The adventure-filled journey of Simba, a heroic young lion struggling to find his place in nature’s “circle of life” and follow in the regal paw prints of his father, the great King Mufasa, forms the basis of Walt Disney Pictures’ extraordinary animated feature, “The Lion King”. This film was one of many of my favourites growing up, and I found that it provokes an enormous range of emotions. Even now as an adult I have the same emotions whenever I watch it. It is interesting to look at how Disney producers have portrayed, and at the same time, humanised the animals in The Lion King, as well as what media strategies they have used to make us relate to the storyline. It wasn’t long ago that I saw a phrase suggesting that “we listen to animals when they behave like humans” and I found it to be relatively true especially in “The Lion King”.
Set against the breathtaking natural beauty, and diversity of the African landscape, Disney portrayed the movies’ animals using classic storytelling elements, personable characters, memorable music, generous doses of humour and universal themes. Further, “The Lion Kings” narrative involves a quest of a young “boy” coming of age, as well as encountering friendship, love and suffering. This all acts as building blocks to generate sympathy and relation to the characters.
“As Margaret King explains in her analysis of the genre, Disney’s selective perception of animal life exploits humanities desire to find patterns in the natural world that are similar to it’s own. By subjectifying animals, the Disney format creates audience identification with animal “stars” and arouses empathy with and affinity for their situations.”
This attribution of human emotions, characteristics and intelligence to animals is known as anthropomorphism. It includes making images of animals with more human-like features such as rounded eyes, giving animals emotions that humans experience such as happiness, anger or sadness or depicting animals wearing clothes or engaging in human activities. The more “human” we perceive the animal to be, the easier it is for us to relate to it and develop empathy. Margaret King emphasises how Disney does this in her analysis further:
“Audiences are encouraged to relate to nature in human terms and to watch how animals “enjoy” family life, how youngsters grow up, learn their “trade”, and gain independence. In relating to animals thus, viewers are encouraged to judge them in terms of such human character attributes as beauty and ugliness, virtue and vice, suffering and reward”.
This is clearly perceived in “The Lion King” for those of us whom have seen the film, the tragic lose of Mufasa triggered sympathy/empathy, the harrowing moment Mufasa is pushed into the stampeding wildebeest by Scar his brother will forever haunt me. John Fraser, a conservation psychologist, suggests that “empathy is essential to promoting concern for animals and species, and if projecting our human perceptual world on those beings helps people on that learning path, it’s important”, so in other words Disney promoting empathy in people, especially children, can and could be a positive influence for the conservation of animals.
Disney is forever a reach into the lives of children and unsurpassed by any other media mix, thereby giving it an unparalleled opportunity to shape children’s and adults’ views of their world and animals. “The Lion King” is a well known film that wholeheartedly embraces anthropomorphism, and portrays the animals as humans to emphasis sympathy and empathy.