A remarkable thing keeps happening whenever Disney releases a new reboot of a classic movie: It becomes apparent just how little many of the female characters had to do or say in the classic versions.
Earlier this year, this fact was made extremely clear when the new Aladdin gave Jasmine (Naomi Scott) a new storyline and song, "Speechless," both of which focused on her dream to appeal Agrabah's law against women becoming sultans (in the original, she had no song and was just hoping to get the laws changed so she could marry Aladdin). In Beauty and the Beast, Emma Watson's Belle is no longer just her father's caretaker, she has an interest and expertise in the sciences in which the inventor dabbles, too. These steps are admittedly tiny ones, but the new Lion King carries on that nascent (and frankly, necessary) tradition by relying on two things: actual animals and, well, Beyoncé.
In the reimagined 2019 version of The Lion King, the lionesses, who had maybe a total of eight lines of dialog between them in the original movie, are much more prominent, with more dialog an entire song just for Nala, sort of: "Spirit." Some of that is absolutely due to Beyoncé playing Nala — and when you've got Beyoncé in a movie, you'd better also put new Beyoncé music in that movie — but per Alfre Woodard (Simba's mother Sarabi), that greater prominence is also because director Jon Favreau knows that's just how nature works.
"Everyone knows that the lionesses are actually the rulers, the protectors, the nurturers and the hunters of the pride," Woodard noted at the Lion King press conference in early July. "One of the first encounters I had with wildlife, was almost 40 years ago, in a conserve and [we happened] upon the lionesses and you could hear the king in the distance. But [the lionesses] were sitting and we were a little close to them, and I’ve never felt afraid and more attracted at the same time.”
I am the woman, which means my hyena will be stronger than the other two. And that's just how it is.
Florence Kasumba (Shenzi)
Naturally, these fierce felines needed a little more to do — especially in the final fight against Scar — and it's apparent from the new film that Favreau definitely understood that.
These little updates also extend to Shenzi the hyena (Florence Kasumba of Black Panther and Wonder Woman fame in the new version, and Whoopi Goldberg in the original). While the 1994 movie placed the hyenas as court jesters, mere goons to back up Scar (Jeremy Irons) and intimidate some baby lions, the 2019 version of Shenzi is a leader, directing her fellow hyenas and scaring the hell out of just about everyone.
"I was never intimidated by the hyenas when I watched the '94 movie," Kasumba tells Refinery29. The new movie, however, scared even the queen hyena herself. "I mean there were kids crying in front of me."
But even as Shenzi is directing her fellow hyenas to wreak havoc on the pridelands (a thing, we the audience, definitely do not want her to do) she exudes a certain strength that's admittedly pretty intoxicating. The basis of all this? Not necessarily feminism, says Kasumba.
"Female hyenas are physically stronger than male hyenas, and you need a leader. You need somebody who leads the whole pack, and it's very clear with animals: the strongest does that," she says. "I don't say I'm the strongest actor of these three people, [myself, Keegan Michael Key, and Eric Andre], but I am the woman, which means my hyena will be stronger than the other two. And that's just how it is.”