Disney had the world stage to make a great film about the environment. Instead it made The Lion King

Disney’s new The Lion King remake opens with the sounds of birds chirping and the sight of a golden sun rising into a majestic skyline. Nants, ingonyama! What a scene this is! There are giraffes, zebras, elephants, the whole damn animal kingdom jiggling along to the rhythms of a bright and busy natural world, full of rich colours and intense feelings, where there is more to see than can ever be seen and more to do than can ever be done.

On an ancient rock foundation above an African savannah, a lion cub is hoisted into the air by a baboon in a triumphant public performance. A messiah has arrived, in the form of a felidae. Nants, ingonyama! Bagithi baba! What a moment! And what a wonderful place – shining, shimmering, splendid.

Disney bangs the drums of cultural hegemony, telling us that everything bad can be magically solved by a single hero.

Hey, wait, was that another movie? And haven’t we experienced this glistening tableau, with all that “circle of life” jazz before? No matter. What wonderful shades of green! What life-like fur! What beautiful beams of light bouncing off the rocks! Isn’t the environment brilliant? Isn’t our ecosystem amazing? ISN’T NATURE GREAT?

Because this film, directed by Jon Favreau in corporate shilling mode, is nothing if not a production about nature. The natural environment is everything in this universe. The core of it, the raison d’être, the lifeblood, the essence, the backbone, invigorating every frame. The Lion King may be a virtual facsimile of the original film, painted by algorithm in dimly lit computer hives by geeks who probably don’t go out very often, but yep: this is absolutely a work of art about nature.

And how, by the way, is ol’ mate Mother Nature doing in real life at the moment? How’s the ol’ girl faring? Here’s a spot check:

1) Over half the world’s animals are dead. As The Guardian puts it: “Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970.” If the original Lion King had been released in the ’60s, and today’s remake accurately reflected these diminished numbers, its cast would be cut by more than half.

2) Insects are going down the gurgler. According to the first global scientific review, “the world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction,” with more than 40% of insect species declining and a third endangered.

3) We are losing at least 150 species every single day. According to scientists contributing to the UN Environment Programme, between 150 to 200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal are becoming extinct every 24 hours. That’s a greater rate than anything the world has experienced since the dinosaurs vanished 65 million years ago.

Why am I mentioning all this, you might ask? Let me answer that question by posing another. Why would Disney, at such a crucial time in human history, with our planet entering the early stages of a sixth mass extinction, and with millions of people guaranteed to flock to see their next remake no matter how bad it is, make a film about nature and not include in it a positive, empowering, perhaps even (god forbid) meaningful message about environmentalism?

I’m not saying that “BEWARE CLIMATE CHANGE” should be stamped across every frame, flashing in a bright red font. But surely our children – who, in the words of Pope Francis, “stand to inherit a greatly spoiled world” – deserve more than a couple of words of Swahili extolling the virtues of a “problem-free philosophy” which “means no worries, for the rest of your days.” The same philosophy, in other words, of our Prime Minister Scott Morrison: everything’s fabulous folks, nothing to see here, la di da, how about another coal mine?

Until this week, Avatar was the highest grossing movie in history, spectacularly disproving the idea that a strong ecological message = box office cyanide.

I’m not saying that these remade Lion King characters should dine on soy protein burgers and hold neighbourhood recycling meetings. But there were many opportunities to make a pro-conservation and pro-ecological message, perfectly relevant in the context of the story. And on every occasion the filmmakers appear to have made a conscious decision to steer clear of anything vaguely resembling a positive, meaningful message, perhaps in fear of making a “political” statement (like Avatar, which until this week was the highest grossing movie in history, spectacularly disproving the idea that a strong ecological message = box office cyanide).

Take the scene, for instance, in which King Mufasa (voice of James Earl Jones) explains to young Simba (JD McCrary) that “everything you see together exists in a delicate balance.” A hopeful start. True enough. But then the supposedly wise king waffles on about how, when something dies, their bodies dissipate into the soil, which is then ingested by another animal, and that animal is ingested by another animal, and thus this constitutes the “circle of life.” That all-meaningful circle, says Mufasa, is about eatin’ stuff and carking it. Maybe he had a better point to make but was too hungry to think clearly.

