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Disney goes high-tech for ‘Lion King’

This image released by Disney shows Nala, voiced by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter (left), and Simba, voiced by Donald Glover in a scene from ‘The Lion King’. (AP)

Young actors had Beyoncé-size shoes to fill

LOS ANGELES, July 16, (Agencies): Walt Disney Co has taken a high-tech route to remake animated classic “The Lion King” with the look of a nature documentary, an update it hopes will lure audiences to a new version of a film considered a masterpiece the first time.

The re-telling of the 1994 tale about the lion cub Simba, which opens in theaters around the world this week, was created with computer animation, gaming technology and virtual reality, plus live-action filmmaking techniques, director Jon Favreau said.

The goal was to provide a “photo-real” look for expressive animals and African vistas, Favreau said. “Lion King” follows recent remakes of Disney classics such as “Beauty and the Beast”, “Aladdin” and Favreau’s “The Jungle Book”.

Remaking a well-known movie is “tricky”, Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger acknowledged to reporters at the European premiere for “The Lion King” in London. “But we feel great about where we are with this film and with the remakes in general.”

“When you are dealing with something like ‘The Lion King’, which we consider a crown jewel, there’s a challenge to that,” he said. Besides using new technology, filmmakers revise storylines to make them feel relatable to modern movie-goers, he said.

Cast members said classic stories deserved a re-telling for different eras.

“You wouldn’t say to your grandmother ‘don’t tell me that story when everybody came from Texas to Oklahoma,’” said Alfre Woodard, who voices the lioness Sarabi. “It’s like ‘tell it to me again’. When you hear it at different points in your life, you are different. You are hearing it with new ears and different perspectives.”

Box office experts have said it has a shot at topping the $2.8 billion hauled in by 2009’s “Avatar”, the highest-grossing movie of all time.

The new movie largely follows the original story of Simba, the cub that faces tragedy and must summon the courage to become a leader.

Well-known music such as “Circle of Life” returns, with the addition of an original song by Beyonce, who voices the adult lioness Nala. Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen add improvised comedy to the warthog and meerkat duo, who sing “Hakuna Matata”.

Glover, the voice behind adult Simba, said he joined the cast because he felt the story promoted values that would be “part of a global good.”

“That circle of life theme, I think, is important for everybody to understand now, that we are depending on each other,” Glover said.

The pressure was on for young actors Shahadi Wright Joseph and J.D. McCrary when they got word that they’d been cast as the voices of young Nala and young Simba in “The Lion King”. Not only was it an ambitious remake of an iconic film, but it was their first major Hollywood project.

Characters

Then they found out that their characters adult voices would be done by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and Donald Glover, and it took “just waiting to be king” to a whole new level.

But director Jon Favreau was confident that they could fill the “big shoes” of their adult voices for the film, which opens nationwide Thursday evening. Fourteen-year-old Shahadi, for one, had a pretty big advantage: At age 8, she played young Nala in the Broadway production. In fact, casting director Sarah Finn submitted only her name to be considered. Favreau was on board.

“She understood the role, she understood the music and she’s got an incredibly powerful Broadway voice,” Favreau said. “She’s just this very unique talent.”

J.D., 11, was less of an obvious choice. He didn’t have much of a resume in film work. Finn, who had helped find Neel Sethi for “The Jungle Book” years ago, had to cast a wide net to find her young Simba, from seasoned veterans to open call unknowns. Favreau said J.D. broke through as the front-runner when he saw YouTube videos of him singing.

“He definitely had the right voice and a lot of personality as well,” Favreau said. “He was somebody who was really interpreting songs and putting a lot of personality into it.”

Then, as the filmmakers were getting ready to make the then-8-year-old JD an offer, they learned that he’d just collaborated with Glover on the Childish Gambino song “Terrified”.

“Donald definitely vouched for J.D. and said he was great,” Favreau said. “I felt there was something pre-ordained about (it).”

J.D. said getting that call was, “One of the biggest moments of my life.”

The two young actors had the benefit of being able to record together in the studio, which doesn’t often happen for animated films. It allowed them to riff and play off of one another’s personalities.

“I feel like if I didn’t work with J.D. we wouldn’t have that chemistry on the screen,” Shahadi said. “It would have been mindless actors just saying the lines and not actually feeling them.”

She found it particularly liberating to be able to mess up and improvise in the studio. It was a stark contrast to performing for a live audience on Broadway, where she said you “cannot make a mistake.”

Favreau also made sure that the young actors had a sense of the world they were inhabiting through a Virtual Reality demo that allowed them to see Pride Rock and the rest of the settings.

“The VR was really cool,” McCrary said. “It was like your first sneak peek, but you were in it, you could feel it.”

It’s been three years since Shahadi and J.D. were cast, which for kids at that age can feel like a lifetime of waiting. But they’ve been busy. Both worked in other films released this year. Shahadi played the daughter of Lupita Nyong’o in Jordan Peele’s “Us”, and J.D. appeared in “Little” alongside Marsai Martin.

On the day after the world premiere in Los Angeles, both were riding high from finally seeing the movie on screen with a receptive audience, many of whom could be heard crying at key parts.

“I made a lot of people cry,” J.D. said proudly.

And then of course there is the fun of being in proximity to so many stars.

“It was awesome! So cool!” J.D. said, nearly jumping out of his seat with excitement. “I was backstage with Chance the Rapper, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Blue Ivy, Donald Glover, everybody!”

Shahadi said she was still recovering from meeting Beyoncé for the first time.

As for what’s next, both are looking forward to more acting roles, and they even have a suggestion for the next one.

“I want to re-do ‘The Wiz’,” J.D. said. He’d play the Scarecrow and Shahadi would be Dorothy.

“That would be dope,” he said.

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