The Circle of Life v. The Weight of Expectations

[Spoiler Alert:  this post addresses the plotlines of two animated classics of the Walt Disney Company.  If you are the one person on the globe who hasn’t seen and isn’t familiar with the storyline of The Lion King, but it’s still on your bucket list, or you haven’t seen Encanto, but intend to, exit the Noise NOW  🙂 ]. 

We met our youngest grandchild this past January, and not surprisingly, found that whether a birth occurs in the humblest of locales or in one of the world’s most storied cities, the regime is the same:  feeding, napping, diapering, and parental exhaustion.  The infant’s parents’ universe is reduced to … feeding, napping, diapering, and a sleep-deprived, semi-consciousness state.  (Fortunately, an infant’s grandparents, after helping during the day, are able to scurry back to their hotel for a good night’s sleep 😉 ).  At the same time, there is a lot of down time, during which weary minds have no space for deep discourse; we found this time best occupied by watching Disney animated classics.

I think we saw all of the Disney favorites from our kids’ day to the present during our ten-day visit.  I was surprised by what seemed to me a marked dichotomy in philosophy between Disney’s arguably greatest animated offering, The Lion King, and its 2021 – and extremely well-received – release, Encanto.  

As all who care are aware, The Lion King is the story of a lion prince, Simba, son of Mufasa, the king of the jungle, who upon his father’s death seeks to live a carefree life and avoid his responsibility to lead and safeguard the kingdom.  The film’s signature song is “The Circle of Life,” composed in part by Elton John and imprinted in the memory of all who have listened to popular music during the last 30 years.  The film begins with the following verses:

From the day we arrive on the planet
And, blinking, step into the sun
There’s more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done
There’s far too much to take in here
More to find than can ever be found
But the sun rolling high
Through the sapphire sky
Keeps great and small on the endless round

It’s the circle of life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
‘Til we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the circle
The circle of life
[Emphasis Added]

It was interesting to recall upon seeing the film after so many years that Mr. John did not do the vocal in the film.  His familiar recorded version is obviously similar, but excerpts are arguably grittier:

Some say eat or be eaten

Some say live and let live

But all are agreed

As they join the stampede

You should never take more than you give

In the circle of life

It’s the wheel of fortune

It’s the leap of faith

It’s the band of hope

Till we find our place

On the path unwinding

In the circle

The circle of life

Some of us fall by the wayside

And some of us soar to the stars

And some of us sail through our troubles

And some of us have to live with the scars

In the circle

The circle of life [Emphasis Added]

By the end of the film, Simba comes to recognize his destiny, routs the villains, and assumes his rightful place as guardian of the kingdom.

Twenty-seven years later, Disney released Encanto, a delightful film about the Madrigal family, each of whom – seemingly except for the charming main character, Mirabel – has a super power that s/he uses for the good of the family’s village.  The family’s most robust – literally – super power is that possessed by Mirabel’s super-strong sister, Luisa, who uses her strength to carry ponderous weights to keep the village functioning smoothly.  Luisa’s song in the film, “Surface Pressure,” is in part thus:

I’m the strong one, I’m not nervous
I’m as tough as the crust of the Earth is
I move mountains, I move churches
And I glow, ’cause I know what my worth is …

Under the surface
I feel berserk as a tightrope walker in a three-ring circus …

Under the surface
I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service …

Give it to your sister, your sister’s older
Give her all the heavy things we can’t shoulder
Who am I if I can’t run with the ball? …

Give it to your sister, your sister’s stronger
See if she can hang on a little longer
Who am I if I can’t carry it all? …

But wait, if I could shake the crushing weight of expectations
Would that free some room up for joy
Or relaxation, or simple pleasure?
Instead, we measure this growing pressure
Keeps growing, keep going
‘Cause all we know is

Pressure like a drip, drip, drip that’ll never stop
Pressure that’ll tip, tip, tip ’til you just go pop …

Through what becomes apparent during the course of the film are Mirabel’s super powers – her intuition and caring – she sees that despite her family’s efforts, their village is nonetheless literally cracking apart.  She ultimately leads the members of her family to see that they are more than just their powers, more than their responsibilities in supporting their family and the village; and at the end they and the community flourish as a result of that realization.

Since we are obviously all more than the roles we play, and both films stress love of family, one might argue that the two films differ in emphasis rather than core message.  I would nonetheless suggest that the differences in philosophy are notable, and worthy of pondering.  I would submit that the moral that the Disney writers were seeking to impart in The Lion King is that each of us is one of many, that each of us has a role to perform for the whole, and that the good of the whole is what is paramount in the Circle of Life; while in Encanto, a different set of writers, separated by a generation, perhaps reflecting a shift in societal perspectives over these last three decades, seemingly posits that an individual’s contribution to the whole, while very important, is nonetheless less significant to a flourishing society than the fulfillment of oneself.

So consider:  is filling one’s place – sticking to the knitting, being a cog in the Circle of Life – sustaining, or confining?  Fulfilling, or limiting?  Ennobling, or demeaning?

My guess is that if the readers of this note were polled, it would be a pretty even split.  I find my own inclination best expressed by a great fictional character:

“[You have] the dignity of a man who has found his place and occupies it …”

  • Legendary detective Nero Wolfe, to his associate, Fred Durkin; Rex Stout:  Death of a Doxy

I read the Wolfe story (along with all the other Wolfe stories) about a thousand years ago.  I’ve always considered, “You’re a man who knows his place and keeps it,” to be among the finest tributes in all of literature.  As all reading this will readily conclude, I have greater affinity for the message of The Lion King.  That said, and no matter which of the two Disney-depicted philosophies you yourself are more comfortable with, I sincerely apologize for the fact that you’ll have Sir Elton singing “The Circle of Life” in your head all day today.  😉

Stay well.

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