by Matt Roth
Cut, no. 40, March 1996, pp. 15-20
In this age of controversy over "children's entertainment," Disney Studios has maintained its status as purveyor of wholesome fun for the entire family — an amazing feat, considering the parade of death and gore that constitutes the average Disney feature. Disney's recent cash cow, THE LION KING, is no exception, imperiling its characters with all manner of blood-spattered mayhem and terrorizing impressionable youngsters with an emphatic display of the vaunted Disney "dark side" — that obsessive plumbing of horrors more real to children than death: parental loss, withdrawal of love, exile from family and friends, and blame for unintended acts of destruction.
But the emotional trauma that Disney tries its damnedest to induce in young children is only the spadework for the ugly principles it feels it must implant in each new generation. Although the film takes place in an imaginary jungle, THE LION KING really expounds the Law of the Schoolyard: only the strong and the beautiful triumph, and the powerless survive only by serving the strong. As Disney sees it, children must not only acknowledge the supremacy of those born privileged and violent, the children must love them. The young must gaze in hushed veneration at the princely predators who stand ready to harvest the labor and flesh of their subjects. They must learn to giggle at the hopeless scampering of weak and stubby creatures as they dodge the jaws of their overlords. They must accept that true friendship means flattering those who would otherwise feast on their entrails.
Unfortunately, Disney also presents a vision of adult society. The full contours of this vision are difficult to see. We have to look past the sheer brilliance of Disney animation — with its dramatic thunderstorms and kaleidoscopic musical numbers. More so than the last few Disney features, which specialized in fluid shifts of reality, THE LION KING impresses us with its naturalism: the sun rising over the African savanna, gazelles bounding through the morning mists, herds of stampeding wildebeest. We are amazed by the range of expression their lions' faces can achieve, and the fact that the animators can make a hyena look like Whoopi Goldberg.
To appreciate Disney's coherent social vision, we also have to get past THE LION KING's bizarre, rather incoherent story. We see a host of antelope and zebra reverently bow down before a Lion King who makes no bones about wanting to eat them. The King and his Queen seem a monogamous pair; however, no other breeding male is visible in the pride of many lionesses. Hyenas inhabit a dark, nether region; when their population spreads out, their wasteland, for no apparent reason, spreads with them. By the time we encounter a wise-cracking warthog-meerkat pair, whose vaudeville shtick revolves obsessively around fart jokes, we begin to wonder: what are the writers thinking?
To truly understand the vision THE LION KING requires delving back into the Disney tradition — past the countless scenes of ugly, perverse villains vanquished by strong and beautiful heroes; of boys initiated into manhood through shows of martial valor; of girls seeking fulfillment in the arms of conquering males; of parents menaced or killed outright, too weak to prevent their children from undergoing their respective rites of passage; and of lovable weaklings who never themselves attain the personhood into which they bumblingly usher the main characters — until we reach 1938, when Walt Disney's beliefs converged with an ideology that has since fallen into nominal disrepute.
The tradition that leads to THE LION KING begins with PINOCCHIO — arguably the most beautifully animated of the Disney classics, undoubtedly the creepiest. In this, Disney's second animated feature, the blurry outlines of the Disney tradition suddenly become coherent — as the evocation of an ideology which still dared speak its name in the late 1930s, its power and prestige goose-stepping proudly across the world stage to the dazzlement of at least one animator-tycoon.
In 1938, the year PINOCCHIO was in production, Uncle Walt regularly attended meetings of the American Nazi Party in Hollywood, where Mein Kampf sold like hotcakes at corner newsstands. It comes as no surprise that Nazism resonated with Disney: he shared its conceit of white supremacy, its antagonism towards independent organized labor, its abhorrence of urbanism, and, above all, its hatred of Jews. He regarded himself as a bastion of Protestant morality in an industry dominated by Jew-spawned frivolity and lewdness. This sense of mission was buttressed by more prosaic market concerns: Hitler, who also made the link between Hollywood and Jews, barred U.S. films from Germany, an act which gravely distressed Disney. History is thus unclear on whether in making PINOCCHIO, Disney was paying homage to the Nazis or simply pandering to them. (Fortunately, Hitler returned Disney's affection: his favorite song was "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf”; in 1937 Goebbels presented a birthday gift of 18 Mickey Mouse shorts to the Führer.)
