Revisiting Existentialism in Disney

This is an article I wrote precisely one year ago. It explores existentialist themes I discovered in Disney’s Lion King story of Timon and Pumba. Today, while researching 13th-century theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas’s thoughts on individuality and subjectivity, I felt it can be useful to revisit this post. I hope it inspires you to ponder this and other philosophical themes you experience in your life.

Here is an interesting example of why it is worth the effort to invest time and energy into self-development and learning. It is an example from personal experience. If I were to ask you what Disney movies have in common with philosophy, what would your first thought be? I can say for myself – if someone were to ask me this several years ago, my first thought would have probably been something like ‘… nothing?…’ Today, however, having spent a few years purposefully reading and studying various works that explore the human condition, philosophical works among them, I consider this to be a very interesting question. Moreover, I am certain that any inquisitive mind, keen to learn and develop, can find intriguing links where dissociation is the accepted view. Here is the example I have in mind. 

After having once again watched the Lion King story of Timon and Pumba, I noticed how Timon’s account aligns with some of the key ideas of existentialist philosophy. If you haven’t seen this Disney cartoon, be warned – the article you are currently reading will be a spoiler. Now, back to the story and the links to existentialism.

Timon first starts in an environment where he was born and raised. Among other meerkats, mostly underground, digging tunnels or standing on sentry duty while others dig. He did not choose this environment, but that is where he finds himself. Trying his best to please his large extended family and meet their expectations, he fails and feels increasingly miserable. Finally, he realises that he does not fit in, that he never will, and what’s more – he wants a different kind of life. 

At first, Timon thinks he just needs a nicer environment, a better and more beautiful home away from all the digging, hiding and worries. In truth, he wants to find (or create) an environment where he will feel like he belongs. Where he will feel at home – in the fullest meaning of these words. But that is not clear to him yet. So, he sets off on his journey to find a place where he can live carefreely, a ‘happily-ever-after’ sort of place. 

On the road, Timon meets Pumba. This, too, is a loner but of a different kind. He knows that what he really wants is a friend. And so they join forces and become friends – one still searching for a place where he can enjoy life without a care, the other already happy for having found a friend with whom to share life’s journey. 

When they finally reach the perfect spot – Timon’s dream environment – they settle there and enjoy a time of careless joy, fun, and plenty without any commitments except to their new-gained philosophy, Hakuna Matata, no worries. After a while, young Simba joins them and spends a blissful childhood there. However, when some time passes and Simba is ready to follow his life’s commitment (go challenge Scar and regain his kingdom), it is another moment of crisis for Timon. 

After leaving a place where he did not fit in and having found another place where he enjoyed a lighthearted life for such a long time, he now faces a personal challenge. Does he stick to his worry-free philosophy or his friends? In other words – does he commit to something beyond himself once again? The answer doesn’t come easy. Timon struggles. He tries to convince himself that he can enjoy Hakuna Matata on his own and that he doesn’t need anyone. But he has changed. 

Timon is no longer the same meerkat that was running away from an environment that was forced on him. He has recovered from that, gone on a journey of what could be called self-discovery and found true friends. Now, these friends need his help. So, Timon decides – he will make the commitment once again and help his friends, but this time it will be his own choice, and he will meet his own expectations. In the end, his entire family assists Timon with his plan. Finally, they all move to the new home he has found, gaining a new appreciation for Timon as a dear, valuable and respected member of their group.

This could happen because Timon took responsibility for his life, created his own meaning of life along the way, and made commitments based on his personal expectations instead of making excuses. It could be said that he discovered and created himself in the process (in the story, it seems that Pumba had already achieved this when he met Timon, for his understanding of himself and those around him was already very lucid). Such an attitude is very much in line with the existentialist approach to life, to be in the human condition. I finish with the following quote by one of the best-known existentialist philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre:

“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.”     

Jean-Paul Sartre

keep exploring!

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