'The Lion King': Filmmakers, Cast Reveal Little-Known Facts, From Original Title to Elton's Rejected Tunes

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The Lion King
The Lion King (Image: Disney)

Simba got plenty of shine over the weekend. For the opening act, Jon Favreau took the wraps off his hugely anticipated photo-real update of The Lion King, showcasing a “Circle of Life” scene populated with eye-popping CG beasts and one adorable cub during Disney’s live-action presentation on Saturday. The classic cartoon was in the spotlight again on Sunday as filmmakers, animators, and cast members reunited to reminisce about the making of the film — and disclose some fascinating facts about a project they once nicknamed Bambi in the Jungle. Here are the highlights.

D23 The Lion King Panel
Mark Henn (Simba animator), Jim Cummings (voice of Ed), Rob Minkoff (co-director), Ernie Sebella (voice of Pumbaa), Don Hahn (executive producer), Whoopi Goldberg (voice of Shenzi), and Tony Bancroft (Pumbaa animator) at D23 Expo’s Lion King anniversary panel. (Photo: Disney)

Disney originally considered The Lion King a B-movie.
As the filmmakers explained, Disney did not have high hopes for the films, and they had to work hard to scrounge together a creative team.

“We couldn’t get people to work on this movie,” said executive producer Don Hahn.

Rob Minkoff, who co-directed with Roger Allers, continued: “The reason was because when we were making Lion King, it was the first time in the history of the Walt Disney Studio that two [animated] movies were going to be made at the same time: Lion King and Pocahontas… The head of the studio [presumably then-boss Jeffrey Katzenberg] got up and basically said, ‘Pocahontas is a home run. It’s West Side Story meets Romeo and Juliet meets Dances With Wolves. And Lion King, on the other hand, is kind of an experiment.”

“Our pitch was Moses meets Joseph and Hamlet in Africa, with music by Elton John,” Hahn quipped. “I think people would be surprised at how much you guys had to perform and sell the work to get Lion King up on its feet. It had really humble beginnings.”

D23 The Lion King Panel
The Lion King directors Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers pitching the “Hakuna Matata” scene in song. (Photo: Disney)

“The studio head said, ‘We’re not sure about Lion King, if the movie makes $50 million, I’ll get down on my hands and knees.’ And he did,” recounted Minkoff.

Added Hahn: “The first week it made like $100 million and we forced him to get down on his hands and knees and it was fantastic.”

The Lion King wound up tallying $968 million worldwide to become the highest grossest hand-drawn animated film of all time (“We did draw with a pencil, the old-fashioned way,” Hahn noted).

D23 The Lion King Panel Simba
Mark Henn sketching young Simba (Photo: Disney)

The Lion King wasn’t the original title.
Minkoff, who was inspired by a National Geographic documentary called Lions and Hyenas: The Eternal Enemies, recalled that the original title was King of the Jungle. “We called it Bambi in Africa for obvious reasons,” Hahn added.

The first version of Elton John’s “Circle of Life” was rejected.
Minkoff explained that Elton John was too busy touring to join the filmmakers in the studio. “We would usually get songs on tape, a demo that he would perform on electric piano in his hotel room, wherever he was.” They received John’s first pass at “Circle of Life” in the mail.

“Totally different than the one we wound up with. It went, “And we’ll all join in in the circle of life,'” Minkoff said, singing the lyric as a bouncy ditty. “And we thought, ‘It’s terrible.'”

So the filmmakers used lyricist Tim Rice as their go-between to coax a “rocking anthem” from John, which he delivered. Said Minkoff: “And we were like, ‘Now that is a good song.'”

“Can You Feel the Love Tonight” was only crooned by Pumbaa and Timon in the first cut.
Hahn said that the first time Elton John saw the film was an early test screening in Atlanta. At that point, Minkoff says they had decided to make Pumbaa the warthog and Timon the meerkat, the film’s comic relief, sing the song because the filmmakers felt it was “too obvious” as a love ballad.

