The Lion King was my first, brief encounter with grief. When watching the original 1994 movie, I bolted from the theater the moment the benevolent lion king Mufasa died, not yet able to stomach the idea of a life so abruptly lost. It was only recently that I returned to a theater to see the second half of the movie, this time the 2019 reboot. This time I was surprised to be overcome by a different form of grief.
Over the course of the nearly two-hour, photorealistic movie, I felt a creeping sadness as the lush, biodiverse African savanna – a mixed grassland-woodland ecosystem – turned to desert. All signs of green vanish. Antelope bones litter the dry land. The lions cower in fear while looking onto the remains of their homeland – the dusty, dried-up earth and the craggy, leafless trees. Eventually, at the height of destruction, fire engulfs everything.
“This isn’t the home I remember,” Nala says. The lions are experiencing “solastalgia”, a term for the specific kind of grief that comes from witnessing the loss of your home environment, often in relation to climate change.
While the ecological destruction of the Pride Lands was present in the 1994 version of the movie, it takes on a more visceral quality in the 2019 version. This is in part due to the unnervingly realistic 3D animation, intended to capture the “spectacle of a BBC wildlife documentary”. But it is also because this kind of loss is all too familiar to an audience witnessing the earth hurtle towards a climate breakdown.
Yet the climate crisis goes unacknowledged in the reboot. As Disney’s highest-grossing animated movie of all time, it could have been a real opportunity to talk about the tragic experience the audience shares with the lions: the unprecedented, rapid destruction of earth. In this sense, the movie remained overly faithful to the original script.
I’m not asking for a radical rewrite – just for say, Zazu, the chatty, perennially anxious red-billed hornbill, to have nodded to climate change just once. For example, when Zazu announced, “The Pride Lands are in imminent danger,” he could have added why.
Such a small acknowledgment would have given The Lion King – a story of ecological loss due to the abuse of power – more space to resonate with our current moment.
To the movie’s credit, the destruction of the Pride Lands is not a natural process, but is rooted in a pattern of overconsumption and the unequal distribution of resources. This pattern is set in motion by Scar, the evil, authoritarian lion king, who rules according to a vow made to the hyenas: “Everything the light touches is yours for the kill.” It’s a drastically different vision from that of the previous lion king, Mufasa, who believed that “everything the light touches is yours to protect”.
It is Scar’s vision of the earth – as something to consume rather than protect – that turns the Pride Lands to desert.
The Lion King is an opportunity to ask ourselves how we can all better protect everything the light touches. It’s an opportunity to acknowledge the ways that reckless capitalism and climate change are fundamentally entwined. It’s an opportunity to think more closely about our land use and consumption patterns – major drivers of climate change, as a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report lays out.
The Lion King also stands to be a lesson in retaining hope, even when everything appears on the path of irreversible doom. When Simba bemoans his inability to change the past, Timon, the optimistic meerkat, chimes in, “But you know what you can change? The future.”
It’s this hopeful line of questioning – of exactly how to change the future, of how to restore the viability of the earth – that couldn’t be more important for everyone today to ask. Yet the new movie falls short of even approaching an answer. Simba could have spent more time grappling with the questions we are dealing with today, before the rain falls and the Pride Lands are restored.