In the late 80’s Disney managed to pull themselves up from what had become a very poor track record. Following the death of Walt Disney in 1966 the studio continued to create animated feature films and while they were profitable for the most part, most seemed to lack the magic that had elevated Disney to fame. It wasn’t until the studio released The Little Mermaid that the grandeur returned and in 1994 Disney released a film which for nearly twenty years held the top spot as their highest grossing animated film; The Lion King. Disney continued to ride the success of the film with an animated series which ran four years based around the adventures of Timon & Pumbaa as well as two direct to video sequels and while his roar has been silent for many years, The Lion King has returned once again.
Disney Junior and the Disney Channel have unleashed their latest series, The Lion Guard, which is a sequel to The Lion King and apparently comes before The Lion King II and in the film which acts as the lead-in to the series, Return of the Roar, we are introduced to Simba’s young son Kion who seems to be just like any other lion until destiny reveals itself. While Kion is out playing with his friend Bunga, a honey badger, Bunga attempts to show his bravery by going into the Outlands where he is confronted by Janja, a hyena and his henchmen. Kion attempts to save his friend a roars at them but it isn’t just an ordinary one but instead there is great power behind it. Simba and Rafiki realize that it is time to tell Kion the truth.
Kion has a powerful roar which is capable to protecting the Pride Lands just like his grandfather who was once a member of a pride of lions known as the Lion Guard. It was there duty to protect the circle of life until they were all killed by Scar who also held the same power but his abuse of it led to his turn towards evil. Kion must assemble a new Lion Guard by seeking out new members; the bravest, the keenest of sight, the strongest, the fastest, and the fiercest. Kion is the member who is the fiercest but his selection of new members breaks the tradition of the Guard. For the bravest he chooses Bunga, the strongest is a young hippopotamus named Beshe, a cheetah named Fuli is the fastest and when it comes to the keenest of sight, the cattle egret Ono is perfect. Initially Simba is against this new guard until the group proves themselves and thus, the new Lion Guard is born.
One of the first things that I feel is noticeable about The Lion Guard and makes it a bit unique isn’t its connection to The Lion King but rather the style in which the series has been done. Disney Junior in particular has a great deal of original programming but all of them have been done as computer animated series, not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with this, but it’s definitely a departure from what made the Disney Afternoon so great. The Lion Guard is a return to traditional animation although certainly computers were used in the production of the series as this has become the norm but it’s great to see a series move away from what every studio has been doing for the most part. Hopefully Disney keeps this in mind as they are busy working on the relaunch of DuckTales and honestly, most fans aren’t going to accept this classic animated series being done as a computer animated “upgrade.”
As far as the series itself is concerned, at least based on the first movie, it’s actually a pretty good idea and a nice revisit to The Lion King. I had my doubts about the series initially and really didn’t feel that The Lion King necessarily needed anything additional. The Lion Guard might bring in some familiar faces from the movies, but in general the focus is on Kion and his friends. This of course is merely the introduction to their adventures but right from the beginning the one lesson that The Lion Guard is trying to teach, either intentionally or merely by circumstances, is that of diversity. Simba’s belief is that the Lion Guard should be only comprised of lions since this is how it has always been done but Kion doesn’t have that in mind. In fact it seems that having nothing but lions as a part of the group never even is a question but instead he’s more interested on finding exactly who fits each of the different types needed to be in the Guard.
Return of the Roar however merely acts as an introduction to the series, something which is always great but not every Disney Junior series has been given. Sofia the First gives young fans a good backstory to the main character as does The Lion Guard while a series such as Doc McStuffins didn’t and maybe it’s just me, but I still want to know where exactly that magic stethoscope came from. The pilot for the series however doesn’t really give too much of an opportunity to really get into the personalities and backgrounds of the supporting characters although I’m certain that is something which comes with the episodes in The Lion Guard. If nothing else viewers at least know who they are and what they can do.
Heroes in any animated series, especially those for children, need to have some type of catchphrase and The Lion Guard provides this although not quite in the way you might think. Given the setting of the series you’ll hear a lot of Swahili phrases and names. Kion often says “Hevi Kabisa” which translates as totally intense while Bunga often remarks “Zuka Zama” or get up, dive in. Unfortunately Bunga also tends to insert his name into unbelievable, or un-bunga-livable, which becomes incredibly annoying. Fuli teases those chasing her by stating “huwezi” or “you can’t catch me.” Beshte’s catchphrase is “Twende kiboko!” or let’s go, hippo and Ono’s “Hapana!” remark simply means oh no.
The Lion Guard has several different enemies which are present within the series but Return of the Roar only focuses on Janja, his hyena clan, and Mzingo, a vulture who provides valuable information to those in the Outlands. The hyena’s are a bit more cunning with Janja leading them and not simply comical sidekicks like they were in The Lion King but of course their real threat is minimized by the presence of The Lion Guard. Many of the animated series on Disney Junior also feature songs and The Lion Guard is no different but just like with the feature films, the villains end up getting the more memorable entry.
The series looks similar to The Lion King but it’s not quite as visually refined. There is a big difference between the budget for an animated series and a feature film however and I believe that fans of the movie won’t feel like this is too different from what they have already seen. It might not look quite a pretty but in general, it does work at capturing the feeling of the films.
The movie only includes one extra feature which is a music video. The DVD does come packaged with a backpack pull of Kion.
The Lion Guard will probably be a hit with most young viewers. My daughter for example isn’t a fan of anything with talking animals and questions why they talk at all. She even cried before we started watching The Lion Guard and told me she didn’t like it despite never having seen a single episode. Following the conclusion of Return of the Roar she was on the Disney Junior app and watching episodes and later was wanting to look at the toys for the series while shopping, I think she might have changed her opinion. Hopefully Disney is following what they did in the best with Star Wars: Rebels with this release; a DVD for the pilot film, a blu-ray release for the first season and I will add, a digital copy of the series would be great. The Lion Guard seemed like a rather risky effort to bring The Lion King back into the spotlight but it’s actually worked out extremely well with the film and I imagine the actual series is hevi kabisa as well.
Mike is the resident reviewer for Couponing to Disney and his own site Underland Online. He has a toddler daughter and is obsessed with Haunted Mansion and all things Disney. You can read Mike’s complete bio here.