It’s time to talk about different representation of animals in animated movies, and this is mostly because of this article about Andrew Stanton, Pixar filmmaker, on how Finding Nemo is kind of a response to The Lion King.
Stanton says, “‘I liked working with the limitations of the rules of nature, as opposed to breaking the rules and saying everything’s in it for the ‘circle of life.'”
Unsurprisingly, I think 20-something Stanton, and whatever-age-he-is-now Stanton, are both wrong about The Lion King. And also about Finding Nemo. And also about the “rules of nature.”
Quickly, then, on TLK’s opening scene: yes, “Circle of Life” shows a bunch of prey animals bowing to a newborn predator who will be their king. A few scenes later:
Mufasa: Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance, and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.
Simba: But dad, don’t we eat the antelope?
Mufasa: Yes, Simba, but let me explain. When we die, our bodies become the grass and the antelope eat the grass. And so, we are all connected in the great circle of life.
And sure, the in-universe explanation for how this lion monarchy ecosystem works hinges on lions and all of their prey being philosophically aware of the bigger picture beyond each individual life and death. I guess it’s easy to think that seems a little hokey, particularly if you’re wrapped up in the rampant individualism of our modern times, but The Lion King is actually about human society and its thesis is that a true leader’s core identity is his responsibility for everyone else. Even those he eats. Soooo.
But if you like, we can ignore that The Lion King is completely about humans – or – humans as we should be – and talk about rules of nature and how they do and don’t apply. Why not?
First: Cooperation and Empathy in Animals According to an Actual Researcher
I have a lot of jumbled thoughts about this but here’s an actual expert doing a convenient and entertaining Ted Talk:
And now on to what I, the all-knowing knower of these things,* think.
The Rules of Nature IMO in Two Parts
Part 1: Humpback Whales and the Empathy Explanation
Have you heard that thing about how humpback whales, if they see orcas attacking prey, will get all agitated and try to intervene? Well, I have, and I decided that humpback whales and myself are kindred spirits. I like orcas, but orcas are not very nice. They’re not the most humane of hunters, and they kill baby gray whales only to eat their tongues. Jerks.
But as to the humpback’s orca hunt disruption behaviour, biologists and behaviourists are baffled. Is it empathy for the prey that compel humpback whales to try to help orca prey? Some say yes, others say that humpbacks see orcas as a threat because occasionally orcas will kill a humpback. So, the theory goes, if a humpback thwarts an orca hunt, there’s a slight possibility that other humpbacks will be saved.
I know that we need to wait for animal linguistics to be a thing so that we can figure out how to talk to whales before we can know for sure why they do any of what they do, but, come on. The simplest explanation is usually the correct one. Humpbacks are distressed by orcas hunting because anyone decent would be, if they’re allowing themselves to empathize with the prey. They intervene because they are compelled to help out of empathy. Deal with it.
My point here is that, I, a very singular human being, believe that our cultural interpretation of the natural world is incredibly narrow and often wrong-headed. Some of us, educated some of us, look at something like this humpback thing and feel the need to explain it using evolutionary theory. “What’s good for my species specifically is good for me. Gotta get my genes out there.”
Sometimes animals just do things. I know. I am one. So are you. And I don’t know what you did today, but I spent it watching people watch TV shows that I’ve seen to see their overdramatic reactions, and if I was doing that because somewhere deep within me my instincts were telling me that’s what I need to do to get pregnant, well, I think I need to see one of those therapists that specializes in evolutionary Darwinism as the root of all decisions people make (in other words: a very bad therapist) because something has gone horribly wrong.
We’re not always trying to propagate the species, or us, specifically. Even Darwin would be sick of how every little thing has to be explained with Darwinism these days. Relax.
This need that researchers have to fight tooth and nail against admitting that animals might be able to empathize is mind boggling to me, especially considering that their alternative interpretations basically require us all to take, on faith, that animals all have this incredibly complex Machiavellian understanding of their own place in the ecosystem. If you’re arguing that because we can’t prove the whales are acting out of empathy, we must instead state that whales are acting out of self-interest, I’m sorry, but, you need to prove to me that animals are ruthless chess players.
