On November 22, a whole new generation of kids will get to experience the continuing story of The Lion King when Disney Channel US and Canada debut the first of its two television spin-offs—primetime movie event The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar.
The new movie, as well as next year’s The Lion Guard TV series for Disney Channel and Disney Junior channels worldwide, takes audiences back to the African savanna where they meet Kion (Max Charles), the second-born cub of Simba (Rob Lowe) and Nala (Gabrielle Union).
As the new leader a group of animals called The Lion Guard, Kion is entrusted to protect the Pride Lands, but breaks tradition by not calling on lions to assemble. He instead chooses his own heroic friends—fearless honey badger Bunga, confident cheetah Fuli, happy-go-lucky hippo Beshte and brainy egret Ono—to help him out.
Executive-produced by Ford Riley (Special Agent Oso), with Howy Parkins (Jake and the Never Land Pirates, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse) directing and Christopher Willis (Mickey Mouse) composing, the spin-offs come 20 years after the premiere of the original theatrical film, which has raked in US$987.4 million at the worldwide box office and spawned a veritable Lion King empire across music, toys, television, publishing, theater and attractions.
Parkins spoke with Kidscreen about the pressure of staying true to a classic, the importance of weaving education throughout the new stories, and why Bunga the honey badger is already a fan favorite.
How did you become involved in The Lion Guard projects?
I was finishing up the third season of Jake and the Never Land Pirates when I got a call from one of the executives at Disney Junior who expressed interest in bringing me on to a new project. Of course, when she mentioned it was an extension of The Lion King property, I jumped. The Lion King is probably one of my favorite Disney films and I have friends who worked on the original. So, I met Ford [Riley] for lunch, and we both knew that this would be huge—and a big challenge.
How important was it to accurately re-capture the distinct look and feel of The Lion King?
We feel like this was a huge part of setting The Lion Guard up for success. Right out of the gate, we were very mindful to hold the essence of The Lion King, through the look of the background environments to the actual characters. We did extensive research and were also able to obtain some original model sheets. We want people to tune into the movie premiere and feel comfortable, like they are back in the world of The Lion King.
Were any artists from the original movie brought back to consult on The Lion Guard?
The challenge with The Lion Guard was capturing the stunning beauty and look of The Lion King, so when one of my friends, Barry Atkinson, who worked on The Lion King as a background painter, became available we brought him in. He shared a lot of insight when it came time to look at examples that the new backgrounds artists had done. Then another friend of mine, Mike Surrey, came in to talk to the animators and the storyboard artists. He was the animation supervising director on Timon on The Lion King. So we’ve pulled in some favors.
Wildlife education experts from Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park, and author and Swahili expert Sarah Mirza, consulted on the characteristics, behaviors and habitats of the African animal species featured, and on language and cultural advice, respectively. How were educational elements incorporated into The Lion Guard?
We have multiple characters and stories to tell, so we’ve used the Circle of Life as sort of a nice story arc to the entire series as well as the feature. For the research we’ve done, we’ve been able to take facts about the animals in the Serengeti and some of the habitat information and either work them into the stories or create entire stories based on an actual fact. Without being overly educational, we are very educational. It’s been a fun thing to run with through the entire storytelling process.
Because the TV series will air on Disney Junior, did you have to change the tone at all?
The Lion King, like most Disney movies, does have some scary moments so we wanted to go there, but not really go there, because we have to be mindful of the two to seven audience. We have the music, the chase sequences, a lot of comic relief, as well as our villains, so there will be some dark moments. But we tend to pull back a little more than they did on the original movie or on a movie, for example, like Finding Nemo.
Are the new stories being interpreted for today’s generation in any way?
Not really. We don’t do anything contemporary because we could potentially trap ourselves in a specific time period if we did and lose our audience. The beautiful thing about The Lion King is it’s timeless and we want to keep that magic going.
The score and original songs from The Lion King are iconic. What are the expectations around new music for The Lion Guard?
We’re not using the melodies per se but the instrumentation will feel very Lion King. Some of the songs in the show are right in the same vein as “Hakuna Matata,” but we’re not doing “Hakuna Matata.” There are some fun Broadway numbers. We definitely went to The Lion King stage show and pulled inspiration from there. The songs are very catchy and touching, too.
How would you explain the longevity of The Lion King?
There was a renaissance of sorts in the early ’90s of animation for features and The Lion King came along at the right time. The storytelling and character development is practically perfect.
Timon and Pumbaa stole so many scenes in The Lion King that they got their own show. What new characters do you foresee kids loving?
Bunga the honey badger is definitely a fan favorite already. He’s a strong comedic character and a lot of fun for the artists to draw, but I really like Beshte, too.