba begins his march up Pride Rock to announce his kingship.
In Scripture, we find a specific recurring theme: from garden oasis to barren wasteland, and back again. Adam and Eve are initially brought into this world and placed in a garden paradise, but because of their ethical rebellion they were evicted.
Hundreds of years later, Moses led the freed Israelites out of bondage in Egypt and into Canaan, also known as the Promised Land that flowed with milk and honey. But, because of an act of disobedience, the entire nation was barred from entering for 40 years. Instead, they had to wander into the wilderness until the older, rebellious generation had died off. Only then was the younger generation allowed to enter and take possession. Verses from Isaiah filled with edenic imagery provide poetic illustrations:
“For the palace is forsaken, the populous city deserted; the hill and the watchtower will become dens forever, a joy of wild donkeys,
a pasture of flocks; until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest” (Is. 32:14-15)
There are numerous other examples. The terms of the covenant are specific: corporate covenantal obedience or disobedience will result in historical blessings or curses. Deuteronomy 28 lays out the consequences of both. For obedience:
And the LORD will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your ground, within the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give you. The LORD will open to you his good treasury, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hands…(Deut. 28:11-12 ESV)
The LORD will strike you with wasting disease and with fever, inflammation and fiery heat, and with drought and with blight and with mildew. They shall pursue you until you perish. And the heavens over your head shall be bronze, and the earth under you shall be iron. The LORD will make the rain of your land powder. From heaven dust shall come down on you until you are destroyed (Deut. 28:22-24 ESV)
The climax of the movie is bathed in heaven-and-hell imagery. Simba and Scar are battling on the top of Pride Rock while the drought-fueled flames rage thirstily below. While watching the tense battle between Simba and Scar, you get the sense that the loser is going to end up in the fire. The question is: does one lion, more than the other, deserve it?
No sooner had the battle ended, the heavens opened up to pour out refreshing rain that quenched the flames and signaled the end of the conflict.
One gets the sense that, by the outcome of this battle, Simba claimed his eternal place in the heavens among the company of the great kings of the past. Scar, on the other hand, was tossed into the lake of fire beneath, and he was consumed.
INHERITANCE AND SUCCESSION
After a gloomy inheritance ceremony that transferred the Pride Lands away from the lions and to the hyenas following Mufasa’s death, we see that this transfer was only temporary.
The hyenas are ultimately disinherited from the Pride Lands upon Simba’s return and campaign of victory. What seemed at first to be a catastrophic defeat was actually just a temporary setback, a bout of friction and tribulation that resulted in Simba’s final development into the great king he was intended to become.
The kingly line is restored, and the Pride Lands are the spoils of victory. The royal line was re-established in Simba, and we see in the final scene that Simba’s heir will be his son. Simba’s sceptre of authority will pass to him, just as Mufasa’s passed to Simba. Under righteous rule, the Pride Lands prosper.
The Lion King largely conforms to the five-point biblical covenant model, and for doing so its creators were rewarded handsomely: it earned a billion dollars at the box officeand became the highest-grossing film worldwide of 1994. Though it lags behind frozen in terms of nominal box-office gross, it was a greater investment for Disney than Frozen was: it generated returns of 22 times its budget, while Frozen only returned 8.5 times its budget.
Adjusted for inflation, The Lion King earned almost double domestically what Frozen did.
The Lion King crossed racial and cultural lines because its message is universal. It is universal because we are all made in God’s image.