Today at the D23 Expo they had a special panel to honor the 23rd anniversary of the release of The Lion King into theaters. It was such a treat to hear from the creator’s mouths how this animated classic was conceived, created and received. And there were even some surprises along the way!
The main panel consisted of Tony Bancroft (supervising animator Pumba), Jim Cummings (voice of Ed), Don Hahn (film producer), Mark Henn (Animator Young Simba), Rob Minkoff (Co-director) and Ernie Sabella (voice of Pumba). Then we were surprised by Whoopi Goldberg (voice of Shenzi)!
The Lion King started off as an experiment for Disney. Pocahontas seemed like the sure thing, so many of the top tier talent went to work on that film while the Bad News Bears team stayed to work on the Lion King. However, being an experiment gave them some freedom to try new things and work with new talent like Elton John.
It was originally called The King of the Jungle and they went out to do a research trip to Africa where they got some feel for the animals and the environment. They were able to get Tim Rice on board first and then they asked Elton John who had always wanted to be part of a Disney movie. However, he wrote on the road so he would send tapes of finished songs to the production and they would give feedback. Evidently the first draft of ‘Circle of Life’ was terrible, so they had EltonJohn approach it in a new way and the revised version was the song we know and love.
Rob Minkoff talked a little bit about the job of a director and how he is responsible for coordinating all the different artists and voice actors just like a regular director would with actors. For example, the animator of Pumba, Tony Bancroft, would have to be coordinated with the voice Ernie Sabella. The supervising animators take real ownership of their characters, not unlike what an actor playing a role does.
Ernie Sabella (who was a delight) was working with Nathan Lane on Guys and Dolls on Broadway at the time and evidently the two of them would record together in New York while they were away from the stage. Ernie told a hilarious story about how their flatulence proved helpful in creating the characters of Timon and Pumba! It was also funny to learn that Nathan Lane came up with the song for the end of the film when Timon and Pumba are trying to distract the hyenas. “What do you want me to dress in drag and dance the hula?” Director Rob Minkoff sang that bit and it was very funny.
Next Jim Cummings came out and we got to see an amazing demonstration of his voice work. There was a clip of him speaking as Ed and it is surprising how many different kinds of growls and grunts he had to do for that character. Then Whoopi came out as a surprise and talked about her experience. It was really special!
Finally to cap it all off we got a performance from Carmen Twillie, the original singer of Circle of Life, and the cast of The Lion King Broadway! It was quite the event to remember for a film that still holds up today.
They also showed us a trailer for the new digital/blu-ray release of The Lion King which will be available August 29th