Director Jon Favreau tells STACK of his mission to push boundaries and break new ground with the stunning CGI/live-action version of Disney’s classic The Lion King.
Widely regarded as an animated masterpiece, Disney’s 1994 classic, The Lion King, won Oscars for Elton John and Tim Rice’s original song, Can You Feel the Love Tonight and for Hans Zimmer’s 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 a CGI-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 had 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.”
It was a trip to Africa that pointed Favreau in the direction of The Lion King. “I went on safari in Africa six months prior to first talking to Disney about doing this film,” he says. “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’s familiar to everyone. 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 back 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.
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.”
The Lion King’s stellar voice cast includes Donald Glover as Simba, Beyoncé as Nala, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, Billy Eichner as Timon, Seth Rogen as Pumbaa, and the great James Earl Jones reprising his original iconic performance of Mufasa.
“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,” explains Favreau. “They would get into groups and everybody was miked up 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, Favreau’s stunning new reimagination is the must-have movie this November.