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The Way "The Lion King" (1994) Came Up With Its Story

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Breaking Down "The Lion King" (1994)

It was the first time for many children to reconcile and face the subject of death during a movie. There was nothing like the original premiere of the Disney animated feature The Lion King.

For the most part, the children of the original Lion King audience understood the message Disney was trying to communicate: at some point those who mentor us and love us will die.

The audience becomes entangled in the journey Simba takes in order to surpass his challenge. The Lion King is one of an infinite amount of narratives that deal with death and the coming of age. In using narrative theory and myth-making strategy, one can easily find that the structure of The Lion King is as ancient as the medium of storytelling and that this 1994 classic film held true to myth-making strategies in order to teach its youthful audience about some of the most challenging parts of life.

In using a narrative style, myths will “bring forward a trinity of great deities, all of whom use language, poetry, and rhetoric to do great feats” (Rhetoric of Myth, Magic, and Conversion: A Prolegomena to Ancient Irish Rhetoric 2007).

Narrative Clarity in the Film

During the early years of development in turning the film into a cohesive narrative, filmmakers came to assume that a film should guide the spectator’s attention, making every aspect of the story on the screen as clear as possible. In particular, films increasingly set up a chain of narrative causes and effects.

One event would plainly lead to an effect, which would, in turn, cause another effect, and so on.

Moreover, an event was typically caused by a character’s beliefs or desires. Character psychology had not been particularly important in early films. Slapstick chases or brief melodramas depended more on physical action or familiar situations than on character traits.

Increasingly after 1907, however, character psychology motivated actions. By following a series of characters’ goals and resulting conflicts, the spectator could comprehend the action. Every aspect of the silent film style came to be used to enhance narrative clarity. (Film History An Introduction 2003)

When films were in the developmental stages of becoming a mass media entertainment medium, they did not necessarily have to follow the same guidelines as the traditional narrative; instead, they could have taken an abstract form.

However, the early filmmakers found that audiences best responded to the narrative style and that they would come back to spend their money at the theater for films with clear narratives instead of film clips on everyday life—the audience craved meaning, structure, and direction. For a successful film needs “action and change [which] are central to the nature of the narrative.”

The 1990s Coming Of Age Movie

An audience can understand on a simplistic level the meaning of a given narrative which often relates to their own life because “in most narratives, story-world action is initiated by the narrative’s characters as they attempt to achieve their individual and collective goals.” Furthermore, “goals play a role at the discourse level as well; in film narratives, for example, a cinematographer acts in a goal-directed manner to build the cinematic discourse, intentionally composing shots and shot sequences to effectively communicate unfolding story action” (Story and Discourse: A Bipartite Model of Narrative Generation in Virtual Worlds 2007).

Basic Story Elements

The Lion King may be the 1994 generation’s guide to understanding death and the coming of age. Before this animated Disney classic, countless other stories based on the same type of themes were already in existence but with different characters and different settings: the Bible, Hamlet, Grimm Fairy Tales, and even an earlier Disney masterpiece, Bambi (August 1942). Regardless of how many times a certain theme is brought back into society’s forefront, it should be noted that “all good stories have a few elements in common: they contain interesting characters, who are involved in dramatic situations, and they all have a point or a controlling idea. No one will be enthralled by a story that lacks these key elements” (Because of Mama 2001). In The Lion King, the story rests on one particularly dramatic moment which directs the rest of the movie’s action, and until Simba faces his uncle Scar, his inner struggle hinders him from pressing forward.

Once Simba reconciles with his past—facing Scar and coming to terms with his mistakes and his father’s death—he is able to lead his kingdom into prosperity. Until that moment, Simba retreats with his new eccentric friends—a warthog and a meerkat.

The writers of the movie must have known that “A good dramatic moment is the place where idea, action, and character intersect… dramatic moments fill the news: a school shooting in Columbine, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Soviet submarine sunk in the North Sea. In these moments we have dramatic action— people die. We also have interesting characters— someone is responsible, someone is heroic, someone is victimized” (Because of Mama 2001). Scar is responsible, Simba is victimized, but he is also triumphant.

Everything Hinges On Mufasa

One of the most important parts of a narrative is what does not appear in the story. When Mufasa dies, when do people react? Is it when Scar pushes him off the gorge or when Simba has his last moment with his father? Either way, both reactions tend to happen before Mufasa actually dies. Psychologically, the audience already understands what has happened without it being explicitly stated: the unfair death of a king. According to Dormans, this is a common occurrence; in fact, “a well-known example from the world of comics is the work of Scott McCloud. In search of the elementary structure of comics he proposes the panel and the way it functions in relation to other panels on the page. The magic of comics, he says, is found in the space between the panels. The reader fills in the blanks herself and relates the depicted events in the panels. She provides her own closure based on a visual and verbal interpretation of the frames” (Hacker: New Mythical Content of Narrative Games 2006).

