Human societies have forever developed rituals to indicate ‘coming of age.’ Each culture has a distinguishing ceremony for a child turning adult because it is the most important phase in a person’s life. There is perhaps no phase in life more crucial to shaping a person’s fears and passions. Hence you only truly know a person if you know how they came of age.
It is therefore natural that coming of age becomes an integral part of storytelling, irrespective of language or culture. This is especially important in spectacle-driven epics because the protagonists’ coming-of-age is necessary for their character development before they ascend into heroism. We also find certain common tropes in most of these narratives. For instance, there is a wise mentor-figure that trains the child to adulthood- whether it is Obi-Wan for Luke or Drona for the Pandavas and Kauravas. Moreover, in every one of these, there is some grand event exemplifying the skills learned in one’s coming-of-age; like Luke, with Obi-Wan’s voice, using the Force to destroy the Death Star’s exhaust port; or the Pandavas and Kauravas, in Drona’s presence, having a competition to display their combat skills in a grand arena in Hastinapura.
This is where The Lion King becomes the most unique coming-of-age epic in cinematic history. It deviates from every narrative trope of coming-of-age epics.
Firstly, there is no mentor figure driving the coming-of-age for our protagonist Simba. He initially comes across as every textbook “nepo baby”: entitled, brattish, naïve. His only mentor is his father Mufasa. But Simba never comes of age in his father’s presence. Mufasa is cruelly killed by a stampede of wildebeests, thanks to his evil brother Scar’s masterful planning, while Simba, who’s still only a child, is forced to escape everything and is left all alone to cope with the most traumatic event of his life. He Hakuna-Matatas his way through his adolescence. He then only comes of age when he realizes, through Rafiki’s cryptic messaging in a beautifully framed sequence, that he is his mentor himself. Simba is Mufasa. This is the only way Simba could have self-actualized and avenged his father’s death.
Secondly, there is no event where Simba gets to show the skills he’s learned while coming of age. For one, he’s stuck with a goofy meerkat/warthog duo from whom all he learns is to eat insects and live carefree. He never trains rigorously like heroes do in other coming-of-age stories, like Daniel LaRusso does in The Karate Kid. His strength is rather inherent, almost as if being a lion meant that he naturally understood how to combat. And to top that, his real test of skill becomes his final battle against Scar. Since Scar is so old anyway, physically overpowering him was never the question. Scar’s real weapon is his brain, so to fight him would be a battle of mental strength more than anything else. Simba therefore only truly reflects his father when he optimizes his mental strength. He then overcomes his trauma by killing Scar in the exact same way Scar killed his father. Simba thus completes his character arc in his only test of skill.
But to say that The Lion King is the greatest coming-of-age story purely for how it deviates from the tropes of spectacle-driven epics with coming-of-age elements would be forgetting its immaculate use of cinematic language; so much so that I would argue that The Lion King is the most cinematic coming-of-age movie- more than even subtler non-mainstream movies like The Namesake and Boyhood (also two of my favorites). Apart from the scenes already described, The Lion King has the most visually stunning opening sequence in movie history: the entire animal kingdom arrives, in one picturesque frame after another, at Simba’s coronation, while we hear 'Circle of Life' in Carmen Twillie’s majestically mellifluous voice. Then we have the most painful death scene in cinematic history: the close-up of Simba as he dreads the incoming stampede of wildebeests, the close-up of Scar as he lets Mufasa fall from the cliff, and finally Simba screaming for “Dad” as he stands over Mufasa’s corpse – each moment and each use of framing make the consequence more painful. Both these scenes (the coronation and the death) are integral to Simba’s coming of age. Both scenes use more than just dialogue and action to drive the storytelling. This enhances the coming-of-age elements so much more. That this is animated makes it even more interesting.
Therefore, The Lion King is the most unique and most cinematic coming-of-age story in cinematic history. That is manages to retell the story of Hamlet, a powerfully violent Shakespearean tragedy, with Biblical elements, but packaged in a format accessible to people of all age groups, is a testament to how the movie masters the coming-of-age narrative.