Disney’s The Lion King occupies a special place in millions of hearts. Many of us have grown up with the Hamlet-inspired story of the cub Simba growing up to avenge his father Mufasa’s death and become the leader of his pride – now, 25 years later, the story reaches a new generation with the arrival of Jon Favreau’s CGI remake.
We can only imagine what changes the director has in store but, as far as we can tell, one thing that will remain exactly the same is the fundamental relationship between Simba (voiced as a cub by J.D. McCrary and as an adult by Donald Glover) and his father Mufasa (again brought to life by the mellow tones of James Earl Jones, also the familiar voice of another significant father figure from a galaxy far, far away).
For Simba, Mufasa isn't just a father but a mentor, raising his son to be king yet never shying away from telling him that one day he wouldn’t be around to protect him. That day comes shatteringly sooner than either of them would have wanted but Mufasa’s spirit never leaves his son or the film.
As cinema fathers go, he’s one of the best: let’s face it, not all of them rock and their relationships with their on-screen sons – or children – follow suit. On that note, here are five of the most memorable father-son duos in cinema – even if they’re not always conventional…
1. Jack and Danny – The Shining (1980)
Stephen King’s chilling novel was turned into a movie by esteemed director Stanley Kubrick and, while it has a family at its centre, this is no heart-warmer.
Aspiring writer Jack (Jack Nicholson) watches his alcoholism scupper his latest attempt at a career, but still tries to provide for his family by taking the care-taking job at a majestic, isolated resort hotel – one with a traumatic history. He tries to ignore that background, but son Danny (Danny Lloyd) is psychic and knows that their stay will be anything but peaceful.
While trying desperately to make some sense out of the chaos created by the adults around him, the boy is increasingly alienated from his father and has to face the truth that when things go wrong and dad is on a downward spiral, he simply can’t trust him. He’s unstable and frightening. It’s down to mother Wendy (Shelly Duvall) to step into the breach, even though Danny’s inclination is to turn to his father.
It turns out Jack casts a long shadow: Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining, is released later this year, and follows a grown-up Danny (Ewan McGregor) as he deals with the aftermath of his childhood and fights his own battle with alcohol. Word is the film is full of flashbacks and references to the original, promising another terrifying journey for Danny, driven by the influence of his dad.
2. Daniel and Chris, Lydia and Natalie – Mrs Doubtfire (1993)
OK, so Daniel (Robin Williams) has two daughters as well as son Chris (Matthew Lawrence), but his relationship with all three of them is at the very heart of the film – and this is a film with a lot of heart, primarily thanks to Williams.
They’re everything to Daniel and he’s everything to them, so the prospect of separation when he and mother Miranda (Sally Field) split up is literally unbearable for him and them. And while his attempts to remain in his kids’ lives are hilariously absurd, they have a serious point to make, one that will resonate with every father watching the film.
Adopting the guise of elderly Scottish nanny Mrs Doubtfire takes Daniel in an unexpected direction as well: back in his children’s lives, he comes to realise that being a father is different to being their best bud. The child in him that they love so much starts to grow up just a little, and that’s no bad thing.
3. Marlin and Nemo – Finding Nemo (2003)
The father/son bond is never stronger than in Disney-Pixar’s gorgeous, ocean-bound animation, but Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) is overprotective to a fault.
It’s easy to see why: little Nemo (Alexander Gould) is more vulnerable than most, possessing an underdeveloped fin, but sometimes you just have to trust your kid and let go. It’s a hard lesson for Marlin and his attempts to wrap his son in cotton wool push the youngster to act up, setting the film’s narrative in motion.
Not that Nemo resents his father’s efforts to keep him in a bubble: they’re driven by love and he knows that, but that doesn’t make them any less frustrating. Ironically, it’s down to forgetful Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) to explain that “You can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.”
By the end of the film, Marlin and Nemo are closer than ever because of everything they’ve been through – and because dad has learnt to let go. In that way, they both find each other. What looks on the surface like a film for children carries a serious message for their parents.
4. Hal and Oliver – Beginners (2010)
"I am not who you’ve always thought me to be." How would any of us react at being told that by a parent? In this case, it’s father Hal (Christopher Plummer) talking to son Oliver (Ewan McGregor): dad is ageing, already terminally ill and he’s revealed to his son that he’s gay.
It makes Oliver question everything he’s ever known but, despite the inevitable uncomfortable moments and difficult conversations that are to follow, he never stops admiring his dad. In fact, Hal’s newly-discovered honesty with both himself and his son brings the two of them closer, enabling Oliver to accept his father’s sexuality and follow his own truth.
That generosity of heart becomes Hal’s legacy to his son – honesty with himself and with others about how he wants to live his life and knowing that the truth, even if it can be more difficult and downright risky, is always the best in the long run. It’s a touching relationship, shot through with more than a ring of truth, as it was based on director Mike Mills’ own experience.
5. Juan and Little – Moonlight (2016)
We never see Chiron’s father in director Barry Jenkins's Oscar winning drama. Chances are the boy (played by Alex R. Hibbert in the film’s first act) never did either: the only parent he knows is his drug addict mother Paula (Naomie Harris), and it’s an early life defined by fear – of the bullies at school, of his mother and of his own instincts.
A father figure comes along in the unexpected shape of local drug dealer Juan (Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali), the man who gives Chiron the nickname of 'Little' and who, although we only see him in the first third of the film, remains ever-present in Chiron’s life. He’s the first person the boy has ever talked to about his sexuality, helping shape Chiron’s identity in the process.
Chiron goes on to imitate Juan in his life choices, partly because of economic circumstances but equally as a tribute to the only instance of parenthood in his early life.
Freda Cooper is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team.