“I expect better from the Daily Planet,” says an upset commenter on my review of the stage adaptation of Disney’s The Lion King. “The Lion King story was stolen from the Mali people. It’s loosely based on its founder Sundiata Keita. This account is a well-known oral tradition. And all these European influences/renditions is nothing but an attempt to capitalize on it without giving the people its proper credit.”
As evidence to support this claim, the anonymous commenter cites a 1994 paper presented at an annnual meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English. Though the paper describes parallels between The Lion King and the epic of Sundiata—a traditional tale of Mali—the paper presents no evidence that the filmmakers, who have acknowledged debts to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Biblical tales of Joseph and Moses, were familiar with the story. I responded to the commenter:
“Stories of jealousy and conflict over royal succession are common across a number of cultures, and while I defer to more knowledgable sources as to whether The Lion King is a fitting tribute to or a reductive distortion of African cultural traditions, I don’t see evidence to support your claim that the story was ‘stolen from the Mali people.'”
The commenter responded defensively, citing the authority of the paper’s academic source—which is irrelevant, since I was never questioning the paper’s accuracy. “Maybe they’re not using the words stolen,” says the commenter, “but the historical story of Sundiata is never given its proper credit.”
“Again,” I responded, “where is the evidence that the filmmakers knew the story of Sundiata? For them to have stolen the story, they would have to have known it in the first place.”
At this point I went off to do my own research on the Internet, and found several blog posts and study guides repeating the claim that “the Disney movie, The Lion King was based in part on the legend of Sundiata.” That quote comes from a Kennedy Center study guide, but like the other posts, it cites no evidence to support the claim. I also found several references to the paper cited by the Daily Planet commenter, describing the paper—accurately—as one that notes parallels, not one that provides evidence that the Disney team were familiar with the Mali legend.
It may well be that they were, and that they felt no more need to credit the African legend than they did to credit Shakespeare or the Bible. But now you’ve piqued my curiousity, Internet, and I’d like to get the story straight. Can anyone cite proof, beyond the circumstantial evidence I’ve seen thus far, that the makers of The Lion King were familiar with the legend of Sundiata?
Image © Disney