PINOCCHIO begins among the honest peasants of a pristine Alpine village. Pinocchio, created by the gentle watchsmith Geppetto and "given life" by a Hollywood starlet descending from her celestial orb, sets out on the path of good: to school, where he can presumably learn about his national culture. Unfortunately, his puppet nature, lacking a will of its own, allows him to be rather easily led astray, his Jiminy-Cricket conscience notwithstanding. The villains who divert him from the straight-and-narrow, appearing in order of escalating evil, are straight out of a fascist primer; their real-life analogs would all, under the Nazis, wear distinguishing patches on their clothes before being shipped to the concentration camps.
The first villain, The Fox, is mannered, effeminate, urbane and of the theater. His small, strangely elastic companion, The Cat, constantly slithers around him and through his legs. Clumsily, the two of them often become entwined with each other in a chaos of limbs. They are clearly gay. The Fox entices Pinocchio to the "theater," selling him to the evil Gypsy Stromboli, the most blatant ethnic stereotype in the movie. Stromboli, cashing in on his new stringless puppet, is greedy, dishonest, violent and inhumanly cruel — clearly of an inferior race. His presence also underscores PINOCCHIO's distinctly Old World landscape, where Gypsies ranked higher on the list of despised minorities than they did in America. Stromboli locks a frightened and weeping Pinocchio in a cage; the puppet escapes only with the help of the starlet. Unfortunately, it's out of the frying pan and into the fire for our poor hero.
The Fox traps him again, this time to sell him to the worst of the villains: a stout, cruel-visaged businessman, dealing from a shadowy corner of a restaurant on a dark and foggy city street — so greedy and evil that he scares even The Fox and The Cat. He is, in short, everything that a Nazi would expect of a Jew.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler explains the nefarious scheme of the Jews: they lure good, solid German men — artisans like Geppetto — into the city, to be corrupted by vice and Communism. Once degraded by these alien influences, the German worker is permanently enslaved. Accordingly, the Jew in PINOCCHIO lures little (gentile) boys to Pleasure Island, an amusement park where they can misbehave. The atmosphere is dark and crowded, dense and full of movement — in short, city-like. The urban vice is there: Pinocchio and a pugfaced boy hang out in a pool hall. The Communism is there: the main attraction is a mansion that the boys are allowed to demolish in an orgiastic attack on private property. The degradation follows: the boys, having made asses out themselves figuratively, become literal donkeys. Finally, their ultimate enslavement: the donkeys are put to hard labor in the mines. Pinocchio, at first on the road to a wholesome Aryanism, is ultimately at risk of falling into the debased proletariat. And all because of homosexuals, Gypsies, and Jews.
Pinocchio luckily comes to his senses and manages to escape with only a tail and floppy ears. Returning home, he finds that Geppetto has gone in search of him — the starlet informs him that the watchmaker is in the belly of a monstrous whale.
What follows is a sequence that appears repeatedly in Disney movies: a trial of masculine initiation in which the initiate exerts his will to overcome a seemingly overwhelming force, earning his right to enter a privileged sphere of male power (whether this means becoming a "real" boy, succeeding to the throne, or growing a big set of antlers). In PINOCCHIO, of course, this scenario is Nazi-inflected: Pinocchio rescues his father (the Fatherland?) from a leviathan (the international Jewish banking system?), exhibiting the appropriate virtues of endurance, courage, and self-sacrifice — all the traits of a good soldier.
PINOCCHIO's sexual politics follow this fascist lead: women quite literally inhabit a "separate sphere." Procreation is transformed into an act of male creativity, which women merely ratify with their mysterious ability to "give life." Women are also repositories of "morality," encouraging virtues like honesty (although even this becomes a test of masculine self-control: Pinocchio, denying his naughtiness, is betrayed by a growing, ever more erect and unconcealable nose; learning virtue and getting this unruly organ under control are the same task.) The ideal society of PINOCCHIO, as of the Nazis, is a disciplined, all male, warrior culture nurtured by idealized feminine domestics.
