The Lion King – The Art Of Self-Referentialism & The Hyperbole

Thoughts On: The Lion King (1994)

We’ve already covered this film. Today, however, we’ll be zooming in on one particular moment.
The Lion King 3

My favourite scene, by far, in The Lion King is the “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” sequence. Yes, the cover of Elton John’s song is great.

And, yes, this scene serves a perfect establishment of a rather abrupt romance.

But, Timon and Pumbaa’s bookends to the song…

… utter genius. Every time they burst out crying with floods of cartoonish tears I can’t help but laugh like a child.

But, whilst I’ve always looked forward to this as a great moment of characterisation, I’ve started questioning exactly what makes this scene so great. Primarily, and as said, this is just a great piece of characterisation. These two fools crying perfectly captures their harmlessly self-centric grip on their friend who they don’t want to lose. Moreover, this moment, for Timon and Pumbaa, is one that many writers would overlook. In such, when main characters fall in love, their friends usually fall into the background and come in for a later scene in which they’re sour or supportive, meaning that side characters are often used as conflict or resolution – mere plot devices. However, Pumbaa and Timon almost narrate Simba and Nala’s romance, which allows their reaction to play out in parallel to a pivotal plot point in which characters of their class would usually be forgotten in. This is then a great piece of writing as it keeps these two characters in the frame of the narrative instead of having them disappearing the second Nala shows up…

… and then just re-appearing up for the final fight…

… which would have been ridiculous (because they’d blatantly be mere plot devices). However, this scene is such an ingenious one as it not only manages Timon and Pumbaa with great dexterity, but betters the romantic scene with comedic juxtaposition. What that means is that, when this is happening…

… so is this…

And the antithesis of love and loathing here lightens the weight of love and all that other sticky stuff…

On a side note, many will claim, using this image, that there’s subliminal messages of sex in The Lion King. However, what the writing in the sky is supposed to say is SFX – as in special effects – as put in by the special effects team. Who knows if this is just a cover up though. Think what you will…

Back on track, the use of Timon and Pumbaa in the romantic scene adds levity and plays on the contrivance of this plot point. Whilst The Lion King does adhere to a very traditional structure (arguably because it’s an adaptation of the classic Hamlet), it does know that there is a lot of melodrama and coincidence built into the narrative. However, instead of audiences asking how Nala found Simba and why the two are falling in love so quickly, they accept this scene because Timon and Puumba make a point of the absurdity themselves, literally bawling at the odds of this coincidence.

What we see here is then the use of a hyperbole in two masterful ways. The first use of the hyperbole here is one of self-aware justification. We see this in an awful lot of self-referential content:

Ferris Bueller, moreover, Deadpool, know that they’re fun movies with key draws being genre and a target audience. Their acknowledgment of this takes away all contrivance and allows them to be more genuine. A great example of this in Ferris Bueller would be the last fourth wall break:

Whilst Ferris is being a bit of an asshole here (as he always is), he also provides a genuine commentary on himself as well as life as a teenager. His iconic words are:

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

In such, this rather obnoxious break of the fourth wall break is a show of self-awareness that’s justified with the substance it adds to the movie – that substance being this great line. We see this in Deadpool, too.

Whilst this scene is essentially another great fourth wall break inside a fourth wall break, with the reference to Ferris Bueller and Pool talking about the movie as a movie, there is a great statement made by the filmmakers here. In talking about Deadpool 2, there is a recognition that this is a money-grabbing franchise that basically means to exploit teenage boys. However, Deadpool asserts that they’re getting Cable in the next film and implies that they are going to try and make a better movie. In such, just like in Ferris Bueller, you see both self-referentialism that is aware of its own tropes, but still manages to add substance to the movie. We see this in The Lion King as Timon and Pumaa don’t just point out the contrivance of Nala and Simba’s romance, but add comedy and character to the subliminal fourth wall break.

However, when we look to films like Avengers: Age Of Ultron and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, we see examples of how not to handle a hyperbolic self-reference.

It’s in this moment that Hawkeye says:

Look, I just need to know because the city i-i-i-is flying… ok–the city is flying. We’re fighting an army of robots. And I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense.

