'The Lion King' in 2019: Why the beloved film fails its female characters

Despite a few modern-day changes, old habits die hard, and The Lion King remains a troubling story that reinforces gender stereotypes and patriarchy

Nala is a queen only in name, she has no actual power. Courtesy Walt Disney Studios
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

It's been the most hotly-anticipated release of Disney's flurry of live-action remakes, but since it hit cinemas just days ago, the reception to The Lion King has been lukewarm, to say the least.

Debate has raged over its likeness to the original – die-hard fans bemoaned the overt similarity to the 1994 animation's storyline with seemingly little modern-day creativity – but there's perhaps another troubling aspect of the 2019 version that, somehow, hasn't ignited the same calibre of debate in a post #metoo world. That of the movie's inherent desire to strip its female characters from any real sense of importance.

There are some things that movie has done brilliantly: director Jon Favreau has delivered a technological masterpiece where the animals look like they wandered in from a David Attenborough documentary, the beloved musical favourites have not been tinkered with and the cast is primarily black –  Beyonce voices Nala, as well as providing new music for the soundtrack, Donald Glover replaces Mathew Broderick as Simba, and Chiwetel Ejiofor voices the villainous Scar rather than Jeremy Irons.

Alas, despite these changes, old habits die hard, and The Lion King remains a troubling story that reinforces gender stereotypes and patriarchy.

In reality, lions live in a matrilineal society – females run the prides

For starters, Queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) is a lioness married to King Mufasa (James Earl Jones), who is killed by his younger brother Scar as part of a coup, which sees Scar usurp the throne.

It's a patriarchal society, with the filmmakers ignoring the fact that a lion pride is a matrilineal society where the males barely stick around long enough to form the types of familial relationships shown in the Disney film.

Nala (Beyonce) and Simba (Donald Glover) in 'The Lion King'. Courtesy Walt Disney Studios

Sarabi's status is defined by her relationship with her husband and this means it's hard to escape the fact that she's a queen in name only, someone who wields no power. Sarabi has a new backstory in 2019's The Lion King, which comes from the revelation that Scar bears a grudge against her because she rejected him for Mufasa, but this reveal ensures that Sarabi is defined only as a mother, loyal wife and as a potential mate.

While it's noteworthy that the most evil hyena, Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), is a Cruella de Vil type of nasty, she is bereft of any personality except wickedness and lacking a back story. Ultimately she's just another victim, who is only able to rise into real action when the masculine Scar sides with her. There's not much female empowerment going on here.

Nala and Sarabi are one-dimensional, obedient characters

The most disappointing narrative arc is given to Nala, who initially seems like she will be our hero. At first, she is a feisty figure, mocking the idea of being betrothed to Simba. But as the film wears on, she simply turns into a replica of Sarabi.

Lastly, it's appalling there is not one memorable conversation between two female characters in the film. Nala and Sarabi hardly interact with other females in The Lion King, despite a well-known fact that 99 per cent of all the members of a lion pride are related lionesses.

Sarabi is played by Alfre Woodard. Courtesy Walt Disney Studios

It's the latest example of the paucity in screen time given to females, especially their friendships, which has always been a blind spot in cinema. It's why The Bechdel Test, which asks whether a film has two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man, is used as a (low) benchmark for films.

The filmmakers show Nala as being a strong individual by having her fight more frequently and with more skill, which is a very masculine definition of what a strong modern female is.

The Lion King is a technological masterpiece, but is that enough?

But there are things to celebrate here. The fact Favreau is sitting in the director's chair is a sign of how valued The Lion King is by Disney. It was Favreau who kickstarted the successful update of the Disney cartoon catalogue as photo-realistic animations when he upgraded The Jungle Book so spectacularly in 2016.

Nowadays photo-realistic computer-animated updates of familiar Disney characters seem to arrive at increasingly regular intervals. In the past four months, audiences have been asked to pay to revisit Dumbo, directed by Tim Burton, and Guy Ritchie's Aladdin.

And looking at the box-office numbers for this year, nine of the top 10 grossing films have been either sequels or remakes, so The Lion King was always expected to be a resounding success.

It says everything about the stranglehold the mouse house has on box-office receipts that Dumbo was considered a flop because it "only" made $350 million (Dh1.2 billion). Aladdin made almost $1 billion and, incredible as it sounds, anything below that number will be considered an epic fail by the studio given the success of the 1994 version, and also that The Lion King continues to draw in massive numbers in stage musicals on Broadway and in London's West End. So no pressure then!

The Lion King plays in cinemas across the UAE from July 18