Ironically, PINOCCHIO's thick Continental ambiance and relentlessly fascist cosmology have allowed it to age better than most Disney classics. It steers clear of embarrassingly crude caricatures of American minorities (such as DUMBO's crows or PETER PAN's Indians). Obsessively focused on male initiation, it mercifully leaves girls alone (unlike CINDERELLA or SLEEPING BEAUTY). An epic of the volk, it is not, like 99% of the rest of Disney's oeuvre, preoccupied with the travails of royalty. Finally, it also spares us Uncle Walt's wish-fulfillment fantasies of ideal workers (unlike SNOW WHITE, in which happy dwarves sing, "Hi Ho," on their way to the mines — a vision recently given a service-industry update in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, in which hospitality workers, transformed into household objects, sing "Be My Guest" in an orgasmic fulfillment of their biological need to serve.) Avoiding the hot buttons of concerned liberals and, of course, striking conservatives as ineffably wholesome, PINOCCHIO's 50th anniversary re-release met with no controversy.
That PINOCCHIO could, nonetheless, very well have served as a Hitler Youth training film is not simply a reflection of Uncle Walt's devotion to National Socialism. Rather, he and Hitler — as well as countless other corporate leaders, government planners, architects, cultural purveyors and social thinkers in Europe and the United States — shared an overall social vision. They dreamed of a dispersed post-urban society, with a population — kept in line by a strong domestic realm instilling a keen sense of blood loyalty and "family values" — that could be efficiently mobilized to serve either the military needs of the state or the labor needs of industry.
The chief obstacle to this utopia was the disordered realm of the cities — cauldrons of ethnic intermingling, voluntary associations (of unionists, bohemians, Communists, gays and feminists), and general squalor — which offended fascist sensibilities of order, cleanliness and efficiency. It is no coincidence that the ultimate villains of Hitler's world view were also seen as the most quintessentially urban: Jews, barred from agriculture, lived largely in cities; according to Hitler, urban squalor spread outward from their filthy ghettoes. The Nazis even used a distinctly urban fauna as their chief metaphor for Jews. Like rats, Jews were inescapably "adapted" to the city. To eliminate one meant eliminating the other.
Both Hitler's and Disney's anti-urbanism was expressed as back-to-nature primitivism. Their plans, however, were in no way backward-looking. Hitler envisioned a society requiring a great deal of lebensraum, organized around autobahns and Volkswagens and interspersed with centers of monumental national architecture and educational "castles" in which children would imbibe their national culture. In other words, suburbia dotted with Disneylands.
We are now at the other end of the suburban explosion that originated with visionaries like Hitler and Disney. And, sure enough, the suburban reality continues to nurture the fascist visions that created it. Fifty years after PINOCCHIO (with Nazism supposedly repudiated, and Uncle Walt long since preserved in cryonic slumber to await his resurrection) THE LION KING echoes all of its fascist themes: hatred of gays, communists, and minorities, and the glorification of violent male initiation and feminine domesticity — all set in a bucolic suburban environment under the strong leadership of an all-male state.
Above all, it speaks of the fear of cities. This time, however, the city is not a treacherous lure to simple rural folk, but an invading threat looming over the suburban paradise.
THE LION KING's inherent fascism is more frightening for its obsession with leadership. Disney's worship of one-man dictatorship, usually quaintly monarchist, is decidedly unrestrained in THE LION KING. The movie is bracketed by two elaborate sequences showing all the animals of the "kingdom" flocking to see the newborn heir to the throne: we are treated to labored pomp and ceremony, as birds soar through the mists and long rows of ungulates bow down to their devourer/king, all accompanied by portentous African-sounding music. We are meant to be as much in awe of the king's glory and power as the animators clearly are.
But pure spectacle does not suffice to get the message across to Disney's satisfaction. Mufasa, the king, spends half the movie impressing on his son, Simba, the duties and indispensability of the king, on whom the entire natural order seems to rest: in bland eco-speak, he explains that the king maintains "the delicate balance of nature." Unaccountably, this is eventually borne out. When the wrong king comes to power, the lush savanna becomes a wasteland from which even the rain-clouds flee. The king's importance extends to the very firmament. Mufasa explains that the stars are the spirits of past kings who guide the present one (putting a monarchist spin on traditional African ancestor worship). In the daytime, the sun is called into service; taken to Castle Rock, Simba is told that the king's domain, the Prideland, extends wherever the sun shines. Simba, listening to James Earl Jones's regal baritone, grows excited about his future role. He spends his time dreaming of his future power and singing show-stoppers like "I Can't Wait to be King."
