Ever since its release in 1994, The Lion King has held a special place in our hearts, but we always knew it was a fable.
Lion expert and conservationist Dr Craig Packer has been fielding questions on the animated classic, and now the remake, for more than 25 years.
“It always amazes me how many people think its a real story,” he says. “People still think it reflects the animal’s biology.”
The Lion King is more aligned with Shakespearean drama than the likes of David Attenborough, even if the remake does look so realistic you half expect to hear the national treasure’s commentary.
As Disney releases the live-action remake the same questions crop up again and again; are Simba and Nala related? Why is Scar the villain here? How did Simba survive on a veggie diet?
We spoke to Dr Packer to break down the (dark) truth behind The Lion King.
No King, no king!
The hyenas were on to something when they cried “no king, no king!” The film should really be The Lion Queen. Prides are matrilineal societies where the males don’t really stick around and the women do all the work.
“It’s the females that define the territory,” says Dr Packer. “They live in their area their whole life, while the males move around. The familial bonds we see between Mufasa and Simba are not what we see in the wild. If the pride gets too big, the females break off and make a neighbouring pride, but a pride will be mostly related females.”
We all know The Lion King is a fictional tale, but where does this idea of the male as king come from?
“To change our view of the male as the ruling figure we’d have to dispel the societal stereotype of the male as a leader. That idea isn’t a lion thing, it’s a society thing, it’s built around the society’s view and idea of females.”
In reality, “girls run the world” to quote Beyoncé. “They determine the territory, they find the food and look after the cubs – it all falls to the females,” Dr Packer adds.
“The Lion King is a fable, it’s set within a literature setting, in this case the story of Hamlet,” he says, referencing the theory that the Shakespeare play inspired the story.
The idea of an heir, a male regal name resonates with us still and it makes it a much more human thing, but it doesn’t make it very reflective of lion life.
“We see it through that prism of the traditional view whether it’s accurate or not,” Dr Packer adds.
Simba and Nala are brother and sister
Fans have joked about it, others have come up with elaborate theories, but now Dr Packer confirms the icky truth – Simba and Nala are full siblings.
“They’re similar in age so Mufasa could be the dad of both cubs,” he says. In a pride one male will father the cubs, in a system that’s worked for generations.
“Simba would have come back to take his place and not only mated with Nala, but the other females, too.” So that’s his aunt, his mother and his sisters – suddenly it doesn’t sound so romantic.
“Nala and Simba could be half-siblings, or very closely related. She could be Scar’s child,” Dr Packer says.
A lion will kill another’s cubs, so when Nala survives it does beg the question as to why Scar lets her live. “Either way, lions in the wild don’t want to mate when so closely related so it wouldn’t have been the romance we see on screen,” he adds.
The males father cubs and move on, which, let’s face it, is genetically much better. It also means when Scar tells Simba to run and never come back, he was actually on the money.
Simba couldn’t survive on just bugs
There was a study a few years ago that looked at how long an animal could live if it chose a diet made up entirely of insects. Spoiler, it didn’t look good for Simba.
In the film, the little cub is taken under Timon and Pumbaa’s wing, but that means a change in eating habits. No more tasty antelope, instead it’s a diet of “slimey but satisfying” grubs.
The study explains that the animal would have to be 20kg, no bigger, and just eat small bugs and insects.
“The one exception to the rule would be the giant anteater, which comes in at 50kg, and eats 3,000 bugs a day,” Dr Packer explains. “It also has a sticky tongue and a slow metabolic rate. There’s simply no way that a lion could live on bugs alone.”
Simba eats a bucketload of termites but looks like he’s benched 500 in the gym. Maybe he’s a fan of the protein shake.
Pumbaa and Timon
It’s not just what Simba eats that’s the issue, it’s what he doesn’t eat, mainly the tasty twosome he befriends.
“There’s no way a lion would be having a conversation with a warthog or a meerkat about his change in diet,” says Dr Packer. But it’s not all bad news, he’s only interested in one of his friends – Pumbaa.
“Lions really like warthogs, they’re a preferred tasty treat,” he adds. “They wouldn’t eat a meerkat, so Timon wouldn’t be on the menu.”
When Mufasa takes Simba for a patrol to try and prepare him for the responsibilities he will face as king, he delivers the famous line: “Everything the light touches is our kingdom,” but that isn’t technically true.
