The Lion King: Exploring the Expanded Universe

Sequels and spin-offs and remakes, oh my! We examine the many extensions of Disney's classic, from direct-to-video movies to TV spin-offs

This Lion King article comes from Den of Geek UK.

The Lion King was an enormous hit for Disney back in 1994, and 25 years later, it seems likely it will imminently be an enormous hit again. But between Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s animated favorite and Jon Favreau’s “live-action” remake, the House of Mouse has not shied away from turning it into a franchise with various sequels and TV shows.

At the time the animated version was originally released, the studio was riding high on the critical and financial success of its 1990s renaissance, which started with The Little Mermaid and arguably peaked here. Having only created one sequel up to this point (1990’s The Rescuers Down Under), the studio’s feature division didn’t necessarily sequel-ize everything that came out and instead concentrated largely on new projects.

On the other hand, Disney was already a multimedia empire at this point, with television and home media providing ample opportunities for spin-offs away from the big screen. Throughout the latter half of the 1990s and into the 2000s, the company produced a whole bunch of direct-to-video sequels and spin-off TV series based on their cinematic properties.

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That said, The Lion King has arguably fared better as an extended universe than later films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan, and Tarzan, all of which got anodyne direct-to-video sequels as part of the studio’s former franchise policy. So, let’s take a closer look at the circle of life in which this particular series has traveled, from the original to the remake…

The Lion King’s Timon & Pumbaa (1995-99)

At the point when the first film was released, just about every film was fair game for a spin-off TV series, and barely a year after The Lion King arrived in cinemas, its most popular supporting characters became the subject of their own globetrotting series, titled The Lion King’s Timon & Pumbaa. Based on the classic formats of comic double acts like Laurel and Hardy or Hope and Crosby (the Road To… films were clearly a big influence, as they would later be on several Stewie and Brian-centric episodes of Family Guy), the series follows Timon and Pumbaa as they Hakuna Matata their way around the world getting into short scrapes.

When the series began, Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella reprised their voice roles, with Timon being voiced by Kevin Schon and then Quinton Flynn in later seasons after Lane departed. Robert Guillaume reprised the role of Rafiki but any other characters from the movie were recast. The rest of the voice cast reads like a rogues’ gallery of kids’ TV voice talents from the time, including Corey Burton, Jeff Bennett, Tress MacNeille, Rob Paulsen, and Jim Cummings.

Further Reading: The Lion King (2019) Review

In addition to a range of new recurring characters, the series is the only branch of the franchise that includes any human characters. The most regular antagonist is Quint, a burly, egotistical jack-of-all-trades who either competes with or outright hunts our heroes in an array of different disguises and vocations.

Running for three seasons on CBS in the States, the series is likely best known on this side of the pond from Around the World with Timon & Pumbaa, the VHS compilation that everyone of a certain age seemed to own. The video comprises six stories and a spoof music video for “Stand By Me,” with a specially animated framing device where Pumbaa tries to cure Timon’s amnesia.

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The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride (1999)

At this point in the studio’s history, Disney was also looking to make more original films for the home video market. Buoyed by the success of The Return of Jafar, an extended pilot for the Aladdin animated series that made the studio more than $100 million in VHS sales, CEO Michael Eisner greenlit a Lion King sequel for direct-to-video release.

Due to the nature of animation, it was thought that a theatrical sequel would take up to five years to make, and a DTV follow-up would be less costly and have a quicker turnaround. As it turned out, the sequel didn’t arrive until five years after the 1994 original anyway.

Ahead of the original VHS release, director Darrell Rooney told The Los Angeles Times: “You’re following in a huge footprint, so it has to be something that is as good as the first story.”

The extra development time seemed to pay off. The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride may not be a patch on the original film, but it’s significantly better than films like The Return of Jafar, Beauty & The Beast: The Enchanted Christmas, and Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World – all of which arrived on video shelves before this did – as well as just about every other DTV film Disney has made since.

