Jon Favreau: 'The 1994 film is so precious to people, I knew I had to be very careful with it. I felt a tremendous responsibility not to screw it up'
The Lion King has been reimagined for a new generation with a photoreal version starring Donald Glover and Beyonce. Laura Harding meets the cast and filmmakers to find out how they coped with the pressure of remaking one of the most loved animated movies in history
Often hailed as one of the greatest animated films ever, The Lion King has a special place in the hearts of millions of people. Many adults remember crying salty tears over the death of Mufasa, singing along in ecstasy to Sir Elton John and Tim Rice's timeless songs and giggling gleefully at the exploits of wise-cracking meerkat Timon and sensitive warthog Pumbaa.
Now the film is being recreated for a whole new generation, the latest in a string of Disney's photorealistic remakes, with an all-star voice cast that includes Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, Chiwetel Ejiofor and even Beyonce.
"I knew I had to be very careful with it. I felt a tremendous responsibility not to screw it up," says director Jon Favreau, who also helmed the latest version of The Jungle Book, as well as Iron Man and Iron Man 2.
"I wanted to demonstrate that we could be respectful of the source material while bringing it to life using mind-blowing techniques and technologies."
But remembering the 1994 film is so precious to so many people was a key part of that, the 52-year-old adds.
"That's part of my responsibility. It has to work for new audiences who don't know it, but at the end of the day it's going to be the generation that grew up with it that is going to deliberate over whether they like it or not.
"And by collaborating with a lot of people who are millennials, bringing in people from our crew and people who would come by and visit, I paid very close attention to the people who are of that generation - pretty much the first generation that grew up with either videos or DVDs available to them, so they were watching it over and over.So, I may have loved The Jungle Book when I was growing up, but I didn't see it nearly as much as somebody of that generation saw this, so I thought that was an important part of the process.
"I didn't want them to feel like, 'I should have just watched the cartoon'. I wanted them to think, 'This is something that's building upon something I already love'."
Favreau used pioneering technologies that blended live-action film-making techniques with photoreal computer-generated imagery to make the film look as life-like as possible.
But he said the technical aspects of the production were a breeze compared to the fear of messing with the memories of big kids around the world.
"I was very confident about the technical aspects, and the cast I was very confident about, the music I was very confident about," he reveals.
"The difficulty of it really is how important the original had been to the culture.
"And so I wanted to make sure that for certain areas we created it almost shot for shot, but then took advantage of this new medium to tell the story in a different way.
"So, as we added new aspects to it, new sequences, new songs - Beyonce's new song, Elton John's new song at the end.
"Then all of it felt like it was organic to it, and to the casual viewer some of them think that, 'Oh it's the same story', much like when I saw the stage show.
"Then you go and watch the movie and you realise that they're actually quite different, but you want to keep that all invisible if possible, so it feels like, yes even though this is a new movie, I did see The Lion King, and then hopefully the new generation goes back and looks at the old version too."
Part of that new generation is Donald Glover's three-year-old son Legend, who had no idea his dad voices the part of Simba when he first saw the film.
"He did a couple of double takes," the Atlanta star, who raps under the name Childish Gambino, says with a laugh.
"He didn't say anything, he was just like: 'Is that...?' It was cool."
But Glover also found the film to be an emotional journey.
"It's a very human and honest story of what all of us go through," he says.
"I think that the story is such a beautiful way of showing how permanence is not the point.
"The point is to be here and to be responsible for each other and love each other.
"Traumatic things will happen - the point is not to allow that to consume your entire life.
"You can grow and learn from that experience."
Ejiofor, the British actor best known for his starring role in 12 Years A Slave and who voices the evil lion Scar in the film, agrees.
He says: "There are so many things that the film touches on, in terms of relationships, in terms of family, in terms of families that you have, and the families you choose and all of the kind of dynamics in between, and I've been really reflective when I was watching it.
"I really felt nourished by it, in terms of just what it says about home, and what it says about our relationship to home, and reconciling oneself with home in some way, whether that is the physical return of Simba or whether it's just psychologically, intellectually.
"That part of growing up is some sort of reconciliation with whatever concept of home that you have, and that really spoke to me as I was watching it."
- The Lion King is in cinemas now