Sunday 18 August 2019

Lion King remake has big shoes to fill

Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Florence Kasumba do 'The Lion King' justice, writes Aine O'Connor

Beloved: The Lion King has been remade
Beloved: The Lion King has been remade
Keegan-Michael Key, Florence Kasumba, Seth Rogen, Beyonce, Billy Eichner and Jon Favreau attending Disney's The Lion King European Premiere held in Leicester Square, London

Aine O'Connor

Remaking something as beloved as The Lion King was a risky business. The 1994 animated film struck a chord, it spawned a stage show which has been running since 1997 and now, after his successful live-action version of The Jungle Book, Jon Favreau directs a new, sort of live-action Lion King. With such a well-regarded template in the original, any changes had to be carefully considered and much of this fell to the actors.

The meerkat-warthog combo, Timon and Pumbaa, the bickering but loyal friends who play such a central role in the story, are voiced this time round by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen. Their contribution is one way more different from the original than anything else in the film, yet still very much holds the essence of the animals' friendship. My son had asked me to tell them his childhood was on the line if they got it wrong, the Rogen laugh is a kind of rumble and instantly recognisable, "Ah tell him he'll get over it!"

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Billy adds that they would have been crazy not to think about the legacy of the first film, "But ultimately once you're working on it you have to put that out of your head so that we can do our job and make it our own. We got to record together which is very helpful, we got to improvise a lot and a lot of that ended up in the movie."

Were they surprised at how much of the improv ended up in the final cut? "Yes!" says Seth, with feeling. Was this improv much tamer than their usual? "It is in some ways," he adds, "But at the same time it's a style of comedy that I didn't expect them to let us do in the movie. Like it was very bizarre at times but also very conversational but we are also saying very weird and funny things, things that actually make us laugh and that aren't what I would call specifically child-oriented." Still, childhoods are safe, their Timon and Pumbaa are great.

Keegan-Michael Key, Florence Kasumba, Seth Rogen, Beyonce, Billy Eichner and Jon Favreau attending Disney's The Lion King European Premiere held in Leicester Square, London
Keegan-Michael Key, Florence Kasumba, Seth Rogen, Beyonce, Billy Eichner and Jon Favreau attending Disney's The Lion King European Premiere held in Leicester Square, London

Two of the characters who feel more tonally different are Scar, King Mufasa's brother, whose festering resentment leads to the film's drama and Shenzi (Florence Kasumba), the hyena leader who teams up with Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to take power. The focus on good leadership and the danger of mob mentality is in the original, but to me it felt stronger this time around. Chiwetel Ejiofor knew he had big shoes to fill after Jeremy Irons's performance in 1994, so his choice was to think about the psychology of the character. "I was very interested in the idea of somebody who is obsessed, even a little addicted to power and to status. All people have that to some degree, but people who are obsessed with it can often rise to leadership positions, so the rest of us have to put up with people like that." He adds: "I was interested in where that psychology might come from and why he understands himself as being heroic, even in the face of these terrible injustices. So understanding that position, having some sort of empathy with that was a really interesting part of playing Scar."

His sidekicks, the hyenas, are far more menacing in 2019 and Florence Kasumba, who had played the stage version of Shenzi for a year in Germany felt that difference in the script. "In the stage show Shenzi is lighter, she has more fun, she enjoys life. Where this version is very serious, very dangerous and what I like about her is that she just wants to make sure that her pack is fine. And it doesn't matter how she gets there. The hyenas are very clear with what they want, what they need but they're definitely not as smart as Scar. He has always been there but I guess at some point we, the hyenas, understand that with him we can become more."

And that complexity is why The Lion King has such enduring appeal.

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