If you aren’t old enough to remember when The Lion King was in theaters back in 1994, it might be hard to stress just how much of an impact it had on pop culture. To say that the movie was popular would be an understatement. The film was such a hit that Disney was able to re-release it during the same year and still bring in ticket sales. Not only did it become the biggest animated movie of all time (a title it would hold for nine years until Finding Nemo came along), it also became the best-selling VHS tape ever, with more than 30 million copies sold. The Lion King was, in almost every sense of the word, a phenomenon, spawning two Annie Award-winning direct-to-video sequels, inspiring a Broadway show, and launching a spin-off TV series starring breakout characters Timon and Pumbaa. Disney would try over and over again to make “another Lion King” in terms of box office returns, but they wouldn’t release anything that would match its success until Frozen came out nearly two decades later. With that being said, it makes sense that Disney has returned to the franchise in the form of The Lion Guard, an upcoming cartoon show that they’ve launched with the new “movie” (running only 44 minutes without breaks) Return Of The Roar.
When Return Of The Roar opens, we are introduced to Kion, the second-born cub of Simba and Nala. With Simba’s attention being focused on preparing Kiara for the throne, Kion isn’t faced with much responsibility, spending most of his time playing with his best friend Bunga the honey badger. That changes, though, when Bunga breaks the rules and sneaks into the Outlands, where he is immediately captured by hyenas. Not wanting to see his pal become a snack, Kion rushes to the rescue, only to discover that he has a very powerful roar that instantly scares the hyenas away. It turns out that young Kion has a supernatural power that very few lions have, one that comes from collecting the energy of the souls of the deceased and using it to his advantage (it’s…not as convoluted as it sounds). Once Simba realizes this, he enlists Kion to become captain of the “Lion Guard,” an elite team of animals entrusted with special skills charged with “protecting the Circle of Life.” Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a Lion Guard captain since Scar, who used his power to destroy his comrades when they refused to help him overthrow Mufasa. Can Kion recruit a team of animals worthy of bringing honor back to the Lion Guard name? Or will Simba not be willing to accept his picks because he chooses his friends instead of lions?
From the above plot summary, Return Of The Roar may come across as needlessly complicated, but if anything, the story suffers a bit from being too simple. It’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t actually a sequel to The Lion King as its been marketed as, but really just the first two episodes of a TV show, meaning that everything is essentially just set-up for things to come in the future. Perhaps as a result of this, the plot feels both stretched out and rushed, particularly during the second half, which involves Kion very quickly asking his friends to join his team with few of them being given proper introductions. For longtime fans, there’s also going to be the question as to where Kion was during The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, as that film never gave any indication that Kiara had a little brother (by that logic, could an upcoming Frozen spin-off “reveal” that Elsa and Anna had another sister who was “there the whole time”?). On that note, while it’s great to see Kiara included, it’s a bit frustrating how little she’s given to do here, only playing a major part when she is unceremoniously regulated to the role of “damsel in distress” during the film’s climax (it doesn’t make things any better that she’s also saved by the power of farting).
But if the story has its shortcomings, the production values sure don’t. Disney has clearly put a good amount of money into producing this, and if The Lion Guard continues to look as good as this film does, then it’s going to be one of the most impressive-looking cartoon shows on television. The character animation is smooth, the backgrounds are detailed and colorful, and even the CGI effects shots are pretty good. It’s during the film’s two most elaborate musical numbers–both of which, like it or not, will be stuck in your head long after it is over–that the visuals are truly able to shine, with Bunga’s song bringing to mind Hakuna Matata (some would say a bit too strongly), and the hyenas’ Tonight We Strike borrowing heavily from Be Prepared. I will admit that part of me wishes that Disney had changed the character designs a little to give the animators a bit more freedom, as with TV budget and time limitations, the movements occasionally feel slightly awkward and stiff (it would also be nice if Kion didn’t literally look exactly like young Simba, the only thing setting him apart being a mane of red “hair”). Still, those are minor nitpicks. For what it is, The Lion Guard looks great, even though its target audience will probably be too young to notice.
And, for that target audience, The Lion Guard should prove to be more than satisfying. Sure, adults might find it distracting when Simba speaks with the voice of Rob Lowe (in part because of all of those horrible DirecTV commercials he’s done over the last year), but little children won’t notice or care. And for those who grew up knowing The Lion King by heart, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic about the whole thing on at least some level, especially when James Earl Jones shows up to make a cameo appearance as Mufasa (who seems to be totally cool with casually haunting his grandson without warning). It may all be a tad silly (a magical tattoo appears on Kion’s fur every time he’s able to use the roar), but it also shows potential to be a fun adventure series for kids. I may not quite be feeling the love tonight just yet, but if the writers are able to solve some of the issues on display here (the shorter running time for individual episodes will probably help), then The Lion Guard may just have a good chance of becoming king.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?
The Lion Guard: Return Of The Roar
Walt Disney Television Animation
Currently repeating on Disney Channel and Disney Junior: The Channel
Directed by Howy Parkins