If it really is self-interest that compels humpbacks to disrupt orca hunts, that means we all just have to accept, without any actual research, that humpbacks are thinking through a bunch of different steps of what would be a whole complicated cognitive process. We’d have to accept that humpback whales recognize orcas as orcas, a potential threat to them personally, or perhaps they even recognize them as a threat to their entire family group. Then they also must recognize that the prey animal is whatever species they are, ie, they’re not a humpback whale or an orca. I’m OK with this so far; I’m pretty sure they do this easily.
But then they’d have to understand that it’s healthy and good for the orca pod specifically to kill their prey so that they can eat. And they’d have to understand that it would be bad for the orca pod to miss this particular chance at a meal. And they’d have to be of the opinion that it would be worth it to spend their energy disrupting this one hunt they’ve encountered on the off-chance that, I don’t know, the pod will never get a chance to eat a meal again and they all starve, thus lessening, albeit in a minuscule way, the chance that orcas might kill those individual humpbacks. And so they place themselves in at least a little bit of danger to try to stop the hunt, because maybe these dangerous animals that they know might kill one of them one day won’t get to eat if they’re successful and then the orca pod will eventually starve and then they’ll have preemptively made the ocean a little safer for themselves and themselves only.
HOW DID YOU GET A SCIENCE DEGREE.
RETURN IT. MAYBE YOU CAN STILL GET A REFUND.
First of all, that is incredibly irrational reasoning, if that’s indeed what’s going on in their heads. But really, we can’t even prove that humpbacks can do any reasoning, but when it comes to explaining behaviour like this, where the simple explanation is empathy, instead it’s perfectly fine to just assert that humpbacks are, of course, capable of nonsensical overthinking irrational reasoning.
Anyway, we’re all super sure that animals are too stupid to cooperate or to be driven by things apart from a prototypical jungle version of the profit motive and therefore we say silly things about kids’ movies that feature animals who are allegories of humans. And I think we should maybe rethink that one.
Part 2: Ishmael and the Devaluing of the Natural World
I read a book of modern philosophy once. The blurbs on the back of this book that are trying to sell you on the premise are all really, really out there, like, “This book changed my life entirely!” and “I can’t look at anything the same way ever again!”
Well, I read it too and I can attest: yes, this book is majorly perspective-changing, though I didn’t really agree with everything it argued. Also, it’s more than a little demoralizing. But ultimately, it’s trying to show how the way we tend to perceive our own culture as against the natural world is a huge part of why we’re having so much trouble stopping ourselves from destroying the planet.
It’s about a guy who signs up to take lessons on saving the world. The teacher is a telepathic gorilla named Ishmael. So, yeah, you should probably read this book. But the concept from the book that matters for this discussion about TLK and FN’s depiction of nature specifically is that humans take for granted that human civilization, removed from the wild, is “superior,” and a lot of that is down to how we perceive (and depict) the natural world: as savage, dangerous, brutal. Once, I heard some sort of animal making distressing noises in my backyard, and I figured it was fine, but I wanted to be sure. When you google this stuff I can tell you, a lot of people who know nothing have “helpfully” posted responses to posts describing different shrieks and calls that go something like this, “It was something getting eaten alive.” K no, Brad. You’d be more useful silent. (Ultimately I found out it was a fox. The sound is called a “vixen scream” and it sounds like a woman being murdered, but it’s probably just a mating call.) People do this because they just take for granted that life in the wild is miserable, brutal, and short.
And yeah. Sometimes, that is true. But be honest, whenever you’ve gone out into the wilderness, or even just a little patch of green in some urban or suburban area, the animals you see are mostly just living their lives. You can probably find evidence of predation if you look – spider webs are stationary, so those will do it, but mostly animals are just interacting with their environments, watching you watch them, eating or gathering food, and stuff. You may see fledglings being fed by mom and dad, or flying lessons, if you’re lucky. Sometimes, animals just chill on some perch and make a lot of noise, and sometimes squirrels actually throw acorns at your head, which is nice.