In regards to being able to interpret the information as it is coming along and intuitively being able to piece things together, another theorist states that the “way of analyzing talk-in-interaction for the purpose of gaining an understanding of how interactants establish a sense of self (in stories-in-interaction) resembles closely what in developmental theorizing is termed ‘microgenesis’...This approach focalizes the momentary history of human sense-making in the form of emergent processes. It assumes that developmental changes (such as learning or better understanding) emerge as individuals create and accomplish interactive tasks in everyday conversations” (Considering counter-narratives: Narrating, resisting, making sense 2007).

The mind is able to make inferences on what is happening primarily because of prior knowledge. For some children, The Lion King may be the first time they are facing death. For others, it is a concept they already know, and may have faced. Through The Lion King a child is able to “gain an understanding of how” life develops and ends in a mystical circle of life.



Typically in narratives, the mythical hero is confronted with the daunting realization that life is not the paradise they previously interpreted as the world. When Simba witnesses his father’s death he follows the standard mythical hero’s journey which is when “The mythic hero, ‘is lured, carried away, or else voluntarily proceeds to the threshold of adventure’ (The Hero With a Thousand Faces 1973). Once s/he crosses the threshold, the hero ‘journeys through a world of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces’ (The Hero With a Thousand Faces 1973). Finally, the hero returns with ‘the boon’ that restores the world” (Mythmaking in Alien Abduction Narratives 2006). After being away and living a Rastafarian life, Simba realizes his role in being the next king of the lions and that in order for the Pride Lands to be at peace, he must rebel against Scar’s power. After the “hero faces a series of tests such as riddles, conflicts, or captivities… the hero transcends [his] personal ambition and returns home to share the gifts with those most in need” (Making as a Human Communication Paradigm: The Case of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement 2007).

As far back as Ancient Greece, philosophers have attempted to understand life through mythology. “Plato treats myth sometimes as ‘unverifiable’ but at other times as subject to truth and error” (How Philosophers Saved Myths 2008) while “Aristotle was certainly the first to apply logical and ordered reasoning to the investigation of narratives in his Poetics in order to identify their different structures and components. Here Aristotle distanced himself from his teacher Plato, not because of his logical method, but because his subject matter, poetry, was recognized but condemned by Plato… Aristotle clearly saw the structure of the plot as essential to the construction of a narrative and considered its components of prime importance in the narrative structure” (Narrative theory and emergent interactive narrative 2004).

Narrative Development

The structure of narratives has lasted for centuries and has had little variation in the overall structure of the rise and fall of the mythical hero. Simba is one of many mythical heroes that reverberated with the youth of 1994; through his coming of age story children are given hope in the face of death. Along with various other stories, The Lion King completely follows the ancient mythic structure. This ancient myth based on heroism may be universal and simple for audiences of all ages to understand, however these “long, detailed, and formally sophisticated literary narratives [that] are for many people a natural, seemingly automatic process” are not as easy to understand as the human mind interprets. In humanity’s search for other intelligent life forms, or even an intelligent life form created from our own hands, it has been found time and time again that “research on Artificial Intelligence [reveals from] investigators…that enormously complex linguistic and cognitive operations are required to generate or comprehend even the most minimal stories” (Narrative theory and the cognitive sciences 2006).


Works Cited

  • Campbell, J. (1973) The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton University Press
  • Dormans, J. (2006). The Hacker: New Mythical Content of Narrative Games [Electronic version]. Technologies for Interactive Digital Storytelling and Entertainment, 43(26), 104-115.
  • Gocsik, K., & Bassine, S. (2001). Because of Mama. Retrieved October 21, 2008, from
  • Johnson-Sheehan, R., & Lynch, P. (2007). Rhetoric of Myth, Magic, and Conversion: A Prolegomena to Ancient Irish Rhetoric [Electronic version]. Rhetoric Review, 26 (3), 233-252.
  • Kelley-Romano, S. (2006). Mythmaking in Alien Abduction Narratives [Electronic version]. Communication Quarterly, 54(3), 383-406.
  • Laverge, Y. (2007). Considering counter-narratives: Narrating, resisting, making sense [Electronic version]. , 83(4), 908-909.
  • Louchart, S., & Ruth, A. (2004). Narrative theory and emergent interactive narrative [Electronic version].
  • International Journal of Continuing Engineering Education and Life Long Learning, 14(6), 508-518.
  • Owens, K. (2007). Myth Making as a Human Communication Paradigm: The Case of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement [Electronic version]. American Communication Journal, 9(3), 8.
  • Semino, E. (2006). Narrative theory and the cognitive sciences [Electronic version]. Language, 82(4), 918-921.
  • Thompson, K., & Bordwell, D. (2003). Film History An Introduction (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. (Original work published 1994)
  • Young, M. R. (2007). Story and Discourse: A Bipartite Model of Narrative Generation in Virtual Worlds [Electronic version]. Interaction Studies, 8(2), 177-208.
  • Zulick, M. (2008). How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology/Plato the Myth Maker [Electronic version]. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 41(3), 300-304

© 2018 Andrea Lawrence