Walt Disney’s The Lion King is one of my all-time favourite movies. As a child I would watch it time after time, being amused and enthralled by each scene as if it were my first time watching. For those who haven’t watched it, do so!
In short, it’s a story of a lion cub who is heir to the throne as king of the jungle. It follows his journey through life, highlighting all the trials and tribulations he goes through along the way, and as one would expect from Disney, we meet a myriad of comical characters throughout his journey. As a 6 year old, I took what was shown to me in the movie as gospel, but as I’ve grown and come to understand the way of the wild a little better, I slowly realised that the Disney team made full use of their poetic license. 

It’s certainly not my intention to take anything away from the movie but I do feel it my ranger duty to debunk one or two unfair myths about the characters. 

Zazu: (Based on the commonly seen african bird, the hornbill.) Brilliant! If I were to personify this bird using the experiences I’ve had watching them, Disney nailed it! The voice of the great Rowan Atkinson to accompany this character is spot on. Whenever I watch these comical birds I can’t help but giggle. They may know the in and outs of all the happenings of the bush having a bird’s eye view of everything, but they are way to clumsy and ditzy to be in control. Just when they seem to have it all figured out, someone or something throws a curve ball for them and it all comes tumbling down, sending them into a panic and having to recover.

The REAL Zazu. Photograph by Kevin Power

The not so real Zazu.

Timon & Pumbaa: (The meerkat and the warthog.) Pretty close. “Hakuna matata..” – It means no worries. This is the philosophy that these two larger-than-life characters live by. When observing these two animals in the wild it comes pretty close for both of them when everything is going smoothly, seemingly going about their daily business pretty unfazed. There is however most certainly danger lurking around most corners for these two mammals. In the form of teeth, claws, talons, fangs; most predators would enjoy snacking on either of these two. So there are some worries, but Disney made use of that poetic license in a small way.

Although meerkats don’t occur at Londolozi, the dwarf mongooses are their closest relatives here. Photograph by Andrea Campbell

The real Pumbaa likes nothing more than a cool mud wallow on a hot day. Photograph by James Tyrrell

Simba & the Pride: As I said previously, I’m certainly not trying to take anything away from the movie; its fantastic! The lion pride dynamics are slightly off though. Simba, born into the pride as a young male, is heir to the throne held by his father, Mufasa. This is unfortunately not the case in most natural systems. Lion dynamics work in such a way that young males will eventually disperse from the pride at a certain age in order to spread the gene pool around the natural system. If Simba were to stay in the pride and eventually take over, he would end up having relations with females related to him. Nature will try not to allow this, therefore the young males move off and find territory elsewhere, ideally ending up with females who they aren’t related to.
The relationship between Mufasa and Scar.. well… It’s fantastic to have a villain in the story – most classics do – but again the scenario painted in the movie is not often true in natural systems. When young male lions leave the pride, they often leave as a group. Be it two, three or four, these young males usually stay together and form coalitions. This ensures safety and betters their chances of gaining territory. Mufasa and Scar, being brothers, would more than likely share the territory – or should I say “everywhere the light touches”. Pride rock unfortunately DOES NOT exist, lions make use of their whole territory to hunt and rest. If pride rock were real, ranger’s and tracker’s lives would be a lot easier as we would always know where to find lions and not have to track them for hours on end. 

The Serengeti in East Africa has many rock formations like the Pride Rock in the film.

Koppies – small, conical, rocky hills – at Londolozi take the place of the Pride-rock-lookalikes one finds in the Serengeti. Photograph by James Tyrrell

The Hyenas: The hyenas in the lion king are a treat. They are basically Scar’s minions and do all the dirty work for him. They are a fantastic addition to the movie, but this is where I feel Disney were unfair and got the representation completely wrong. They portray hyenas as dirty stupid animals. Dirty at times, yes, but stupid, definitely not! Hyenas are some of the more intelligent animals in the wild. Working together or as individuals they can be extremely successful predators or scavengers. Yes they sometimes steal food from other animals, but it’s an easier option; they are clever enough to work that out; why waste energy? They are one of the most important members of the clean up crew of the bush. Without hyenas in the system, disease would be a lot more prominent and spread much more. They are certainly a very integral part of the ecosystem, and don’t even like lions, let alone work for one. I feel Disney owe the hyenas on the planet an apology.

Although sometimes quite goofy in appearance, hyenas are relatively intelligent carnivores that play a vital role in the health of the ecosystem. Photograph by Kevin Power

I sure hope this hasn’t come across as cynical or pessimistic, it certainly was not my intention – I love The Lion King. I merely wanted to iron out some false ideas of certain animals in the wild, and give some characters the credit they deserve. I hope The Lion King is now in the downloads file of your computer. 

Filed under General Nature Wildlife

About the Author

Kevin Power

Field Guide

Kevin hails from the small town of George, but we try not to hold that against him... After obtaining a Bachelor of Commerce degree in Finance at the University of Stellenbosch, Kev realised that town life wasn't for him for the moment, and ...

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11 Comments

on The Lion King: Debunking Myths
    Sibu says:

    “I feel Disney owe the hyenas on the planet an apology” I completely agree with you Kev !!!! 🙂

    Senior Moment says:

    One of the great joys when I stopped at Londolozi was the Hyena den, a great joy and blew away all I thought I knew about them.

    Laura Eberly says:

    Great way to start our Sunday, thank you! Yes The Lion King has always been in our movie library. It is an iconic film and fuels our American fascination with Africa!!

    Jerry Saunders says:

    Nice, Kevin. Now, if you haven’t already, see “Zootopia”! We are just back from our second visit to Londolozi and made this recommendation to Nick Sims. A Cape Buffalo as a police chief; Tommy Chong as a stoner wildebeest; Shakira as a gazelle- we think you and all the staff will love it.

    Vernon says:

    Well said Kevin!!

    Wendy Hawkins says:

    Thanks Kevin, you have not stopped me from wanting to see the movie once again with my grandkids when I see them in May, but yes I do believe that the youngsters who don’t have the pleasure of going to a park & seeing the real thing will carry on believing this is “the real deal” until they are old enough to venture out to see the wild ones!!!

    Alison Smith says:

    amazing analogy! thank you!

    Lea says:

    Thanks for the story Kevin. I too loved the Lion King. Although Disney portrayed some animals in the wrong light, it did at least introduce kids to wild animals – good or bad – hopefully this encouraged them to love all animals. Would love to visit Londolozi one of these days – beautiful spot and beautiful people. Thanks again Kevin – Hakuna Matata……

    Martina Welch says:

    I still haven’t seen the Lion King and after my visit to tree camp at Londolozi last week, I wondered how accurate the film was! I’ll have to watch it now, thank you !

    Jill Larone says:

    Great blog Kevin! I think Disney really wasn’t fair to the Hyenas as well. They are quite beautiful animals and very interesting to see in the wild. I do love the Lion King though and saw it a few times when my children were small. It’s great to hear you commenting on the differences though, between the film’s portrayal and the actual behaviours of these animals.

    Vicky Sanders says:

    HaHa! Wonderful article. I too love The Lion King, but people really should keep their perspective knowing it is a Disney animation. Hopefully it will give them a hunger to research, and learn more about all the wonderful creatures in Africa….yes, even the very interesting & complicated hyena.

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