The 1994 Disney cartoon The Lion King draws on Shakespearean tragedy, Japanese animation, biblical proportions, and the music of Elton John to craft a rich, magnificent film. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Lion King is a drama that depicts the personal and the political―and their entwined nature―with equal dexterity.
The representation of the political is most succinct and perfect in the interlude within the villainous Scar’s song “Be Prepared,” where Scar brings his hyena allies in on his scheme to murder his brother the king and usurp the throne. This scene has already received some extensive commentary from Jordan Peterson (which I recommend), but there remains a whole vista in the inset conversation yet unexplored, where the hyenas and Scar engage in dialogue.
“Yeah, be prepared! We’ll be prepared . . . for what?” asks one of the hyenas.
“For the death of the king!” Scar bellows.
“What, is he sick?”
“No, fool, we’re gonna kill him. And Simba too.”
“Great idea! Who needs a king? No king, no king, la la la la la la― ”
“Idiots! There will be a king.”
“Hey, but you said that― ”
“I will be king. Stick with me, and you’ll never go hungry again.”
“Yay, all right, long live the king―long live the king!”
This exchange distills, line by line, the development of a political revolution.
Recipe for Revolution
The first step happens before the dialogue and during the initial verses of the song, as Scar, an ambitious plotter, rallies his henchmen around the refrain “be prepared.” It’s a stirring line, semi-alliterative, future-oriented, and endlessly vague. It’s not a party platform, bullet-point agenda, or some philosophical argument that hooks Scar’s new supporters by revving up their spirits―it’s an empty imperative, an almost meaningless slogan.
This phrase repeats many times before any hyena asks Scar about the content of the refrain―“be prepared for what?” Only then does Scar introduce his crowd of supporters to his end goal, his agenda: killing Mufasa and Simba. (He even insults his own allies, calling Banzai a fool, while doing so.) Scar isn’t shy about his schemes, or even their darker elements, but they are not what first wins the attention and passion of the scavenging hyenas. That is the effect of sloganeering: the vaguer, the better.
Next, Scar is immediately misunderstood, as the hyenas rally around the idea of Anarchy, of not having any king at all. This is not what Scar has in mind. Rebuking them again (“Idiots!”), he declares that there will be a king: himself. With the promise of unending food, the hyenas cheer (in multiplied force) for this new idea.
Scar’s alliance with the hyenas survives his complete inversion of their preferred political system (anarchy) because it was never the centerpiece of the movement he undertook and because the hyenas are not philosophical. They (clearly) don’t have a desire for consistency, wisdom, morality, or even long-term self-interest (Scar’s economic plan of “plunder the productive” is of dubious longevity, after all). The hyenas are happy to revise their politics so long as what they actually care about―food―is on the way. Scar understands that, which is why he corrects their political philosophy without fear of losing their allegiance.
Even Scar’s insult, “Idiots!”, serves a positive purpose in this pivot. By blaming them for the misunderstanding, Scar banishes any nascent suspicion that he had misled them into an alliance. They feel chastened and brought low, preventing them from rallying around a new idea.
Portrait of the Political Animal
Scar and the hyenas are almost opposite characters who work through this cycle together and emerge thick as thieves: Scar is motivated by political ambition, love of power, and personal hatred to develop a plan and charm a vast crowd of allies into joining him. The hyenas want food, change their opinions on a dime, and, despite their loud support for one political system and then another during the song, evidently have zero convictions about a just political philosophy.
Anyone who follows politics can think of examples of exactly this kind of erratic disturbance to principles and enduring personal popularity. Scar, the ring-leader, garners supporters and enthusiasm with a good catchphrase devoid of meaning; patiently unveils his plan step by step, unconcerned by the hyenas’ temporary complete misunderstanding of it; and unapologetically makes his claim to a usurped monarchy, knowing that so long as he promises his underlings exactly what they want, he is secure.
The hyenas, for their part, get carried away by empty words that signify nothing, celebrate two opposite political systems in the span of seconds, and sign up for regicide and child murder in exchange for what they desire. Thus two deeply dissimilar agents enter an alliance, sweep their way to power, and execute revolutionary change.
This is timeless storytelling at its finest. The dialogue and plot progress naturally as true to the specific story being told, while also transcending their particulars and depicting for us something enduring about our own human nature.