The majority of what goes on in the wild is just life. It’s hard to fathom this, but animals are actually totally fine. Most wild animals, even and especially when they’re in distress, really hate being approached by humans. Sometimes they’ll allow a human to help them without freaking out too much, and sometimes they may actually seem to ask for help, but a lot of them really would rather struggle on their own (I’m not advocating leaving a wild animal in distress alone. Just be sure it’s actually in distress and call the right service). Wild animals, if offered the choice of being zooed or petted rather than having to find all of their own meals and watch out for predators, might surprise you with their answer. I mean. Some of them might take us up on an offer of an “easy” life in captivity, but I’m pretty sure a lot of them are just fine as they are.
This would be a lot clearer if nature documentaries weren’t made almost exclusively by and for people with massive animal death boners, but, alas, we don’t live in a world that kind.
I love animals but until nature documentaries feature more stuff like the following and less of the overdramatic death and suffering scenes, I’m not watching them.
This moose does a little angry dance when he can’t reach the ball anymore and it is the best thing.
Or is the best thing baby moose in a sprinkler set to sentimental music?
Or is it a crow snowboarding on a roof?
Or maybe foxes on a trampoline?
No, it’s actually this:
I love this because they both have exactly the same reaction to almost bumping into each other (although the bear’s reflexes are much better). Who says humans and animals are that different?
It really is important to try to retrain our brains into not thinking of the natural world as bad and brutal and dangerous, because in doing so we make it easier to allow large scale habitat destruction to take place which, it turns out, is super bad for us because we need to breath. Also, there are in fact humans who live in the natural world. Some of them haven’t made contact yet, and hopefully won’t. It seems very strange to think about, but as it turns out there are actually humans out there among other species who need us to protect their homes. And by “need us to protect their homes” I mean, of course, they “need us to stop freaking destroying everything everywhere always because why are we doing that even.”
Pretty cool, right?
(Like. Not that their home is in danger of being wiped out, but that they’re still here at all.)
Ishmael is all about the differences between us and the people who live in this way. The term the book gives them is “Leavers,” because they don’t cause the kinds of destruction that we, the “Takers” do, with our agriculture practices. It argues that we need to live more like them in order to not destroy ourselves, and I think it makes its case really well.
I don’t know how possible it is for us to reduce our environmental impact, but the book definitely makes the case for changing our attitudes towards this way of life, whether it’s humans living it, or other animals, and it asks us to, at the very least, do what we can to not tread on them.
Unfortunately, when we depict the natural world as being inherently brutal and destructive, we end up with the conclusion that we are also inherently brutal and destructive. This causes us to devalue the natural world and all of its inhabitants (including ourselves), because in a brutal, competitive world, it’s only right that the most brutal and most competitive animal rises to the top and can then do whatever it wants with all the rest below it. This, incidentally, is not even a little bit what Darwin meant by “Only the strong survive.” It also causes us to devalue our many, many, many other inherent qualities, such as cooperation and empathy. You know. Those little soft skills that are actually the key to human survival and ingenuity. But who’s keeping track?
If we could just understand that cooperation and yes, sometimes, even empathy are inherent parts of the natural world AND inherent parts of human societies of all kinds, we could begin fostering those good qualities as our treasured qualities. We could begin using them to solve the gargantuan problems caused by the fact that all our prominent loud mouths have been declaring, 24/7 and for the past 500 years at least, that competition and brutality are the only true things in life and that this is the way it should be, “because nature.”
So in that spirit, I’m going to try to explain that The Lion King and Finding Nemo have pretty cool things to say about the natural world, and about predators and prey, and about a broader, natural community, despite what 20-something Andrew Stanton thought all those years ago.
Finding Nemo is up front about the kind of world its characters are living in. Why shouldn’t it be? It makes ample use of the natural world to heighten the stakes. We meet Marlin and his wife, and their gazillion eggs, right before a large predator fish shows up to eat them all. That neatly sets up everything we need to know. Marlin is overprotective; Nemo is all he has. Quick. Clean.
