The hyena hoodlums sound like stereotypical jive-talking, urban blacks (racist). Despite all this, however, the movie remains popular with children and adults (Twomey 120) who continue to ignore or remain unaware of these negative messages.
What does it teach then? Mainly, that Simba must accept responsibility. His mission is to be King and rule wisely so that the kingdom can prosper. He has to accept this responsibility in order to grow up. Another message is that the survival of society depends on loyalty to each other, good relationships, and inter-dependency. We have to care about each other. Finally, in the circle of life, death is not unnatural but a part of the cyclic nature of life, a New Age message. Both Simba and the new baby are baptized in ceremonies that point to life as sacred.
Where the animated film was tremendously popular and profitable, Adrienne Martini points out that The Lion King stage play has forever changed children's theater. Talking to children in a singsong voice and half-hearted clowning is no longer acceptable or desirable. The boundaries of children's theater have stretched because of The Lion King, and children's plays are now often "very full, very rich and a little scary in places" (Hartzell cited in Martini). One of the most remarkable and unique aspects of the stage show is the masks, which make the characters seem both human and animal.
The masks are non-traditional in that they do not cover the actors' faces, but they are done so artfully that before long the audience sees both the mask and the expressions on the face simultaneously. The masks also eliminate some of the problems of characterization noted in the movie. Scar, for example is not black -- he wears a mask both comical and frightening.
His face is exceptionally narrow with a crooked nose. One of his eyes arches upward and the other one downward. Scar's whiskers are not as prominent or well developed as the other lions' whiskers are, and his sparse mane looks like a few porcupine quills sticking out. A large dark scar mars the left side of his face. The play also makes use of life-size puppets, which the actors manipulate but do not wear -- the audience can still see the expressions on the actor's faces. In this way the animal characters express human emotions but move the way a real animal would move in the wild. Masks were also created with face painting. Rafiki, for example, a baboon shaman in the film is human in the stage play, her face completely altered with bright vivid colors that change her features completely and highlight her expressions.
In both the film and the stage play, artistry and pure entertainment value drew in audiences. But many folks came back to see the show again. Entertainment does not entirely account for its impact. The moral value of the story must be taken into account as well. Many Americans believe there has been a decline in moral values in recent years and that we need to return to the good character and moral virtue on which our ancestors placed such great emphasis. This feeling was so prevalent in the early 1990s that "moral decline" and "family values" actually became issues in the presidential election. The Lion King emerged in response to this cultural concern.
The story attempts to answer the need for more emphasis on character development.
A movie that actually helps children (and adults) to figure out the moral meaning of their lives was bound to be successful because it filled an articulated and widespread longing. Schools are no longer allowed to teach values based on religious ideals, and busy parents often neglect this aspect of child rearing. Disney fills the void. Because the story is based on myth and has archetypal characters, it speaks directly to basic human issues and dilemmas in a primal way. The story is unlikely to go "out of date" because children will continue to struggle with growing up and taking responsibility in the years to come, as they always have. Therefore, the story continues to have appeal. And because of its artistry, music, and comic elements, it continues to be entertaining.
Most people go to films and plays to be entertained. The educational part (the teaching of values) comes painlessly. The Lion King entertains children and leaves them with something to think about as well. It provides a moral template of loyalty, social responsibility, and spirituality for children. The pro-social values embedded in the story are values that are precious to our culture. I believe this accounts for The Lion King's outstanding success.