Making Something Fresh, But Familiar: Behind the Scenes of THE LION KING (2019)
By Tess Farrand, Staff Writer
“In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight…”
Roaring into theaters on July 19th, THE LION KING, Disney’s beloved cartoon, comes to life in a refreshed live-action format. The cast and crew of the highly anticipated movie hosted a recent press conference to give clarity into the challenges of harnessing the fandom and delivering a great project.
Director Jon Favreau, who previously directed the live-action THE JUNGLE BOOK movie in 2016, was eager to continue learning the ins and out of adapting a beloved story to share with audiences. He mentioned that casting was easy for this movie, and things fell into place with relative ease.
Donald Glover (ATLANTA) voices adult Simba in the movie and explained that he didn’t tell his son. Instead, his son recognized his father’s voice when watching it for the first time.
Glover said, “I didn’t tell him anything. I really didn’t. It’s his favorite movie. I was like oh, I’ll just wait until he gets there. Somehow, he found out about it, but still didn’t know I was in it. He was just like ‘oh, the one with Beyoncé.’ Then during the movie, he’s like ‘Oh, Dad’s in it, too. This is great.’”
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 YEARS A SLAVE) voices Scar, the villainous brother-lion to King Mufasa. In-person, however, he seems to be very different than his character.
“It’s exciting to even get the opportunity to begin a journey like this and to go into any of these characters and the part of Scar is obviously an extraordinary part to play,” Ejiofor said. “In a way, you just approach it the same way you approach any other part: you sort of identify with the character; you look at the psychology of the character; you place yourself into those circumstances; and, that creates its own individual slant.”
Yet, standing on the coattails of Jeremy Irons who voiced Scar in the 1994 animated movie, it wasn’t something he took lightly.
“I, absolutely with everybody else, loved the original,” Ejiofor expressed. Going forward, “you kind of [have to] make it your own, and you create the sort of individuality to it in that way.”
Some characters come as a package deal: Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogan); Kamari and Azizi, the comedic hyenas.
Keegan-Michael Key, who voiced Kamari, tipped his hat to Favreau’s leadership to make the dialogue seem fresh.
“Jon is a great student, has an encyclopedic knowledge of all different types of comedy,” Key said. “One of those pieces of knowledge is about comedic duos and the dynamic that exists between them. I know that when we had a very similar experience to Billy and Seth where we were allowed to walk around the room. It was as if we were being directed in a scene in the play… everything was captured.”
Since Simba and his childhood pal Nala grow to be adults in the movie, filmmakers found young talent to voice the lion cubs, newcomer JD McCray (young Simba) and Shadadi Wright Joseph (young Nala) who had experience performing the role onstage prior to the movie. Florence Kasumba (BLACK PANTHER) joined the ensemble as another hyena named Shenzi.
“It was such an honor doing the stage play on Broadway and also doing it in the all-new LION KING,” Joseph said of bridging the two experiences.
“One thing that I really saw the difference was that on Broadway, everything is a little bit more structured… you just have to like follow direction, which is cool, too. But, in the all-new LION-KING, I loved how Jon gave JD and I just a bunch of freedom.”
Talented composer Hans Zimmer returned to the project 25 years later to keep the same tone of the widely quoted and adored soundtrack. Zimmer stated, “everybody who played in the orchestra, and it was a very special orchestra, knew the movie.”
Because of the familiarity, “every note was played with intention. Every note was played with commitment. I think that ultimately helps everybody. It’s not just people reading things off a piece of paper. They knew the material.”
On a similar vein, the opening lyrics as the sun rises over pride rock are mirrored in the live-action rendition.
The same singer, South African composer Lebo M, lent his voice to the work and performed the stunning musical number for press conference attendees.
He smiled and said, “Coming back to the Lion King, it’s very hard to say I came back. I’ve never left. The greatest gift is to be able to re-enter a journey that’s been in your life for 25 years and be able to be part of something that I initially thought was a setup that Hans won’t talk about. I first met this man. We did a project called ‘Power of One’. This is like a family reunion for me.”
Audiences might be surprised to know that, “what you hear is actually one take. There’s been one take 25 years later… That one take we did, because it was so natural, now it’s going to outlive previous 25 years. It’s unbelievable.
THE LION KING (2019) releases on July 19th. To see Movieguide®’s full review, click here.