If you're gonna do a remake, you're gonna have to answer to fans who loved the original. So, we talked to the cast of the new Lion King and asked them to do exactly that. While much of the movie is, as early trailer reactions posited, shot-for-shot what happened in the 1994 movie, there are a few material changes from the original Lion King that you may want to, uh, be prepared for.
The most obvious changes are new songs like Beyoncé's "Spirit" (I'm fairly certain you don't need us to explain why Disney had Beyoncé record a brand new song for this movie) and a frustrating rendition of "Be Prepared" that changes the classic villain anthem to spoken word poetry (new Scar, Chiwetel Ejiofor, is a great actor but the original song was a bop). One of the most important changes to the film was its jokes: You can't exactly have talented comedic actors repeating the exact same lines that Whoopi Goldberg and Nathan Lane spouted off in the original. So the answer, in almost every scene, it turns out, was improv.
"[Our director] Jon Favreau was really good about wanting us to come to a relationship organically," Keegan Michael Key, who plays one of the Hyenas, tells Refinery29. Favreau's preferred directing style was to get his voice actors in the same room, interacting and riffing together, in order to get fresh material for his new take on The Lion King. "We were in a huge room and we were double miked and we would act out physically in our human form what we were doing, which is a far cry from standing in a recording booth in a static position."
At the press conference for the movie, Favreau explained that rather than using motion capture technology, he had these sessions recorded so that the animators could use them as references when creating the CGI animals' movements. That allowed the actors to interact physically, and naturally, in addition to improvising their jokes, for which Key says Favreau always mapped out a starting point and an endpoint to keep it all on track. "It was really fun to do it that way. You're using your intuition, you're using human instinct and then you can imbue the animals with those dynamics." (It might have also been "fun" due to the fact that Key's improv partner and fellow hyena was absurdist comedian Eric Andre.)
While pretty much every joke out of the hyenas' mouths was a new one, Timón actor Billy Eichner had to keep a few iconic lines, originally spoken by Lane.
"I know this isn't a thrilling answer, but I tried not to overthink it," Eichner says of his lines pulled directly from the original, mostly in classic songs like "Hakuna Matata" and "Can You Feel The Love Tonight"). This time around though, Timón and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) are much more like the actors that voice them than they are like the original duo. And the characters' freshness, in many ways, is what keeps this new version afloat.
"As incredible and hilarious and iconic as Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella are in the original, that Borscht Belt, Broadway-style sensibility would not necessarily have jelled or meshed well with this photorealistic take," says Eichner, adding that his and Rogen's version is more "conversational" and "very grounded." (See also: Billy On The Street: Nature Documentary Edition.)
The original Simba is hot. That Simba looks like hot cartoon guy and this one looks like a lion. It just looks like a straight up lion.
Keegan Michael Key
And while the photorealistic animation may have had some impact on how the actors approached their iconic characters, it has an even more significant impact on how audiences will see the entire story. For one thing, the villains are suddenly a lot more terrifying, even to the actors who play them.
"I was never intimidated by the hyenas when I watched the '94 movie," actress Florence Kasumba tells Refinery29. She plays HBIC hyena Shenzi, who's no longer funny like Goldberg's original character, but rather ruthless and intimidating — a terrifyingly realistic predator. "In this one, even I thought [during the screening], a couple of times, 'oh my gosh.' I mean, there were kids crying in front of me."
Eichner also says the realistic imagery struck him emotionally, driving home the film's environmental message in a stronger, more visceral way.
"The animals and everything looks so real and so beautiful and the environment, the atmosphere, just looks so glorious," he says. "It reminds you of how beautiful the world is and can be."
Lastly, but definitely not least as far as the internet is concerned, is that the realistic animation kinda killed one of the most beloved elements of the first Lion King: Hot Simba.
Shouldn't the voice of Donald Glover as adult Simba keep that train going? I asked Key, who I'm positive regretted entertaining my Hot Simba question in the first place. "I would love to say it's apples and oranges. It's not. The original Simba is hot. That Simba looks like hot cartoon guy and this one looks like a lion. It just looks like a straight up lion," he says, adding: "I would never describe a lion as hot."