How Disney Parks & Conservation Helped Bring The Lion King to Life

The Lion King 2019 poster

Disney's remake of The Lion King was a worldwide megahit and now it's available on home video, just in time for the holidays, with all-new bonus features and music videos.

To bring the animals of the African savanna to life in The Lion King, director Jon Favreau and crew visited Africa but also worked with Disney Parks and conservation. Orlando's Walt Disney World has an Animal Kingdom of its own where several of the amazing creatures found in the film can be seen by guests in real-life. Some of these animals were used for reference for the film, and we spoke to Jon Ross (Disney’s Animals in Film and TV) and Claire Martin (Disney Conservation Programs and Partnerships) to discuss that partnership.

Related: Hidden Details You Missed In Disney’s The Lion King Remake

In our interview we chat about the effects of Disney making more animal-based programming on conversation and the parks, what animals should get their own movies next, and the technology behind bringing animals to life without having to actually use real animals.

When a big animal feature like The Lion King comes around, are your teams always involved? And if so, how do you get involved?

Claire Martin: Yeah, I would say for us, from a conservation perspective, we look at all the upcoming animal-focused films to really think about if there's a unique story or connection that we can make to conservation efforts out in the wild.

We know that our stories reach millions of people. If we can reach that audience with great information about the species being featured, then we can make more of an impact.

The technology on a project like this, from Jungle Book to The Lion King – it’s so impressive what they're able to do, bringing human elements to animals and making them look live-action. What are your thoughts on how the animals in this feature are realized onscreen? 

Jon Ross: The animals in this movie looked unbelievable. Some of the most realistic animals I've ever seen on screen that weren't real.

Claire Martin: Yeah, it was mind-blowing.

My other question is: when an animal feature like this becomes such a big hit around the world, do you notice a change in guest interests? For you guys, with conservation partners, for example. Does that change what the topic of discussion is? 

And Jon, for you: is there other related content and media, like does Disney Nature want to do more hyena-based content when something like this comes out and is a hit?

Jon Ross: I don't know if there's… I guess there's certainly a change in interest, depending on what kind of characters are the stars. I don't know if we're going to necessarily change our programming based on that, but that's a good question.

Claire Martin: I mean, I think there's constant submissions of what people think new Disney Nature films should be. And I think when people get inspired by animals, like you see in The Lion King, we probably do see a peak in [people saying], “Hey, you should make a movie about lions.” Or about meerkats, probably, at this point.

What Can People Learn From Watching The Lion King?

How about for the fans and consumers, then? What sort of message do you hope they take away from being able to see a movie like this on the big screen?

Claire Martin: To your earlier question, I think for us, as we thought about this film, we tied the Lion King: Protect the Pride campaign to it. We really wanted to use this moment in time, and the millions of people that love this story, to say something and to really talk about the fact that lions are in trouble. We've lost half the world's lions since the first film came out.

But also, to inspire people and to give them hope. So that they can see that they in themselves can make a difference for the future of the species.

For a project like this, and I guess The Jungle Book before, so much work went into designing these animals to make them lifelike; animating them, and of course, all the processes to make that happen. Are you hoping to see that continue? To see more Lion King content, whether it's a spin-off or a sequel or focus on certain animals?

Jon Ross: This production presented a really unique opportunity to bring the filmmakers to the animals. The filmmakers spent about six weeks here at Disney's Animal Kingdom, in and around animal areas, really focusing in on animals in their natural environment and animals’ natural behaviors. And I think that's really reflected in the movie. I think anytime you can bring production to the animals, it's a win-win for the animals.

Claire Martin: And yes, we want every movie to have animals in it. I mean, I think that's completely selfish. I want all the films have animals in it, and for us to be able to tell great stories about how people can save them.

My last question is related to that. This is from my team. The animals presented in this film were a different set of animals than you saw in The Jungle Book. If you could pick an animal or animals to see in another big budget feature like this, what would you personally like to see most?

Jon Ross: I'd love to see some of the smaller wild cats. I love lions and tigers, but there's a whole world of small cats out there in the wild that I think are maybe a little underappreciated and underrepresented in media. And they're some of the coolest animals, I think, on the planet.

