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Are Simba and Nala related? A lion expert weighs in

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The entire relationship could go against the laws of lion nature

simba and nala cuddling in the 2019 lion king during the can you feel the love tonight sequence
Can you feel the love tonight?
Walt Disney Pictures

For better or for worse, the 2019 redux of The Lion King trades the lush animated original for a more nitty and gritty, photorealistic style. You can really see every strand of fur on the lions, every piece of grace on the savannah, every last particle of dust. When The Lion King was hand-animated, we could easily suspend disbelief and buy the fact that Simba, Pumbaa, and Timon swing from vines in “Hakuna Matata” or that Scar and the hyenas parade around in a rocky lair full of swirling green smoke in “Be Prepared.” The new Lion King, however, sheds the fantastical for the realistic.

Now that The Lion King is basically a nature documentary, not a cartoon, real life complications become all the more...real.

For instance — because the only male lions of fathering age (Mufasa and Scar) are brothers, does this mean Simba and Nala are related? From what we see in the movie, that means either Mufasa is Nala’s father, making the two lovers half-siblings, or Scar is Nala’s father, making the two cousins. Either way, yeowch.

Polygon reached out to Dr. Craig Packer, director of Lion Research Center at the University of Minnesota, to get to the bottom of this carnivore conundrum.

First thing’s first: let’s take a look at the conditions of the pride as we see it in the movie. We have Mufasa and Scar (real name Taka, as revealed in a 1994 tie-in book) as two males, at least half a dozen female lions that we’re aware of, and Simba and Nala the cubs. Would this automatically make Mufasa or Scar Nala’s father? Not necessarily.

“Usually lion prides have two or three males,” says Dr. Packer.

So there could have been a third male lion that died or something before the events of the movie. Given Disney’s track record of over-correcting their old movies, it’s possible that a director’s cut exists out there somewhere where Simba’s mom Sarabi off-handedly mentions Nala’s dead father.

However, as it turns out, it’s not the link through potential fathers we should be concerned about, but the one through the mothers.

“The females in a pride are all closely related to each other,” explains Dr. Packer. “They’re sisters, cousins, grandmothers, nieces and aunts. So if Nala and Simba were not litter-mates, there is a chance they’d have the same father, but it’s their mothers who would have been as close as sisters or cousins.”

In The Lion King, the title of king passes from father to oldest son. In real life, however, once male lions reach a certain age, they leave home, bond with other young adult male lions, and go out of their way to find a pride they’re not related to that will let them mate. The fact that Simba and Nala even get together not only is pretty squicky because they’re direct cousins, but also because it goes against natural lion order. The answer, then, to our pressing question is: yes, Simba and Nala are related, because their moms are related.

Which, hey, we could suspend when Timon was also hula dancing, but when everything just looks so damn real, it’s a bit harder to ignore. The curse of realistic lions, it seems, is a heightened awareness of realistic lion dynamics.