Disney delves into territory both new and familiar with the franchise-expanding preschooler series
By Tom McLean.
While just about any animated show produced for Disney can be described as big, there are a few extra reasons that label so aptly applies to The Lion Guard.
“There’s two different ways to think of big,” says Ford Riley, who developed the Disney Junior show and is its executive producer. “One is the volume of characters, and the other is that it’s The Lion King, it’s part of that world. So for the Disney company, it’s big.”
Set to premiere Jan. 15, the series so far is looking like it’s living up to its billing. A 44-minute special that aired in November, Return of the Roar, was a ratings hit for Disney Junior, as was a preview episode released through the Watch Disney Junior app in December.
The Lion Guard follows the adventures of Kion, the second-born cub of Simba and Nala, and his diverse group of friends as they unite to protect the Pride Lands. They are: Bunga, a fearless honey badger; Fuli, a confident cheetah; Beshte, a happy-go-lucky hippo; and Ono, an intellectual egret. Each of the first season’s 26 half-hour episodes also features an original song and incorporates a nature and conservation curriculum, as well as Swahili.
Riley — whose first professional script was for Disney’s Timon & Pumbaa series and later created and exec produced Secret Agent Oso — says his own family inspired the premise of the series. “We already had Kiara in place (from The Lion King 2), so let’s give Simba and Nala a son — a second born — and make him the hero,” Riley says. That first key lead to the second, when Ford saw his own son playing superheroes with his friends. “And that’s when it hit me; that’s what to do: Take a team of superheroes and drop them into the Pride Lands,” he says. “Sort of an Avengers meets The Lion King.”
An immediate call to Disney lead to the studio backing the idea, leading Riley to his next challenge: Making sure the show looked right. “We can’t try to reinvent the look of The Lion King because we’ll lose everybody,” he says. “There’s so much good will that is part of this franchise and so I really wanted it to have a 2D look that is inspired by the original.”
Technical Assistance Supervising director Howy Parkins says achieving that traditional hand-drawn look was made easier by advances in technology, particu- larly Toon Boom’s Harmony. “I don’t think we could have (done this show) before Toon Boom or the Cintiq and the Harmony technology,” he says. “It would have been a real challenge.”
Character designer Jose Zelaya developed the look for the new characters with the original movie in mind. “He designed characters that are new to the world of The Lion King, but they fit right in,” Parkins says. “I said to somebody that it almost makes you think: Did I miss them in the movie? Are they in the background somewhere?”
The show is script driven, with detailed animatics sent off to Mercury Filmworks in Ottawa, Canada, for animation.
Animating animal characters — especially ones rendered more realistically — is another challenge for animators. “It’s tough just from an intellectual perspective when you’ve got writers and artists who are used to either human beings or animals that are anthropomorphic,” Riley says. “Some were on board easier than others.”
Riley says working with Mercury has been very rewarding.
“As a writer you write jokes and sometimes it gets lost in translation,” he says. “There’s a moment (in the special) where Simba says to Kion something like, ‘You invited Bunga to join the Lion Guard?’ and there’s a rack focus and Bunga is in the background and says ‘Hi!’ It gets a laugh every time, but it’s such a subtle moment and they really nailed it. [