‘Lion King’ franchise roars again with TV movie and series

Meet the gang: Bunga the fearless honey badger; confident cheetah Fuli; Beshte the friendly hippo, and brainy egret Ono

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When Ford Riley was tasked with adding a new TV project to Disney’s treasured — and lucrative — “Lion King” screen and stage franchise, he knew he had to do right by it. Mulling the original 1994 animated movie and its 1998 home video sequel, Riley decided that creating another offspring for lion king Simba and mate Nala would open up a world of possibilities.

Their first-born, daughter Kiara, was destined to become the lion queen. But if she had a kid brother — a furry version of England’s Prince Harry, runner-up to older sibling William in the crown sweepstakes — what would his fate be?

“I’ve got two kids, and it seems like in storytelling the second-born never gets a really good job. So I was eager to tell his story for the TV series and make him the hero,” Riley said.

So Riley created male cub Kion as the star of both a Disney Channel movie, “The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar” airing today and the Disney Junior series “The Lion Guard,” debuting in January.

The writer-producer hit on an important job for Kion: Protector of his family’s African savannah “Pride Lands” and its circle of life (just try not to hum the tune). To build a security force, he turns to his talented best buddies, a varied group who are among nature’s fiercest, fastest, strongest and sharpest-eyed.

Meet the gang: Bunga the fearless honey badger; confident cheetah Fuli; Beshte the friendly hippo, and brainy egret Ono.

While honoring the original film’s “epic storytelling,” Riley said, the new project also carries “a definite message of diversity with these different animals learning how to work together.”

The TV movie is aimed at a general family audience, with the upcoming series intended for Disney Junior’s target audience of 2- to 7-year-olds.

The movie’s voice cast includes James Earl Jones and Ernie Sabella, reprising their original big-screen roles as Mufasa and Pumbaa; Rob Lowe as Simba; Gabrielle Union as Nala; Max Charles as Kion, and Eden Riegel as Kiara.

The new series is part of a vast and lucrative family tree. Besides the theatrical film, it includes the long-running, Tony Award-winning Broadway musical; attractions at the Disneyland and Walt Disney World parks; the 1990s TV series “The Lion King’s Timon and Pumbaa,” soundtracks and video games.

Disney declined to provide figures for the franchise’s financial prowess, which includes a reported worldwide box-office gross of about $1 billion for the original movie and $6.2 billion for the stage show alone. But the company happily acknowledges its value to audiences.

To connect with the original film in look as well as tone, Riley used the same 2D animation, with images hand-drawn on a computer, instead of the 3D computer-generated animation common on other Disney Junior shows.

Barry Atkinson, an artist who worked on the original “Lion King,” was brought in to help with the background and “make it feel lush, like the Pride Lands did in the movie,” Riley said.

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