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.