This thinly disguised Oedipal longing puts an ace up the sleeve of Scar, Mufasa's evil and covetous brother. He plots with hyenas to put Simba in the path of a stampeding herd of wildebeest, a mishap which he uses as cover to kill Mufasa when the king tries to rescue his son. Scar convinces Simba that he is responsible for his own father's death. Simba, with a child's fear that one's wishes can have bad effects in the real world, readily accepts the blame. Flayed by a remorse that takes him most of the movie to overcome, he flees the kingdom, eventually found by a warthog-meerkat pair who raise him.
Meanwhile, Scar takes over. As the Bad Leader he brings the kingdom to ruin. Mannered and aristocratic, and clearly not producing heirs like his more manly brother, he is pointedly gay. He is also a rationalist and utilitarian, coveting the absolute power of kingship but not buying into its mystique. He exerts a corrupting influence on the young, skillfully putting all sorts of ideas into Simba's head. Worst of all, he willingly enters into an unholy alliance with the hyenas, a teeming brood of half-starved scavengers ghettoized in a "dark region." Taken as a whole, he represents that bête-noir of contemporary right-wingers, the Liberal Politician.
Previously, Scar had goaded Simba to disobey his father and enter the prohibited "dark region." We tumble with the lion cub and his girlfriend into space that is suddenly enclosed, vertical and without vegetation, an "elephant graveyard" amid the cliffs. The huge elephant skeletons resemble the burnt-out shells of tall buildings, or perhaps the postindustrial remains of hulking machinery. Simba, on a dare, starts to enter a huge skull, only to be frozen in his tracks by eerie laughter. In classic hooligan fashion, three hyenas emerge and start circling Simba, taunting and threatening him. It's clear that Simba is on the wrong side of the tracks, in a bad neighborhood, surrounded by "the projects" — he's caught in the inner city.
The hyenas speak in "street voices" provided by Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin and clearly represent poor blacks and Hispanics. They are also stereotypical gang members, inherently criminal, cutthroat and mercenary — brawling with each other when not united by a common victim. As scavengers whose own neighborhood offers slim pickings, they eagerly accept handouts. Scar provides them: he gains the hyena's loyalty by promising them a steady stream of meat, thus creating the Welfare State.
After he usurps the throne, Scar lets the hyenas out of the "dark region" and into the Prideland, to the horror of the other species. Catastrophe follows: the lions' resources are squandered by the lazy and rapacious hyenas, who, in turn, harass the lions with petty terror. The balance of nature is upset: the herds flee, the water dries up, and the landscape soon resembles the wasteland of the elephant graveyard. The hyenas carry their blight with them; having brought down the productive ecosystem that used to provide them with scraps, their starvation only worsens. They offend Scar, who cares only about his power, by voicing nostalgia for the Mufasa regime which kept them in their place.
The lionesses, witnessing the devastation all about them, are strangely passive — even though they do all of the hunting and are collectively strong enough to kick the asses of Scar and his praetorian guard of hyenas. Instead, they abandon all hope until they rediscover Simba, the rightful heir, whom they had thought dead. By this time, Simba is utterly useless by any standard, having spent his youth doing nothing but dancing around eating bugs. But no matter: he functions as the Leader — and without a Leader, even groups who possess all of the apparent power are in reality helpless.
Others join in this mystical valuation of the Leader. In life, Mufasa had emphasized the importance of bloodline. In death, his ghost visits Simba to cajole him to "remember who you are" and not to break the line of kingly succession, despite his lack of training. (Unlike the more sensible ghost of Hamlet's father, Mufasa forgets to tell the guilt-ridden Simba that the father was really murdered by Scar, a revelation that would have instantly put an end to Simba's paralyzing angst.) A baboon shaman on retainer to the royal family also encourages the youth to return, explaining that Mufasa "lives on" in Simba (the shaman's motives are at least explicable: his status took a nasty drop during Scar's regime). Caught in a medieval mindset, everyone seems convinced that the ascension of the rightful heir, in itself, will reestablish harmony. The writers and animators work hard to prove them right: when Simba takes over, the waters return. Male power becomes sanctioned by the cosmos, secure even in the face of apparent obsolescence.