After having seized power, the villain Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), prioritises short-term pleasures and contemporary gains over long-term sustainability – a perfect opportunity to make a point about how that kind of thinking, in real-life, has so terribly affected the natural world.

But no. Instead, the Big Mouse uses this tangent to bang the drums of cultural hegemony, telling us that everything bad can be magically solved by a single hero rather than a collective of people working together. Here a coterie have complete power over a diverse community and individuals matter not one bit, unless you are a king. So the destiny of everybody in this world, other than Simba, is to die and get eaten. How inspiring. Thank you Disney. That message might have resonated in the original production, a different film for a different time. But these days it stinks.

5 responses to “Disney had the world stage to make a great film about the environment. Instead it made The Lion King

  1. Speaking from the perspective of more than 50 years of committing environmental journalism, I feel compelled to remind the reviewer that those scary estimates of species loss have also been produced “by algorithm in dimly lit computer hives by geeks who probably don’t go out very often,” and though one might not know it from sensational headlines about studies the authors have seldom read in full, are only one extreme end of the range of projected probabilities. Verities include that global warming is disturbing every habitat, that every ocean is overfished, and that large charismatic megafauna are in dire distress in Africa and Asia. But verities also include that projections of extinction rates based on estimates of unknown numbers of species never catalogued are inherently shaky, especially when compared to historical extinction rates which can only be guesstimated from the very sparse fossil record of small life forms. Further, when “non-native” species are included in the counts, net biodiversity is actually up on every continent. While some insect orders are declining, mosquitoes and ticks are more abundant than ever before on record. About a third of bird species are in decline, but about a third are up, exactly as random chance would predict. Large oceanic fish are down, but jellies are way up, which bodes well for the recovery of sea turtles, who eat jellies. And large charismatic wild megafauna populations are sharply up over the last century across North America and Europe. All is changing, and changing rapidly, but all is far from lost.

  2. This review is possibly the biggest load of pretentious hyena crap that I’ve read so far this year. Luke never fails to disappoint.

  3. Ha! So, they need to make statement about the environment? Your job is to review the film not give amateur directorial advice.. this is a terrible write up…

  4. There’s always one. Forever dissatisfied, but not one to take action on their own rhetoric. It’s so easy to sit and criticise and often those who cannot, will not but will however dictate to others of how and what. Relent the power from yourself to be the change, but charge others with that responsibility. Articles like this are by the weak, inadequate and ultimately ineffective. Ultimately, its pretty pathetic. With your pen you pose as the ever willing and a crusader for the righteous but ultimately you stand for noone and nothing. Confused and compromised. How about you let people enjoy things you crackpot pseudo intelllectual.

  5. Why the insults? You are questioning the film we didn’t make rather than the one we did. Based on the box office, it appears much of the public wanted to see this film. It was meant to primarily entertain including a friendly post discussion to it’s artistic merits good or bad. It is what we like to do, see the latest work and have a healthy discussion or debate as part of the entertainment process. The beneficiaries are the many bars, restaurants, water coolers and coffee shops hosting this type of discourse. Feels like a win-win. Speaking of winning, it appears that Disney also contributes to conservation. “Disney is committed to ensuring a world where wildlife thrives and nature is treasured and protected by: Saving wildlife. … Since 1995, the Disney Conservation Fund has directed more than $75 million to save wildlife and protect the planet and inspired millions of people to take action for nature in their communities.” Can you make this same claim?

    As to “painted by algorithm in dimly lit computer hives by geeks who probably don’t go out very often, but yep: this is absolutely a work of art about nature.” I’m not even sure what this was supposed to mean besides insulting the 1,000 plus artists for the pure fun of your desire to cobble together a too cute by half misconception of the filmmaking process. While there is a message albeit designed primarily to entertain it does concern preserving the natural order of things. Whether we like it or not, nature does survive by this “vicious” cycle. When we try to interfere devastating results occur and species die off by the thousands. History has taught us that a single entity can inspire thousands to destroy everything including the climate of the world, and also a single entity can inspire thousands to stop it. Something this film, for all it’s faults also highlights. You just didn’t look far enough besides cherry picking a few key points to show off your insulting wordsmith cleverness (debatable) rather than insightful criticism of the film we actually made.

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