“Pumbaa, Not in Front of the Kids!” Smashing the Fourth Wall in The Lion King

Last week, my husband and I saw the new live action version of The Lion King. I know a lot of people get worked up about whether or not the new live action versions of the old Disney classics are worth the time and effort that are being put into them, but generally speaking, we’ve liked all the ones we’ve seen. I like the twists they’ve been putting on the plots and the new interpretations. We think they’ve been fun.

Lion King was no exception. Although there really was very little deviation from the original, we didn’t see that as a bad thing, mainly because the original was so good. This remake was deep, rich, and moving, and I’m not just talking about James Earl Jones’s voice. The entire movie was beautiful.
It was also funny, particularly once Timon and Pumbaa got involved. One line in particular had the entire audience in our theater hooting with laughter. This line was hilarious, but it also got me thinking about perspectives and narrative types, and the reader’s relationship to them in a work of fiction. 

[SPOILER ALERT—if you haven’t seen the movie, you may want to save the rest of this review for later.] 

The line came towards the end of Hakuna Matata, after we’ve had Simba’s “growing up” montage. Simba suggests they sing the song again because they’re just getting into the groove of it, and Pumbaa declines, saying something along the lines of, “You’ve gained like four hundred pounds since the beginning of the song!”

This is a pretty classic example of “breaking the fourth wall” in film—that is to say, breaking the wall that separates the actors from the audience.  They do this several times over the course of the film, and are really just following the model they set up for themselves in the original animated version. You might also think of examples from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or the Thor Ragnarok trailer, and plenty of other movies. Whenever the characters (or the story/situation) nod to the audience, they are taking a jackhammer to the fourth wall. (P.S.: Bonus if you can find what The Lion King and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off have in common besides breaking the fourth wall.)

Ferris addresses the viewer by advising the best ways to fake out your parents so you can skip school.
(This is the greatest movie trailer ever, by the way. I watched it over and over again while I was supposed to be studying.) It starts with Thor addressing the viewer, saying, “I know what you’re thinking.” Even though we learn by watching the movie that he’s actually talking to a skeleton, I think we can say he breaks the fourth wall in the trailer, since we think he’s talking to us.

After thinking about it for a little bit, I can think of books that “break the fourth wall” too, in that they somehow speak directly to the reader. Take Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for example. The narrator is constantly addressing the reader (and in fact seems to be the only sane person in the story). It’s technically written in an omniscient perspective, but I think you could almost make the argument that it’s written in second person because of how often the reader is addressed.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams. Source: Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3221823The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams. Source:

“Breaking the fourth wall” is mostly a satirical device, saved for humor writing. But you also see it in a lot of children’s literature from the last century. Case in point, The Chronicles of Narnia. The narrator there frequently steps aside from the story for a moment to address the reader. And if my memory serves me right, I believe you saw it a lot in Roald Dahl’s books. It was frequently used to “lecture” young readers (for lack of a better word—I don’t mean for it to sound like a negative thing), or explain the moral of the story, or point out some detail. If you go even farther back in time, it’s everywhere in Nineteenth Century adventure novels like Treasure Island and Moby Dick and War of the Worlds. The narrator frequently pauses to explain some piece of narration, or even to spoil the story. (I guess it was technically “foreshadowing” but some of them were downright spoilers.)

Sources: Wikipedia

Contrast these literary devices of breaking into the second person for a moment with today’s writing fashions. “Deep POV” currently reigns in fiction (especially speculative fiction) whether you’re writing in first or third person. The goal of writing in deep POV (“deep point of view”) is to so immerse the reader in the story that they forget they’re reading a story. Taking a moment to address the reader is not likely to contribute to that reality. 

But fads come and go. I would be very interested to see a writer pull this off in fiction now—I’m sure writers have tried it. I think it would be interesting to see how it compares with the works of the past centuries. If you find anything, let me know, and I’ll revise this post. To bring us back around to The Lion King, where we started, the breaking of the fourth wall was so surprising that it got me thinking about all of this. Novelists can learn a lot from film.

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