Bard at the Box Office

Shakespeare in the 21st Century

Disney’s Hamlet (a.k.a. The Lion King)

Hamlet Scar



The Lion King is probably one of the best known children’s movies of the 90’s. What many of you may not know is that this served as your introduction to Shakespeare. Surprised? I don’t blame you. When most kids watch movies, myself included, they don’t think of the literary parallels or societal agendas that are being pushed. Most of us, at least those of us who were kids when this came out, were more preoccupied with the question “Will the good guy win?” And we were also maybe, possibly, probably busy being blown away by the appearance of Mufasa’s ghost (hey, those were pretty sweet computer animation techniques).

One key difference from the Shakespearean play is that Simba never pretends to be insane. Maybe Disney felt that the image of an unhinged lion would frighten young audiences? If that’s the case I can’t really say that I blame them. At four years old, I just had a hard time with the movie actually showing Mufasa’s death. I think that seeing a large animal with proportionally large teeth and claws would have had me running for the hills quicker than you could start singing the first bit of the opening song.

However, there is one noticeable motif that ties in with the Hamlet theme quite well: bones, more specifically, skulls. The scene from Hamlet when he picks up Yorick’s skull and speaks his famous line “to be or not to be, that is the question.” has been ingrained in our psyche as a culture. Bones are prominent in the film in such a way that it pays homage to that famous scene. When Simba and Nala go to the elephant graveyard as cubs, the skulls of the elephants are one of the more memorable parts of the scene, which gives the place a genuinely dangerous feel. Later in the film, as Scar is singing his villain song of ‘Be Prepared,’ the hyenas are playing with the bones of dead animals, and one is even wearing the skull of a water buffalo as a mask. Lastly, and perhaps Disney’s way of doing the graveyard scene from Hamlet, Zazu is shown during Scar’s reign to be caged in the bones of another animal, with the skull of the animal nearby. Another aspect of this scene is that, during Mufasa’s reign, Zazu played the part of royal adviser. Now, however, in Scar’s reign, he is the clown, singing and being made to bring levity to Scar.

While the Lion King does not follow the exact same plot as Hamlet, and delves a bit more into the background of Simba/Hamlet’s story, it still does pay homage to the play, and is also an excellent way to introduce children to Shakespeare, but without the problem of one or more of the characters going insane.

So, for plot accuracy and staying true to the script, I took off a couple points, but given that it is a great way for children to be introduced to some of Shakespeare’s plot characteristics, and also that it is a great way to foster interest in Hamlet, and in Shakespeare in general, I decided to give this one a score of 8/10.


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