The Shakespeare Connection: Hamlet and The Lion King
To Be Or Not To Be...Disney
The Lion King was a huge commercial success for Disney, due in part to its stunning animation and popular songs by Elton John and Tim Rice. Naturally, preteen girls flocked to the theatre to hear the '90s heartthrob Jonathan Taylor Thomas voice the young Simba. Yet, most people I have talked to have no idea that the movie is based loosely on Shakespeare's Hamlet. True, the story borrows only the main gist of the play--the evil uncle kills his brother and usurps his throne, leaving the young prince a confused mess. Of course, The Lion King relies less on faithfully following Shakespeare's play than it does "Disneyfying" it with catchy songs, comedic sidekicks, and a happy ending.
As with a lot of Disney films, The Lion King works on different levels so that both children and their parents can enjoy the story for different reasons. This rule is part of what makes Disney so successful. The kids will laugh at Timon and Pumbaa, the meerkat and warthog duo that breaks up the tension of the final battle when they "dress in drag and do the hula." Rafiki the baboon takes out several hyenas with some kung-fu moves. Pumbaa has a serious gas problem. Besides the potty humor, children witness the hero rediscover his identity and restore order and happiness to his kingdom.
Adults catch the film's inside jokes and movie references. Zazu sings the Disney World song "It's a Small World," and Scar immediately tells him to stop. Anyone who has been on that ride will get a chuckle. Pumbaa simultaneously quotes Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) and Virgil Tibbs (In the Heat of the Night): "Are you talkin' to me? They call me Mr. Pig!"
Some of the jokes even involve Shakespeare. Scar sings a song while holding up an animal skull, evoking Hamlet's "Alas, poor Yorick!" In a song bewailing Pumbaa's flatulence, Timon cries, "What's in a name?" Of course, The Lion King would not be a Disney film without a happy ending, and it is significant that Simba does not kill his uncle at the climax. Mufasa's ghost does not tell Simba to avenge his death, but to remember who he truly is. Scar is betrayed by his own hyenas.
Adults may be able to make the connections between The Lion King and Hamlet, although it would really be a stretch to call the film an adaptation of the play. Besides being loosely inspired by Hamlet, the film shares another connection with Shakespeare. Disney borrows ideas from many different sources and has great commercial success. Shakespeare did the same thing in his day, so Disney has a great model to follow.