Scene Analysis : Mufasa’s Death Scene (The Lion King, 1994.)

We hate to be the people to remind everyone about this scene because it is so traumatic for everyone involved but beyond that, it is a cinematic masterpiece that delves so much deeper than what is on the surface. It’s easy to forget about the importance of direction and cinematography when it comes to animation as we are often focused upon the drawing/CGI itself. But Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff knew exactly what they were doing when they created this scene. Here’s a breakdown of what we took from that scene.

The main motif that you guys should remember next time you watch The Lion King is how they use light. Light has a very important role in the story itself in the fact that Mufasa and Simba rule ‘everything the light touches’ – hence why Scar is often seen in shadows or poorly lit areas because he refuses to be ruled by them. But in the cinematography, there is also a heavy focus on light and the use of it and it’s extremely apparent in this scene to convey meaning.

We’ll start from the moment that the gorge begins to rumble. Now, it is to be noted that Simba has just been practising his ‘little roar’ which eventually becomes rather big for a cub and echoes through the gorge. His face quickly goes from childish glee to dread when he realises that the wildebeest are heading towards him. I don’t know if it was ever intended but from Simba’s childlike mind, it could be that he thought he was the one that triggered the stampede with his roar which is why he carries the burden of guilt that Scar puts on him.

Then, we get a shot of the wildebeest from Simba’s point of view. Everything about this is so harrowing, especially the fact that it is all shown from a low-angle to give us the same idea of how vulnerable Simba would be feeling in that moment. The cloud of dust kicking up from the stampede also adds more confusion and is another example of use of light – we can barely see all of the texture that was on the cliff-face before.

It’s moments like this dolly zoom that remind us of why The Lion King is the masterpiece that it is. Dolly zooms are a camera technique where the camera moves closer to the subject while simultaneously making use of the zoom to ensure that the subject stays the main focus of the shot. Even though this isn’t technically a dolly zoom as there wasn’t any use of camera and Simba does get bigger as we zoom in, it shares the same effect – sheer horror. Emphasised by shrouding Simba in shadow to further emphasis his fear, placing him under Scar’s shadow as his plan is carried out.

I’m going to skip ahead slightly. The stampede is one of the most impressive action sequences in animation history and there is plenty that could be said about it – the blending of CGI, the use of Hans Zimmer’s score to create tension and the sheer emotion behind the storytelling is some of Disney’s best work. But again, I want to focus on the light. In this time, Scar has gone to collect Mufasa on the pretence that he is getting him to help Simba when really, we know that he is bringing him there to kill him. Mufasa leaps head-first into the stampede in order to save his cub while Scar knocks Zazu out to stop him from getting any of the lionesses to help them.

Scar is a notorious favourite across the Disney fandom and a lot of it is because of Jeremy Irons’ performance. He perfectly portrays someone who is sassy, sarcastic and funny. But it’s in this scene that we truly see just how evil Scar truly is. He looks over the scene from above the rock like some sort of vulture ready to scoop in and take what’s left over.

Then we get to one of the most important moments in the film that will haunt us and ruined plenty of childhoods. We skipped a little again and in this time, Mufasa has pushed Simba up to safety but was swept away by the wave of wildebeests. Mustering his strength, he manages to climb back up onto the side of the gorge but he is clinging on for dear life.

Enter Scar. Notice again the use of light that he is completely shrouded in shadow as he looks down on Mufasa. His face is completely emotionless as his brother calls out to him, “Scar! Brother! Help me!” 

There’s barely a beat before this.

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It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it moment but for a moment and one of the rare moments in the film, Scar is entirely in the light. He flees the shadow and is exposed – this is because he is exposing his intentions and finally showing Mufasa who he truly is and how far he’s willing to go to become king of Pride Rock. Even though we know that Scar is evil and we don’t understand how Mufasa couldn’t have seen it fully himself, we have to remember that he grew up with Scar and always wants to see the best in people. Or lion-people Especially his own brother. Mufasa cries out for help from Scar because he doesn’t think there’s any chance that he could hurt him.

Similarly to the use of light when Simba first sees the wildebeest, shadow gathers over Mufasa when he realises that he’s going to be killed by Scar. All the way through, we’ve seen nothing but bravery from him then the true terror finally shows on his face in his final moments. “I’m only brave when I have to be”, but right now Mufasa doesn’t have to be brave. His thoughts are going to be running rampant on plenty of things – the betrayal from his brother, how Simba is going to cope, whether Simba is even going to survive, what will happen to Pride Rock etc. It’s a harrowing moment for the audience, too, as we have followed him from the beginning.

The final moment that we’re going to talk about is this moment. Go back and watch the scene to get the full effect as it is hard to show through screenshots but as Mufasa is falling with that haunting scream, everything begins to fade to black. Disney are cruel but they aren’t cruel enough to actually show Mufasa meet the ground.

The ‘camera’ then pulls out of another black screen which as it pulls back further is revealed to be Simba’s pupil. He is fully in the light, exposed and vulnerable in one of the worst moments of his life. Again, the use of a camera effect shows just how much the people behind this project cared about its art.

His father, his king is gone.

We hope you liked this post and we will be planning to do more! Please let us know if there are any films/scenes you specifically want us to break down in the comments and we will!

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