Story Analysis

Visual symbols in Disney’s the Lion King

Welcome back to Pencils & Stories!

Today marks the release date for the “new” Lion King movie and I though that was a perfect time to dive into the amazing cinematography of the original Lion King movie. The 1994 one.

We’re going to talk specifically about the use of what I call “visual symbols” in the film. They help tell the story and knit it together on a more subconsious and emotional level.

Visual symbols in the lion king

If you are wondering about the slow updates on my part, I have written a post about that here. The post talks about my plans for the rest of 2019, as I will be taking a break after today’s post. It also talks about why breaks are essential to help your art and career. Lastly, there is a list in there that will update with my newest content related to this blog, my Youtube channel and my comic.

I will geek out for a bit about the movie Lion King movie now because it’s part of my childhood and it started off my life long love for hand drawn animation. If you want to skip that and go straight to the video, then dive right in:

I was 10 years old around the time Lion King came out and I vividly remember seeing Elton John’s music video for the Circle of Life. The video had some clean up animation and showed some parts of the process of making the film and I remember sitting in front of the tv, mesmerized. This was before the DVD era, before the internet (at least in our house) so behind the scenes material was rare! (I feel old now)

This is where my fascination with the process of hand drawn animation really took off. Before this I was mostly looking at the surface: the story and the characters. But now I started to learn how such a movie is actually made.

The movie was incredibly popular when it came out. I remember seeing the images everywhere. I had one of those stickerbooks where you collect screenshots from buying little packs of stickets, and who has also played the Lion King game on the Super Nintendo?!

I didn’t see the film in cinemas around that age. (The first movie I ever watched in cinemas was Pocahontas, which came out a year later) This is why I jumped at the chance of going to the 3D version of the film in the cimema a few years back. I can’t see 3D because I am blind in one eye, but I still really wanted to experience the epicness of the movie on a big screen. Super great to still have that chance after all those years. (Shoutout to my sister who doesn’t watch these older movies much and who said “I never watch the Lion King, I forgot that this movie is actually pretty good.”)

Anyway, the Lion King is a special movie. No one thought it would do well when they were making it, but it sat in the Guinness Book of Records for YEARS as the most sucessful animated movie until it was finally beaten by Pixar’s Finding Nemo in 2002. It still is the most successful traditionally animated movie ever made. And rightly so, I think. It’s not my favourite Disney movie but in my opinion: I do think it’s their best. (I’m sorry, Tangled and Hunchback, you come very close!)

The movie still looks amazing to me: deliciously crisp animated lines, lovely vibrant colours, the music is epic, great voice acting, amazing compositions and camera movements, the 3D wildebeest herd blends in seamlessly with the 2D animation. It just looks REALLY great. And the movie is structured really well. It’s nice and lean, everything has function. I love it.

The story is a mixture of all kinds of different influences: some biblical stories, like that of Joseph and Moses, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet were key in the development of the story.

I have mixed feelings about the new Lion King movie that comes out today. It just…..doesn’t look very good to me. The vibrant colours are gone, the hyper realistic lions don’t emote very well and everything looks dusty and dull. But I know it’s part of Disney’s business strategy to do new things with their classics every 10 years. (yes I do still remember the straight to video seuqels period *shudders*) And in and of itself it’s a good way to bring in the money. And I do recognize they’re at least trying to innovate, like they did with the musical. I actually LOVE the musical, because they translated the story into pure theatre REALLY well and made it new and fresh. But they’re giving me mixed signals this time by literally copying shots of the original movie. At that point it just looks like they want to “upgrade” the original film, which is nonsense. The original film doesn’t need an upgrade. You also can’t “remake” it.

So, we’ll see. I hope they AT LEAST did something new with it instead of copying stuff and then rendering it into hyper 3D.

Anyway, back to the topic of today’s video: we are talking about how the movie uses some subtle and not-so-subtle visual imagery that clues you into all kinds of extra meaning below just what the action on the screen is telling you.

I call these clues “visual symbols”

A symbol is something that gets an extra meaning beyond what it is already representing.

I mention the colour red in the video. In and of itself it doesn’t have much meaning other than that it’s a surface or a light beam sending or reflecting only the red parts of light into our eyes. Which is why we perceive something as “red.” But when it’s used in certain contexts “red” gets different meanings. It can mean “stop” in a traffic light, “danger” in nature, “love and passion” in the colour of a rose. In movies, red is usually associated with tension, danger, action, violence etc. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s all in how you set your colours up in your movie.

And that is the key in using visual symbols: you have to prime your audience’s brain with how something is used. You can repeat something so our brain starts picking up on it, or you can sometimes even tell the audience (like in the Lion King).

Watch the video to see how they use these kinds of symbols to tell the story on an even deeper level:

As always, thank you for watching and have a great day! If you have any movie fans in your circles, I’d greatly appreciate it if you shared the video.