The first time I heard The Circle of Life it was 2 a.m. on a Thursday night. I was 22. My friend and I were working late at my university’s media labs with an assignment deadline looming. Many hours into delirium, he started singing in a foreign tongue, followed by these words: “From the day we arrive on the planet…”
I’m South African. I thought he was skillfully improvising a Zulu anthem to make fun of my heritage. I was disappointed to learn he had jacked the tune from a movie, The Lion King. I had never seen that movie. I have still never seen that movie.
That moment was running through my mind last Sunday, when I watched the new Lion King. The cinema was packed with adults fiending for a hit of nostalgia. Hearing The Circle of Life once again probably transported them back to 1994, or whenever their childhood years were. I was transported back to 2012 at the media labs from Uni.
I know, I never saw The Lion King. It’s scandalous. I blame my parents, but when I told mom on Sunday I hadn’t seen the original she was as indignant as everyone else. She legit thought she’d taken me to see this movie, but actually hadn’t. Which is so unfair. It’s actually her birthday next month, maybe I’ll use that occasion to confront her about her negligent parenting.
The good news: This puts me in a unique position to assess the new Lion King. Critics say it does a tremendous job at reanimating the original, but does little to meaningfully reinvigorate it. I can’t make this claim because I’m incapable of comparing the two movies. (For years I’ve been saying incapability is my greatest strength.)
So how was it? Pretty good. I didn’t love it. Timon and Pumbaa — whose names I thought were Fatty and Pumbaa — were consistent highlights, thanks mostly to Seth Rogen as Pumbaa. Zazu, voiced by John Oliver, also brought the lols.
It all seemed a bit disjointed to me. Simba was infectiously cute as a cub, but also a total asshole. A little jerk. Then, after the incident, he’s completely useless for the next third of the movie. Total stoner, “eating grubs” and lying about. I get that it’s a coming-of-age movie, and it sucks that his dad died, but this dude ain’t it. He basically makes one admirable decision the whole movie.
What about Nala? Why isn’t she leading the Pride Lands? Not only is she brave and enterprising, she bested Simba in close-quarters combat. Twice. I can’t believe that over the years we’ve gotten think pieces about how The Lion King is a fascist allegory but not one about Nala being the rightful ascendant of the throne. Where is the Twitter, Tumblr and Reddit outrage at Nala not having her own movie? Sometimes I don’t understand you, internet.
The animation, as has been expounded even by the film’s critics, was truly impressive. Mufasa was so regal. Despite being a brat, Simba was a cuddly little fellow. Disney could really monopolize the internet cat video genre if it devoted its resources, because each scene with young Simba and Nala may as well be uploaded to r/aww. I thought Scar was also done a great service by his realistic reimagining. A very ominous-looking chap indeed.
Which brings me to one of my main takeaways: If I was a child, this movie would terrify me.
I audibly yelped twice watching this movie, once when Simba surprise attacks a butterfly (really), and again when Nala interrupts In the Jungle and assails Fatty and Pumbaa. I remember thinking, when Mufasa was being beaten around by buffalo and Scar was being torn to shreds by a pack of hyenas, that this movie would traumatise a child for life. Or at least a week or two.
I’m also appalled to find out that Hakuna Matata is actually about selfishly neglecting your responsibilities. In 2011 I started university and convinced myself in the first few weeks that I couldn’t cope with the workload. One of my friends told me it was going to be OK and sent me that song. I quickly learned how little work was required to get a journalism degree. Hakuna Matata! I’ve lived my life by that song. Imagine what I could have been without that song. Maybe I would have been a doctor or an engineer. Instead I’m here, writing this.
But that’s neither here nor there. The Lion King was cool. I enjoyed it more than the live-action Beauty and the Beast, the original version of which I have also not seen. Mulan, next on Disney’s live-action rerelease list, doesn’t look like it’ll be any good — but what do I know? I haven’t seen the original.
I’m now going to talk about what makes an animated movie great, which is incredibly rich coming from a guy who has just professed to having seen none of the movies that are usually categorized as “classics.” But the new Lion King lacked the spirit that separates good animated movies from great ones. The cups of films like Ratatouille, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Inside Out runneth over with charm. The Lion King’s cup, though far from empty, is at no risk of locomotion.
So if you’ve seen the new Lion King and are worried you didn’t find it as special because you’re now an embattled cynic who’s lost the ability to taste joy, worry not. It’s not you, it’s Simba.