Buena Vista Pictures via Everett Collection
When The Lion King arrived in theaters 20 years ago, it helped cement Disney’s reputation as the premiere studio for animated films, entertained movie-goers both young and old with its catchy songs and brightly-colored characters, and taught a generation of children many valuable life lessons. We learned not to take life too seriously, that grubs taste like chicken, to avoid anywhere the light doesn’t reach, and that hyenas are not the brightest of creatures. But most importantly, The Lion King taught us all a great deal about death, and the emotional baggage that comes with it.
For most kids who grew up in the ‘90s, Mufasa’s death was the first traumatizing cinematic event we experienced. (And if you were fortunate, it was also the first time that you encountered death in any form.) No matter how many times we watched the mighty king fall to his demise in a stampede of wildebeests, it never got easier. There are even some of us who still get teary-eyed watching Simba crying over the lifeless body of his father, barely able to understand why he wasn’t going to wake up.
In most of the cartoons and movies that we had seen until that point, the person hanging off the side of the cliff would be rescued in the nick of time. Mufasa’s death is one of the first times that we were forced to deal with the idea that the hero doesn’t always triumph. Mufasa is established as a good king, a noble character who cares for his family and his people, someone we look up to and admire. Watching him die showed us that terrible things can often happen to noble people, and that being good isn’t always enough to guarantee us a happy ending. His death is unfair – both because of his role as the hero and the fact that he’s leaving his son alone – as death usually is, and watching Simba plead with his father to wake up is the first time that most of us had to wrestle with that notion.
But The Lion King didn’t just introduce us to the notion of death; it also helped us reconcile the difficult, complicated emotions that come with the grieving process. Like Simba, we learned that death can bring up a host of complicated emotions, and that losing a loved one doesn’t just make you sad. You’ll feel angry, frustrated, guilty, burdened, but that it’s ultimately okay to feel those things. In fact, it’s important to feel those things. We watched Simba wrestle with his guilt over Mufasa’a death, and learn that it wasn’t his fault. We learned that losing a loved one can have a life-long impact, and can be difficult to reconcile, even years later.
These are all emotions and issues that adults face, and often struggle with, and here they were, presented in a children’s film for kids to digest and learn from. The Lion King doesn’t sugar coat these issues or talk down to its audience, either. It simply presents us with a situation that all of us are going to have to endure at some point in our lives, and shows us the reality of what that experience is like. “It’s going to be difficult, it’s going to be complicated and messy, but you will make it through this,” is what The Lion King says about death, “You’re stronger than you realize, and you can handle this.” That’s an important message for both kids and adults, and The Lion King presents it in a simple, matter-of-fact way. Death is an important part of the circle of life, and in real life, we’re going to be expected to carry on, to keep living and learning and changing in the same way that Simba does after his father dies. The Lion King understands that, and taught us kids that we will have to learn from it and grow in order to be the people that we want to be. Life and death aren’t easy, but with a little strength, determination and some good friends to help us through, we can make it through anything that gets thrown our way.
It’s like Rafiki said: “The past can hurt. But from the way I see it, you can either run from it, or… learn from it.“ That’s the lesson the film wants to impart, and it’s one that has stayed with us for our whole lives. The Lion King may have been the first time that many of us were forced to confront the idea of death, but it was also the first time we were given the knowledge to face up to that idea, and overcome the hardships it brings with it. And ultimately, that’s worth more than all of the catchy songs and wise-cracking sidekicks in Disney’s arsenal.