EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Disney’s The Lion Guard creator Ford Riley talks new Lion King sequel
We can’t wait for the epic new sequel to Disney’s The Lion King, The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar, which premieres on Disney Junior tonight at 5.30pm. Starring Rob Lowe, Gabrielle Union and the phenomenal James Earl Jones as Mufasa, the special will pave the way for an exciting new 22-episode series to debut on Disney Junior later this year.
The Lion Guard follows Simba and Nala’s second cub Kion as he becomes the leader of the Lion Guard, a team of elite animals who work to preserve the Pride Lands.
We spoke to series creator Ford Riley about the new special and series, what he loved about the original series and his fears about continuing such a beloved saga.
How did you get the idea for the Lion Guard’s concept?
Disney was really excited about expanding on the the world of the Lion King with Disney Junior taking the lead because of the success of the re-release of the Lion King on DVD and Blu Ray. Disney Junior approached me to pitch them an idea of expanding the world of The Lion King.
All I had to go on was The Lion King. At the very end we see Simba and Nala as king and queen and Rafiki’s holding up the cub. In Lion King 2, [we learn] that is Kiara the cub and she’s going to grow up to become queen. I’ve got two kids, and usually stories are about the oldest child or an only child. I was really interested in a second born cub. What would his role be if Kiara’s gonna grow up to be queen?
I was in the kitchen of my house thinking about when my youngest son comes home. Every Thursday he and his buddies go to the park and they have this imaginary superhero team and they have all these imaginary adventures. That’s when it hit me. Let’s have a group of superheroes in the Pride Lands – The Avengers meets The Lion King! So really the idea was cooked up in the kitchen and inspired by my 8-year-old son.
Where does the Lion Guard fit into the Lion King’s timeline?
You’ve seen Lion King 2. Kiara meets Kovu and they get into trouble. The very next scene, Kiara is fully grown and off on her first hunt. Clearly there’s a few years gap in there, so we’re filling that gap with The Lion Guard.
How did you choose the animals that became part of the Lion Guard?
The qualities came first. If we’re going to have this superhero team, we want them to be fierce and brave and strong and fast and keen of sight. Those are the qualities of our five animals in the Lion Guard. From those qualities, obviously the lion is going to be the fiercest. The bravest is the honey badger, hippo the strongest, cheetah the fastest, and the egret – egrets have sort of binocular vision which gives them depth perception which most birds who have eyes on either side of their head don’t, so Ono our egret is the keenest of sight. They’re the best of the best within the Pride Lands.
Do you have a personal favourite character?
Of the group it would be neck and neck between Kion and Bunga. They’re so different, Kion is responsible and wanting to please his dad and do what’s right. Bunga is crazy and headstrong and yet somehow they’re best friends. Their friendship for me is the heart of the series.
How big is the role played by the old favourites, such as Simba and Nala?
You’ll see them all throughout the series and many of them in the special The Return of the Roar that is going to kick off the show. You’ll see Simba, you’ll see Nala, you’ll see Rafiki, Zazu, Timon and Pumbaa, but the animals who passed away in the original film you won’t see –
But James Earl Jones is coming back?
Ah – good point, you caught me there! James Earl Jones is doing the voice of Mufasa in the special very similarly to how he appeared in the original film.
What message would you like children to take away from watching the series?
I think there are a couple of messages. Certainly the idea that the diverse group of animals – they’re all different species, they’ve all got got different temperaments and different ways of approaching problems – are somehow stronger as a whole. I think that message of diversity is really important to youngsters. Even though people might look different or have different ways of approaching things, there’s a strength when we combine all of our different skills and work together.
Within the Pride Lands it has a conservation message. They never take more than they need, whereas our bad guys have no sense of this balance of the circle of life, and come in and just try and wipe out whole herds. That’s what the Lion Guard is there to protect against.
You mentioned villains. Scar is like the ultimate Disney villain, in my opinion. Who will be the villain in the Lion Guard?
In the special we’ll meet a new group of hyenas, led by Janja and his clan. We’ll see them throughout the series as well. In the series we’ll also meet villainous vultures, jackals, crocodiles… there will be a lot of different baddies for the Lion Guard to defend against.
What can you tell me about the music in the Lion Guard?
Beau Black is our songwriter. I write the lyrics, he writes the music. It’s [full of] wonderful catchy tunes. The score is being done by Chris Willis and is just fantastic. It’s really inspired by the original Hans Zimmer score from the feature so it’s got a huge epic feel to it.
Do you have a personal favourite song?
I really like “Zuka Zama”. ‘Zuka zama’ is Swahili for ‘pop up, dive in’ and it’s Bunga’s song. That’s sort of his motto. Bunga the honey badger wants to jump up and get in there. It’s kind of a counter point to ‘Hakuna Matata’ which means no worries, kick back and relax. I think that’s probably my favourite song in the special.
In the series, there’s another African phrase ‘Si si ni sawa’ that means ‘we’re the same’. It’s a song sung by Kion and another character who he wouldn’t have necessarily expected to trust, but turns out that he can. That crystallises our whole series, diverse characters finding a way to get along.
I like that you’re incorporating Swahili into the film.
I don’t speak Swahili, and it’s one of those things that struck me about The Lion King that there’s all these Swahili phrases. ‘Simba’ means ‘lion’ in Swahili and ‘Pumbaa’ means ‘warthog’ in Swahili. I wanted to have that element in the series as well, so we’ve actually hired Sarah Mirza, who literally wrote the book on English-Swahili translations.
We’ve been using Swahili not just in names of characters and places but also in the language of the show itself. Like ‘Zuka zama’ which is Bunga’s catchphrase and ‘Si Si Ni Sawa’ song. All of the characters have catchphrases which mean real things in Swahili.
What do you think there is for older audiences to enjoy about the Lion Guard?
I think older audiences, who grew up with The Lion King, lots of us have kids now. And so there’s this sharing of common love of these characters with this new generation. Throughout the series there’s nods and winks to the original films that I think parents will appreciate.
Will there be any strong female characters in the series?
Kiara and Nala are still present in the series, and within the Lion Guard itself, Fuli the cheetah is kind of lion’s second in command character. She’s tough and smart and no-nonsense and really a fantastic character – I think kids are going to really like her. In fact when we were testing, boys liked Fuli as much as girls because she was the fastest. I think there’s real positive female characters. We [also] have a female villain you’ll meet within the series, Rairai the jackal, who leads her family’s clan.
Do you feel a lot of pressure doing The Lion Guard?
Absolutely. That’s the first thing that struck me when I was developing the idea, it’s such a huge property, everyone loves it so much. We’ve really gotta stay true to the spirit of the original film because that’s what fans expect. That’s really the primarily reason we went with the 2D look you may have seen in some of the previews. We’re trying to give it the same feel the original film had. The film that made our animation director Christian Larocque get into animation was The Lion King, so he understands as well it has to look great, the music has to be great, the songs have to be great, and it’s gotta be rich storytelling and characters. The bar is really raised high and we’re trying to reach that.
How did you get into working for Disney?
It was really a circle of life moment. I was temping for the executive producers of a Disney animation. I moved to Los Angeles after college and the two executive producers knew I wanted to write and said, “we’ll let you pitch on our next show we’re producing” and that just happened to be The Lion King: Timon and Pumbaa, so I pitched them three story ideas and they took them to the network and the network bought all three. That’s when I stopped temping and started writing and I’ve been writing for animation ever since.