Lessons From The Lion King

Image Credit: Raymond Santi, CC BY 4.0

After Disney nailed The Jungle Book three years ago (by giving it an actual plot) and made almost a billion USD, it was inevitable that The Lion King was next in big-budget almost-entirely-animal-based Disney capers (I’m guessing the Aristocats is next up). And thus, the Circle of Massive Corporate Cashgrabs Life was completed this summer. Whether you liked it or not, you can’t deny that it was a movie that was made and that at least one child somewhere saw.

So, let’s have a look at it from an ecologist’s perspective.

1. Realism

I heard a lot of people talking in the lead up to this film about how realistic the animals looked. Unfortunately, my Twitter is filled with biologists, who uttered a resounding ‘NUP’. My not-so-hot take is that despite the criticism levelled at the filmmakers for the emotionless expressions of some of the animals, their gestures and behaviour was too anthropomorphic to give much of a sense of realism, leaving both crowds discontented (though I suspect one is significantly smaller). I don’t really think this matters. Kids know they’re not watching a documentary.

2. That Social Hierarchy

One of the jokes about that fantastic opening to the original Lion King has always been that those lions are of course eating a LOT of those animals. But… not really. Most of the species you see in that opening stanza aren’t regular lion prey, and even then, lions do not eat as much as you might think. A lot of those animals are not necessarily going to worry about being eaten by the one lion pride in what looks like an enormous region. Anyway, again, I doubt this matters. My kid didn’t need reminding that lions actually ate zebras, antelopes and co.. I doubt others do.

Lions’ selected prey has declined in size over the last century as humans have substantially reduced numbers of large herbivores though, putting Pumba firmly on the menu in some regions. Which brings me to my next point.

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The reduction of large herbivores caused by human activity has meant that some lions are now going after smaller prey, including warthogs (Image Credit: Susan Jane Golding, CC BY 2.0)

3. The Absence of Humans

I was genuinely curious about this in the lead-up to the film. Whilst the Jungle Book has always had that classic anthropogenic message (“hey aren’t humans a bit shit”) to it, the Lion King has always remained human-free. But you don’t remake a story if you’re not going to try and add something to it, and I thought some sort of land-use or climate change story might be woven in there. I was wrong of course. No humans present. Whilst I understand the reason for this, I can’t help but feel it perpetuates the message that Planet Earth gives us more than enough of – that nature and humanity exist separately.

4. ONE BIG F***ING ISSUE THOUGH

There was only one point in the movie at which I became visibly frustrated. Spoilers ahead if you’ve never seen any iteration of The Lion King. There’s a suggestion at some point in the film that the reason the hyenas homeland is so desolate is that they have no restraint and overfeed, whilst Mufasa is more of a sustainable harvest type of guy. From this it follows naturally that when Scar claims Pride Rock and brings the hyenas with him, it turns into a wasteland devoid of life and greenery.

Except NO. NO THAT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE. Putting aside the traditional role of a hyena as a scavenger, let’s say that the hyenas are in fact hunting and killing way too many herbivores. There should be an explosion of plant life in the region. Biodiversity of smaller animals and birds should have increased significantly. In the film, the water has somehow dried up. WHAT!? Are you, Mr Favreau, suggesting that not only do the hyenas consume more plant life and more water than all the herbivores they have driven off combined?

Look obviously trophic cascades are more complicated than I’m making out. And yes, this is a kid’s film about talking animals. But that scene was TOO FAR, Disney. Too far.

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