Nala (The Lion King)
|The Lion King character|
Adult Nala as she appears in The Lion King (1994)
|First appearance||The Lion King|
(The Lion Guard)
|Occupation||Queen of the Pride Lands|
Nala is a fictional lioness, a character who appears in the Disney Lion King franchise. Introduced in the animated film The Lion King in 1994, Nala subsequently appears as a less prominent character in the film's sequels The Lion King II: Simba's Pride (1998) and The Lion King 1½ (2004). In the original film, the adult Nala was voiced by American actress Moira Kelly. Young Nala's speaking voice is provided by actress Niketa Calame, while singers Laura Williams and Sally Dworsky provide the singing voices of young and adult Nala respectively.
Nala is introduced as the childhood best friend of Simba, and ultimately becomes his wife by the end of The Lion King. Several years after Simba's uncle Scar has killed Simba's father Mufasa and usurped the throne, Nala desperately ventures into the jungle to find help. Upon unexpectedly reuniting with a grown Simba, who she had long been tricked by Scar into presuming dead, Nala encourages him to return to Pride Rock, overthrow his uncle and ultimately become king. As Simba's queen, Nala has a daughter, Kiara, whose story is explored in The Lion King: Simba's Pride.
Nala is the most significant female character in The Lion King. As the film was inspired by William Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet, Nala is considered to be The Lion King's equivalent of Hamlet's love interest Ophelia, although differences remain between the two characters. Many early concepts first developed for Nala were eventually abandoned, including a brother and father for the character, as well as her being romantically pursued by Scar. While critical reception towards Nala has been generally mixed – both film and feminist critics complained about the character's lack of involvement in the story and supposedly submissive demeanor during the song "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" – Kelly's vocal performance has been praised.
Nala appears in the Broadway musical adaptation of the film, first played by singer Heather Headley. The character also appears in the television series The Lion Guard, with Gabrielle Union replacing Kelly as the voice of Nala.
Conception and writing
Film critic James Berardinelli identified Nala as The Lion King's "sole significant female character." Screenwriter Linda Woolverton conceived Nala "as part of a gradual progression ... which have driven recent public conversation about what young girls should be able to expect from their cinematic role models." In early versions of the screenplay, Nala has a younger brother named Mheetu, who enjoys accompanying his sister and her best friend Simba on their adventures. Pronounced "me too", the character's name alludes to this personality trait. At one point, Simba was supposed to save the cub from a wildebeest stampede, and Nala would eventually become responsible for protecting Mheetu from Simba's tyrannical uncle Scar. Nala also had a fox friend named Bhati. According to Woolverton, Mheetu and Bhati were eventually written out of the film because their stories were beginning to distract from Simba's, in addition to the Mheetu-Scar subplot making the film too dark when combined with the death of Simba's father Mufasa. At one point, Nala also had a father; the character was similarly abandoned.
Because The Lion King was originally conceived as a much more mature and adult-oriented film, Nala was supposed to have been banished from the Pride Lands as punishment for rejecting Scar's romantic advances. This idea was to have been further explored in Scar's song "Be Prepared (Reprise)", during which Scar demands that Nala become his queen, but the musical number was ultimately cut from the final film because the scene was considered too "creepy." Matthew Roulette of TheFW believes that the scene was abandoned because of the characters' significant age difference.
Nala means "gift" in Swahili. The character has a mother, whose name is never mentioned in the film; however, she is credited as Sarafina during the film's end credits. Candice Russel of the Sun-Sentinel believes that Nala contributes to the film's love story – "an indispensable factor in Disney cartoon features" – in addition to convincing Simba to return to Pride Rock. It has been observed that, unlike Disney's three previous animated efforts (The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992), the romantic relationship between Nala and Simba is not main plot of the film. Ella Ceron of Thought Catalog observed that "At [Simba's] return, she's not exactly the friendliest little kitten, either ... but is willing to overlook her own hurt ego in the spirit of their friendship. She believes in Simba, and doesn’t understand why he wouldn’t want to fight for his right to rule."
Voice and music
The speaking voice of adult Nala is provided by American actress Moira Kelly. Kelly was first informed that Disney was scheduling auditions for the role of Nala by her agent. Despite not having been the directors' first choice for the role initially, Kelly was allowed to audition nonetheless because the filmmakers had been longing to hear different voices. Kelly believes that the directors were searching for a specific "quality of voice ... a sort of authoritative voice but with a lot of warmth" to compliment Nala's sensible yet nurturing personality. After a series of callbacks, during which Kelly returned to Disney several times to read the character's lines, the final decision eventually came down to be between Kelly and one other actress. It was not until several months after her audition that Kelly would finally be contacted and offered the part; Disney's initial first choice for the role remains undisclosed. Actor Matthew Broderick, voice of Simba, had already begun recording alongside another actress who had been cast as Nala before that actress was eventually replaced with Kelly. Broderick was not informed about his original co-star being recast, and only learned that Nala was actually voiced by Kelly at the film's premiere.
