True confessions time: I’ve never been much of a fan on The Lion King. I think it’s a good movie that’s beautifully animated, but it never resonated with me the way I felt like it was trying to. It’s also plagued with a series of extraordinarily irritating songs that constantly interrupt the plot for a few minutes of nonsense shenanigans. Given that, I didn’t greet The Lion Guard TV series on Disney Junior a tremendous amount of enthusiasm, but the final product is an extremely solid, enjoyable series that brings superhero team dynamics to the African wilderness. It also happens to bring along one or two of the original movie’s flaws.
The Lion Guard picks up a little after the end of the first movie. Kion, the second-born son of the ruling lions Simba and Nala, is named head of the Lion Guard, responsible for protecting the Pride Lands and nurturing the Circle of Life. He is aided by his friends Fuli the fleet-footed cheetah, Beshte the strong hippopotamus, Ono the far-sighted egret, and Bunga the plucky comic relief honey badger. The series picks up after the premiere movie, Return of the Roar, which established the team as they began to work together as the Lion Guard, and the 5 episodes on the newly released DVD Unleash the Power continue their education in a serial fiction vein.
Disney Junior general manager Nancy Kanter has described the series as “The Lion King meets The Avengers,” and that’s a pretty good description for the way the series uses the setting and characters from the original movie for stories involving a team learning the extent of their own abilities and how to leverage each other’s strengths to make a team that’s more than the sum of its parts. I’d replace the superhero team with the Teen Titans, though, since the inter-team conflict comes from youthful inexperience and misunderstanding rather than the kind of ego-driven friction from the Avengers (at least in the movies, if not necessarily the comics or the recent cartoons). The series also ensures that you can follow along no matter how much or how little you know about the original movie; I recognized references and characters, but my seven-year-old son (who hasn’t seen the movie yet) enjoyed the series, too, without seeming to miss anything.
The disc’s first episode, “Fuli’s New Family,” is rooted in well-meaning but misguided efforts to be friendlier to the somewhat aloof Fuli. I was quite impressed at the way it presented Fuli’s introverted nature, which her teammates incorrectly read as loneliness and whose attemtps to “fix” this only succeed in irritating her. “Bunga the Wise” starts with a misunderstanding that makes Bunga think he’s the Solomon of the veldt and ends as his foolish advice nearly leads to disaster. In “Eye of the Beholder,” an injury seems to sideline Ono until he learns that he has more to contribute to the team than just his ability to see far. “Follow That Hippo!” pairs up Beshte with a young elephant fan of the Guard, who ends up getting in trouble before helping to save the day. “The Search for Utamu” is an origin story for Bunga, while Fuli learns a hard lesson on overexertion and the importance of teamwork. The best episode of the six comes last: “Never Judge a Hyena by Its Spots” introduces the sassy hyena Jasiri, who surprises Kion by being so unlike the greedier hyenas that Kion is constantly chasing out of the Pride Lands. Jasiri is a sly, winning presence who consistently confounds expectations and organically brings home a worthwhile and sadly timely lesson on the dangers of jumping to conclusions based on surface appearances.
The Lion Guard is beautifully animated, mimicking the hand-drawn animated style of the original movie with great success, even on a much more limited TV series budget. Watch closely and you can catch all kinds of wonderful animated grace notes, like wilderness activity going on in the background or a beautiful involuntary eye tic that Fuli has in “Never Judge a Hyena by Its Spots.” The youthful voice cast is boisterous and captures their characters’ enthusiasm. Ernie Sabella is the only cast member from the original movie who reprises his role as Pumbaa the warthog, with Kevin Schon replacing Nathan Lane as the meerkat Timon (and reprising the role from the Timon and Pumbaa TV series). Khary Payton admirably replaces Robert Guillaume as Rafiki the wise mandrill; Gary Anthony Williams has one scene as the ghost of Mufasa on this disc, and is a serviceable replacement for James Earl Jones. The series smartly keeps the original cast largely in the background, ensuring that the younger generation can hold the spotlight.
Unfortunately, The Lion Guard has the same trait that irritated me so much in the original movie, dropping a song in the middle of each episode that usually does little but interrupt the plot. Mid-way through “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” in The Lion King, I started fast-forwarding through the musical numbers if the song didn’t grab me because I wanted to see what was coming next in the story, and the main reason why I didn’t do the same with The Lion Guard‘s songs was the knowledge that the 22-minute episodes meant the song would probably be shorter. It’s not that the songs are bad in The Lion Guard (which, sadly, I don’t think I would say about most of the musical numbers in The Lion King), but they’re disposable bubblegum pop that doesn’t leave much of an impression. I would have preferred it if Disney had found an African or African-inspired band to provide the music for the series to produce songs closer to the inspired opening theme music. If they could find Captain Bogg and Salty to provide piratecore rock for Jake and the Never Land Pirates, I think they could have found a suitable band from somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa to provide music for this series.
The other problem I have with the series is the wacky “Circle of Life” mumbo-jumbo that sugarcoats nature to an unacceptable extent. It is probably worst in “Fuli’s New Family,” which specifically states that Fuli prefers to hunt alone and shows how frustrated she is when a hunt is revealed to be practice and she can’t move in for the kill. I was baffled at the idea that Fuli could save a zebra or on oryx from disaster one day, only to kill and eat it the next, and that this wouldn’t bother anyone involved. That train of thought soon led back to the same questions I had from the original movie of why the animals would willingly submit to the seemingly benign rule of the Lions when those same lions would hunt and kill their weak and their young. A pretty song about the Circle of Life somehow doesn’t seem adequate to console a mother whose child was just killed for food. However, though it irks my science geek sensibilities, I suppose The Lion King and The Lion Guard are more about the coming-of-age parable than any accurate portrayal of nature.
The Lion Guard: Unleash the Power is a decent “soccer mom” DVD. The five episodes get an excellent presentation in both audio and video, and with a nice selection of chapter stops sprinkled throughout each episode. Disney Junior DVDs seem to be the last holdout of Disney’s “Fast Play” system which I still find to be an ironically named system that I find gets in the way and slows things down. Even if it works well for the younger set that can’t quite work the DVD remote, I don’t know that it’s a wise idea to let kids that young watch the entire 137-minute DVD unsupervised and on an endless repeat cycle. There are no bonus features other than two trailers, although the DVD package comes with a “Power Necklace” with changeable discs to show off your favorite member of the Guard.
The Lion Guard: Unleash the Power is a nice mixture of superhero dynamics with the characters and setting of The Lion King. It manages to teach some admirable, worthwhile lessons (even if the way nature works is not really one of them) and is beautifully animated and acted. It’s definitely a worthwhile series, and another winner out of Disney’s TV animation division.