REVIEW: Disney’s The Lion Guard reawakens the magic of my childhood
When Disney announced they would be making another Lion King sequel, the news commanded headlines all over the world. The 1994 feature holds the titles of the highest-grossing release of 1994, the highest-grossing hand-drawn animated film in history, and winner of two Academy Awards and a Golden Globe. It was an awful lot for any new sequel to live up to, although The Lion Guard fortunately follows the far less successful straight-to-video release Lion King II: Simba’s Pride and the Timon and Pumbaa’s adventures in The Lion King 1½.
The Lion Guard kicked off tonight at 5.30pm with a 44-minute special Return of the Roar on Disney Junior, and will return for a full series later this year. Its placement on Disney Junior means it is not going to attempt to replicate the brutal heartbreak of Mufasa’s murder, nor is it a real attempt to continue the series on the same scale as the original films. The special’s purpose is to expand the world of the Lion King so that newer generations can both enjoy the story and share a common love with their parents. In its attempts to achieve this purpose, Return of the Roar is a roaring success (sorry).
The Lion Guard is the tale of Simba and Nala’s second cub, Kion, who becomes the leader of a group of Pride Land protectors known as the Lion Guard. Despite the Guard usually containing an elite group of lions, Kion feels his mismatched group of animal friends fit the bill more adequately – and their adventures together begin.
Return of the Roar manages to both retain most of the authenticity of the original films, while shaking up the series with diverse new characters, an intriguing new plot which fits seamlessly into the lore of the films, and musical numbers that are both modern and befitting of the new series. The score is stunningly good, and could easily have fit into one of the previous films, particularly reaching a highlight in the excellent climax when Kion and his friends race to save the Pride Lands.
There are nods to the original series that older audiences will enjoy, though the series is still essentially aimed at young children. One hilarious highlight is when Simba tells Kion they need to talk, and a horrified Kion exclaims that they’ve already had the talk before mocking “can you feel the love tonight?”
The new characters vary in their level of success, but there is still an entire 22-episode series in which to develop them. Kion is a likeable lead, butReturn of the Roar was really all about Kion’s honey badger companion Bunga (yes, he’s crazy). Bunga is a breath of fresh air, with abundant (quite possibly idiotic) amounts of bravery and a song to explain his dive right in mentality to life. On the other hand, new baddie Janja, who is the leader of a new pack of hyenas, was a bit characterless in the way Disney villains sometimes are. On a normal series, this probably wouldn’t matter – but this is the franchise that brought us Scar. We expect big things. The other members of the Lion Guard – Fuli, Ono and Beshte – are only briefly explored in the special, and I look forward to their characters becoming more prominent in the series.
There are plenty of ways you could pick apart the story, and perhaps had the audience been more mature it would have mattered more. The concept of the Lion Guard works well, bar certain elements. The Lion Guard are a team of animal superheroes, and the plot is basically in line with something Marvel or DC might produce. Kion discovers his powers, learns of his new responsibilities and must recruit others with elite skills. However, Kion’s powers (a phenomenal roar that sounds like the lion kings of the past) appear magical, rather than sticking to the realism of the original films. It’s fun for the target audience, but the idea of an animal superhero team didn’t have to venture into magical abilities to explain itself.
It is clear from watching The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar that a huge amount of care has been taken with the world and the characters of the Lion King. The animation and music are a loving homage to the original film, while a bright new story and engaging new characters bring the series to life and allow it to stand on its own two feet. It has proudly brought the Lion King to modern young audiences, while still being smart enough for parents to enjoy. If the upcoming series can continue in the same vein, there is little else it can be but a success.
The Lion Guard series will air on Disney Jr. later this year. Read our interview with The Lion Guard creator Ford Riley here.