Canon Fodder: Watch the Throne (in 3D)
Since I am feeling less narcissistic than usual at this particular moment, I will not claim that the phrase “late pass me,” was invented with me in mind. I am, however, perpetually slow on the uptake. I was in college before it occurred to me that Mr. Rogers did all the voices for the Land of Make Believe puppets; I thought Bert and Ernie were best friends; and I suppose my young self simply interpreted my mild obsessions with Jodie from Today’s Special and Robin Givens circa Head of the Class not as prepubescent crushes that foreshadowed full-fledged homogayness, but simply odd curiosities. It makes sense, then, that I would not learn the proper protocol for graduate school functions until I had thoroughly embarrassed myself a time or several.
Consistently exhibiting acceptable behavior while amongst such learned company did not occur until after I had committed many a faux pas: mistaking a new professor for a graduate student; suggesting that dreadlocks were merely blackademic (my preferred portmanteau for black academics) performative accoutrements–and that perhaps relaxers were the more revolutionary follicle move in such circles; and finally, admitting that my favorite cinematic version of a Shakespearean tragedy featured talking animals–and a happy ending. I never learn. My previous confession of comparing Faulkner with The Real Housewives of New Jersey clearly proves this.
Honesty about such ostensibly rudimentary tastes does not serve one well while dousing alarmingly gross and fragrant cheese with equally horrible white wine while standing next to a Shakespeare scholar whose work one is not at all familiar with nor interested in becoming acquainted. Still, despite that mistake I still unequivocally express that my favorite version of Hamlet is Disney’s The Lion King. I’m ballsy like that.
I vaguely recall the pre-psychotic Mel Gibson (or was it the Kenneth Branaugh?) film version of the play while in high school inducing the greatest nap I ever took in school. Hardly moving. Yet the pimply pubescent me cried real tears when Mufasa–a.k.a. King Hamlet–was killed by his brother, Scar, known as Claudius in the Shakespeare version, as I sat next to my much more age appropriate younger sister in an Indiana movie theater. My emotional attachment to Disney’s greatest film has lingered for more than a decade. And so, I burst into several paroxysms of joy when I saw the advertisement for The Lion King 3D, which returned to theaters on September 16–for two weeks only, of course. I imagine after this brief theatrical run Rafiki ‘n’em will be returned to the Disney vault until next century, in typical Disney fashion.
The Lion King is everything Disney, Shakespeare, and 1990s America. It is Mickey Mouse meets literature meets the Clinton era–or something. And it is awesome. The Shakespearean inspiration for the greatest film ever to come out of Disney studios is beyond evident. Hamlet: King Hamlet is killed by his jealous brother, Claudius, who then assumes the throne and marries the queen. Meanwhile, young Prince Hamlet freaks the eff out, spurns his would-be lover, Ophelia, and is reluctant to enact revenge in the name of his father even though ghost dad (shout out to Bill Cosby) totally told him who the murderer was. Instead, he stages a play that re-enacts how everything really went down; Claudius, in turn, sends Prince Hamlet to his death. Hamlet, however, survives and returns. There are swords, a bunch of fighting, some poison, and most everyone dies. The Lion King: King Mufasa is killed by his jealous brother, Scar, who then assumes the throne while shacking up with the queen. Meanwhile, young Prince Simba who heretofore could not wait to be king, is thoroughly traumatized by his father’s death. Scar convinces young Simba to run away, but sends his homies the hyenas to kill him. Simba, however, survives and is convinced to return by Nala, a much less depressing and suicidal version of Hamlet’s Ophelia. Although there is a bunch of fighting, there are no swords (such weapons are not conducive to paws) and no poison; there’s no stage play, but Scar’s death is a nearly identical re-enactment of the way he killed Mufasa. And just about everyone lives. In other words, The Lion King might as well be called Disney’s Hamlet in Africa.
