Characters from the 1994 Walt Disney movie “The Lion King” have not been seen in new settings since a direct-to-video sequel appeared more than a decade ago. Now the company is preparing a series that will burnish the franchise to a new generation of viewers who are often harder to win.
Disney will launch “The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar,” a short primetime movie focused on the son of Simba, the hero of the original film, in November on Disney Channel. The program will follow Kion, Simba’s second-born cub, as he and a team of animals known as “The Lion Guard” try to keep the peace in the surrounding terrain. Disney intends to launch a “Lion Guard” TV series on Disney Channel and Disney Junior outlets around the world in early 2016.
The program has been about four years in the making, said Nancy Kanter, executive vice president of original programming and general manger of Disney Junior Worldwide, in a recent interview. “We were really trying to make sure, from a production value, that we could get as close to the feel of the movie as we possibly can. I think people will be sort of amazed at just how beautiful it really looks,” she said. “Some of the artists on the series have in fact worked on the original movies.”
Disney’s new attempt to make “Lion King” roar suggests that no matter how many ways media companies devise to corral a young viewership increasingly flocking to mobile tablets and on-demand streaming, they still count on storytelling and iconic characters. “The Lion King” is arguably one of Walt Disney’s sturdiest pieces of content, perhaps its best known property other than ”Aladdin” not made by its Pixar studio in the era leading up to 2013’s “Frozen.” It spawned two direct-to-video sequels, a Saturday-morning cartoon show, and a long-running Broadway play, among other extensions.
“’Lion King,’ it goes without saying is probably one of the most beloved movies and set of characters that the company has in the last 25 years,” said Kanter.
Disney has teed up other properties that may evoke familiar feelings. A reboot of “Duck Tales” is slated to appear on Disney XD in 2017. A series based on the 2010 film “Tangled” is scheduled to debut on Disney Channel that same year. At Time Warner, Cartoon Network has announced it will revive sci-fi series “Ben 10” and unveil new cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny and Scooby-Doo on its Boomerang network.
In the new series, Kion breaks tradition by forming“The Lion Guard” out of a varied group of animal friends he thinks are heroic. Typically, only the bravest, strongest lions in the African savanna can be members. In the movie and the TV episodes that follow, the crew will learn how to use unique abilities to solve problems while introducing young viewers to new kinds of fauna.
The show is likely to appeal not just to kids, but to parents who saw the film in their youth. The executive producer, Ford Riley, got his start working on the Saturday-morning cartoon, based on some of the “Lion King” characters, that initially ran on CBS in the mid-1990s, said Kanter. To get all the details right for the new program, Disney consulted with wildlife education experts at its Animal Kingdom theme park about the characteristics of the various animals who appear in the program, and also tapped the knowledge of Sarah Mirza, an author and Swahili expert.
James Earl Jones and Ernie Sabella will reprise their roles from “The Lion King” as Mufasa and Pumbaa, respectively. Rob Lowe will give voice to Simba and Gabrielle Union will play his wife, Nala. Max Charles stars as Kion. Joshua Rush will give voice to Kion’s best friend Bunga, a fearless honey badger. Atticus Shaffer plays Ono, an intellectual egret. Diamond White will play Fuli, a confident cheetah. Dusan Brown will voice Beshte, a good-spirited hippo.
“We’ve gotten very positive responses” via social media, Kanter said. “People are curious to see what we will keep from the original story and what will be new. I’m really confident even the Disney die-hards are going to be fans.” She will get a chance to test her prediction on August 16, when Disney offers a preview of the movie at its D23 Expo in Anaheim, California.