There have been many thousands of stories and myths told since the beginning of the human race. Yet the essential elements and structure of these stories have many common methods of dealing with plot and character which have been examined and theorized by many writers, such as Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Christopher Vogler, and each of these will be briefly examined. This essay will examine and analyze these elements and reference these to Walt Disney’s ‘The Lion King’, a popular and well-known film, and which uses these familiar plot and character devices.
In ‘The Writer’s Journey’, Christopher Vogler examines plot and character archetypes. Based on Campbell’s ‘The Hero With a Thousand Faces’, Vogler identifies twelve stages of the Hero’s Journey.
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It should be noted that the stages of the Hero’s journey don’t necessarily have to happen in order, nor do all twelve stages have to occur, but is a useful template for structuring interesting stories (Vogler, 2007, p7). This is especially true in the case of ‘The Lion King’, where the stages are mixed up from the standard order.
‘The Lion King’ starts, as most films start, showing us the main characters in their ordinary world. The images, beats and scenes shown during the first few minutes are vital to inserting the audience into the story world (Vogler, 2007, p85). In the case of ‘The Lion King’, the story world is the vast plains of Africa, a place that few of us have visited. Being an animated film as opposed to live-action, the makers of the film took the opportunity to open the film with stark, breathtaking shots, which fit in with how we imagine mid-Africa looks and feels. The purpose of this, as detailed above, is to ‘insert’ us into a familiar setting in the story world. We’re introduced briefly to the principal characters, and their roles are hinted at. The ‘Circle of Life’ song complements the ritual that we see, which appears to be a baptism of Simba, the protagonist in the film.
Despite not being next in Vogler’s list, the next plot stage that occurs is the meeting of the mentor. The mentor in ‘The Lion King’ could be one of a few characters – Mufassa, Zazu and Rafiki. In fact, all three characters act as Simba’s mentor at different points in the film, however they each coach Simba on different issues. Just a few scenes into the film, Mufassa introduces Simba to the Pridelands, that he is to be King, but warns him to respect all creatures regardless of where they are in the food chain.
In a nutshell, the role of these mentors is to keep the hero (Simba) on the right track, to guide him back on the right path when he strays (as Rafiki does later in the film when he persuades Simba to return to the Pridelands). In the beginning of the film, Simba regards Scar as his mentor, not realizing that Scar’s motives are not good, as can be seen when Scar ‘accidentally’ tells Simba about the elephant graveyard.
The call to adventure is not clear-cut in ‘The Lion King’. It could be argued that the call to adventure is Mufassa telling Simba that he is to be the future King. If Simba wasn’t future King of the Pridelands, then all we’d be left with is a cheeky and rebellious lion cub – an interesting character but hardly ‘Hero’ material. Yet this revelation in the story alone does not immediately force Simba to embark on any type of journey, internal or external. The call to adventure could also be argued to be Scar tempting Simba to visit the Elephant graveyard.
Vogler validates temptation as a legitimate form of the call to adventure (Vogler, 2007, pp100-101), as again, without this, the story could not continue as it does. In reality, it could be argued that these scenes combine to create a powerful call to adventure for Simba – He knows he’s future King, and his Dad is the current King, and so he feels a sense of immortality when tempted by Scar to visit the Elephant graveyard.
‘Refusal of the Call’ is again a tricky issue in ‘The Lion King’. When faced with both of the calls to adventure as detailed above, Simba is keen and willing. In fact, however, this is a legitimate response to the calls set out before him. As far as Simba is concerned there is no risk or danger, yet he feels that even if there is, he is capable of looking after both himself and Nala, as can be seen in his talks with Zazu, right before and after Simba’s song ‘I Just Can’t-Wait to be King’.
However, there is a very clear refusal of the call much later in the film, when Nala finds Simba and tries to persuade him to return to the Pridelands, Simba is adamant that he will stay put, with reasons of fear of his past hinted at. Structurally, it is unusual to put a refusal of the call so late in a film, however, as already mentioned, Vogler makes it clear that these stages can happen in any order which suits the story (Vogler, 2007, p7).
‘Crossing the First Threshold’ is much clearer in ‘The Lion King’, and consists of the stampede scene and Scar’s takeover of the Pridelands. Vogler explains this stage as an important plot point, which thrusts the story in a new direction, and is often the point at which the Hero can no longer remain in their ordinary world (Vogler, 2007, p128). This is arguably the most important scene in ‘The Lion King’ – It is a traumatic event for all characters involved, and takes Simba away from the protection of his family and status.
The threshold itself is the thorn-bush Simba crawls through as he is chased by the Hyenas – who themselves are threshold guardians in the sense that their goal is to kill Simba. Simba, however, uses his small size and stealth to make it through this threshold and away from the Hyenas, who cannot penetrate this threshold.
