The Lion King and the Secret (But Not Actually R-Rated) Message

In 1994, Disney released The Lion King to much fanfare and success. The movie has an all-star cast of actors lending their voices. Matthew Broderick voiced Simba, the lead character seen above, resting on a cliff’s edge. Broderick was joined by James Earl Jones, Jeffrey Irons, Whoopi Goldberg, Nathan Lane, and more. The movie was the highest-grossing film of the year (by a lot, beating Forrest Gump by nearly $100 million) and was the highest-grossing animated film until 2003, when it was dethroned by Finding Nemo.

That’s a big accomplishment because The Lion King is a children’s movie — in the United States, it was rated G, or “General audiences” (meaning that’s appropriate for kids and adults of all ages), and Common Sense Media says that it’s fine for kids as young as six. That’s because there’s no foul language, very little gore (death, though, is key to the plot), and absolutely no sex…

Except, maybe, in the stars.

Shortly after the movie came out, controversy ensued. Some fans — and some of Disney’s more puritanical critics — surfaced and spread rumors that the word “SEX” could be seen on screen, if you just knew where to look. This wasn’t the first time that weird rumors of impropriety surrounded animated Disney films; there have been many throughout the years. You can Google it if you’re so inclined, but there’s really not much there — except for the one in The Lion King. Here’s how Snopes describes the scene:

About halfway to three-fourths of the way through the film, Simba, Pumbaa, and Timon are lying on their backs, looking up at the stars. Simba arises, walks over to the edge of a cliff, and flops to the ground, throwing up a cloud of dust. Eddies of dust form and dissipate in the roiling cloud, and at one point the various curves and angles in these eddies appear to form the letters S-E-X. It takes a bit of persistence to see specific letters in the shapes formed by the swirling dust clouds, even when the video is played in slow motion.

Persistence, maybe — or maybe just fast reflexes that let you hit your Pause button quickly enough. Here’s a screenshot of the moment in question; you can judge for yourself.

It’s not crystal clear, no, but you don’t need to be on hallucinogens to see it. And for many, that was enough to protest the film. Disney released the movie on VHS and LaserDisc in March of 1995, and six months later, an anti-abortion group in Virginia wrote to Disney demanding they remove the videos from stores due to the “message” above. As the New York Times reported, according to Rodney Miller of the American Life League, “the scene [. . .] was noticed by a 4-year-old boy whose aunt reported his observation to the league.” In response, Miller and other officials in his organization watched the scene over and over again, ultimately finding what the four-year-old allegedly read: “I can say that I didn’t when I first saw it. But I did after a while, after running it back and forth.”

Disney, of course, declined to remove the movie and denied that any such secret message existed; a company spokesperson told the Times that water Miller and others saw was “nothing more than a perception” and certainly there was “no symbolism, no sordid imagery” in the movie.

And that’s probably true — at least, the second part. It’s also quite likely that the cloud of dust is a lot more than a perception — just not the R-rated one critics thought were there. In the 1998 book “Disney: The Mouse Betrayed,” authors Peter and Rochelle Schweizer present a very critical and, to many, sensationalist view of the empire that Mickey built, outlining actual and perceived transgressions by the company. The cloud of “SEX,” though, is not one of the company’s sins, according to the book — there’s a message there, but it’s not the one you think. The authors spoke with animators who worked on the film, and one, named Tom Sito, asserted that the message was definitely there, put in place by animators who liked to hide little messages in their films. But, as Nito explained, “the hazy letters that appear in the clouds during The Lion King really spell SFX,” which stands for “special effects.” Nothing sordid at all.

Disney never officially confirmed Nito’s take, but they also decided to play it safe. In 2002, Disney re-released the 1994 film for IMAX theaters, and in doing so, redid some of the special effects. As Digital Spy explains, “The differences are small and mostly related to title cards, logos, and updated graphics. However, in this version, the letters (‘SFX’ or ‘SEX’) were cut and replaced with a generic dust cloud,” as seen here.

Most likely, Disney made the change to avoid future controversy — even though the message (if it was there intentionally) was most likely an innocent joke by an unheralded design team.

Bonus fact: In front of the New York Public Library’s main branch are statues of lions, named Patience and Fortitude. (You can see a picture of Patience on the library’s official website, here.) They are two of many lion statues around the world — there are four in London’s Trafalgar Square, a pair of famous ones in Rome, a whole genre of them from China, and of course, the $40 ones you can get on Amazon. In other words, there are many, many lion statues in the world. How many, exactly, is unknowable, but it’s probably a pretty high number. There are only about 40,000 (real) lions in the wild right now, according to the World Wildlife Federation, and that number may be on the high end. As a result, and as National Geographic noted in 2014, “there are [probably] more lion statues [ . . . ] than actual wild lions roaming across Africa.”

From the Archives: The Lion Doesn’t Sleep Tonight: How lions made us afraid of full moons (probably).