Chances are if you have a favorite Disney animated film, it's "The Lion King."
The movie, 23 years later, is still one of the most beloved animated films of all time (Disney or otherwise), which is kind of miraculous considering that it was made largely under the radar. The film was created by a more inexperienced crew, who chose the based-on-an-original-concept (the first Disney animated feature to do so ever) project over the more prestigious "Pocahontas."
And while "Pocahontas" has largely faded into the background, "The Lion King," with its myriad sequels, spin-offs, Disney Parks attractions, and the upcoming Jon Favreau-directed remake (out July 19, 2019), is still very much in the forefront of public consciousness.
Further raising its already huge profile is a new home video release, including the first time the movie has ever been unleashed on digital platforms. We traveled to Pride Rock (aka Disney's Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World) to chat with original director Rob Minkoff and producer Don Hahn about the legacy of the film, some wild bits of trivia, and what they think of the remake.
Moviefone: This was in production at the same time as another movie that was more high profile. Did you ever think it would be the classic it is today?
Minkoff: I think we were just hoping that it would be good, that people would like it. It was a struggle for us because the movies that had been made before had been based on really well known fairy tales, which gave them an advantage for people because they knew what it was and they knew what to expect, the kind of classic Disney version.
But "The Lion King" was new, it was something different -- it wasn't based on anything people knew. Which is why, in that early pitch meeting, somebody in the back of the room said, "It's Hamlet." Because of the uncle killing the father and the son having to figure out what to do. So for a long time after it was "Bambi in Africa," it was "Hamlet with Lions."
Hahn: Yeah, I mean you've got to love that.
Elton John wasn't the original composer, right, wasn't Abba approached first?
Minkoff: I don't know that they were ever actually approached, but Tim Rice suggested them.
Hahn: Yeah, I think Tim suggested Abba. I don't know if they ever came in for it or were formally approached, but yes.
They had just done the "Chess" musical.
Hahn: Right. With Tim Rice, who was eventually responsible for bringing Elton in. But even that was unusual. Because we were used to working with Alan Menken and Howard Ashman and some very seasoned Broadway people -- and Elton hadn't done a Broadway show. But Tim had. So we leaned on Tim to put a lot of plot into the songs. But it turns out Elton was terrific. His sense of melody was really great.
One aspect of the production that's always fascinated me was that the Northridge Earthquake happened when you were trying to finish. What was that like?
Minkoff: Oh my god, it was total upheaval. I remember coming to the studio the next day and a lot of people couldn't get into the studio. Freeways were closed. People who lived in Northridge, some people said their apartments were condemned or they couldn't go back into their properties. It was total upheaval. We just had to muddle through. Some people slept at the studio, they didn't have a place to go.
This is being remade right now, how do you feel about that transition? Is it something you're excited about?
Minkoff: I think it's obviously amazing that a property is loved enough to warrant that remake. I actually met with Jon Favreau and talked to him about it at length. I got to go down to the studio and see what they were doing, and wear the VR headset and fly around Pride Rock -- which was pretty cool. They're keeping what is important to keep, in terms of the story and character and songs, but I'm sure they're going to be some pretty big changes, too. So I'm excited to see what he does.
Don, you've been through the remake thing a few times.
Hahn: Yeah, we just got through "Beauty and the Beast." There's always a part of you that goes, "They're messing with my child." But all these stories are meant to be told and retold. "Beauty and the Beast" had been told dozens of times before we got to it in the '90s. So a story like "The Lion King" is the same thing. 23 years have passed, and 25 years will have passed by the time the new film comes out. It's exciting. It's exciting to see somebody like Favreau take the material and do something different with it. That's what storytelling is.
As storytellers, are you like: "Well, we wanted to do this but now you can do that."
Hahn: A lot of that happened on "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King," with the stage shows. There were songs that were written for "Rhythm of the Pride Lands" that we couldn't use in the movie but went into the stage show. If you look at what Julie Taymor did on Broadway, it's amazing. So I think there'll be a lot of that reinvention when it comes to the new movie."The Lion King" has been performed in so many permutations. As filmmakers, at what point does it stop being your movie and start becoming the world's movie?
Minkoff: Wow. Well, the fact that it's a Disney movie really does make a difference. I grew up as a huge fan of Disney, the movies, the parks. So being able to have the opportunity to go work for Disney and give back some of that love that we had growing up, watching these movies, was amazing. But being a Disney movie, having that label on it, it's already the world's.
And a lot of the Simba stuff was animated in Florida, right?
Minkoff: Well, [lead animator] Mark Henn was here during that time, so all of his scenes were animated in Florida.
Can you talk about coordinating those things, especially in a pre-email landscape?
Minkoff: Obviously I'd been here [in Florida] and worked with Mark here, which helped perhaps. A lot of times you'd look at the test animation and give notes and if you'd been working together long enough you'd develop a shorthand. So you can be as effective as you can be.
Hahn: I remember we were all really excited because we got a video phone and we were going to do video conferences and things -- and it was the whole wave of the future. But the reality of it was that, it sent one frame after every four seconds. It wasn't like FaceTime at all.
Minkoff: Truthfully, it's been so long. We'd just get on a conference call?
Hahn: We'd get on a conference call.
Minkoff: And we'd say, "Mark, the part when Simba does x..." and he goes "Yeah."
Hahn: Now, it's easy. You just email a Quicktime.Does anything surprise you guys about the reaction to the "Lion King" still, today? I was just in the D23 Expo panel and people were going crazy.
Hahn: The D23 panel was like a religious experience. It always surprises me, the emotion that people take away from many Disney movies, but especially "The Lion King." It's the idea that you're carrying your legacy around with you and the kings of the past look down on you and it's about fathers and sons. There's something about that that speaks deeply to people. I'm not even sure what that is. But it's always surprising. And I think that's part of the reason that people come back to the story and want to retell it and re-hear it again. 23 years later to say, "Oh, I'm going to own the digital version" or something is amazing to me.
Is there anything on this release that hasn't been out there before that you're excited about people seeing?
Minkoff: There's quite a bit, actually. There's behind-the-scenes footage of us recording with the actors that's never been seen. It was never actually supposed to be seen. It was used for the animators to study their performances. There's material of us pitching the storyboards and selling the movie singing "Hakuna Matata." It gives a window into the process of making a movie like this.
You think any of this stuff will surprise people?
Hahn: It's hard to surprise audiences anymore. Everybody has already seen everything.
Minkoff: What's really going to surprise them is the size of our glasses and the length of our mullets.
Hahn: We have fantastic mullets and shoulder pads. It could make an embarrassing sidebar.
"The Lion King" is currently on Digital HD, Disney Movies Anywhere, and on Blu-ray.