Our most formidable antagonists are humans, who aren’t even trying to eat anyone when they take Nemo. They’re just “helping.” And while humans are the worst, we do still have sharks, anglerfish, jellyfish, pelicans, seagulls, and, sigh, humans, again, to contend with as well.
If you map out the Finding Nemo story from one specific lens, what you can find is a couple of very small fish battling an enormous ocean of much larger prey until, finally, they return home safe to the anemone.
But that isn’t the full picture.
Finding Nemo depicts the ocean’s ecosystem as a community. The scariest of predators don’t talk, but some of the others do. Bruce and his vegan shark pals all talk. We get to know the pelicans. Seagulls may only say one word, but still. And then there’s the dentist, who has some of the best lines in the whole movie. Seagulls say their word for comedic effect (ps – gulls are smart, don’t believe everything you see in a Pixar movie), but the fact that Bruce, Nigel and co all frequently talk to fish they’d otherwise be eating allows them to empathize with their would-be prey.
Nigel saves Marlin and Dory from the seagulls because he’s met Nemo and has heard all about Marlin’s epic journey. Bruce and his friends are trying out a more compassionate lifestyle. While Chum may not be the most… dedicated vegan shark there is, he is quick to empathize with Marlin when he hears how Nemo was taken. He’s also quick to help try to restrain Bruce while Marlin and Dory try to escape.
The barracuda and the anglerfish don’t talk, which, yeah. That’s an important style choice. If they talked that would not work. Really only predators that don’t eat prey get to talk – but for a movie that does intimidating but talkative predators really well, try Happy Feet. The skuas are good, but the leopard seal is the best.
(Note that he only talks after Mumble gets away) (Still)
(He has a cute smile and gets very soundly insulted but he still manages to be terrifying)
(Happy Feet needs a post)
However, including predators who have long conversations with would-be prey and who empathize with their would-be prey and who go out of their way to help their would-be prey is, in my opinion, pretty forward thinking.
I know Stanton and the rest of the people who made Finding Nemo didn’t add in the discussions and empathizing and helping out each other across species barriers for realism purposes, but the way I see it, the movie basically represents what life in the natural world is really like, just with a lot of anthropomorphism added in.
Here’s the best example of the sense of community we can see in this ecosystem:
No, that doesn’t happen in the wild. That’s a humans-and-social-media thing. But wild animals are all existing in “the great circle of life” together, and while occasionally two individuals might come up against each other with an important clash of self-interest, ultimately, all species are working together to survive as various ecosystems, intricately connected to every living thing on the planet in the web of life.
A sated predator doesn’t generally kill for no reason. Many predators spend most of their time doing things that aren’t hunting or killing. Snakes, even – what do snakes do when they’re not hunting or digesting? I don’t know, but I do know that many snakes don’t need to eat all that often. Most of their time alive is spent not killing things. I’m not saying they spend the rest of their time participating in Disney movie plots, but there is more to a predator than predation.
Finding Nemo admits that, presenting its empathetic predators like new vegans or like sorry-not-sorry omnivores. That may not be natural realism but it is truer to the complexities of predator species than many narratives that have prey animals as protagonists depict, including supposedly true-to-life nature documentaries.
As you know, the ecosystem portrayed in The Lion King is definitely a community.
Predators as Protagonists
Keeping in mind some of the empathetic predators of Finding Nemo, I’d like to present exhibit a: The Lion King’s female love interest.
She shows up for the first time we’ve seen her since she was a cute little cub and she tries to murder Puumba.
She stops when Simba recognizes her and says her name, and suddenly all those teeth and claws are gone.
The real-life version of this and the Simba/Scar fight is here, and it’s a little bloody:
(Why we need slow motion replays, close up images of wounds, and lion mating I don’t know, but as far as violent wildlife videos go, this isn’t bad)
(The females, watching/participating in that second fight: men are traaaaaash)
Back in the fictional world, Timon is unimpressed.