Some people will laugh at this, but I just groan. This is because Hawkeye is breaking the fourth wall, or at least leaning on it very hard, and just for the sake of some weak self-abrading (that is tantamount to false modesty). In such, the writers put this in to say to the audience that, “yes, you’re watching a dumb movie with dumb characters, how dumb are we all!?”. And, unlike in Ferris Bueller and Deadpool, there is no substance in the follow up. Granted, there is something of an attempt at this when Hawkeye says:

But, I’m going back out there because it’s my job.

But, this is just cliched slop and bad writing. This leaves the self-referential quip disingenuous and rather grating. We see an even worse example of this in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

It’s a little difficult to discern in these images as the scene is so dark, but what happens here is that, under water in a car that just crashed into the canal, Ethan is pinned down by the gunfire of these goons up top. To avert their fire, he lights a flare under water..

… I’m not sure how possible that is, but, he does it. He then puts that flare in the sleeve of the dead henchmen driver and pushes him away. This draws the fire of the guys up top as they assume that Ethan is trying to swim away, which allows Ethan and William to escape safely. However, in a follow up scene, we get an exchange between Ethan and yet another character played by Jeremy Renner:

William: Why would that work?

Ethan: Why would what work?

William: The flare on the body, what–why would that work?

Ethan: It did work.

William: Yeah, I know, but–

Ethan: (Calling him in the right direction) Hey.

William: But, why? I mean, how’d you know that would draw their fire?

Ethan: I didn’t. I played a hunch.

William: Ok. All right, so what was your scenario? Right, there’s a guy being shot at in the water, all of a sudden, you decide to light up a flare and swim around. I mean, what do you assume they’d be thinking?

Ethan: Thinking?

William: Yeah.

Ethan: (Exhales a laugh) I didn’t assume they’d be thinking. I assumed they were shooting at anything that moves–I just gave them a target–look, these… these guys aren’t road scholars, you know?

Just like with the bit from Avengers, this exchange got some laughs in the cinema I watched this film in. However, I just groaned. This is because, again, this scene makes a self-referential point on its own contrivance. We see this in The Lion King…

… Ferris Bueller’s Day Off…

… and Deadpool…

… and so I wouldn’t suggest that this can’t be done well. But, what these films do is add substance to the self-reference. What the above scene in Mission Impossible does is tantamount to the comedic commentary you see a CinemaSins video.

However, as a screenwriter, it is not your job to be “good at cinema sins”. This is what many screenwriters of big blockbusters think is good writing – at least this is what they demonstrate with their final scripts. Being able to see the holes in your film shouldn’t mean you need to add a scene that references the absurdity. If you see a plot hole, you need to fix it, you need to leave it alone, or you need to make something of it. With Ferris Bueller, Deadpool and The Lion King, we see filmmakers making something of their contrivances/plot holes. However, what should have happened in Avengers is that this line of justifying dialogue:

But, I’m going back out there because it’s my job.

This should have been re-written and incorporated into character and plot better; a better motivational monologue to get Scarlet Witch to fight essentially. And with this sequence from Mission Impossible:

Just leave it alone. Yes, it adheres to ‘movie logic’, which doesn’t really have any basis in reality, but, you either leave it as it is or write a better scene – don’t just point at it and expect people to laugh. And this is what bugs me the most about this scene from Mission Impossible; it’s not just bad writing and cheap referentialism, but it’s lazy writing. The screenwriter acknowledges that they could have written something more plausible, but refused to put in the work. This is why I groan at these scenes, and this is why I don’t like this kind of comedy.

So, the first major lesson we learn from the “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” sequence in The Lion King is essentially, don’t be a lazy writer and don’t accept this kind of lazy writing. There is a second lesson present in this scene and it follows on from the comedic side of all we’ve discussed so far. As said, this…

… has me laugh my balls off. The reason why is that it’s an absurd bit of comedy that works so well with Timon and Pumbaa as characters. These two are over-emotional lugs and their antithetical commentary on the romance in this scene is so well timed because of the genuine nature of their reaction; it makes sense that these two would burst out crying having lost their friend to a stranger.

