Disney’s Lion King remake proudly stresses its similarities to the original movie, but it needs to change how its hyena villains are characterized. Already one of Disney's most popular trailers, The Lion King’s first teaser has been praised the detail of its photo-realistic CGI, and how well James Earl Jones’s voice-over captures the spirit of the animated classic.
However, there are already several noticeable differences in Jon Favreau’s The Lion King when compared the original animation, from Rafiki’s design to Simba’s roar. And many observing film fans will be hoping that the hyena’s portrayal will have been similarly amended.
When the villainous Scar seizes control of the Pride Lands, he does so by allying with Shenzi, Banzai, Ed, and the rest of a large hyena pack. The trio of hyenas serves as the occasionally-sinister-but-mainly-bumbling henchmen that typically populate Disney movies, similar to Pain and Panic in Hercules, Kronk in The Emperor's New Groove, and Iago the parrot in Aladdin. But ever since the animated movie was released, critics have recognized how The Lion King’s hyenas contain racist undertones and stated that they perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
The Problem With Hyenas In The Lion King
Shenzi (Whoopi Goldberg) and Banzai (Cheech Marin) and are the only hyenas who speak in the animated movie. The casting of an African American woman and a Mexican American in these two antagonistic roles has been highlighted by critics, with particular attention paid to how the “street” dialects of the characters are heavily emphasized, and their pelts noticeably darker. This is in stark contrast to the rest of The Lion King’s ensemble where, aside from James Earl Jones as Mufasa, the heroes are predominately played by white actors, with English/American registers. Their characters also have lighter, brightly colored markings.
Furthermore, lions and their allies are portrayed as intelligent, noble and resourceful beings. On the other hand, the hyenas are brutal and dim-witted creatures. They require Scar’s leadership to be an effective hunting force. While in nature it is true that lions and hyenas do compete for food and territory, studies have highlighted hyenas’ intelligence and stated that their survival skills are as sophisticated as a lion's.
Certainly, the hyenas’ human characteristics in The Lion King seem even more dubious when considered in the context of the film’s plot. They live segregated in the elephant graveyard until Scar orchestrates his plot. They later claim Pride Rock and its territories, but under their rule, the area is desecrated and ruined. It is only when Scar is defeated and the hyenas are expelled that Pride Rock can flourish and restore its bounty. Many have supposed that a drought – and an imbalance, caused by Scar’s allegiance – were the main factors in this desolation of Pride Rock. However, that doesn’t explain the hyenas’ harmful depiction throughout the rest of the film.
What The Lion King Remake Needs To Change About The Hyenas
This is the kind of incendiary subtext that will be scrutinized upon the remake's release. Put simply, it isn’t appropriate for a movie being released in 2019. Thankfully, there are indicators suggesting that Disney and director Jon Favreau will be addressing these issues in some way with their new take on The Lion King.
Every Disney live-action remake (thus far) has attempted to remove their original stories' shortcomings. Moreover, Maleficent, Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella have augmented the occasional passiveness of their protagonists. The end results are films which foreground female empowerment far more than their animated counterparts. Beyoncé Knowles's casting as Nala in The Lion King remake signals that her role might be similarly expanded upon.
In tackling the movie’s racial issues Favreau appears to have taken notes from The Lion King’s wildly-successful stage adaptation. The remake consists of an overwhelmingly black cast, including the aforementioned Beyoncé, Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Alfre Woodard among its primary line-up, while Eric Andre, Florence Kasumba and Keegan-Michael Key are providing the voices for the hyenas. Nuances like this make for a far more suitable take on this Savannah-based story and its characters.
It's worth also noting that Favreau also removed the negative aspects from The Jungle Book’s antagonist Shere Khan in his 2016 retelling. Played by Idris Elba, this version of Khan contained none of the original’s harmful gay-coding. Whether Favreau does the same for Scar remains to be seen. But, considering how the hyenas are the most egregious part of the animated Lion King, it's their depiction where it most matters.