Saturday, July 20, 2019

Hakuna Potato

Warthog and suricate or meerkat from the photorealist Lion King that opened this week. Terrible as the cartoon was, this one has to be far worse. 
My kids were Disney-aged through the string of animated hits of what I guess were the Katzenberg years, Little Mermaid through Pocahontas, and I saw them all, some repeatedly, in addition to reading the book versions aloud, and mostly really hated them for various reasons, especially the disloyalty to the sources—they seemed to me to be working to destroy the sources, from Hans Christian Andersen to colonial history of Virginia, and replace them with perverted simulacra.

For instance in the case of Beauty and the Beast, Mme de Beaumont's Enlightenment fable of falling in love on grounds of moral affinity rather being distracted by the superficialities was transformed by changing the character of the Beast. In the original he is a Beast because of the completely arbitrary malice of a wicked fairy, but unfailingly kind, generous, and self-effacing, which is why the Beauty comes to love him and the enchantment is overcome. Disney makes him into a cruel person who is bestified by a very judgmental fairy, as deserved punishment, and he becomes handsome again because he's making an effort to be nicer. The moral of the story turns out to be that if you're ugly it's probably your fault because you were mean to some old lady, and serves you right.

But the one I hated the most was The Lion King, for really political reasons at first.

Its ultimate source is pretty clearly Hamlet, which shows you how insane Katzenberg had become at this point: the legitimate king murdered by his ambitious younger brother while the son and heir wanders in disconsolate exile until at last he returns, solves the crime thanks in part to a visit from his father's ghost, and, since this is a happy-ending show, successfully gets rid of his uncle and takes over the kingdom. Overlaying this and told mostly through the background art is a theory of sacred kingship so violently rightwing that I can't understand even now why it wasn't a scandal: that the health of the environment depends on the legitimacy of the monarch, so that while the usurper Scar is in power, the entire savannah becomes a desert and the animals starve, but the minute young Simba has fed Scar to the hyenas and mounts the kopje that serves the lion royals as a venue for public announcements to let everybody know that the primogeniture rule is back in place and he's king now, the life-giving rain begins to fall.

The initial worst aspect of this was that it was embedded in a kind of ecological theory that sounded as if it made some sense, the concept of The Circle of Life as King Mufasa teaches it to his son (the herbivores eat the grass, we lions eat the herbivores, and when we're dead the grass eats us) and the Elton John song (lyrics by Tim Rice). So that you're just about ready to accept that lion primogeniture is an important thing, and in the tremendous opening sequence of the cartoon, when all the animals from everywhere, thousands upon thousands, travel to the royal kopje for the presentation of the newborn prince Simba, held aloft by the male mandrill Rafiki who serves the lions as a kind of shaman or archbishop, and all kneel in silent adoration, you hardly pause to realize that they're worshiping the species that eats them. (I should say that it's extremely well done, and so, as you know, is Triumph of the Will.)

But on closer examination the thing was made much worse, by the fact that everything they were telling us about the Circle of Life on the Serengeti plain (where all the visuals came from) was a lie. Starting with the fact that lions don't have kings.

Lions (according to the great George Schaller, who was my principal source) have a kind of dual social structure, divided into two worlds, that of the adult females and their young, who form a pretty stable population within each pride not that fundamentally different from elephants, the females hunting communally, and that of the adult males, characteristically a team or phratry of brothers and/or cousins who hunt on their own (or, more often, steal from the hyenas or leopards) whose position isn't so stable; young males are driven out of the pride as they pass puberty, and form the phratries in a period of exile until they feel strong enough to find a pride of their own, kill its males, and take over.

The uxorious King Mufasa, hanging out with the pride females and participating fully in rearing the young prince to his future glory ("I Just Can't Wait to Be King!"), was behaving in a way lions don't behave; Uncle Scar, trying to maintain his parity with Mufasa and scheming to force little Simba away, was as it were trying to restore the system as natural selection had created it. Even his transactional relationship with a hyena pack was more normal than anything Mufasa was doing. And yet he was the villain who had to die for the Circle of Life to be restored. While Simba, returning to take over his own father's pride and mate with a female Nala, who must have been his sister or cousin, was defying the whole exogamous system as it had developed over the millennia.

Then there was the wider world of the other animals; for example the way Simba in exile formed a partnership not with other young male lions but with a fucking warthog called Pumbaa (apparently from Swahili pumbavu, "stupid"). And a meerkat known as "Timon" but sounds like Timún, a kind of hypersocial mongoose from the far southwest of Africa. What the hell was he even doing thousands of miles away in Serengeti, away from the family life suricates need, to say nothing of doing it in the company of an adolescent lion?  Similarly, it was nice of the young lion not to eat the warthog, but why in the name of the Circle of Life wouldn't he?

The same would be true of the mandrill Rafiki; in spite of his Arabic-derived Swahili name (rafiqi, "friend"), his homeland is in the tropical rainforests of the very far west, principally Nigeria, and it's hard to imagine how he could even begin to survive in the East African savannah.

I'm not even sure what I want to be getting at with all this; back 20-odd years ago I was making some kind of project out of it, trying to unpack the meta-mystery of how such things can happen, that I'm hardly likely to carry out now. The new Mulan looks as if it might be a remarkably honest attempt to tell the story that has been told for centuries as the cartoon didn't (though the trailer features an awful lot of Orientalist language that I can't approve of) and the new Mermaid, with Halle Bailey, could be so distant from Andersen that it's not even offensive. But the idea of a new Lion King, with a cinema technique making it look really real, triggers me, and I want everybody to know how false and at odds with any conceivable Circle of Life it is going to be.

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.

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