Imagine “The Lion King” without the voice of James Earl Jones as King Mufasa – or the music of Sir Elton John.
One of Disney’s most beloved classics nearly turned out quite different, producer Don Hahn says in an exclusive interview.
“We weren’t even sure if it was going to be a success,” he admits. “It was kind of the B movie when we were making it. It was seen as the kind of orphan child (at Disney). There were a lot of bigger movies. ‘Pocahontas’ and things like that. People were gravitating towards them because with ‘The Lion King’…they couldn’t really understand it.”
17 years and $770 million box office dollars later, the story of a young lion cub who succeeds his father as leader of the Pride Land, returns to theaters for a limited two week engagement – in 3D!
“We didn’t just want to say ‘Lets send it out to Blu-Ray’ and leave it at that,” Hahn says. “We wanted to be able to send it out to theaters and let a whole generation of kids who were not even born when it came out go see it on the big screen and experience it in a cinema in that social setting.”
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To celebrate the re-release, Hahn shared five fun facts you might not know about the beloved animated blockbuster:
1. It was originally called “King of The Jungle”:
“We knew that as we started working on it there was no jungle, so that “king of the jungle” idea was kind of a misnomer. We made a list of titles. One was ‘The African King’ — kind of based on ‘The African Queen.’ And that kind of stuck. So for a while it was called ‘The African King” and then eventually it migrated into ‘The Lion King.’
2. “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” was nearly left on the cutting room floor!
“We could never figure out how to fit the song into the movie. It was a story about fathers and sons and we had this beautiful love song that just didn’t fit. We actually cut it out at one point. And we didn’t tell Elton. Then we took the movie to Atlanta to show to him. After the screening, in a very controlled way, he said “I think you have ruined the movie”. He then proceeded to tell us that he came to this because he loved Disney movies and he loved the songs when the prince and princess fell in love and we needed to find a way to make it work. And we did. Then, of course, it went on to win the Oscar as Best Song that year.
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3. The original director was fired – because he didn’t want Elton John!
“It was not a popular decision to get Elton John involved in the movie because people thought “He is a great songwriter, but he has never written a musical before.” He had only written one score for a movie. The only thing that made it work in the end was Tim Rice. Tim was a dramatist who could really come in and work on the lyrics. Elton’s gift for melody is really what he brought to the party. There was a lot of “We’re doing a movie about Africa and who is doing the music???” One of the early directors actually got let go off the project because he was very vocal about that. He is a good guy and he’s still around, but he had the idea of “I just don’t understand this.” But in the end, it was brilliant.”
4. King Mufasa could have had an English accent.
“We looked in some really odd places for voices. I remember considering Sean Connery for Mufasa for a while. But we dumped that pretty quick. We thought of Eddie Murphy as Timon. Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella actually came in and read for the hyenas. And they were hilarious as Hyenas, but we could not fin Pumbaa and Timon so we had them read some dialogue and they just clicked. Matthew Broderick was always Simba. He was Ferris Bueller — the sweet guy, who is lovable, but a little irresponsible. That was Simba.
5. The role of baboon Rafiki – who serves as the film’s visual narrator – was completely changed.
Poor Robert Guillaume. We switched up his role on him. Rafiki started out being this serious mentor — this almost academic sidekick to Mufasa who would advise him on policy. A Henry Kissinger kind of character. Then two weeks later, we rewrote the entire part and he was like a bag lady. He was like this street person. We said “Robert, we love what you are doing, but can you be like this street person now – the crazy shaman who comes up with a stick.”