‘Tests, Allies and Enemies’ in ‘The Lion King’ is not one clearly defined stage, but occurs throughout the film. Simba’s courage is tested for the first time during the initial encounter with the Hyenas, both when Nala slips down towards the chasing Hyenas, and again a few moments later when him and Nala are cornered. Later, after running away, we see Simba in his new world for the first time, a dry, baked dessert.
When he is rescued by Timone and Pumbaa,, they become his allies and mentors in his new world. Finally, Simba’s enemies are the Hyenas (and by extension Scar), and also Simba’s own internal guilt over Mufassa’s death. It is ultimately the combination of these tests, support from allies, and determination to overcome enemies, that builds Simba’s character and causes his character arc.
‘Approach to the Innermost Cave’ is a short sequence towards the end of the film, when Simba returns to the Pridelands to challenge Scar to the throne. The dramatic function of the approach is to give the Hero chance to psyche himself up, and to make physical preparations for the Ordeal stage (Vogler, 2007, p144). In the film, we see Simba seeing the Pridelands for the first time since the stampede. Seeing how it’s baron it’s become reinforces his resolve further, and also during this stage he receives crucial support from Nala, Timone and Pumbaa. The Hyenas appear here as Threshold Guardians, which gives Timone and Pumbaa their first real test, letting them know the stakes of the confrontation.
The ‘Ordeal’ stage leads on directly from Approach and is the confrontation between Simba and Scar. Traditionally, the Ordeal stage occurs in the middle of Act 2, and in fact, Vogler warns against confusing the Ordeal stage with the crisis (Vogler, 2007, p 157). However, he also acknowledges that some stories work better with no mid-point ordeal, but using Act 2 to build up slowly to an epic confrontation towards the end of Act 2, and this is clearly the structure used in ‘The Lion King’.
The dramatic purpose of this stage is to show the Hero at their darkest hour – Simba is both forced to confront his belief that he’s responsible for Mufassa’s death, and then immediately afterwards, is placed in a life or death situation at the hands of Scar. At this point, Vogler likens the audiences’ emotions as elastic – that is, if you force an extreme emotion (in this case, fear and sadness), then when it’s released, the emotion will ‘snap’ back like releasing an elastic band (Vogler, 2007, p161). This can clearly be seen when Scar admits his ‘secret’, we feel an overwhelming joy when Simba defies the odds and gains the upper hand over Scar.
The next stage, ‘Reward’, follows immediately when Simba overcomes Scar. At this point, Simba gained victory – albeit small and fleeting – over Scar. Although he knows the battle is far from over, this small victory stems not just from overpowering Scar, but from the knowledge that he is not in fact responsible for Mufassa’s death after all. Simba can now direct his anger and grief towards Scar.
The Road Backstage is brief in ‘The Lion King’, and occurs as Scar tries to slip away unnoticed. This is a variation on the more traditional road back model where the Shadow chases the Hero (Vogler, 2007, p192). After Simba catches Scar and seemingly has him defeated, Scar attacks Simba with every ounce of strength he has. Although reluctant, Simba realises he has no choice but to kill Scar, an important point of this stage is the Hero realizing they have to finish their enemy (Vogler, 2007, pp189-190) or they will return stronger than before.
The ‘Resurrection’ stage is the Hero’s final test to see whether he has learnt from his experiences (Vogler, 2007, p212). In ‘The Lion King’ this test is the final fight between Simba and Scar. Neither the hyenas or the lionesses are present for support – this is one on one, a ‘win or die’ situation both for Simba and Scar. This is the first time we see Simba or Scar really fighting with all their strength, both of them had preferred to let others do their fighting for them.
The final stage, ‘Return with the Elixir’ is handled as the majority of U.S films are handled, with a ‘circular’ story form. Nowhere is this more evident than the ‘Circle of Life’ song and the first and last scenes, which mirror each other almost identically. In the case of ‘The Lion King’ the ‘elixir’ for Simba is his place in the circle of life – as King.
So far, only plot has been examined. ‘The Lion King’, as many films do, makes use of certain character archetypes, which are also examined by Christopher Vogler, which will now be discussed.