The film's entire recording process took approximately three years to complete, during which Kelly's sessions were held in both the United States and Canada, while her co-stars Broderick and Jeremy Irons, voice of Scar, were recording in the United States and England, respectively. Each main cast member recorded their dialogue separately, which took Kelly some time to get used to because she had grown accustomed to working with several other actors at a time on the sets of live-action films. For The Lion King, a director would often take the place of another actor for Kelly to act opposite of. Vocally, Kelly decided to approach the role as though she were reading to a child, explaining, "it's kind of fun to play with different voices and try to color the lines for the child so they can imagine it more fully", which she admitted is different than how the actress would approach a live-action role. Because Nala is a "very straight character", determining what kind of voice she would use for her was not a particularly challenging task. Additionally, the filmmakers would also film Kelly's performances in order to incorporate her own facial expressions into her character's design, the process of which impressed the actress. In her film debut, actress Niketa Calame voices young Nala. According to Calame's official website, Nala remains the actress' "biggest role to date". A classically trained pianist and chorister, Laura Williams provides the singing voice of young Nala, which can be heard in the song "I Just Can't Wait to Be King"; the singer was 15 years old at the time. Meanwhile, singer-songwriter Sally Dworsky provides the singing voice of adult Nala, which is heard during the song "Can You Feel the Love Tonight". The film's love theme, "Can You Feel the Love Tonight"'s lyrics were re-written approximately 15 times, according to lyricist Tim Rice, who wrote the song alongside composer Elton John. At one point, the producers wanted the song to be a comical duet performed by supporting characters Timon and Pumbaa, despite the fact that John had originally composed the song with Nala and Simba in mind. However, John lobbied in favor of "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" being a love song performed as a duet by Nala and Simba, with which the filmmakers ultimately agreed.
When asked by Disney if she was interested in reprising her role as Nala in The Lion King II: Simba's Pride, Kelly immediately accepted, joking, "Sure, you wanna do a third, fourth, fifth? I'm right there". In the case of The Lion King 1½, it took the actress only a few days to record her character's dialogue due to Nala's comparatively smaller role in the film; much of Nala's footage from the first film was simply reused accordingly. Elton John's official website cites Kelly among the film's cast of actors who "would grace any red carpet." Kelly's performance as Nala is responsible for introducing the actress to a younger audience. Previously, she had been better known for appearing in more adult-oriented live-action films at that time. In 2011, Kelly revealed that fans of the film rarely recognize her speaking voice as the voice of Nala, although Robert DeSalvo of NextMovie.com claims that the actress "has a ... distinctive voice that The Lion King fans will instantly recognize as the voice of adult Nala."
Characterization and themes
A straight woman character, Kelly described Nala as a sensible and nurturing yet authoritative character, while Amber Leab of Bitch Flicks described her as strong, independent and intelligent. According to Oh My Disney, Nala serves as "the proverbial glue that keeps The Lion King together", from whose perspective the audience watches the film because she "says EXACTLY what we’re thinking". Occupying the role of the film's female lead, Nala is The Lion King's most important female character, who contributes to the film's "small romance element". Often identified as the film's deuteragonist, Taylor Orci of The Atlantic felt that "Nala is really the agent of change in The Lion King", dismissing Simba as a "rich, lazy boyfriend." Leab observed that The Lion King's male characters tend to "take the center stage" while "female characters take a backseat to the action." Lenka Křivánková of Masaryk University wrote in her thesis "1990s Hollywood Break-Away Hits: A Feminist Perspective" that she was not particularly surprised by the film's lack of strong roles for women because of its Shakespearean source material, dubbing the film "an old traditional fairy tale with all its traditional features", including patriarchy and monarchism. Writing for the University of Waterloo's Kinema, Vicky Wong believes that Nala reinforces the film's "take your place" motif, reminding main character Simba of his responsibilities. In his book Retelling Stories, Framing Culture: Traditional Story and Metanarratives in Children's Literature, author John Stephens credits Nala with teaching Simba about responsibility – "the lesson the hero must learn before he can become an adult".
