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Akshay Seth: Preparing for adulthood with 'The Lion King'

Walt Disney Pictures

By Akshay Seth, Daily Film Columnist
Published June 25, 2014

Adulthood is much worse than its nasty habit of sneaking up on the best of us — no, that’d be too easy. What’s most aggravating is the moment it happens: The palpable pause in our lives when we decide that maybe, hopefully, the bogeyman doesn’t exist. It waits. It leans on graying haunches. It coils its jagged spine. It watches for the first glimmer of weakness, the wavering signs of contempt, and before we can toe our feet back across the blissful divide of adolescence, it drags us, almost unaware, into a netherworld of age, worry, death.

Part of me — the part that’s still convinced sleepless, tortured nights flirting with Google Docs every other week are worth it as long as they mean I can continue churning out these columns over summer break — knows this world awaits me in the form of graduation next spring, now looming less than a year away. It can see the dungeons just beyond my flickering Ann Arbor horizon.

Another part of me, a wiser little Yoda-kshay, talks about a balance, insisting “All just a giant circle, this is.” When I counter with “What you talkin’ bout Lil’ Shay? Look at the signs, son. It’s aaaalllll going to shit in 10 months,” he animatedly shakes his head, insisting I rewatch “The Lion King.” So I do. Exactly six years have passed since I last thought about Simba, 19 since I first thought about him, and 20 since he made his big screen debut, becoming arguably the most beloved Disney character of all time. 20 years to ruminate on all those cryptic Mufasa monologues. 20 years to realize Whoopi Golberg ad-libbed the phrase “running this joint” while voicing a hyena. And in all that time, I’m only now realizing what Yoda-kshay meant.

From a distance, it’s easy to dismiss “The Lion King” as simply the first animated movie I, along with many other people who recently turned 21, ever saw — leave it there before continuing to waltz around in these well-worn circles, talking about how “Breaking Bad” or “Game of Thrones” or “The Dark Knight” trilogy or the “Star Wars” trilogy will always be the most relevant pieces of pop art produced in our lifetimes. But Yoda-kshay hints things may be a little more complicated, rooted in truths much more intertwined. This granddaddy of animated features, now so often dismissed with some nostalgic twinkle dancing behind our eyes, coloring in simplistic, choked up phrases like ‘taught me how to just get down and love life, that Simba,’ is in fact one of the most important reasons we’re able to appreciate the more “pertinent,” current additions to this medium.

By not just killing off perhaps the most respected, James-Earl-Jones-voiced patriatch ever conceived — rather, by doing so in its first act — “The Lion King” became the movie that taught us how to openly confront death. Yet what makes this truth so meaningful is how the film forced us to react before many, like me, had even had an opportunity to face down a version of that demise in our own two-year-old lives. The so-called Disney chumps, supposedly preying on the hyper-sensitive, hyper-active imaginations of their target audiences, had gone and done the unthinkable, making little kids openly sob while sitting in the safety of a cartoon character’s shadow.

Death has a morbid way of setting up opportunities for bravery, questioning innocent bystanders if they dare move on with their own lives or succumb to a synonymous form of decay. Mufasa’s Shakespearean passing carved a similar fork in Simba’s metaphorical path, and by extension, our own. At first, he chose to look away, shield himself from trauma as any child would, though eventually, growing up means being able to deal with the past, no matter how difficult it may be. It’s a simple message, etched and repeated in countless iterations of stories forged through time, melded in the most basic facets of our humanity. But there was uniqueness in seeing it through a child’s eyes — at first Simba’s, but then our own.

This novelty is what stuck with us, and as years passed, became one of the reasons we learned to embrace responsibility; the reason we learned to let go; the reason we found how fear can sometimes inspire courage.

Though on a much broader level, this puny, drawn-in, 83-minute film defined our appreciation of the countless movies and TV shows that followed it. It became the reason we still believe Daenerys will one day fly back to Westeros on the backs of her dragons and reclaim what is rightfully hers. It became the reason that collective gasp flooded through the living room when Darth Vader revealed he is Luke’s father. It became the reason we soldiered on with Bruce Wayne, the reason we learned not to be afraid when his world had ended. It became the reason we rose with him. And ultimately, the reason we understood why the Dark Knight was so much more than just a hero.

Sitting here, worrying about my inevitable transition into adulthood, I can’t help but remember what “The Lion King” taught us two decades ago — age has little to do with duty. Because the key is embracing it, being not just ready, but willing to face it when the time comes. So when I graduate next May, I’ll do so with an understanding that I’m not diving into some magical new world of shackles and chains. Yes, commitments will follow me, as they always have, and they will use the same paths they’ve taken to find the rest of us. But “all just a giant circle, this is.”

Instances of maturity and childhood will glimpse through no matter how old I am because at the end of the day, responsibility is a balance between the two. Because as Mufasa said all those years ago, “You are more than what you have become.”