A king is murdered by his younger brother, who assumes the throne. A disinherited prince sets out to avenge the murder by overthrowing his uncle. Not exactly the traditional circle of life, but it worked for The Lion King, which opened 20 years ago this week and soon became both the highest-grossing animated film to that point and a touchstone Shakespearean adaptation for a generation of moviegoers. The Lion King offers viewers clear analogues for Hamlet and his father. But the film’s best representation of the pleasures and grandeur of Shakespeare comes not in little Simba or martyred Mufasa, but in its villain: Scar, a Shakespearean monster par excellence.
Unlike Hamlet, where the usurper Claudius is at best the fifth most interesting character in the play, Scar is a magnificent villain. Claudius is a second-rate schemer, the middle management of evil, consumed by anxiety and guilt. Scar, on the other hand, is more akin to Richard III or Iago, delighting in his monstrosity. Brought to life by directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff and voiced with gusto by Jeremy Irons, Scar is so compelling the film feels almost empty whenever he isn’t around.
We first meet Scar after the announcement of the royal heir. After the juice of the gourd is spread on Simba’s forehead by a giggling baboon, after the baby lion is thrust in front of all the lesser mammals of the jungle, after the “Circle of Life” and the thrumming boom of the title screen, after all this triumph, the screen cuts to black. Out of the void scurries a mouse, nearly as adorable as his ancestors in Cinderella, barren rocks materializing around his furtive search for food. With a thwock of a paw against the ground, Scar appears, and in his very first line to that helpless mouse, he tells us everything we need to know about him.
“Life’s not fair, is it?” he snarls, letting the mouse run between his fingers. His brief against the fairness of life is simple. Simba’s birth means Scar will never be king. Small creatures get eaten by big creatures. This is life.
The scene is Scar in a nutshell: It’s one thing to kill a creature and eat it. It’s another thing entirely to try to argue it into accepting its death. Like Iago and Richard III, Scar’s weapon is language. As he is no match against other characters in combat, Scar must, as a parent might say, use his words to get what he wants. Scar convinces Mufasa he is not a threat and convinces a pack of hyenas to become his strongmen. He even manages to convince Simba that Mufasa’s death is Simba’s fault. “No one ever means for these things to happen,” he says, all mock-piety, “but the king is dead. And if it weren’t for you, he’d still be alive. What will your mother think?” That’s all it takes. Three sentences and one rhetorical question, and Simba consigns himself to banishment and a lifetime of guilt.
As Scar sings in “Be Prepared,” “My words are a matter of pride.” “Be Prepared” is not a very good song. Tim Rice’s lyrics are clunky and borderline nonsensical (“And in justice deliciously squared/ Be prepared”) and Elton John’s music sounds like Raffi covering early Peter Gabriel. Yet the animation and voice work sell it. The song is shot like a German Expressionist nightmare, as Scar prances about his cave, speak-singing about his wickedness with all the joy of a child eating his first banana split. The end result is as close as a children’s film has ever gotten to Richard’s famous “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech, the one in which the audience is promised an evening of delicious evil simply because he has “no delight to pass away the time,” and that:
since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain.
It helps that Scar is voiced by Irons, who at the time had just won an Oscar for Reversal of Fortune. (The Lion King even references Reversal’s most famous exchange, in which Irons is told he is a weird guy, only to reply, “You have no idea,” with a bemusement that speaks of fathomless depths of perversion.) He brings to Scar a malevolent insouciance that makes the character far more fascinating than, say, James Earl Jones’ audiobook-of-the-Bible Mufasa or Matthew Broderick’s bland turn as Simba. In Irons’ performance, Scar is having more fun than anyone else in the film except Timon and Pumbaa. But unlike the meerkat and the warthog, Scar is smart.
He is also sexy. With his green eyes, shaggy black mane, and eponymous facial scar, he resembles a late-’70s David Bowie alter ego. While Scar’s clear effeminate coding feels problematic now, it means that he’s the film’s great mover. He doesn’t walk, he slinks. He doesn’t smile, he leers. He spends much of the film lying down, so aghast at the world’s inferiority that he can barely stand up. He’s a jaded teenager. He’s a house cat. He’s a rock God. He’s cool in a way that no other character in the film can approach.
The Lion King, sadly, is not particularly interested in characters who are cool or smart. The film’s focus is instead on being good and strong. In the Renaissance, Scar would have been the lead of a tragedy that bore his name. In 2014, he’d be the star of a prestige-cable drama about a charming, thwarted sociopath who’s smarter than everyone around him. Instead, Scar’s story lives in the shadow of his nephew’s self-actualization, just as surely as Scar once lived in the shadow of his older brother. As a result, Scar is sidelined for much of the second half of the film, so that we can instead witness Simba’s coming of age and inevitable return to the pride.
Shakespeare knew better. The Bard understood that wickedness—and the tragic flaws of hubris and envy—is irresistible when delivered with panache. This is why Iago’s schemes in Othello often feel like pranks. This is why Richard can’t stop bragging to the audience about what a rapscallion he is. When Hamlet cries, “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I,” he is lamenting his faults. Iago and Richard celebrate them. Like Scar, they just can’t help themselves.