Foreshadowing and Character Establishment in the Opening of The Lion King
First and foremost, the opening minutes of The Lion King are significant due to several iconic images and the famous song “Circle of Life.” Interestingly, several of the opening images reveal a great deal of information about the story that is about to unfold. There is no dialogue in the opening, but placement and grouping of characters, symbolic gestures, and even use of lighting tell the audience about The Lion King’s characters and foreshadow what the film is about thematically.
The beginning shot of the sunrise implies that the film will be about awaking and “rising” to a challenge, among other things. Simba must awake from his sleeplike years with Timon and Pumbaa and become a responsible adult, for example. On a basic level, the sunrise represents life. The cyclical nature of the celestial bodies implies a constant, ongoing dialogue of life and death. This, of course, ties in with “Circle of Life,” which shows us that life and death are interconnected. The Lion King is very much about life and death. Simba must learn to live his life in the face of the trauma of Mufasa’s death. Simba learns through Rafiki that it is still possible to recall memories of the deceased and to carry on someone’s legacy, even after a tragic death has occurred. The opening shot might seem simplistic, but it sets up the fact that The Lion King deals with topics of life, death, and resilience.
Next, we see groups of animals commuting to Pride Rock. We see a group of meerkats, a subtle nod to Timon. This group does not feature Timon, so we can assume that this opening scene takes place after Timon’s exile. Given what we learn later, this absence of Timon shows that these animals, in spite of appearing to be communal and accepting, are actually eager to banish others. This short shot foreshadows the theme of exile in the film. Exile and banishment figure heavily into the action of The Lion King, because Timon, Pumbaa, and Simba are all forced to leave their homes at different times. The fact that this is extremely subtle foreshadowing might imply that this society chooses to turn a blind eye to their tendency to banish others.
Certain shots of the animals employ sunlight and others make use of fog. This foreshadows the sunny environments and the contrasting bleak environments we will see in the forthcoming story. For example, the scenes in the elephant graveyard are gloomy and foggy. As seen with the aforementioned themes of life and death, this contrast in lighting shows that The Lion King is a film filled with several thematically “light” and “dark” moments.
Eventually, we see the animals approaching Pride Rock. Zazu flies overhead, implying that he outranks the common animal citizens of the kingdom. We see that Mufasa outranks Zazu when Zazu bows to the lions atop Pride Rock. These two moments silently establish the hierarchy that is present in the kingdom, even before we learn any of the characters’ personal attributes. Furthermore, the shots that take place on Pride Rock foreshadow the close relationship among these characters. Rafiki is the one who holds Simba and raises him high so the animals can see the new prince. This implies the closeness that Rafiki and Simba will share later on in the movie, particularly Rafiki’s role as a mentor and caregiver in Mufasa’s absence. Rafiki is the one who teaches Simba to take responsibility and to become active in his life. Rafiki metaphorically “raises” Simba to an important, responsible level later on in the film, and we see this relationship manifest itself literally in this opening scene.
Finally, the opening scene ends with light coming down from the skies. This foreshadows that religion and a relationship with the spiritual world will come up later on in the film. Also, the fact that the “heavenly” light shines on Simba references the fact that he is the one who will be communicating with spiritual figures.
The opening of The Lion King only takes up a few minutes, but these shots provide a great deal of insight into what the film has in store for the viewer. Through these minute details, we can understand the film’s setting, themes, and characters in a very visual and very unique manner.
Allers, Roger and Rob Minkoff. The Lion King. Buena Vista, 1994. Film.
John, Elton. “Circle of Life.” The Lion King. Walt Disney Records, 1994. MP3.