“It really depends on prey,” says Dr Packer. “If there’s a lot around then they can have a smaller territory and they’d be feasting away. If there isn’t as much they’d have a larger area. The usual size is probably 50-60 sq kilometres.” Not quite everything the light touches then.
Scar would have been the sexiest male
Scar would actually be seen as the sexiest male as he has a black mane, which is all kinds of wrong. A black mane signifies ‘genetic superiority’. They’re hotter and heavier than a traditional mane and, since lions are incredibly muscular, they are prone to overheating, so being able to cope is a sign you’re stronger than your average prowling male.
“It’s a very sexy symbol to the females,” Dr Craig explains. “A male with a black mane is more likely to be their choice.”
The black mane isn’t actually determined by genes, Dr Craig adds, and the colour can change over time. A male lion’s mane can also fall out so a thick head of hair is a good indicator of the strength of the male. In the remake, Mufasa definitely has more of a black undertone to his mane, and Scar’s black tresses are nowhere to be seen, so much so that in close up shots you can see his mane is more wiry and aged.
Basically, the males only have manes to entice the females, there’s no real reason for lions to have them otherwise.
Scar and Mufasa would have been friends
“The most important thing for male lions is they rely on teamwork,” says Dr Packer. In the film, Scar and Mufasa are warring brothers, and while Mufasa teases his sibling, Scar clearly resents his brother. In real-life the males are massively outnumbered by the females so they stick together. It also makes no sense to fight your own as it weakens your ability to protect the pride.
“The friendship between males is heartwarming to see,” says Dr Packer. “They have very affectionate moments. Once they’re companions, they’re companions for life. They wouldn’t really ever battle against the other male lions.”
There’s one exception to the rule – when a woman is involved.
“They get annoyed usually over receptive females, basically when she’s in heat, then there can be a bit of a kerfuffle.” Whatever male lion gets the girl reigns supreme, but there’s mating to get underway first and that takes a while. “They mate for four days,” Dr Packer says. Hopefully he’s eaten more than a few plates of bugs.
Males kill other cubs
The premise of The Lion King is Scar’s thirst for power. People compare the story to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet for a reason – Scar wants to kill his brother and take his place reigning over the pride.
Walt Disney Studios
“Each pride has a territory,” Dr Packer says. “The only time [the males] really fight is if there’s a challenge made to a resident male, so if they want to take over. It can get pretty nasty then.”
When he says nasty he means it too. When a new male takes over he has no time for memories of the past lingering around. Scar’s “shining new era” isn’t so far off the real lion approach.
“The new male doesn’t want to be a step-father so he’ll kill the other male’s cubs,” says Dr Packer. In that case when Scar ascends to the throne, Nala’s future wouldn’t have been quite so rosy. Try not to think about that too much.
One of the most iconic images of The Lion King comes right at the start. The sun rises, the animals arrive to greet their new king and Simba is presented to everyone at Pride Rock as the song the Circle of Life crescendos. But Pride Rock wouldn’t have been the lions’ home of choice. The pack wouldn’t exactly go for a two-up two-down, and Pride Rock isn’t like their usual habitat.
“The lions’ den is where the female hides when they’re giving birth so the hyenas can’t find their babies,” says Dr Packer. The covered areas are more appealing as hideouts and protection a far cry from the commune bedroom in the film. “You’re much more likely to see a lion sleeping outside in the open,” he adds. Basically lions are fans of wild camping.
Would the hyenas really be able to kill Scar?
“Hyenas can’t eat lions usually. They can’t kill them without help,” Dr Packer says. “But every now and then there’s a battle triggered if they catch food, like a buffalo, and a group of lions come over and take it. That’s the last straw.”
Sounds like average dinner time with your siblings. “The hyenas are like, ‘I’ve been in the kitchen all day’,” jokes Dr Packer. “Talk about privilege.”
The hyenas get their revenge by returning later. Although Dr Parker isn’t aware of them having killed a male, they have killed female lions before. When Scar is finally beaten, the hyenas attack. Perhaps its not realistic but it’s a fitting end.
With the new Lion King’s photo-realistic approach, the questions around how representative the animal kingdom is will inevitably increase.
“People do ask if it’s a true story or if that’s how they behave, it’s a story!” Dr Packer says. “It does baffle me, but it’s good to have people talking about lions and raise awareness.”
The Lion King is in cinemas now