It was a warm July afternoon in the city of Los Angeles. A room in a luxurious hotel was filled to the brink with reporters from every outlet, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the cast and crew of The Lion King (2019) for an important press conference. All of a sudden, the entire room was transported, as the screens in front of its patient audience cut to the sun rising across the African Serengeti. The opening chants to the classic masterpiece “Circle of Life” started playing –not from the screen, but from within the room itself. And out of the side, as if to manifest from nowhere, came legendary singer Lebo M, known for arranging the choral chants that became embedded in pop culture the moment the song was first heard in 1994. From all over the room, Lebo’s chorus came down the aisles, making their way to the front of the room, like a heard of animals making their way to Pride Rock. The press was stunned, furiously pulling out their phones to capture the performance and the beautifully epic nature of the moment. And at that exact second, everyone in attendance knew the entire theme of the day was set—this moment represented a movement! The day was about bringing the magic and loving craftsmanship behind bringing a 25 year old legend to life in a way we have never experienced it before!
Just as both films began with the end of the epic song, and the resonating impact of the film’s title card, so too did the press conference. Making their way to the stage were director Jon Favreau, multi-talented mega-star Donald Glover, Oscar-nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oscar-nominee Alfre Woodard, comedian extraordinares Seth Rogan, Billy Eichner, Keagan Michael Key, and Eric Andre, Black Panther-star and MCU staple, Florence Kasumba, the legendary Dr. John Kani, rising stars JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph, and finally Oscar-winning composer, Hans Zimmer and Lebo M himself. Immediately Favreau was asked how he brought the classic to life, and how he “cracked the code” following his 2016 adaptation of The Jungle Book.
“I’d been working on both of these movies back to back for 6 years. And all of the technology that was available, I’d finally learned to use it by the end of The Jungle Book…Really these are handmade films. There are animators working on every shot. Every environment you see in the film, other than one shot that’s a photographic shot, is built from scratch by artists. And really we had a great team assembled. And the idea of using what we learned on [Jungle Book] and the new technology available on a story like The Lion King, with it’s great music, great characters, and great story, seemed like a wonderful, logical conclusion. So that was something we set out to do.”
Donald Glover, who plays adult Simba in the film, was asked what he told his son, a huge fan of the original, about his involvement in the film.
“I didn’t tell him anything! I really didn’t. This is his favorite movie. So I thought ‘I’ll just wait until he gets there,’ but somehow he found out about it. But still didn’t know I was in it. He was like ‘Oh! The one with Beyonce!’” He said to great laughter. “Then he found out ‘oh Dad’s in it too, this is great! That’s a bonus!’”
Glover was also asked about the differences between this iteration of the film versus the original.
“Jon was really good about the circle of life having a major hand in it…how connected we are, and how it’s the first time we’ve really been able to talk to everybody at the same time. So it’s a really necessary theme…He did it in the Jungle Book too. The story is the same. But the idea that tricks are human’s powers and they can help everybody. Switching to that but keeping the story the same.”
Scar, one of the most memorable villains in Disney history, is portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the film. He was asked what drove him to take the role of the character.
“It was just really interesting to know things about his psychology. To really try to uncover that. I’m a huge fan of what was done before like everyone else – with Jeremy Irons. And just really just going back in and exploring the character with a slightly different perspective and seeing what was there. It’s such an incredible part to play. It’s so complex. And having empathy, not sympathy, but empathizing with the character and trying to understand and get underneath that for such a rich character to play. It was a wonderful experience.”
Legendary actress Afre Woodard plays Sarabi, Simba’s mother, in the film. In this iteration, the moderator compared the character to Helen of Troy, taking a bit more from the stage play than the original film. She was asked to speak about the role. Woodard responded saying this: “It is called The Lion King. But everyone knows lionesses are the hunters and protectors of the pride. And so Jon was able to give us the space to be that. One of the first accounts I had with wild life, almost 40 years ago, in a conservation was happening upon a group of lionesses. And you could hear the king in the distance, but they were sitting, and we were close to them. And I never felt more afraid and more attracted at the same time! I realize that is the mother-thing in most women…At the same time you suckle, but you will eliminate anything that comes to endangering your cubs. So I just sat with that, and did whatever Jon told me to do,” she joked.
The focus shifted to, perhaps, the most well received, and highly anticipated characters in the film: Timon and Pumbaa! The moderator had a chance to ask Seth Rogan (“Pumbaa”) and Billy Eichner (“Timon”) how much of themselves they injected into their characters.
“We were actually together every time we recorded,” Rogan said, kicking off the response, “Which is a very rare gift to have…in an animated film…You can really tell that we’re playing off of each other. It’s an incredibly naturalistic feeling. And they really captured Billy. Billy’s been playing himself on a TV show for years. And this character is more ‘Billy’ than that character. Somehow. It’s remarkable to me. His character makes me laugh so hard.”
“I wish I was as cute in real life as I am in the movie,” joked Eichner. “The Timon they designed is so adorable. And I think the juxtaposition of my personality in that little Timon body really works. And I agree with everything that Seth was saying. I can’t imagine how, looking back, not being in the room together…being able to riff off each other and really discover our chemistry together in the same moment. You can feel it when you’re watching the movie…I was shocked by how much of the riffing actually ended up in the real movie. And I think it works, and I think it feels very unique to other movies in this genre, which can often feel a bit canned.”
“The fact that it has a looseness applied to probably the most technologically incredible movie ever made is an amazing contrast,” continued Rogan. “…It’s inconceivable in a lot of ways. And Jon captured that mixture.”
Overall, the chemistry between all the stars and their captain, Mr. Favreau, was greatly felt throughout the entire day. They had managed to take a classic film and translate it brilliantly using technology and talent, and turned it into their own. And because this reason, future generations will be able to experience a new vision of a classic story, that may prove to be the rare example where a remake could be just as definitive as its source.
The Lion King hits theaters, July 19th!
About the author: When not saving the world from apocalyptic circumstances, Mike Manalo is a mild mannered freelance reporter passionate about attending comic cons, premieres, and screenings. Hobbies include being obsessed with comics, movies, and all things nerdy!