Lion King Film: Story Structure
The Lion King is a family animation, released by Disney on 15 June 1994. The plot is a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and was written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton. Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, The Lion King is about the lion cub, Prince Simba, whose father, Mufasa, was murder by his uncle, Scar. Simba believes he is responsible for Mufasa’s death and fleas. As an adult, he finally has to take responsibility by going back and taking his place as king.
The opening set-up establishes the main theme, The Circle of Life. It depicts life’s continuation through the stability of a strong leader. For the circle to continue, the protagonist, Simba, must learn how to be king. Counteracting the film’s stability is the antagonist, Scar. He warns Mufasa that, ‘YOU shouldn’t turn your back on me,’ indicating he will upset the film’s balance. Characterization is expressed through ‘how [characters] look [at] the world’ (Field 1984:55). Scar thinks ‘Life’s not fair’ because he cannot be king. His failure to attend Simba’s presentation shows his jealousy.
Character is explored further with Simba and Mufasa’s mentor/student relationship. Mufasa teaches Simba what he needs to learn during the film: ‘Everything exists together, in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance’.
When Simba spots a ‘shadowy place’ Mufasa tells him not to go there, but Scar ‘accidentally’ reveals that it is an elephant graveyard. Scar plays innocent: ‘promise me you’ll never visit that awful place’, knowing the adventurous cub will disobey him.
According to Syd Field ‘Action is character’ (p55), and Simba’s actions initiate the inciting incident. He is a daredevil, over-confident in his abilities: ‘Danger? I walk on the wild side. I laugh in the face of danger.’ Therefore he enjoys visiting forbidden places.
The inciting incident of a film usually occurs within the first ten minutes, however, it takes eighteen in The Lion King. Act one is unconventionally long, probably because it is a musical. Songs take up screen time, therefore delaying events.
On Scar’s orders, hyenas attack Simba and Nala at the graveyard. Simba makes a feeble roar to try and scare them off, but it is Mufasa’s mighty roar that saves them. Such symbolism is used to greater effect when Simba’s small paw fits inside Mufasa’s massive print. It symbolizes Simba’s need to mature before becoming a worthy king. The inciting incident ‘creates meaningful change in’ Simba’s ‘life situation’ (McKee 1998:33); the bond with his father becomes stronger and he learns a valuable lesson. Scar’s maliciousness is also revealed, suggesting something more sinister is about to happen.
Though Simba is the protagonist, the audience sometimes sees the film from Scar’s point of view. When he sings ‘Be Prepared’, he reveals his intention to ‘kill [Mufasa]. And Simba too.’ Simba, however, still believes life will continue as always, because he is unaware that he has an antagonist.
At the end of act one, point of no return, Scar tricks Simba and Mufasa into a stampede through intellect. In his first appearance Scar says: ‘Well, as far as brains go, I got the lion’s share. But, when it comes to brute strength…I’m afraid I’m at the shallow end of the gene pool.’ Scar is a trickster, as he could not hope to have killed Mufasa with physical prowess. As a cub, Simba is gullible and impressionable, so when Scar declares ‘the king is dead. And if it weren’t for you, he’d still be alive’, Simba is convinced of his guilt. This changes him from an active protagonist facing external conflict in act one, to a passive protagonist struggling with inner conflict in act two. As he is based on the inactive character, Hamlet, instead of rising to the challenge, he runs away. Timon and Pumbaa rescue him and things start to go well. They temporarily relieve Simba’s depression by teaching him ‘Hakuna Matata’, which means no worries.
The Mid-Point-Reversal occurs over a period of time, rather than events instantly deteriorating. Nala arrives in the jungle and Simba falls in love with her; it is then that things go wrong. She wants Simba to return and become king, because Scar ‘let the hyenas take over the Pride Lands’. Simba refuses to return and they have an argument about responsibility:
Simba: You know, you’re starting to sound like my father.
Nala: Good. At least one of us does.
This remark hurts Simba and he feels guiltier than ever. Simba is at his lowest, searching for a way out. Act three then begins, when the shaman, Rafiki, informs Simba that Mufasa is still alive. Simba sees his father’s reflection in a pond and Rafiki explains, ‘he lives in you’. At the beginning of the film Mufasa tells Simba that they are ‘all connected in The Great Circle of Life’; now that declaration is being fulfilled.
Mufasa appears to Simba in the stars and reminds him of his destiny; Simba learns what it means to be king and responds to his responsibility. He returns for the climax.
The confrontation with Scar is both physical and emotional. Scar tries to fool Simba again:
Scar: I’d hate to be responsible for the death of a family member. Wouldn’t you agree, Simba?
Simba: That’s not gonna work, Scar. I’ve put it behind me.
Simba is no longer a cub and refuses to be tricked, but eventually, Scar’s cunning causes Simba’s guilt to build up. As a result, Simba slips from Pride Rock. He clings to the edge, creating a parallel between his situation and Mufasa’s death. Everything is thus connected in a circular pattern. Simba makes no attempt to save himself; it appears as though he has give up again.
Taking pride in his achievement, Scar reveals ‘I killed Mufasa.’ Simba is enraged and driven to action; he lunges forward and pins Scar to the ground. Simba’s character has come full circle; he is the active protagonist he was in act one, but now he has accepted responsibility. He is worthy of his father and proves this by showing mercy:
Scar: You wouldn’t kill your old Uncle…?
Simba: No, Scar. I’m not like you.
Simba lets his uncle go, but Scar betrays him once again and attacks. Simba manages to throw him off of Pride Rock and Scar is killed by the hyenas.
The resolution is when Simba ascends to the throne and takes his rightful place as king; he has fulfilled his destiny. The Circle is complete.
Field, S. 1984, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, US, Bantam Dell
McKee, R. 1998, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, UK, Metheun Publishing Limited
Mechhi, I., Roberts, J., Woolverton, L., The Lion King, ed. Tiemann, B., ‘Microsoft Word 95 version of this script’ in The Lion King, <http://www.lionking.org/scripts/Script.html>