Claire Martin: I would say, maybe to balance his answer, something marine. Like sharks; whale sharks and hammerhead sharks. They’re just such interesting creatures, and I think they get a real bad rap. So I think to, you know, raise greater awareness about how wonderful sharks are would be a wonderful thing.

I like sharks (note: I really do - see for yourself!), but my personal answer would be Canadian wolves. But I want to see all of them.

Claire Martin: I think that's a common request for what people want to see in a film.

Great. Well, thank you both for your time, guys.

The Lion King (2019) Cast and Crew

The Lion King 2019 4K UHD Cover Art

“The Lion King” stars Donald Glover (“Atlanta,” “Solo: A Star Wars Story”) as future king Simba, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter (“Dreamgirls,” “Lemonade” visual album) as Simba’s friend-turned-love-interest Nala, and James Earl Jones (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” “Field of Dreams”) as Simba’s wise and loving father, Mufasa, reprising his iconic performance from Disney’s 1994 animated classic. Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave,” Marvel Studios’ “Doctor Strange”) portrays Simba’s villainous uncle Scar, and Alfre Woodard (“Juanita,” Marvel’s “Luke Cage”) plays Simba’s no-nonsense mother, Sarabi. JD McCrary (OWN’s “Tyler Perry’s The Paynes,” Apple’s “Vital Signs”) voices Young Simba, a confident cub who can’t wait to be king, and Shahadi Wright Joseph (NBC’s “Hairspray Live!” Broadway’s “The Lion King”) brings tough cub Young Nala to life.

John Kani (Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther,” “Coriolanus,” Marvel Studios’ “Captain America: Civil War”) is the wise baboon Rafiki, and John Oliver (HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”) was tapped as hornbill Zazu, Mufasa’s loyal confidant. Seth Rogen (“Sausage Party,” “Neighbors”) lends his comedic chops to naive warthog Pumbaa, and Billy Eichner (“Billy on the Street,” FX’s “American Horror Story”) delivers the know-it-all meerkat Timon. Scar’s hyena allies include Florence Kasumba (Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther”) as Shenzi, Eric André (Adult Swim’s “The Eric André Show,” FXX’s “Man Seeking Woman”) as Azizi, and Keegan-Michael Key (“Predator,” Netflix’s “Friends from College”) as Kamari.

“The Lion King” is directed by Jon Favreau (“The Jungle Book,” Marvel Studios’ “Iron Man”) and produced by Jon Favreau, Jeffrey Silver (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Edge of Tomorrow”) and Karen Gilchrist (“The Jungle Book,” “Chef”). Jeff Nathanson (“Catch Me If You Can,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”) penned the screenplay based on the 1994 screenplay by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton. Tom Peitzman (co-producer “Kong: Skull Island,” “Alice in Wonderland”), Julie Taymor (director “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Broadway’s “The Lion King”) and Thomas Schumacher (“The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast”) are executive producers, and John Bartnicki (“The Jungle Book,” “Chef”) is co-producer. The award-winning team of artists tapped to bring the African savanna and its animal inhabitants to life includes visual effects supervisor Robert Legato, who conceived the virtual production on “Avatar,” won Academy Awards for his work on “The Jungle Book,” “Hugo” and “Titanic,” and was nominated for an Oscar for his work on “Apollo 13,” and Oscar-winning animation supervisor Andrew R. Jones (“The Jungle Book,” “Avatar,” “World War Z”). MPC Film’s VFX supervisors are Adam Valdez (“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”), who won an Oscar for his work on “The Jungle Book,” and Elliot Newman (“The Jungle Book,” “Fast & Furious: Supercharged”). MPC Film was instrumental in bringing each character to life and building the movie’s full CG environments, as well as working with filmmakers to develop the virtual production technology.

Next: All The Live-Action Disney Remakes In Development

Disney's The Lion King is available on Digital in HD and 4K Ultra HD, and physically on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD.

Key Release Dates
  • The Lion King (2019) release date: Jul 19, 2019
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