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Nala Should Have Been King: The Lion King’s Missed Opportunity

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Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not going to argue that 2019’s The Lion King was a cash grab. For one thing, Disney’s been making remakes of its older works for years. Look no further than 101 Dalmatians, which was released as an animated film in 1961 and as a live-action one in 1996. And second, remakes often offer a chance to improve on the original, removing problematic aspects and adding in a greater context where it was missing in the original. For example, see Disney’s attempts to give Jasmine more agency in 2019’s Aladdin.

Ultimately, these arguments may not even matter because of the massive success of both the above films shows that both adults and children enjoyed them quite a bit. The new Lion King was also enormously successful, and I found it a charming film overall (as did my seventy-five-year-old grandmother, whom I watched the film with) – with one glaring exception: the fate of Nala.

Nala and the lionesses get short shrift in the original animated film and the remake, even though they are often more proactive and judicious than Mufasa, Scar, or Simba. At the beginning of the film, when Mufasa and Simba are frolicking, Zazu comes and announces that hyenas have entered the Pride Lands. When Mufasa asks where Sarabi is, he says, “She’s leading the charge“, implying that she was awake and alert to the danger far before Mufasa.

Much later, as Simba is on his way back to the Pride Lands, it is Sarabi who warns Scar that he is overhunting and that they will starve if they don’t leave. Predictably, the warning is ignored. However, more than Sarabi and the other lionesses, it is Nala who receives the worst treatment at the end of the film despite her many achievements.

Simba’s entire arc in The Lion King is about forging his own destiny instead of living the one others try to foist on him. When Zazu tells him he will marry Nala in accordance with tradition, Simba says, “I’m not telling anyone tell me where to go, what to do, or even whom to marry.” Simba is a rebel and prefers to do follow his own instincts, even if this has potentially dangerous consequences – like visiting the elephant graveyard. Zazu correctly tells him that “With an attitude like that, I’m afraid you’ll make a very poor king.” But perhaps, Simba is not really fit to be a king, despite his royal bloodline. That’s where Nala comes in. After she and Simba give Zazu the slip and are on their way to the elephant graveyard, Simba says, “I know what you’re thinking: the future king is a genius,” Nala replies, “You can’t be serious. You’d never have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for your queen.” She has no idea how prophetic that statement will turn out to be.

At key moments in the film, it is Nala, and not Simba, who proves to be the wiser lion. At the elephant graveyard, she senses danger even before the hyenas appear and tells Simba to go back. Simba mocks her, saying “Danger? Ha! I laugh in the face of danger!” At this moment, the hyenas show up, and Simba and Nala are only saved by Zazu and Mufasa’s intervention.

Years later, Nala tries to convince Sarabi and the other lionesses that they should leave the Pride Lands. “We must leave before it’s too late!” she insists. However, Sarabi – strong-willed as she is – is unable to abandon tradition. She says she cannot leave Scar, telling Nala, “He’s our king,” and that Pride Lands and its people are her home. “This isn’t the home I remember,” Nala says quietly. Sarabi tells her that their time will come and to be patient, but Nala decides to leave by herself – at great risk to her own life – to find help. In so doing, Nala shows her independent spirit and her refusal to show the traditional subjugation and submissiveness expected of the female sex.

Meanwhile, Simba goes on his own journey of self-discovery, meeting Timon and Pumbaa and adopting their philosophy of hakuna matata. This philosophy has variously been described as nihilistic and irresponsible but is probably closest to the philosophy of libertarianism. Libertarianism is traditionally a branch of political philosophy that advocates laissez-faire policies and advocates minimal intervention in people’s lives. However, a more expansive explanation would be that libertarianism advocates that people should be left free to lead their lives as they prefer, so long as they are prepared to take the responsibility and face the consequences. This philosophy is more suited to Simba’s personality. It allows him to live in peace and harmony with Timon, Pumbaa, and other animals that would normally have been his prey.

When Nala meets Simba, she tries to convince him to go back with her, saying, “You have to take responsibility . . . You have to come home.” However, Simba replies that he is home and begs Nala to stay. Nala, ever aware of her responsibilities back home, refuses and leaves. Simba is devastated and unsure of what to do until Rafiki appears and gives him some guidance. Rafiki and the ghost of Mufasa both show Simba that he has been living up to only one half of the philosophy of libertarianism: he has been living his life how he pleases but without concern for the consequences. Mufasa puts it plainly, “You have to rejoin the circle of life.” This gets through to Simba, and he decides to return to the Pride Lands and end Scar’s reign of terror.

However, this is where the film falters. It pushes the original 1994 film’s core concept that Simba needed to be king to assume his rightful place in the circle of life. However, as the above shows, Simba is not really cut out to be king. He is impulsive and instinctive, and he doesn’t like to be told how to live his life.

At the end of the film, Simba does return to the Pride Lands and defeat Scar, but after this, the film does not make enough effort to show that these vital aspects of his personality have changed in any way. Instead, the film jumps forward in time to the birth of Simba and Nala’s cub, the future king. And thus, the film argues, the circle of life continues. This is unfair to Nala, the film’s most consistent character. It is she who warns Simba not to venture too far into the elephant graveyard, it is she who tells the other lionesses that they must leave the Pride Lands, and it is she who sets out to find help after they refuse.

During the climax, it is she who leads the lionesses in a fight against the hyenas so that Simba can focus on defeating Scar. Clearly, without her, many of the film’s events may not have played out the way they did. But her reward for her bravery and initiative is to end up being relegated to the role of wife and mother, just like Sarabi was.

The 2019 film could have rectified this injustice by having Simba abdicate in favour of Nala, or at least having him crown Nala king while he served as her advisor. This change may seem too radical for 1994, but it is in keeping with our times, when more and more women are breaking the shackles of patriarchy and entering arenas they’ve been kept out of for aeons.

Allowing Nala to become king would have sent young girls all over the world a powerful message about women’s ability to defy gender norms and rise to the top. Instead, by keeping the conservative ending of the original film, 2019’s The Lion King tells young girls that no matter how hard they work and how much more qualified they are, they will always play subordinate roles to men.

Image source: The Lion Kind (2019) Trailer.

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