Disney’s latest live-action remake, The Lion King, hits theaters this weekend. Per the Disney usual, a press conference was held for journalists and other members of the press, where the cast and some of the crew came together to talk about the film. As they spoke, it became clear that in many ways, this remake was coming full circle after 25 years.
Chiwetel Ejiofor spoke about the honor of playing a character whose legacy has been around for two and a half decades. “Obviously, in so many ways, the original is just this extraordinary event, it’s so iconic,” he said. “And so it’s exciting to even get the opportunity to begin a journey like this.”
The music of The Lion King is easily the best part of the movie. Element “improvements” on original properties can sometimes prove not to be an improvement at all. In this case, the score filled in the emotional gaps between the incongruity of the photorealistic animals and human voices, elevating the material. Composer Hans Zimmer and his longtime companion Lebo M, the iconic voice from the original, were together once again to bring the live-action version to life. Zimmer explained that the freshness of the revamped score is still rooted firmly in the experiences he and Lebo M had when scoring the original:
“We started in ’92 or something like that. What was sort of pertinent and important then has become somehow more urgent and more important and David Attenborough has shown us where nature is going. And when we did the original one, it really was, the political climate in South Africa was very, very tricky. It was so tricky, in fact, because I had a police record, they wouldn’t let me go for those last sessions, and Lebo went by himself, because of everybody. There was a meeting at Disney, who would finish the movie when Hans got killed? And I was appalled that they wouldn’t let me go.”
The music of The Lion King is vibrant and honors the original. To accomplish this, Zimmer said, he needed to see the music through new eyes and take an entirely different approach, which is what they did:
“[T]here came a point in my life where somebody said to me, you can’t hide behind a screen for the rest of your life. You’ve got to go out and look people in the eye. And we ended up dragging an orchestra and a choir out to Coachella and doing Lion King live. And there was an energy about doing it as a performance and doing it live in that way that moved Jon, and actually to be really honest, it moved me, too. It was great seeing all these amazing musicians really playing it as a piece, as a music as opposed to oh, we’ve got to do it, we have to be specific about a film cue. So I said to Jon, why don’t we do it like this? Why don’t we get all the greatest players, get my band, get the greatest players in the world, make a new orchestra here in Los Angeles, rehearse them for two days, and then really make it as if it was a concept. And we invited all the filmmakers that never get to come to the scoring sessions, the DP and the editors and everybody. Got them into the room, sat them in front of the orchestra, so the orchestra knew there was a bit of, they had to live up to something here. And we just went for it.”
But it wasn’t just the music that nodded to the legacy of the Lion King franchise. The Broadway musical was also taken into consideration when approaching things, from casting to musical contributors. In fact, director Jon Favreau approached the early days almost exactly like a theater rehearsal. For animated movies, there might be one big table read, if that. Oftentimes, cast members don’t even meet each other until the promo tour, being cast at different times and doing their work alone in a sound booth. But Favreau wanted the cast to be more closely knit, even if they ultimately recorded their lines independently. So musical theater camp, it was:
“[I]t started with us just in a room, like a black box theater. It was like theater rehearsal. It really was like what you would do when you grab the book for the first time and everybody walks around on the stage. And you start to rough in, you start to figure your character out. And I had them all performing together, we would get them in groups, we would have everybody miced so that the sound was usable for the film. And we would have them interacting with one another and improvising all the things that they’ve mentioned.
As musician and music consultant Lebo M put it, it’s not that the original crew has returned to The Lion King, it’s that they never left it. “It’s very hard to say I came back,” he explained. “I’ve never left. And the greatest gift is to be able to re-enter a journey that’s been in your life for 25 years…This is like a family reunion for me.”
He also dropped the mind-blowing tidbit that his iconic “Nants ingonyama bagithi baba” opening to “The Circle of Life” was done in one take. One take. Lebo M isn’t unaware of how rare and special that is. “There’s been one take 25 years later, he marveled. “And how blessed can one be that in the movie last night, I’m sitting and watching this thing. That one take we did, because it was so natural, now it’s going to outlive previous 25 years. It’s unbelievable.”
The Lion King is in theaters this weekend.