Including Nala, The Lion King has only three major female characters in comparison to the film's total of nine male ones. Shepherd University's Emmylou Allen observed that Nala is introduced "as a dominating young girl" who ultimately matures into "a strong woman" by the film's conclusion. Mouse Morality: The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film author Annalee R. Ward wrote that Nala's role in The Lion King reflected "a 1990s feminist reversal". In her book Biblical Allusions, author Lindsay Bacher acknowledged that Nala is often depicted as a stronger and more responsible character than Simba, despite observations that The Lion King's female characters lack agency. Leab identified Nala as Simba's "equal" who is "a more naturally sound leader throughout the film, while Simba tends to be comparatively a bit more immature and in need of multiple characters propelling him into responsible/rightful action." Physically, Nala is also a stronger and more skilled fighter than Simba, proven by the character's ability to overwhelm him in battle, which is reminiscent "of the physical power of lionesses in the real nature." However, as strong as she is, Nala has little impact elsewhere; author Brian K. Pennington wrote in his book Teaching Religion and Violence that "Nala's assertions of gender equality are clearly groundless, since only a male lion can stop Scar." New York's David Denbey dismissed Nala's athleticism as nothing more than Disney's attempt to "disguise [the film's] essential boss-daddy ethos." Bacher believes that had The Lion King featured Nala as the Pride Lands' hero as opposed to Simba, the film could have avoided having a "patriarchal structure." Leab concluded that "the main and most problematic aspects of the film" remain that The Lion King "boils down to the fact that an entire group of strong female characters are unable to confront a single male oppressor; to do so, they need to be led by a dominant male." Leab continued, "It almost sucks more that Nala is such a strong ... female character and still ends up constrained by this plot device", accusing the film of depicting women as weak.
Alongside Faline from Bambi (1942) and Maid Marian from Robin Hood (1973) added, Nala belongs to a trio of Disney heroines who, after having been separated from their love interests for several years, eventually reunite with them. Stephens believes that Nala and Simba's separation allows the characters to fall in love "properly" upon reuniting as young adults. Because The Lion King is loosely based on William Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet, Nala is considered to be the film's "representative" of the Hamlet character Ophelia, Hamlet's love interest. Both characters' relationships with and opinions of their love interests are similar, however, there are several differences between the two women. While identifying Nala as "the closest character in The Lion King to Ophelia," Shepherd University's Emmylou Allen acknowledged in her article "Shakespeare in the Pride Lands" that "their similarities are not as great as their contrasts." Unlike Ophelia, Nala does not succumb to insanity, nor does she eventually die. Instead, Nala establishes herself as "a physically powerful ally" by encouraging Simba to return to Pride Rock, and helping the character overthrow Scar. Additionally, Nala is a more stubborn character than Ophelia, the latter of whom is quite passive and obedient. While Ophelia is raised by a single father, Nala is raised solely by her mother, which inspired Allen to believe that Nala is a manifestation of how Ophelia would have turned out had she been raised by a woman instead of a man, concluding, "Nala is able to show the potential that Ophelia could have had.".
Film and television
A young Nala debuted in The Lion King (1994) as the best friend of Simba, who she often accompanies on his adventures throughout the Pride Lands. Simba invites Nala to visit the forbidden Elephant Graveyard with him, despite his father Mufasa's orders. The cubs are soon ambushed by Shenzi, Banzai and Ed, a trio of hyenas chosen by Simba's treacherous uncle Scar to kill Simba in order to improve his own chances of becoming king, but are ultimately rescued by Mufasa. The following day, however, Nala is devastated to learn from Scar that both Simba and Mufasa have perished during a wildebeest stampede. With both Simba and Mufasa dead, Scar usurps the throne and becomes king. Several years into Scar's tyrannical rule, which has left the kingdom barren and starving, a desperate Nala ventures into the jungle in search of help, where she attempts to eat a warthog named Pumbaa; little does she know that the warthog is actually a friend of Simba's, who is in fact alive and well. While defending Pumbaa from Nala, Simba recognizes Nala, and the two finally reunite only to argue over why Simba is refusing to face his responsibilities and return to Pride Rock. Upon learning that Simba has eventually decided to return to Pride Rock and face Scar, Nala travels back to the Pride Lands to assist him. Surprised to find Simba alive, Scar forces his guilt-ridden nephew to "admit" to the pride that he is responsible for Mufasa's death, which was in fact caused by Scar himself by throwing Mufasa off a cliff into the stampede. Upon learning the truth, Simba forces his uncle to admit his crime to the pride, and a battle ensues between the pride and Scar's army of hyenas. Simba eventually defeats Scar and becomes king, with Nala ultimately becoming his queen.
