There’s a tendency for us to call any particularly strong cinematic memory iconic. The images that were plastered into our minds as children always hold a nostalgic charge that in some cases inflates the meaning of the thing itself to an unreachable degree. One particular shot from the 1994 Disney animated feature The Lion King is not one of these cases. When Mufasa utters his line “remember who you are,” the rush of feeling that comes back is pure — the result of actual cinematic mastery.
As Simba contemplates returning to Pride Rock to take his rightful place as king, he is led to a clearing by Rafiki, who claims he will be able to see his father. The scene builds to a moment of heavenly intervention, as the younger lion is able to speak to Mufasa’s spiritual form in the clouds.
Directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff crafted an image that has such iconographic power that they made a relatively unremarkable piece of dialogue into a hyper-recognizable quote, which now carries with it a catharsis. The emotional power of the shot has much more to do with its construction than the spoken dialogue. As Simba looks up towards the sky and sees his father, the billowing clouds match the building score, as Simba is in absolute awe of the majesty and tragedy of his father.
Using swirling pinks, purples and yellows, animators created a kind of halo around Mufasa. It’s dynamic and bright, and the hues emanate ethereal power. The combination of bright warm colors like yellow and orange, combined with the cooler tones of purple and pink create a bittersweet interplay of feeling. You feel like your heart could just burst. There’s also incredible depth in the image. As you get closer to Mufasa in the center of the billowing colors, the cloud becomes brighter, hinting at some blinding otherworld.
This shot is iconic because of the nuanced, complex emotion it produces, that many of us as children viewing it for the first time may have never experienced before. It’s expressionistic and not didactic, unlike many children’s movies that hope to tap into a child’s emotional register. Wrapped up in one image is the sadness from Mufasa’s death along with the elated power of his life, which created an iconographic lightning bolt. It’s memorable because as children, we may not have been able to describe this feeling, but we knew it when we saw it. Allers and Minkoff gave children a visual vocabulary of expression that stuck in our minds for good reason.
An emotional viewing experience in film isn’t produced by a sense of visual realism, but by some impalpable concoction that fires neurons around in a viewer’s brain. Expressionism lets filmmakers tap into the intangible quality of emotions that we cannot see any other way, and filtered through a viewer’s brain, it becomes catharsis. It’s one of the most powerful things that filmmaking can do. This made it all the more curious when Jon Favreau’s 2019 photorealistic “live-action style” reimagining tried its hand at this iconic shot.
In the remake, Simba is shown looking up at a lightning storm, which has the faintest, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it outline of Mufasa’s face as he speaks his famous line. There are billowing clouds but in shades of dark blue and grey. When I was watching clips of the remake I had to crank my laptop brightness all the way up to even try to analyze the shot in question. The scene is incredibly dark — it’s supposed to take place at night — but the contrast is so low that Simba is essentially invisible in the shot.
Favreau seemed to be going for scale here; the cloud that represents Mufasa’s face towers over Simba’s indistinguishable form. Scaling the image so dramatically may have been Favreau’s attempt to inject the scene with some emotional power, but the monochromatic style makes it illegible and empty anyway. Mufasa’s disembodied voice produces little impact, and the lack of warm tones leaves the image cold. In the name of realism, Mufasa’s final conversation with his son culminates in a 30 second shot of a cloud.
The flatness of this shot is a particular bummer because of the mastery of the original. These two films serve as a case study for the idea that just because something looks more real doesn’t mean it feels more real. Yes, the 2019 shot looks like an actual cloud, at actual nighttime, with an actual lion sitting underneath the actual cloud. But stripping the scene of expressionism does much more harm than good and demonstrates a massive misunderstanding of filmmaking. The Allers and Minkoff shot feels more real than the Favreau shot ever could, and it’s why it will be the one remembered in the nostalgic cockles of our hearts.