Simba conquers Scar in the prescribed Disney manner: through pure exertion of will. Simba is teetering on the brink of death when Scar gloatingly reveals the truth about Mufasa's death. Simba leaps forward in a sudden surge of energy and subdues his uncle, who promptly sells out the hyenas. Demonstrating kingly mercy, Simba spares Scar — who, of course, tries one more backstab before he's done in by angry and betrayed hyenas, the very unsavory types he has spent his years pandering to. A fitting end to the Liberal Politician.
THE LION KING has a clear political agenda: end the welfare state, barricade the suburbs against the inner city, and replace liberal politicians with true, authoritarian leaders. It works: Simba's kingdom becomes once again green and stuffed with prey. The hyenas remain quarantined in their ghetto; the balance of nature, each species in its own habitat, becomes restored. The urban poor are evidently as unassimilable to mainstream U.S. society as Jews were to the society of Hitler's dreams. THE LION KING's recap of classically fascist themes bodes ill. Since Disney's animated extravaganzas reappeared with THE LITTLE MERMAID, they have been a weirdly accurate barometer of the "national political mood," including a brief liberal flourish around the time of Clinton's election.
Disney's 1980s features reflected the neo-conservative preoccupation with personal morality and "family values." They consist mainly of family dramas, bent on achieving proper heterosexual couple bonding despite the odds. The female leads in all three are restless and eager to escape their fathers' realms, an impulse which puts them in danger until they arrive safely into their husbands' arms. The males are all, at first, unworthy of full patriarchal responsibility but, in true PINOCCHIO fashion, overcome their weaknesses and, through exertions of will, defeat their foes and become fit successors to their wives' fathers. But there to thwart this happy outcome, simultaneously trying to usurp heterosexual power and distract the hero from the heroine, is that neocon bugaboo — the gay male. In an age when anti-semitism has fallen out of vogue and Communism, not taken seriously, he has to bear the full brunt of fascist animus.
At first glance, Ursula, the villain in THE LITTLE MERMAID, seems a woman; on closer inspection, however, the Sea Witch resembles a flamboyant, Divine-ly inspired drag queen. Her octopus-like lower half further renders her gender ambiguous: the first view of her tentacles emerging from the darkness is played up for shock value (not unlike a similar view in THE CRYING GAME). Ursula eventually pulls off a drag queen's coup. She takes on the appearance of a svelte brunette, speaks with the Little Mermaid's stolen voice (solving a chronic problem for female impersonators), and seduces the virile young prince into marrying her. She reveals the deception by literally splitting the seams of her disguise, emerging in her opulent glory; she manages to reduce the hypermasculine Sea King to a pathetic plant and only gets defeated when the virile prince impales her with the prow of a ship, thus contrasting his erect phallus with her flaccid ones. Her threat to heterosexual pair-bonding and patriarchal power is thus laid to rest.
The gay villain of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is, by contrast, hypermasculine. Gaston, vain and preening, covets heterosexual status in pursuing Belle, the beauty of the title; but he constantly ignores both her and the trio of blonde bombshells that swoon over him. He is only truly interested in male gazes, and blossoms in the midst of his all-male lodge, where he sings a showstopper celebrating his own masculinity. Provided, like The Fox, with an elastic, high-contact companion, he is the epitome of camp. Mainly a figure of comic relief, he's hard to take very seriously. The true evil of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, in fact, lies elsewhere: in the sexual dysfunction of the hero, who suffers from what clinicians call "infantile narcissism." The witch's curse simply brings his fetishism — in which inanimate objects are endowed with ego-fulfilling life — out into the open, transforming his castle into something like Pee Wee's Playhouse. Constant parallels between his actions and Gaston's link his condition with Gaston's more deeply entrenched sexual deviance. He finally breaks the curse — defeating Gaston and restoring his realm to "normal" — by embracing a prosaic heterosexuality with Belle.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a men's movement response to feminist nagging. It is engorged with anxiety that masculinity might be a mask for homosexuality; or that natural male narcissism might forever alienate the women that feminism has made so intolerant. In the end, it is a plea that women understand and love men's "beasts within" (their inner "wild men"), and help mother them into maturity. It is early 1990s wish fulfillment.