But, absurdist comedy is a hard thing to do well. Adam Sandler used to be a genius in this respect. Just look to Billy Madison…

… Happy Gilmore…

… or The Wedding Singer…

Shit, you could maybe sneak Little Nicky into this…

All of these films are… well, they’re not too great. In respect to Little Nicky – yeah, a pretty shit film. However, people love these movies–me included for the most part. This is because Sandler had a great grip on how to construct absurd comedy around the hyperbole. If we zoom in on my favourite Adam Sandler bit, “Somebody Kill Me Please“, we can begin to explore why.

I don’t care what you say, Somebody Kill Me Please is a well constructed song. The guitar riff is memorable and supportive. The lyrics are even more memorable and certainly poignant – Sandler even performs quite well. But, what is so great about this song and joke is that it comes from a genuine place. The same can be said for this moment between Timon and Pumbaa:

They are truly heartbroken and we can all empathise with that. In such, we can all understand what Robbie Hart means when he asks to be euthanized. It’s not really a call for assassination, but anaesthetisation. In the simplest words, he was dumped and wants the pain to go away. This is the humanity you can find in absurdism – and such is its purpose. A great proponent of this outside of the strictly comedic realm is a director I’ve mentioned time and time again, Yorgos Lanthimos:


I won’t delve into his films again at risk of repeating myself, but what the absurdity present in these narratives means to do is expose truth. We also see this in All About Eve, His Girl Friday and Singin’ In The Rain and Breakfast At Tiffany’s.


All of these films are highly melodramatic, but use their contrivance for entertainment’s or for commentary’s sake. For example, throughout All About Eve, we see the constant demonisation and stereotypical critique of actors. However, by the end of the film, instead of this being used to shit on actors and make fun of them, it’s used to make a more poignant statement on genuity and fakeness – something we also see in His Girl Friday, Singin’ In The Rain and Breakfast and Tiffany’s…

What we thus see, through the guise of successful melodrama and absurdist comedy, is always an appeal to something genuine. When you look to Family Guy, American Dad and the lesser episodes of The Simpsons…


… you see absurdity used to formulate tired and boring satire. In fact, turn on any ‘comedic’ political commentary/satire talk-news show, and you’ll see the same bullshit.


I know a lot of people like these shows, but, let’s be honest, they’re not funny – not really. The only form of laughter I see in these shows follows those smug looks you see in the posters, looks that cue people to laugh at shit and cumbersome Donald Trump or George Bush jokes. The laughter you hear in these shows is a ridiculous “Us vs Them” kind of laughter. It’s not genuine, much rather, it’s a statement that says, “I’m smarter than that guy” or “I’m on this team”. What I’m often left astonished at is the fact that these shows often employ absurdity to make a point when the presenters themselves are readily in a position of absurdity that is so easy to laugh at.

However, whilst I don’t like these shows, they’re so easy to sit down and consume. Though they aren’t funny, they’re entertaining because they engage that “Us vs Them” or “I’m smarter” paradigm. I think this kind of thinking is essential to human behaviour and so is something I embrace, but, I don’t like it when it’s packaged in a political, smug and grating way. I like “Us vs Them” when watching sports…

… or a romance film…

… other than that, the whole thing is often pretentious and self-righteously arrogant to me. This is what Sandler, Lanthimos and all of the other films mentioned in a positive light understand. What the second and final lesson we see in our scene from The Lion King then is…

… is simply, be genuine. Absurdity is a great device, but using it in a satirical light is a precarious game that must assure a balance between critique and honesty.

The lasting lesson of the “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” scene in The Lion King is on the art of self-referentialism and absurd hyperboles. You are always going to need genuity, substance, honesty and truth to successfully utilise these devices. Without them, scenes will fall flat and you’ll likely come off as an obnoxious, pretentious asshole. I know this as I’ve come off as pretentious and dickish many times – as I assume we all have. However, working to reverse this is key and probably something to strive for if you’re looking to be a better writer, artist or person in general.



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