“What have you done? You’ve destroyed my song,” said John. “This is the reason I did the movie, I always wanted to write a great Disney love ballad, and you’ve just destroyed it.”

Minkoff says the filmmakers “went home with our tail between our legs” and they ultimately changed it to the duet between Simba and Nala (watch below). But they also kept remnants of Pumbaa and Timon’s version at the beginning and end of the sequence as a framing device.

Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella auditioned for the hyenas.
The two actors, co-starring on Broadway’s Guys and Dolls at the time, came in to test for the hyena roles. “We were in this little booth that they concocted and we were ad-libbing as well, and when we got done, there was silence in the room. And I said to Nathan, ‘Well, at least we have a job at night.'” Two months later they got the call for Timon and Pumbaa.

D23 The Lion King Panel Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella recording as Timon and Pumbaa
Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella recording as Timon and Pumbaa (Photo: Disney)

Pumbaa’s flatulence was improvised.
As Sabella tells it, Lane was wiped out after several days of consecutive performances. “I wanted to pick up his spirits.” Every time Lane delivered a line, Sabella would make a fart noise by blowing on his hand. It cut up Lane and wound up becoming Pumbaa’s defining characteristic.”Later when we were doing interviews, I would tell reporters, ‘Pumbaa is the first Disney character to have gas.’ … And then Nathan would take the mic and say, ‘It’s actually Snow White, but we don’t talk about that.'”

Another ad-libbed line came when Simba wanted Timon and Pumbaa to distract the lines and, per Hahn, “Nathan came out with ‘What do you want me to do, dress in drag and do the hula?'” Hahn and Minkoff had “to do a lot of selling” to keep that line in the final movie, including whipping up with an impromptu song to pitch the sequence to the executives.

D23 The Lion King Panel Pumbaa sketches
Tony Bancroft’s character designs for Pumbaa (Photo: Disney)

Whoopi Goldberg owed her casting to Elton John… and Tommy Chong.
Minkoff and Allers conceived the hyenas as a tandem to be voiced by Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong. But the two former partners were estranged at the time and refused. Along came Whoopi.

“I begged,” said Goldberg of her role in the film as female hyena Shenzi. “I heard that they were making this and I said, ‘Can I be in it?'”

D23 The Lion King Panel Whoopi Goldberg
Whoopi Goldberg takes the stage at D23 Expo’s The Lion King panel (Photo: Disney)

Mikoff picked up the story. “We were having lunch and the head of animation walks in and says, ‘Guys, Whoopi Goldberg wants to be in your movie.’ We’re like, ‘How does that happen?’ ‘She had lunch with Elton John, who told her about it, and now you’ve got to figure out something, you’ve got to put her in the movie.’

“We couldn’t get Chong and Cheech to work together. But we thought, ‘Could it be Cheech and Whoopi?'”

Whoopi Goldberg D23 The Lion King Panel
Whoopi Goldberg recording her Lion King dialogue (Photo: Disney)

Just as Sabella and Lane recorded together and played off one another, Goldberg and Marin did the same. “We couldn’t do it separately,” said Goldberg. “We needed each other… They let us play. Chemistry is everything.”

The third hyena was called Ed for a reason.
As Minkoff recalled, “We had these two hyeans, Shenzi and Banzai, and we have this third one, the laugher, what’s he going to be called? Some of you might not know this reference, but there was a show called The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, and the guy sitting to his right was Ed McMahon.” Added Hahn: “So we needed someone to laugh at the jokes all the time.”

Ed Cummings D23 The Lion King Panel
Jim Cummings in the booth for The Lion King (Photo: Disney)

Jim Cummings voiced the unhinged hyena who communicates solely in cackles. He also had an actual speaking role as the Naked Mole Rat of the African Underground.

Disney took advantage of the reunion to announce a spiffed-up “signature edition” of The Lion King will arrive Aug. 15 on Digital HD and two weeks later on Blu-ray.

Watch: Whoopi Goldberg Wants Disney to Bring Back Song of the South:

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