I put it off for as long as I could, but now it’s time to discuss the scene everyone remembers from The Lion King: the wildebeest stampede. For as long as I live I will never forget watching this scene play out in the movie theater. After Scar had laid out his devious plan in “Be Prepared,” I was thoroughly convinced that Mufasa was somehow going to stop this from happening, because Scar is the bad guy and he can’t possibly succeed (oh how naive I was!!)
There is an air of tension from the moment we are taken to a canyon where Scar is telling Simba that his father has “a marvelous surprise” planned for him. Simba (naturally) is begging his Uncle Scar to tell him what the surprise is, but Scar refuses to tell. The devious lion even hints that “everyone” knows about Simba’s run-in with the hyenas (when in truth, the only reason Scar knows is because he was secretly observing the whole thing) and encourages his young nephew to work on his “little roar.” Before leaving to get Mufasa, Simba has one last question:
“Hey Uncle Scar, will I like the surprise?”
*pause, Scar smiles*
“Simba, it’s to DIE for!”
What Simba doesn’t know is that about a hundred feet above him, at the top of the canyon, is an enormous herd of wildebeest. The herd is revealed with a rather ominous chord from the orchestra (and I’m sure any adults watching the film quickly figured out what was about to happen, before it happened). While the herd quietly grazes, Shenzi, Banzai and Ed wait in the shadows for a signal from scar. Banzai is going crazy from the temptation of having so much food so close at hand, but Shenzi successfully prevents him from blowing their cover too soon. At a glance from Scar, the three hyenas go to work, frightening the herd into stampeding into their only avenue of escape: the canyon, where Simba is still waiting.
Moments before the music starts, Simba is indeed practicing his roar, and is pleased when his extra-loud “RAWR!!” startles a lizard and echoes off the canyon walls. But then…something happens. The pebbles begin to shake, a weird thundering noise is heard, and then hundreds of wildebeest begin pouring down the side of the canyon!!
For years as a child, the opening of “To Die For” sent me into a state of near panic. The eerie introduction is achieved by a chorus that quickly layers one voice after another until there is a cacophany of sound (imitating the build-up of the stampede). If you listen to the soundtrack version, you can hear the female voices enter first, followed by the lower male voices.
Simba, seeing all of this, is rightfully terrified and begins running for his life, but a small lion has no chance of outrunning a stampede and Simba is soon forced to climb a tree in the middle of the canyon to avoid being trampled to death.
After the initial choral opening, the music is divided between the chorus, woodwinds and a wide selection of timpani, but it’s really the chorus that dominates this piece.
So far Scar’s evil plan is working, but Mufasa is about to be made aware of the situation by his brother (who is rather good at faking concern for his nephew). The two lions race to the scene and Zazu flies down to locate Simba, who is growing more and more panicked. Pointing out the young prince (whose perch is going to come crashing down sooner rather than later), Mufasa doesn’t hesitate to throw himself into the stampede, working his way to where his son is clinging on for dear life. Scar (predictably), watches events with cool detachment (but he does make sure to knock a frantic Zazu out before he can fly back to Pride Rock and bring more help; the last thing Scar needs/wants is more witnesses to what’s about to happen).
Seeing this in theaters, I remember being scared out of my mind by the charging wildebeests. I was also confused: Mufasa was their king, why wasn’t his presence stopping them? (I had no concept of how a stampede mentality works, once a herd that big gets going, nothing can stop them.) Still, as I watched through my fingers, I was cheering when Mufasa managed to save Simba and (after several mishaps) safely deposit him on the side of the cliff. For a few perilous moments, Mufasa disappeared, having been dragged back down by the wildebeests, but Simba’s father is a powerful lion and with a mighty jump he begins dragging himself up to the nearby ledge (where Scar has been patiently waiting). Simba, believing the danger is over, begins to climb up another way and doesn’t see most of what happens next.
Mufasa is barely holding on; injured as he is, he can’t pull himself all the way up without Scar’s help. Naturally, he frantically calls for Scar to help him. And then…the moment I lost my innocence arrives: Scar slams his claws down into Mufasa’s paws, pulls him close and whispers “Long live the King…” The look of horror right before Scar throws Mufasa to his death stayed with me for a very long time, as did Simba’s scream of terror at seeing his father falling to his death.
And the music for this moment is just haunting too; that “oooooOOOOOO” in the chorus just reinforces what a tragic moment this is.
Of course I was in denial about Mufasa being dead, but the mournful music combined with the visual evidence…it practically destroyed me. And poor Simba, his world as he knows it is gone forever; his dad is gone, he has no idea what he’s going to do. And then it gets worse…Scar appears out of nowhere (secretly irritated that Simba survived) and plays his last card: guilt.
“Simba….what have *you* done?”
“…the king is dead. And if it weren’t for you, he would still be alive.Oh, what would your mother think!!”
It took me years to understand what Scar was doing; this is textbook emotional abuse, shifting the blame onto the victim, making them think THEY are at fault. Simba is already traumatized by witnessing his father’s death. Scar’s (false) allegations that this is HIS fault will further screw him up mentally for years to come.
Now, what happens next ultimately proves to be Scar’s undoing (I believe). Scar is bigger and much more powerful than young Simba: he could easily kill him with a single blow, and no one would be around to dispute his version of events. But for some reason, Scar doesn’t kill Simba and instead commands him to “run far away and never return.”
Instead of killing Simba himself, Scar plans on having the hyenas finish the job. This is the eternal weakness of the Disney villain: sending incompetent henchmen to do their dirty work for them. And despite their success in stampeding the wildebeest, Shenzi, Banzai and Ed ARE incompetent, especially when it comes to killing young lion cubs. Against all odds, Simba manages to get away and sets out across the desert. The hyenas COULD give chase, but Shenzi thinks it over and decides that Simba is as good as dead anyhow and IF he ever came back, THEN they could kill him.
Scar may think he has won, but someday he’s going to wish he’d simply killed Simba himself…
Now that I’m older I love listening to the soundtrack version of this scene. Hans Zimmer does an incredible job layering the melodies to simulate the chaos of a wild stampede. And the sad music after Mufasa is discovered dead still puts an ache in my chest. But I will never forget the first time I saw this scene in the theater, literally cowering in terror as the wildebeest rushed by.
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*all images are the property of Walt Disney Studios