As reliant upon Shakespeare as The Lion King is, the tenor of the film seems to owe so much to the climate of the late 1980s and early 1990s America. The voices who bring life to the characters make the film incredibly diverse (in terms of race, gender, and sexuality), reminding us of the kind of feel good multicultural moment that had come under siege by the film’s release. For instance, King Mufasa and Queen Sarabi are voiced by James Earl Jones (who now welcomes you to Verizon) and Madge Sinclair (r.i.p.). Of course, Jones and Sinclair first played African royalty as Eddie Murphy’s parents in Coming to America (1988). (It should be noted that Coming to America is the only film above The Lion King on my list of favorite movies.) The emergence of rap groups such as X-Clan helped renew black interest in Africa (Egypt in particular) by the early 1990s. Afrocentricity, especially the problematic discourse of the progenitors of American blacks having been kings and queens in Africa before they were stolen, brought to the New World, and enslaved, quickly garnered value among blacks to the extent that Africa medallions had made their way to Fort Wayne, Indiana, for me to cop and rock with my one Cross Colours hooded t-shirt. Indeed, Murphy uses this cultural capital in the premise of his film. Six years later, Disney gives a nice shout out to black cinema by employing Prince Akeem’s parents in the same role, while recognizing the cache African royalty discourse had among many movie-going black folks who were also taking their young children to witness this latest golden age for Disney. (A much slicker, more prudent move than the debacle that was The Princess and the Frog, whose working title must have been, “We’re sick of black people whining about there being no black Disney Princess. Take this, Negroes.”)
Second, Hamlet’s Rosencratz and Guildenstern get reworked in The Lion King as same-sex couple, Timon and Pumba. When the young Simba escapes the hyenas, he lands in a distant (read: marginalized) suburb of Pride Rock, and is rescued by the odd couple, a warthog and meerkat. Their alternative lifestyle is harmoniously expressed in the catchy tune, “Hakuna Matata,” a pithy way of describing that worry free lifestyle we associate with gay boys. Although one might resist the idea of projecting sexuality onto animated characters–after all, I still find the homosexuality inferred from the relationship between Bert and Ernie a bit hard to believe–Disney uses voice, Nathan Lane as Timon, to confirm our suspicions. What’s more, Timon serves as a decoy during Simba’s sneak attack on Scar by dressing in drag and singing. This evidence is comparatively more subtle than an earlier scene when Timon runs into Pumba’s backside while being chased by a female lion, who we soon discover is Nala.
Black kings and queens, gay parents. At first glance, The Lion King induces a similar kind of euphoric inclusiveness I recall hovering over those MTV Bill Clinton interviews during his first campaign. Clinton emerged as a hippie president who never served in a war and was seemingly cool with the blacks and the gays, and like Obama after him, rode their support to the White House. The Daily Show humorously likened the Obama biography to The Lion King, the POTUS having also lost his father at a young age and (thankfully) not raised by black people who would otherwise ruin his chance to be king. Yet Billy Clint seems Simba-esque, too. The white speaking voice of Simba coupled with the black singing voice of Simba reminds me of Clinton’s (strategic use of his) white southern drawl while playing saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show, a move that surely endeared him to some black voters.
Closer inspection exposes the Pride Rock ecosystem as the proverbial 1990s multicultural tossed salad where diversity can only work if each species knows and maintains its role in the Circle of Life and the lion remains the king of the jungle. So although the lion eats the leaping antelope, as young Simba notes, the antelope is cool with that because their role is just as important as the lion’s. In other words, the Circle of Life works as long as the antelope remains invested in maintaining the hierarchy of the jungle, which the lions ensure by acknowledging the significance of the antelope’s role. Of course, the lion gets his in the moment, while the antelope endures on the promise of some future pay off, since it has to presume that one of its descendants will later symbolically eat the lion who ate it. Once the lion becomes the grass and all.
The Circle of Life is disrupted and Pride Rock suffers when folks, namely the gays (Scar — sometimes it’s not gay or British, but British means gay), and the blacks and the Latinos (the hyenas, voiced by Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin), refuse to stay in their lane. The Scar regime turns Pride Rock into the ghetto that the elephant graveyard is. But as long as the characters with marked voices resist taking over and rather work as midwives to the restoration of the king, all is well. We’re cool with our leaders being springing from the loins of African kings, if I may again borrow from Faulkner, but it just can’t look like that. All the marked characters are welcome to stand beside the throne–but never sit in it.
And yes, I love this movie. Because it is the best example of Disney reflecting our fucked up late 20th century American ethos in a delightfully delectable manner. We remember the songs, then we remember the politics, if at all. I am more inclined to discuss how the Broadway production of the film compelled a monologue wherein I question why we make war when we can make stage costumes than I am about the magical Negroness of Rafiki (voiced by
Benson Robert Guillaume in the film). Because The Lion King is, above all, a miraculously good story. Because what I desire most is a good story. And this is why Hamlet is so awesome: because it can be remixed and sampled ad nauseum and still produce a fresh, moving text. Hamlet is literature’s “Funky Drummer” and The Lion King is “Let Me Ride.” The king has returned–in 3D. I’m ready to slip on my special glasses and watch him ascend to his rightful place.