In the film's first direct-to-video sequel The Lion King II: Simba's Pride (1998), Nala appears in a less prominent role as Queen of the Pride Lands and mother of Kiara, the spirited daughter of her and Simba. Nala observes that Kiara, of whom Simba is very protective, has inherited her father's rebellious personality and love of adventure. When Kiara befriends Zira's son Kovu, a young lion from an exiled pride of Scar's followers known as the Outsiders, Nala is much more tolerant of their relationship than Simba, and convinces him to offer Kovu a chance to prove himself trustworthy. In The Lion King 1½ (2004), which focuses instead on Timon and Pumbaa's friendship, Nala's role is virtually identical to that of her appearance in The Lion King because filmmakers reused most of the character's footage from the first film.
Voiced by actress Gabrielle Union, Nala reprises her role as Queen of the Pride Lands in the television series The Lion Guard, the 2016 premiere of which was preceded by the made-for-television film The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar (2015). Set within the time gap in The Lion King II: Simba's Pride, the show revolves around Nala and Simba's son Kion who, being their second-born cub after Kiara, has been tasked with forming the next Lion Guard, a group responsible for protecting the Pride Lands. Although a fan of the Lion King franchise, Union avoided watching previous Lion King films in preparation for the role because she wanted to "put [her] own stamp" on the character.
In the Broadway musical adaptation of The Lion King, the role of Nala was originated by Trinidadian-American singer Heather Headley. Her Broadway debut, at first auditioning for the role proved a challenge for the singer due to her Ragtime contract, which her agent was eventually successful in getting her released from. Director Julie Taymor felt that Nala's journey in the film was underdeveloped and among the story's weaker elements, and thus decided to "strengthen" the character's narrative for Broadway.
Critical reception towards Nala has been generally mixed; both film and feminist critics have accused the film of lacking empowering roles for female characters, including Nala. James Berardinelli of ReelViews appreciated the fact that "after three animated motion pictures centered upon the love of two people from different worlds", the love story between Nala and Simba has been relegated to that of "a subplot." Desson Howe of The Washington Post advised parents to remind their daughters that despite the fact that Nala "pads in the supportive shadows, awaiting her inevitable marriage to Simba, it doesn't mean human girls can't grow up to be monarchs too."
Nala's role and demeanor during the film's romantic "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" sequence has drawn criticism in regards to her "submissive behaviour". The New York Times' Janet Maslin cited the film's lack of a strong heroine among its weaknesses, dismissing Nala and Simba's interaction throughout "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" as "obligatory" and "gratuitous". Joel W. Martin wrote in the Journal of Religion and Film, "One song later, [Nala and Simba] have fallen in love. Playing one day, they literally tumble down a hillside in the jungle, and he ends up on top of her. This time, she does not bear her teeth, but instead, shows 'bedroom eyes'". Martin ultimately accused the scene's "reversal of positions" of "establish[ing] male dominance." Criticizing the film for "being merely distracting when it could have been both meaningful and instructive", Robert Humanick of Slant Magazine wrote, "Small potatoes, then, when Simba's former childhood friend and betrothed queen Nala ... unexpectedly reappears in his duty-free, protein-rich life, demanding he return to his kingly responsibilities and coaxing the lion to sleep tonight with arguably the most blatant 'fuck me now' face to ever appear in a PG-rated film."
However, the character has garnered positive reviews as well. Sara Franks-Allen of ScreenCrush wrote that "If being a Disney princess is about being a good role model for little girls, then Nala has a lot in her favor", elaborating, "She's strong enough to take down Simba, ventures out on her own to find help for her pride and calls Simba out for ignoring his responsibilities." Meanwhile, Ella Ceron of Thought Catalog ranked Nala 14th on her list of "The 16 Most Awesome Female Characters From Disney Movies". Responsible for introducing the seasoned actress to a younger audience, Kelly's vocal performance as Nala has garnered critical acclaim. Writing for The Washington Post, Desson Howe hailed Kelly's voice acting as "terrific." Jeremy Gerard of Variety commended Kelly for voicing the character "beautifully". PopSugar ranked Kelly among the website's "Favorite Animated Voices", writing, "there are a lot of great voices in Disney's The Lion King ... but Moira Kelly has a unique quality to her voice, and I remember reveling in it as a youngster anytime the adult Nala was on the screen." Official Disney Blogs published an article entitled "We All Thought it… But Nala Actually Said It", which cites the character's most revered quotes. The blog also ranked Nala eighth on the website's "Definitive Ranking of Disney Cats" list. In a 2014 interview, actor Eddie Redmayne admitted that Nala was his first "celebrity crush", having been specifically attracted to the character's "sweet" face and singing voice, referring to the experience as his "sexual awakening".
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