Say what you like about Disney, but the world’s second largest media conglomerate sure knows how to get your attention. In one casting announcement, Disney have made their live action remake of The Lion King into one of the most anticipated releases of recent times, despite audiences not getting to see a frame of the Pride Lands for another 18 months.
Like many other “90s kids” for whom the original Lion King was such a crucial part of our childhood entertainment, I greeted the news of the proposed remake with Rafiki-like scepticism. Surely, we all thought, this film must be sacred? They’ll trample over our childhood like the proverbial wildebeests, leaving us to stand weeping by the corpse of a pure moment of joy from our youth.
Jon Favreau joining the project as director did go some way to alleviating these fears. His 2016 Jungle Book was a triumph; a remake that managed to be both respectful of the source material while bringing something new to the screen, with the astonishing visuals supporting a tale both darker and more jovial than the much-loved 60s classic.
The prospect of a new Lion King, however, still seemed like a mistake – the arrogant prince Disney was taunting the crazed hyenas of their fanbase a little too much in their search for an easy buck.
Fortunately, the cultural and economic behemoth that is Disney found one word to distract the masses, turning apprehension into excitement and worry into glee, and that word was: Beyoncé. Announcing that everybody’s favourite musical superstar was to play Nala sent the internet into raptures of adoring frenzy. Seemingly every headline responding to the news had Beyoncé’s involvement front and centre, demonstrating that Disney definitely know how to build a buzz. And while the prospect of the new movie featuring the peerless voice behind some of the last decade’s best pop songs is certainly exciting, it is worth unpacking the rest of the cast that were revealed alongside Queen Bey.
As part of a Hollywood culture often criticised for whitewashing, Disney should be celebrated for the diversity of their casting: the main leads are all actors of colour, and there are only three white faces in the first image of the ensemble that spread like a bush fire across the internet at the start of November.
Modern day polymath Donald Glover is perfect for the lead role, and will give Simba both a sense of vulnerability as well as impeccable comic timing. James Earl Jones is reprising his iconic turn as Mufasa, and it will be fascinating to hear how the intervening 25 years have affected his melodious timbre.
Among the high number of comedians in the cast is John Oliver, replacing Rowan Atkinson as the jobsworth hornbill Zazu. Oliver’s comedy persona has been built around his stuffy English reserve, so for American audiences the change will be seamless. Eric Andre and Keegan-Michael Key will make excellent comic sidekicks, and are sure to have great fun alongside relative-newcomer Florence Kasumba as the villainous but incompetent hyenas.
Having Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumba respectively seems like a nod to the parents dragged along to cinemas by their children. Children’s films nearly always have something a little risqué that will go over the heads of the target audience but tickle the funny bones of the adults in attendance, and having loveable pothead Rogen voice a warthog is as good a choice as any.
While all of these decisions are sensible and will pay literal dividends when we eventually see the finished product, the most inspired piece of casting of all has to be Chiwetel Ejiofor, replacing Jeremy Irons as Scar. Irons’ threatening but enchanting drawl is amongst the most memorable features of the original Lion King. Ejiofor undoubtedly has large claws to fill, but I have no doubt that he will bring menace and depth to one of the best villains in modern cinematic history.