So Timon shouts about how it doesn’t make sense for everyone to suddenly be friends immediately after a vicious attack and also she wanted to eat Puumba, “and everybody’s… OK… with this?” and Simba’s response is, “Relax, Timon,” and then they move on.
See, Timon. You’re in a movie about predators. We aren’t shying away from the fact that they’re predators – I mean, we’re not going to show them kill anyone. We might show some savage fights, and we might show one of them trying to kill a main, beloved character, but as long as they keep their actual killing and eating off screen all is well.
I’m going to suggest that this is exactly the same tactic that Finding Nemo uses with its predator side characters
(despite what Andrew Stanton thinks).
In the end, we have to acknowledge that Nala isn’t a bad guy for trying to eat Puumba. She’s a lion, she’s supposed to hunt. It’s just that certain would-be prey are off limits.
That isn’t entirely unrealistic. In the wild predators occasionally do something weird, like that one lioness that kept taking baby onyxes and keeping them. It’s a sad story, don’t look it up. We see predators empathizing with prey much more often in captivity, though.
Human intervention causes a lot of these strange situations where animals that would normally kill or be killed by one another actually become friends. Even though the human intervention is pretty much essential, it does seem like predators have the inherent ability to empathize with an animal they would normally see as prey. Otherwise, this wouldn’t ever work.
It’s not… impossible, then, for a baby lion to grow attached to a warthog and a meerkat. It’s just very unlikely that all three of them would make it out of that situation alive.
Ultimately, I think the real difference between Finding Nemo and The Lion King in how they work with the rules of nature is that Finding Nemo has small, vulnerable prey animals as its protagonists, and The Lion King has the largest, most invulnerable predators on the Savannah as its protagonists. It’s easier to incorporate a lot of short scenes in which small, vulnerable fish are chased and almost eaten and have your audience continue to sympathize with them than it is to incorporate a lot of short scenes in which your young couple terrorizes singing warthogs and fight brutally and have your audience continue to sympathize with them.
The Lion King pulls of a more impressive feat in this regard, as far as I’m concerned. Lions are a bad species, but it isn’t really their fault that they’re so violent and angry all the time, and I certainly don’t blame Nala for hunting. I don’t blame Simba for attacking Scar. I don’t blame the hyenas for killing Scar. Marlin, Nemo, and Dory do comparatively few violent and murdery things, which makes perfect sense. I just think allowing the more gruesome realities of a predator species to simply be nodded at and kept mostly offscreen doesn’t automatically make The Lion King completely disingenuous about what life is like in the wild.
Would you like one more example? In Simba’s Pride, which is, I know, the sequel, and not the actual movie, and also I hate it, Kiara’s coming of age ceremony is her being sent out to kill something.
Because the plot is something else, it’s easy enough to squeeze in a scene where Simba won’t let Kiara grow up and she gets all angsty about it that also involves predation.
I don’t like the sequel, but I do like that both female protagonists are allowed to hunt and attempt to kill things. It’s probably because the filmmakers were aware that lionesses are generally the hunters of the species, so they allowed the female characters to do things that female characters usually can’t do and remain sympathetic. Especially in kid’s movies.
There’s also the broadway version:
In which Sarabi and the rest of the lionesses actually kill something, on stage.
How’s that for “working with the limitations of nature,” huh?
We have learned many a thing today.
- The natural world isn’t all bad and needs to be protected (by us, from us)
- Animals aren’t chess playing Machiavellian strategists who have all also read On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection
- Finding Nemo and The Lion King both work within the limitations of nature for dramatic gains, just, differently, because one movie has small prey fish as protagonists, and the other has lions
- Both movies depict the natural world as a broader community, which is realistic in a metaphorical sense because of biodiversity and the web of life
- Nala tried to kill Puumba in a fairly lengthy onscreen scene
- AND MOST IMPORTANTLY:
The Lion King is an animal allegory about people, specifically in the context of leadership, and how benevolent leaders have to respect everyone, even the most vulnerable among us.
(And Finding Nemo is an animal allegory about the struggles of parenthood, which is also important.)
Let’s think more carefully about the stuff we watch and the world we live in, K?