The Lion King, one of the most popular animated movies ever, premiered on June 15, 1994—20 years ago today. In honor of the movie’s milestone anniversary, which fittingly falls on Father’s Day, I decided to do myself, and the rest of the world, a favor by finally watching it.
When I was younger, I enjoyed my fair share of Disney movies. My VHS collection included classics like Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. Unimpressed by my connoisseurship, virtually everyone asked me: “What about The Lion King?” And yet my problems really started once I got older.
Instead of moving on to what I had heard were more appropriate adult conversations, i.e. 401ks and the “real world," I was still haunted by Lion King interrogations. Either my eavesdropping on the adults' table during Thanksgiving was completely distorted, or I was still sitting at the kids' table.
Growing up, the reactions to my confession got more dramatic. First, people gave me wide-eyed expressions and theatrical gasps of disbelief—then they got meaner. I would fess up to not watching this apparently monumental movie and people would berate and shame me. “How have you never watched it?!” “You’re so deprived!” “Did you even have a childhood?” In response to that last one: I guess not since you’re invalidating my experiences by imposing your own. JK. It was more along the lines of me sobbing. Back then, I would apologize profusely and try to justify why I hadn’t watched the movie where Jonathan Taylor Thomas voices a child lion. I didn’t want them to think I was weird—well, weirder than they thought I was for not watching The Lion King. I wanted to fit in. Why was I this outcast who had missed out on such an important movie?!
Then high school happened, and anything that made me different made me cool—I thought so, anyway. Suddenly, when the previously dreaded topic came up, I turned to boasting about not having seen it. I began to enjoy the reactions of disbelief. In fact, I went one step further and began to antagonize people like I'd been antagonized. At this point in my life I had heard enough about the movie, including that one huge spoiler, to say: “I know about The Lion King. I know you-know-who dies. Who cares?” People would burst into tears right there, get pissed at me for dissing their beloved movie, call me cold-hearted, or a combination of all three. I took it in stride.
My refusal to watch the movie only motivated my friends further in their attempts to get me to watch it. Years passed. Not watching The Lion King became my party trick. In my college class icebreakers, when you have to say something “interesting” about yourself, I began using it. People continued to be surprised. It was amusing seeing how big of a deal it was.
It was time I found out for myself.
So here I am, watching The Lion King. I immediately regret this decision five seconds into the movie when I recognize that infamous opening: the guy singing in the Zulu African language that countless people have imitated. I’m bored. Once “The Circle of Life” kicks in, I can basically start singing along. I’ve heard Disney Channel stars sing covers of it many times. I try to regain my focus and then I see the iconic image of Simba being held up at the top of Pride Rock. This isn’t my first time seeing this. Next.
Finally! Someone I like: Scar. He’s sarcastic and funny. And no, I don't want to confront what that says about me as a person. Anyway, I also like metaphors. When Mufasa's having that convo with Simba about how lions die and become a part of the Earth, which feeds the antelopes, and explains, well, the circle of life, that digs deep.
I should mention that I’m watching with a friend who keeps giggling at parts that are funny, just not LOL funny. I feel pressured to laugh. If I try to laugh, it’s just going to sound forced. #socialanxiety.
While gags like Zazu crashing head first into a rhino’s butt don't amuse me, I don't feel too old for the puns. When Shenzi, one of the hyenas, voiced by Whoopi Goldberg, says she wants a cub sandwich instead of club? Hilarious! But you know what they say, after laughter comes tears.
Forget that heartrending moment when you-know-who dies, watching Scar sing is more devastating. I facepalm. My friend quickly reminds me that it’s a Disney movie and, although I keep forgetting, it’s for kids. I don’t have a problem with the singing. I’m disappointed that he is singing. He's supposed to be the most evil character, and here he is, giving away his credibility. This is the equivalent of watching The Mountain, one of the most terrifyingly vicious characters on Game of Thrones, sing a musical number. It undermines everything!
Now for the moment I’ve been anticipating: you-know-who’s death. It’s been years in the making, so frankly I’m ready to get it over with. I’m ready to push him off the cliff. My friend is fanning her face as her eyes well up even though you-know-who isn’t in danger yet. I can’t help but laugh at her. In my defense, knowing about the death for so long has made me detached from it, which is why I’m cynical about it. It’s also why I was apprehensive about watching The Lion King in the first place. Why waste time on something that's already been spoiled for you?
And so the rest goes: singing, dancing, metaphors, circle of life. Roll credits.
Despite all the suffering, I’m glad I waited to watch The Lion King. I might’ve enjoyed it more as a kid, but I know I enjoyed parts of it even more because I’m an adult. As a kid, I would’ve missed its pop culture references to movies like Scarface and Taxi Driver. This is the equivalent of being an adult and realizing how many sexual innuendos your childhood cartoons had.
I should be sad that I lost my party trick, but I realize that The Lion King is like an English major’s Shakespeare—you need to learn about it eventually. Shakespeare may have not been my favorite, but I was able to appreciate it, much like the movie.
Now I just have to hold off on watching Frozen for 20 years.
Debbie Encalada is a freelance writer. She tweets here.