ALLADIN represents a surprising liberal aberration from Disney's right-wing trajectory. To be sure, the villain is still gay: Jafar is dark, effeminate, and prissily evil; Scar simply repeats Jafar in the shape of a lion. Jafar, however, very much acts the role of a gay man's gay villain, twisted by his desire for heterosexual power and his consequent self-enclosure in the closet. Advisor to the sultan, he is a Roy Cohn type with Leopold-and-Loeb overtones. He is counterpoised, moreover, to a healthier gay icon: the Genie, who, with Robin Williams's voice, flames across the screen in a one-man cabaret show. (Of course, a male genie is already sexually suspect in a culture whose TV-sitcom associations mark genies as female.) The Genie shifts gender several times and uses his transformative powers to generally wreak havoc on social categories, making street urchins into princes.
The other heroes are hippie twenty-somethings. Princess Jasmine wants to "break the rules" of her restrictive society. Aladdin woos her by taking her on a "magic carpet ride" to "a whole new world," a barely concealed acid trip. In the end, Aladdin renounces power by setting the Genie free from his lamp (releasing him from the closet, as it were). Happily, renouncing power ends up winning it for him, as he is put next in line for the sultanship. (He will no doubt be a cool sultan, treating his subjects to free concerts and, if possible, high-fat chunky ice-cream.)
Aladdin is everything Clinton was supposed to have been: of the people, hippie-ish, a friend to gays, and willing to renounce "politics as usual." ALLADIN embodies other liberalish themes: a sympathy with the urban poor, and an understanding of crime (like stealing) as a response to circumstances. Above all, ALLADIN embodies that strange liberal vision of social justice as nothing more than an United States in which Horatio Alger stories can once again come true.
With THE LION KING, the liberals have been ousted, in sync with the real conservative agenda of Clintonism and, more recently, with the Newt juggernaut: with its get-tough crime bill, its welfare reform, and its promises to restore to the middle class its lost paradise of 50s suburbia. The reclamation of suburbia, with its "traditional" values, forms the core of THE LION KING's story. Mufasa, it should be remembered, reigns over a rather odd kingdom: namely, of things he eats. There are no other lions in evidence (save Scar, his free-loading brother), and the lionesses are all dutiful domestic servants. Like a suburbanite ruling over a kingdom of appliances, cars, and household technology, Mufasa lords over a realm of consumables.
Simba, like Aladdin, goes the 1960s counterculture route. In THE LION KING, this is more clearly a shift in styles of consumption: from big-ticket antelope to brightly colored, smallscale, shiny designer insects. His pseudoparents, a meerkat and warthog, engage in an "alternative lifestyle," living as a couple to the exclusion of females of their own species. Their motto is slacker and multi-cultural: the Swahili "hakuna matada" — "who cares?" When Simba's former betrothed appears, he seems ready for free love. In the end, however, he is successfully exhorted to give up his irresponsible "alternative" lifestyle and, in one stroke, reclaim his "traditional" values and his father's kingdom. If we want to recreate the paradise of the 1950s, we have but to conquer the liberals and their decadent lifestyles.
In the 50 years since Walt Disney made PINOCCHIO, history has gone his way — that is to say, the wrong way. Resource-draining, environment-destroying suburbs have sprawled out of control, creating a centrifugal force that has not only reinforced segregation by race and income, but atomized humans to an unheard of extent. U.S. visions of collective action, both of the privileged and the oppressed, have almost completely decomposed into fascist fantasies of blood and soil. As the stockpiles of arms build up behind the ever more pervasive barricades, we are told that what everybody wants — and deeply needs — is a great leader.
It is an index of Walt Disney's success that THE LION KING and its social message could be explained without any reference to him. PINOCCHIO is impossible to imagine without the man behind it, with his psychic imbalances and ideological preoccupations; the fascism in PINOCCHIO came straight from Uncle Walt's heart. By contrast, THE LION KING was made by a studio run by Jews; the music was written by gays; many of the characters were voiced by respected black actors; and the writers were liberal enough to give the film a "multicultural" veneer. Its underlying fascism is not so much the product of a demonic individual. It simply reflects the "American reality" — a reality whose ugliness is not hard to discern below the slick surface of bland music and cute, fuzzy animals.