Disney’s CGI/live-action version of The Lion King roars into cinemas this week, and we caught up with director Jon Favreau and his talented voice cast.
Widely regarded as an animated masterpiece, Disney’s 1994 classic, The Lion King, won Oscars for Elton John and Tim Rice’s best original song, Can You Feel the Love Tonight and for Hans Zimmer’s best original score. Three years later the stage show inspired by the film made its Broadway debut, winning six Tony awards. Recently marking its 9,000th show, it remains one of Broadway’s biggest hits 22 years later.
Therefore when Jon Favreau was asked to direct an animated remake, he was naturally uneasy. “I felt a tremendous responsibility not to screw it up,” says the director who brought to the table everything he learned from helming 2016’s The Jungle Book.
“The Lion King is such a beloved property,” he tells STACK. “Disney has had tremendous success with the original animated movie and then the Broadway version, so I knew I had to be careful with it. I wanted to demonstrate that we could be respectful of the source material while bringing it to life using mind-blowing techniques and technologies.”
But it was a trip to Africa that pointed him in the direction of The Lion King. “I went on safari to Africa six months prior to first talking to Disney about doing this film,” says Favreau.
“I remember when a warthog ran by our safari vehicle, one of the people in our group started singing Hakuna Matata. Then when we saw lions up on a rock, they all said, ‘Oh, look, it looks like The Lion King.’
This story has become a frame of reference that everybody now knows and accepts. It pops up in music, on TV shows, in comedy routines, as part of sketches. It’s continually referenced. It’s such a deep part of our culture that it felt like there was a tremendous opportunity to build on that and retell the story in a different medium.”
In his mission to push boundaries, Favreau has brought The Lion King to the big screen in a whole new way, employing an evolution of storytelling technology that blends live action filmmaking techniques with photo-real computer-generated imagery. Environments were designed within a game engine, with state-of-the-art virtual reality tools enabling the director to walk around in a virtual set, scouting and setting up shots as if he were standing in Africa alongside Simba.
The film boasts a dynamic voice cast including Donald Glover as Simba, Beyoncé as Nala, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar and the great James Earl Jones reprising his original iconic performance of Mufasa.
Seth Rogen’s Pumbaa, Billy Eichner’s Timon and Keegan-Michael Key’s Kamari provide the laughs.
The multitalented Glover has nothing but praise for Favreau. “Jon was really good about the circle of life and I feel it’s good to make movies that are global and have a metropolitan sense, like citizens of the world, making sure that we talk about how connected we are. So I felt like it was a necessary thing, and we talked about that upfront, at the very beginning.”
Having attended the previous night’s Hollywood premiere with his son, he adds, “He was freaking out. It’s his favourite movie, but he still didn’t know I was in this new one, he was just like, ‘Oh, the one with Beyoncé!’ And then he’s like, ‘Oh, Dad’s in it too, this is great, a bonus.’”
Beyoncé was immediately on Favreau’s wishlist to play Simba’s childhood friend-turned-love-interest, Nala, bringing the fierce and intelligent lioness to life. “When you think of somebody who you’d be excited to interpret the role of Nala, especially the musical performances, Beyoncé is in a class all by herself,” says Favreau. “It’s a struggle, when you have tweens and teens at home, to be thought of as cool, because you’re irritating to your children. But having Beyoncé in my film definitely bought me a lot of credibility on the home campus with my kids and their friends. I’m a big fan of her music and was very excited to explore what she could bring.
“With kids of her own, the fact that she’s working on The Lion King is something that she can share with her family, too,” he adds. “Kids have very strong opinions, and I’ve made a lot of good decisions on my collaboration on these family films because I’ve listened to my family. They definitely aren’t shy in telling me what they think about my plans.”
With all its soaring themes of love, betrayal, family, friendship, it’s Rogen’s Pumbaa and Eichner’s Timon that provide the biggest laughs, the two actors immediately hitting it off. “Billy and I did a lot of improvisation,” says Rogen. “We were actually together every time we recorded, which is a very rare gift to have trying to be funny in animated films. I have done a lot and often you’re just alone in there. I think you can really tell that we were playing off each other, it was an incredibly naturalistic feeling, and they really captured Bill like that. What is so amazing is that he essentially played himself on a TV show for years [Billy on the Street], and yet Timon is more Billy than that character somehow. It’s remarkable to me how his character makes me laugh so hard.”
“I wish I was as cute in real life as I was in the movie,” muses Eichner. “What they designed is so adorable and I think the juxtaposition of my personality in that little Timon body really works.
“But being able to riff off Seth and discovering our chemistry together, you can feel it when you’re watching the movie. I hadn’t seen this movie until last night and I was shocked by how much of the riffing actually ended up in the movie. I think it works and feels very unique from other movies in this genre, which can often feel a bit canned.”
As the villain of the piece, Chiwetel Ejiofor delves deep into Scar, offering a deeply complicated creature and not just a one-dimensional baddie. “It’s interesting to go into that psychology and try to uncover that. And look, I am a huge fan of what was done before obviously, by Jeremy Irons, so it was about just going back in and exploring that character again in a slightly different perspective. It’s an incredible part to play and so complex and having empathy, not sympathy, but empathising with the character and trying to understand and get underneath that in such a rich and villainous character.”
Three years in the making, Favreau was determined not to make any missteps. “There are lots of steps to this process and that’s why it took so long, although each phase was always different. In the beginning, it was pencils and voices. And then, always for me, casting is the foundation of great cinematic storytelling.
“I didn’t come from the tradition of visual direction, it’s always been about storytelling and performance. I came up as an actor and so I have my foundation, you can’t compromise one iota on cast, you have to get the best people you can, because they are the ones who are going to do everything.
“We just built off of our cast, so it started with us just in a room, like theatre rehearsal, it was like what you would do when you grab a book for the first time and everyone walks around the stage and you start to figure out your character, and I had them all performing together. They would get into groups and everybody was miked so that the sound is usable for the film and we would have them interact and improvise with one another.
“At that point, we would shoot video on long lenses, just to have reference on what they did with their faces and we would give that to the animators who would then turn it into what a lion would do or a hyena would do, because if we just motion captured their face and put a human expression on the animal’s face, I was concerned that would blow the illusion of it, being a naturalistic documentary.
“We looked at all those Attenborough BBC documentaries, and how much emotion could be expressed without human performance, just through music and editorial and the stories you are telling. And looking at movies like Babe, that was inspiration for how we did Jungle Book; how much expression and emotion that would come out of these characters without having a human performance.”
With so many original Lion King fans all grown up now with their own families, The Lion King’s box-office is expected to smash all records.