Why Mufasa’s Death in The Lion King Makes Us Tear Up Even Today

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Why Mufasa’s Death in The Lion King Makes Us Tear Up Even Today

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

H

ow do you talk to a child about mortality? At what point do you introduce loss and grief to an impressionable mind? Do you wait until their first real-world brush with death, to explain the inevitability of it all? And where do you find the right words? Luckily, that’s what we have stories for. The tales, myths, and legends we grow up with form the basis for our understanding of the world we occupy. And for the last 25 years, the cultural touchstone for most children’s first brush with death has been Mufasa’s dramatic fall into the gorge in Disney’s The Lion King.

The 2019 remake of The Lion King, which swaps out the hand-drawn animation for breathtakingly realistic CGI, revisits this moment in painful detail, as if it wasn’t already burned into our collective memory. Given how The Lion King is one of the first movies I have a conscious memory of ever watching, I considered it my duty to watch the film on the first day. The theatre was packed. There were people of all ages; gaggles of schoolchildren, world-weary millennials in shirts bearing the faces of Simba and Scar, and couples who had brought their young children in tow to experience the same film that defined their childhoods. Together, we were spellbound by the timeless story, which hasn’t aged a day.

musafa_and_scar

As Simba climbed down into the gorge, and found Mufasa’s broken body lying in the dust, I heard the kid one more time. “Noooo!”

Walt Disney Pictures/ Fairview Entertainment

As the dreadful moment approached, and the wildebeest stampede carried away Mufasa under thundering hooves after he rescued Simba from the same fate, I became aware of a kid sitting a few rows behind me. “Where’d he go?” he cried out, oblivious to theatre etiquette (which can be forgiven since he was probably five years old). The background score grew more tragic, the string section tugging on tear glands in every seat. “Where’d he go!?” the question rang out again, more urgently. As Simba climbed down into the gorge, and found Mufasa’s broken body lying in the dust, I heard the kid one more time. “Noooo!”

Those parents definitely had their hands full consoling their distraught offspring on the ride home. But the difficult conversation that Mufasa’s death must have entailed is an important one for parents to have with their children. The Lion King provides its young audience their first glimpse of the irreversible nature of death. As Simba comes to terms with his father’s demise, his emotions run the gamut from pain, guilt, anger, to finally acceptance. When a long-dead Mufasa appears to Simba in the clouds and tells him to go fulfil his destiny, it drives home the point that some losses cannot be overturned, but moving forward is our only option. Living through Simba’s grief with him as children was a softer introduction to such weighty topics, one that prepared us for more stark encounters down the road.

Those parents definitely had their hands full consoling their distraught offspring on the ride home.

Mufasa’s death leaves me disconsolate, no matter how many times I witness it. It hurts just as much in the modern version as the classic. But coming to terms with it when I first watched Lion King set the foundation for how I would deal with the loss of my grandparents later in life. Children’s films are littered with many such teaching moments. There’s the off-screen death of Bambi’s mother in Bambi, a barracuda eating Nemo’s mother in Finding Nemo, and the death of Hiccup’s father Stoick the Vast in How to Train Your Dragon 2. In 2017, a study published in the Journal of Death and Dying analysed character deaths in children’s films. “We believe that Disney and Pixar films are popular and accessible for children and adults so that a difficult conversation can begin in a less threatening way earlier in life… It’s not our intent to have these conversations with a three-year-old, but as children mature, then the films fit naturally into that growth,” says Kelly Tenzek, co-author of the study.

No matter how painful it may seem, Mufasa’s death in The Lion King is actually essential viewing. It’s a coming-of-age moment, a rite of passage that must be undertaken to better understand this big, bad world. “Mufasa death reactions” is a well-stocked YouTube subgenre, with most videos featuring parents or guardians filming a child’s raw, unfiltered reaction after witnessing one of cinema’s most gut-wrenching moments for the first time. Sometimes, you can’t avoid the hurt. But that’s okay. Sadness is just as natural as happiness, which is what The Lion King teaches us. And death also has its place in the Circle of Life.

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