There was a time when just about every Disney character was making babies. Ariel’s daughter, Melody, wanted to be a mermaid instead of a human. Lady and Tramp’s son, Scamp, wanted to be a stray dog instead of being part of a family. Simba’s daughter, Kiara, didn’t want anything to do with being queen of the Pride Lands. At the turn of the millennium, Disney was in the business of telling the stories of its animated protagonists’ children, all of whom had opposite dreams as their parents. These stories were usually told in the form of direct-to-video sequels. Even after the “having kids” phase passed, direct-to-video follow-ups to the animated classics remained a prevalent source of revenue until 2008.
That era is behind us now, and these days the most frequent outlet Disney continues its animated classics through is television series on the preschool-geared Disney Junior. Captain Hook and Mr. Smee make pirate mischief on Jake and the Never Land Pirates, which sees occasional guest appearances from Peter Pan. The realm of Disney Princesses holds court in Sofia the First, which frequently guest stars Disney’s royal leading ladies. Now comes another spinoff, this one stemming from an unexpected source that harks back to the Disney baby craze: The Lion Guard, an ambitious series from the world of The Lion King, starring Simba’s son, Kion. The show premiered last November with a double episode, Return of the Roar, which has just arrived to DVD.
In thinking of franchises ripe for further adaptation, The Lion King isn’t the most obvious. It’s been years since Disney’s done anything with it. For this reason the team behind The Lion Guard is commended for not only developing a risky story, but also experimenting within the creative toy box that is the world of The Lion King to bring a show that is more than simply a straightforward continuation of The Lion King‘s events. In fact, in terms of canon, The Lion Guard surprisingly actually acknowledges the existence of 1998’s The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride and works within that framework, rather than pretending the sequel doesn’t exist. Additionally, the show bases its existence on new mythology surrounding the events of the original Lion King, which is also a pleasant, intricate surprise.
Kion is the second-born cub of Simba and Nala (after Kiara). When Kion discovers he’s been gifted with a powerful roar, he’s dubbed the leader of the Lion Guard, a troupe of animals that protects the Pride Lands and defends the circle of life. The former Lion Guard leader was Scar, who abused his power by using his roar for evil. This debut episode sees Kion assembling the new Lion Guard and confronting his father, as Simba disapproves of the group not being all lions.
The show’s foundation is clever in creating something unexpected from what could have easily just been the continuing adventures of Simba and pals. In fact, on paper, The Lion Guard‘s premise doesn’t signal anything that immediately identifies it as having a preschool demographic. At no time do any of the characters address the audience or ask questions of the viewers like on a typical preschool show, nor is there ever any blatant, obvious moment that screams, “Here’s today’s lesson, kids.” This raises the question of whether The Lion Guard might have been better off as a show produced for a more broad audience on Disney Channel or Disney XD rather than Disney Junior. Its plot is clever and different enough to be developed for an older audience if needed, with truly the only changes required being perhaps a faster pace and a more sophisticated script. The tone is the one identifier that feels distinctly preschool.
Nevertheless, accepting it for what it is, Return of the Roar is a strong start to what will undoubtedly be another runaway hit for Disney Junior. Sure, some aspects are intrinsically annoying. It’s clear that the primary goal of the incessantly aggravating Bunga the honey badger’s catch phrase is to have three-year-olds everywhere roaming the house shouting “Unbungalievable!” Additionally, the songs feel forced and are not that memorable. As a whole, though, this beginning episode puts everything in place for what seems to be another tentpole program.
The Lion Guard walks a careful balance of focusing its spotlight on Kion and his friends (all new characters) while also including a large portion of The Lion King cast: Simba, Nala, Timon, Pumbaa, Rafiki, Zazu, and Kiara. Return of the Roar even includes a special appearance by Mufasa. It’s a bit irksome to hear Simba and Rafiki with new voices (Rob Lowe notably voicing Simba), but for the most part it’s good to see these characters again. I only hope that as the series progresses a prominent spotlight is kept on the original characters. It’s understandable that a show called The Lion Guard should focus on, you know, the members of the Lion Guard, but if it reduces everyone else to extremely minor roles. It deprives itself of infusing some great already-established personalities. (We’ve already been promised future cameos from Kovu, Nuka, and Vitani from The Lion King 2.)
In a surprisingly mature move, the show directly addresses a question I asked myself as the episode thickened: Why are hyenas made out to be villains for hunting animals when lions are clearly also predators? Why are the hyenas the bad guys when we know that Simba does his fair share of hunting? In a moment that will make any adult want to rewind and make sure they didn’t imagine it, Kiara explains that she’s sent to track and hunt gazelles to get food for the pride. She notes, though, that she doesn’t kill the whole herd, as that would disrupt the balance of the circle of life. The hyenas, though, hunt for pleasure and have no problem destroying an entire species, which inadvertently hurts the circle of life. How’s that for a non-sugarcoated eco lesson! Bravo!
Bonus Features ✮✮
In its DVD release, Return of the Roar includes minimal extras. The only bonus feature on the disc itself is a music video for the show’s theme song, “Here Comes the Lion Guard,” performed by Beau Black. If hipsters in urban nightlife getting super pumped about a children’s TV theme is your thing, this is the music video for you. That’s the only bonus on the DVD, but also considered a supplement is a Kion keychain that comes inside the DVD packaging. He even talks, proclaiming “‘Til the Pride Lands end, the Lion Guard defend!” It’s a nice little touch with its demographic in mind.
That’s it. That’s everything. I suppose Disney doesn’t expect preschoolers would be interested in a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the show (and I’d wager they’re right about that). Still, with reviving a franchise as iconic as The Lion King after it hasn’t been in the public spotlight for such a long time, it would have been intriguing to learn at least a brief background about the show’s development from its creators and cast, none of which is present.
Surprisingly, the DVD does not come with a digital copy of the episode, nor are any additional Lion Guard episodes included.
In The Lion Guard we find a strong premise that adds new layers of storytelling to one of the most beloved animated films of all time. It’s so strong that I can’t help but wonder how it would have fared with a slightly skewed tone as a non-preschool program along the lines of the former Aladdin show or Lilo & Stitch: The Series or the upcoming Tangled series. Nevertheless, The Lion Guard handles its heritage extremely well and with much more care than is typically governed to preschool spinoffs. With themes like inclusivity and ecology, it also mirrors the mature messages of past Lion King ventures. It’s kiddie enough to be liked by that set, but also void enough of the usual nuances of a preschool show to be mildly enjoyed by those just curious to check in with the Lion King crew. I don’t see myself re-watching it or tuning in regularly, but I’m glad I familiarized myself with the show.
Return of the Roar was marketed as a special event when it first aired. Now, when arriving on DVD, it’s important to remember it’s not a full-length movie. Clocking in at 44 minutes, it amounts to a double episode. Therefore, it’s a bit puzzling as to why it is the primary occupant of the disc. No additional episodes are included, making the sell a difficult one. Especially considering the episode can be purchased digitally through Amazon and iTunes for $5, it’s a stretch to justify a $15(ish) DVD purchase unless having this particular episode in physical DVD format is important to you. Thankfully, though, the series itself holds a lot more promise than this particular DVD presentation, and it will be exciting to see how The Lion Guard breathes new life into The Lion King franchise over the next few years.
The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar is available on DVD February 23, 2016.
Have you seen ‘The Lion Guard’? What do you think of this new Disney Junior series?
Edited by: Hannah Wilkes