The first archetype is the ‘Hero’. It is clear from the outset of ‘The Lion King’ that the Hero is Simba. The film is told through his eyes, it is his story. The psychological function of the Hero is to represent our ‘ego’ – the elements of our personality that make each of us unique (Vogler, 2007, pp29-30). Dramatically, the Hero gives us a character to latch on to. It’s important that the Hero is relatable. That is, they have many traits, both good and bad, however, they should be somewhat endearing to an audience. Simba is a typical example of a Hero; Although he’s good-natured in general, at the start of the film he does have some pretty serious flaws – he’s disobedient, self-centred and likes to take risks. However, this does not make him unlikeable, and in fact the older he gets, the less these traits appear. However, as an adult, he finds himself unable to let go of his past, a trait that most of us have experienced at some point or another. This makes him ‘human’ (for want of a better term), and relatable.
The ‘Mentor’ is another common archetype. As previously discussed there are several mentors in ‘The Lion King’, which include Rafiki, Zazu and Mufassa. Their purposes, however, remain the same. Psychologically, they represent our conscience (Vogler, 2007, p40), or at least our voice of reason. Dramatically, they serve to guide the Hero through their journey. They do this by teaching them the skills they will need for success, offering advice and support when the going gets tough and setting them back on the right track if the Hero wanders.
Applied to ‘The Lion King’, Rafiki appears quite late in the film but serves to persuade Simba that he has to return to the Pridelands, despite his pain about his past. Zazu can be seen as a mentor while Simba is still a cub, but really all he does is scold him when he misbehaves and fetches Mufassa when he gets into trouble. Mufassa, on the other hand, teaches Simba as much wisdom as he can. Despite being killed off fairly early in the film, his presence and even his ghost constantly tap into Simba’s mind, leading him towards making the decision to return home.
The ‘Threshold Guardian’ is another archetype that appears in ‘The Lion King’, which are represented by the hyenas. Representing obstacles but not insurmountable ones, psychologically and dramatically, their purpose is to test the Hero, preparing them for the challenge of the main antagonist (Vogler, 2007, pp50-51). The hyenas make very good threshold guardians; They are vicious but not particularly intelligent. A worthy Hero, such as Simba, is capable of overcoming them, but has to make use of resources available to him, representing more of an annoyance than a serious enemy.
The next archetype is the ‘Herald’. Their purpose is to announce a need for change to the Hero, and to provide motivation and focus for the Hero (Vogler, 2007, pp56-57). In ‘The Lion King’ this archetype is provided by both Mufassa and Rafiki, particularly when Rafiki visits Simba and leads him to the visit from Mufassa’s ghost. Together, they make Simba realise that he cannot keep away from home – he has to return and face his demons – both external and internal.
The next two archetypes ‘Shape-shifter’ and ‘Shadow’ will be dealt with together because, in ‘The Lion King’ they’re both represented by Scar. The Shape-shifter’s purpose is to provide conflict between what Carl Jung described as ‘animus’ and ‘anima’, which represent what society sees as male energy and female energy respectively (Vogler, 2007, p60). We see from the outset that Scar is not angry and evil every time we see him – rather he bides his time and is often pleasant and charming, yet even early in the film, we can tell that his motives are not good. This leads on to the Shadow archetype. In this instance, the Shadow is the opposite of the Hero, and is usually the main antagonist.
Psychologically, the Shadow represents the dark side that few people ever display (Vogler, 2007, pp65-66). Dramatically, they give a worthy Hero an equally worthy opponent, providing the bulk of the conflict in the film. Relating this to ‘The Lion King’, by the time Scar arranges the stampede, we know what his intentions are, and the level to which Simba has to respond if he’s to defeat Scar. This foreshadows the extent of the task that Simba faces when he returns later in the film.
The next archetype is the ‘Ally’. These are represented in the film by Nala, Timon and Pumbaa. Their purpose is to accompany the Hero on his journey, providing support and sometimes comedy (Vogler, 2007, p71). Timon and Pumbaa encourage Simba to lead a more laid-back lifestyle and to forget any past problems. By the time Nala re-enters Simba’s life, she implores him to face up to his past, dishing out tough love to him.
Finally, we encounter the ‘Trickster’, whose primary purpose is to provide a comic effect. This archetype is represented by Zazu in Act 1 and 3, and Timon and Pumbaa through Acts 2 and 3. The Trickster is also required to downplay the Hero’s ego, as Zazu attempts in the musical number ‘I Just Can’t-Wait to be King’.
In conclusion, ‘The Lion King’ makes full use of theories proposed by Christopher Vogler, Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, making the film entertaining and original, while keeping a familiarity with older stories and ancient myths.
Boeree, C (2006) Personality Theories [online]. Available from: http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/jung.html [Accessed: 25.02.2013]
Walter, R (2012) About Joseph Campbell [online]. Available from: http://www.jcf.org/new/index.php?categoryid=11 [Accessed: 03.03.2013]
Vogler, C (2007) The Writer’s Journey Third Edition. Chelsea, Michigan: Sheridan Books, Inc.
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