The Environment, Movies, Pop Culture

I watched the new “The Lion King” and couldn’t stop thinking about climate change

In 2019, The Lion King’s biggest antagonist is humanity.

The Lion King is one of Disney’s most popular animated classics. The film is two-and-a-half decades old but still crops up everywhere – for example, airplane passengers singing iconic songs. This year, the film got a CGI live-action reboot.

Since the film is a favorite of mine, I jumped at the chance to see the reboot. It was an emotional journey. I expected a wave of nostalgia that hit me as soon as Circle of Life started playing, but I didn’t expect to come out of the cinema two hours later devastated because of environmental destruction.

This new film adaptation is photo-realistic and takes the viewer through a visual journey of the natural world that is hard to watch in a time when we are facing an unprecedented crisis in the form of widespread pollution and a rapidly warming planet.

To prepare for the film, director Jon Favreau and the production team went on tours of Kenya and spent a great amount of time discussing the natural setting. The Lion King’s creatives wanted the film to seem like a carefully shot nature documentary and were inspired by the works of David Attenborough.

The result is a film that is almost painful to watch. Looking at the realistic animals and beautiful scenery, I found myself thinking of the devastation of forests, rising sea levels, and alarming extinction rates.

I was also struck by how both the original film and (more explicitly) the remake (which has slight dialogue and scene alterations) expose a message of environmental protection.

There is an iconic scene in the film when Mufasa and Simba sit atop Pride Rock and survey their kingdom. In the 1994 animated version, Mufasa agrees that “everything the light touches” will belong to his son when his own time as king is over.

However, in the CGI adaptation, Mufasa rebukes Simba’s ideas of ownership and says that a king doesn’t own nature but only gets to “protect it” for a little while. This bears a slight resemblance to the paradigm shift social activists like Naomi Klein say we need to tackle the climate crisis – stop thinking that humanity owns the Earth and respect it as something that sustains us.

The film’s preoccupation with the ‘circle of life’ has always urged sustainability. The Lion King shows us that all living things depend on each other for sustenance. Mufasa tells his son that lions “turn into grass” when they die and are eaten by the herbivores they hunt and thus life is a circle and not a hierarchy.

In 2019 – when the environmental costs of capitalist greed are evident – the film spends more time speaking of sustainability and mutual dependence than it did in 1994. There is an interesting scene that only exists in the newer film where Timon and Pumba share their life philosophy with Simba. They tell him that life is not a circle but a line. No-one is affected by anyone else’s actions and every individual should only live for themselves. This is their Hakuna Matata (“our problem-free, philoosophyyy”).

Simba initially accepts this and uses it to argue that he has no responsibility to help save his family from Scar’s tyranny. The film charts his growth as he comes to believe in communal responsibility and makes the very difficult and life-altering decision to return to Pride Rock.

It is scary but he does it anyway.

Simba learns that protecting his home is important and he can’t turn away from that task just because it is difficult. He also learns that self-gratification can only serve as a distraction for so long. Both are important lessons for us when dealing with climate change.

The newer film also spends a considerable time exploring Pride Rock under Scar’s kingship. The visuals are frightening. Everything is dark and dead. Scar has been “over-hunting” (according to Simba’s mother) and now many prey colonies have fled, and vegetation is scarce.

It is hard not to see this a metaphoric representation of humanity’s exploitation of the Earth – via fossil fuel consumption – to feed an unsustainable lifestyle. Scar is a stark reminder of what the Earth will become if we continue to act like we own it. In 2019, The Lion King’s biggest antagonist is humanity.

It probably isn’t a coincidence that many of the changes in The Lion King reflect the climate crisis. The dedicated team of creatives behind the film probably wanted to take this opportunity to comment on the devastating losses that humanity may suffer as a result of our negligence. They offer us hope too. When Simba, Nala, and their friends defeat Scar and life-giving rain pours from the heavens onto the devastated Pride Lands, I found myself smiling. The last scene is a shot of lush green fields and thriving communities of animals.

The newer adaptation of this old Disney classic is gorgeous, but of course, we shouldn’t need a fictional film about a lion monarchy and talking animals to take action in a crisis that can kill millions of people, particularly those in vulnerable communities. The Lion King is a good reminder to stop looking away, no matter how scary the reality is, and face climate change head-on.

If you’re looking to get involved in the climate justice movement, 350.org, Extinction Rebellion, and Climate Justice Alliance provide great resources. Additionally, I also suggest you follow @NaomiKlein on Twitter.