As the box office indicates, Jon Favreau’s 2019 remake of the original animated film, The Lion King from 1994, peaked the interest of all who found the original story compelling and ingrained in the cinematic imagination. Though it incorporates some new elements, such as extended development of the lioness Nala (Beyonce Knowles-Carter) as well as more time on Simba’s (Donald Glover) transition into maturity, it lacks originality in the story, but exceeds on the photorealistic computer-generated animation. The 1994 animated version is beloved for its uniqueness and beauty through its extensive symbolism and ability to capture the audience’s passion for life. In fact, both movies, but specifically this current version, touch on some profound truths of humanity and our place in the wider created world.
I often use film as a catechetical tool for understanding the deeper truths of faith and human existence. Favreau’s The Lion King offers me an opportunity to consider the Church’s principles of Catholic Social Teaching from a particularly entertaining and artistic platform—cinema! So, let’s dive in.
Life and Dignity of the Human Person
The first and most basic principle of social teaching is the foundation that every human being is unique and unrepeatable and therefore deserves life and dignity. People are more important than things. This is the very foundation of a moral vision for society. Everything depends on this. In the Pride lands of The Lion King all of creation has its rightful place and under the ruling of Mufasa (James Earl Jones) that dignity is upheld throughout the land. When the film opens, Rafiki (John Kani), the wise one of the land, holds up the newborn Simba for all the animals of the land to behold. All are gathered under the Pride Rock where Mufasa and his wife Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) show to all the animal kingdom their newborn heir. As Simba is lifted high after being dowsed and anointed (symbolic of his initiation and deeply sacramental in nature) all the creatures genuflect (a symbol of respect for the king), carnivores next to their prey, all in great respect of the balance of creation. The beauty of this scene shows the gift that is each life and respect that is due to that life—a reminder that all life is precious and to be valued.
© 2019 Walt Disney Studios. All Rights Reserved.
The Call to Community
We are all called to live in community, not separated from others in a individualistic existence, but socially connected with one another, as Saint Paul says in Ephesians, “We are members of one another” (4:25). Through Mufasa’s jealous younger brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who wants the throne, Simba leaves the Pride Lands while still a young cub after his uncle deceives him in entering the gorge prior to a wildebeest stampede that eventually kills Mufasa who saves Simba, but falls from the cliff after Scar pushes him to his death. Thinking it was his fault, Simba leaves the land and treks through the desert almost collapsing to death until he is discovered by the entertaining meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and his sidekick Pumbaa (Seth Rogan) the warthog. As much as Simba wants to be alone in his grief and sadness, the need for community to pull one out of selfishness into a future of hope is essential. Only in coming together do we see the need to seek together the common good and Simba eventually realizes, through Nala’s chance appearance, that family is where he really belongs—the root and foundation of his life and society as a whole.
Rights and Responsibilities
Human dignity and the coming together in community can only be achieved if the rights of all are protected and responsibilities are carried forth. Every human person has the fundamental right to life and all that leads to human decency. But, this also requires of us specific duties to one another and to society. When Simba refuses Nala’s request to return to the Pride Lands she firmly chastises him for neglecting the duties his father has entrusted to him and the responsibility for all living things while also bemoans the devastation that has permeated the land because of the ravaging hyenas with whom Scar entered into a pact. Rafiki finds Simba and tells him that Mufasa’s spirit lives within him and that he must come and take his rightful place as king, his heritage and dignity. Only Simba can restore the rights of all living creatures that Scar has usurped through his evil connection with the hyenas. Everyone has the right to life and dignity that must be protected by all authority.
© 2019 Walt Disney Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Preferential Option for the Poor
This principle of Catholic Social Teaching helps us to examine how are the most vulnerable of society being treated. The Church challenges all of humanity to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first, not last, as Jesus teaches. When Simba returns to the Pride Lands he sees a dark, decaying, and deteriorating land scorched of all its beauty by the hyenas’ uncontrolled access to all food sources. All the other animals were starved and so moved on in search for food. Scar’s grasping of power led to the vast population to hunger and so migrate for food and shelter. Through storytelling, a seemingly simple animated film can resonate so profoundly with our current global situation. Though Jesus says that the poor will always be with us, he does not mean that we ignore them, but that our human selfishness will continue to create situations of human suffering that can be alleviated only by our compassion and purposeful action.
Dignity and Rights of Workers
Any economy must first and foremost serve people, and not visa versa. Work is the very participation in the continuing of God’s creative work. Because of Scar’s power-hungry behavior the entire society, the entirety of creation suffers. All work together when rights are respected and productivity is naturally flowing through initiative and personal development. The animals of the Pride Lands lived that delicate balance under Mufasa’s reign, as shown by the elephants in the watering hole along with all the other creatures around them. The “circle of life” in all its beauty is so vividly presented in this film.
When Simba returns to the Pride Lands he must confront Scar who usurped the throne. When he arrives at Pride Rock, the lionesses, in their surprise that Simba is alive, support him with their passion and strength to fight off the hyenas who attempt to defend Scar. They come together as a family to pursue justice and peace. When Simba defies Scar the battle ensues with great vigor ending in Scar’s demise. Only by coming together in the face of evil can the human family achieve the good. It is in solidarity with one another that dignity is upheld and justice is achieved.
Care for God’s Creation
Of all the principles of social teaching this one presents itself most directly in The Lion King. It challenges us to remember that we are all stewards of creation and this calls us to care for the earth God gave us. This means to maintain that delicate balance of life we are called to temper our innate desire for selfish acquiring and live in a balance with all species, as God created it to be. Mufasa, as well as Simba, through their imperial status, uphold this balance of life, the “circle of life” that respects all of creation and the beauty that is before us. If we scar the earth we are destroying not only our living space but also God’s gift entrusted to us as his stewards. Only when there is that balance can there be harmony on earth and in all of creation.
Jon Favreau’s amazing remake of the original The Lion King incorporates virtual cinematography technology like he used in the The Jungle Book making the vibrant realism of the scenes literally pop off the silver screen. Virtual reality and artificial intelligence technology helped to make this most delightful film poignantly express a meaningful theology of creation and anthropology of responsibility for the beauty that is our world. If you have the chance to share this in catechesis, I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas for ways of incorporating our popular media culture into your faith formation practices, thus making our faith concretely practical in our everyday lives and experiences.