Where The Lion King took some influences from Hamlet, Simba’s Pride is much more overtly a leonine take on Romeo & Juliet. Taking place over a similar timespan to the original, the film charts a star-crossed romance between Simba’s daughter Kiara and another lion named Kovu, as they grow apart and together again over time. 

The main villain of the piece is Kovu’s mother, Zira (voiced by Suzanne Pleshette), who’s been grooming Kovu, Scar’s chosen successor, to kill Simba and take back control of Pride Rock. Apparently forgetting that Scar’s self-indulgent reign left the Pride Lands ruined and starving, these lions are basically massive Tories.

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Further Reading: How The Lion King’s Classic Score Was Updated

With a lower budget, the quality of the animation is understandably lower than the majesty of the first film, but the sequel does make up for this in other regards. There was little chance of them ever getting the dream team of Elton John, Tim Rice, and Hans Zimmer back together after the platinum success of their soundtrack for part one, but they don’t just replay the hits either.

The filmmakers did have a new theme song ready-made in the form of “He Lives In You,” which was originally written and performed by Lebo M for the Broadway musical adaptation that debuted in 1997. Tina Turner covers the song in the opening sequence, a “Circle of Life”-alike introduction that recaps Kiara’s presentation to the Pride Lands from the end of the first film.

The original songs include “My Lullaby,” a “Be Prepared”-style villain song with lyrics by Joss Whedon(!), and “Upendi,” a bouncy pop number for Rafiki, of all characters. The rest of the soundtrack tends to veer closer to duets in the vein of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” without ever reaching those heights, but the aforementioned originals are fairly hummable.

Many of these Disney DTV sequels have the offspring of the main character rehashing a similar arc to what their mother and father went through in the original, and it feels like the success of Simba’s Pride is what molded that formula. If you can believe it, there’s a Little Mermaid sequel where Ariel’s daughter longingly looks at the sea from the land, among other ridiculous reversals.

In relative terms, The Lion King II was well-reviewed and became as much of a blockbuster success on home video as the original was in cinemas. With a bump from later DVD and Blu-ray editions, the film has made over $460 million worldwide over the last two decades. To this day, it remains the biggest-selling direct-to-video title of all time. While it certainly did the business it was meant to, it’s still a better film than its cash-grabbing origins would suggest.

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The Lion King 1½ (2003)

Inevitably, a second DTV sequel was greenlit shortly after Simba’s Pride cleaned up in video shops, but again, it took a while to reach screens. Taking a much more comedic approach than either of the two previous installments, this is an example of a Disney “midquel,” a really terrible word used to describe films like Bambi 2 and The Fox and the Hound 2, which take place during the events of a previous installment. 

Many have noted how, whether intentionally or not, this takes loose inspiration from Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, which makes the comic relief characters from Hamlet into the protagonists of a more absurd story that takes place during the events of the original play. Enter Timon and Pumbaa in The Lion King 1½.

The result is partly an origin story for the two friends and partly a parody of what went on during the first film. Compared to this high-falutin’ analysis of the story, the bar is set early on by Pumbaa having an attack of nerves and farting during the iconic presentation of baby Simba on Pride Rock, causing some animals to pass out and others to misinterpret this as bowing and then following suit.

Further Reading: How The Lion King Reinvented Classic Characters

It’s largely about maximizing or extending what’s already there in the original film, with the duo’s intro to “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” segueing into a montage of them unsuccessfully trying to stop Simba and Nala feeling the love. Likewise, the foregrounding of secondary characters continues with hyenas Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed (again voiced by Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, and Jim Cummings) being upgraded to their main antagonists.

Surprisingly, Disney did get Elton John and Tim Rice to return for this one, providing an original song for Timon, titled “That’s All I Need.” But the main addition to this soundtrack is the meerkat anthem, “Diggah Tunnah Dance,” which takes the backing vocals of “Circle Of Life” and makes a melody that goes “dig a tunnel, dig-dig a tunnel, when you’re done, you dig another tunnel,” creating the sort of unholy earworm that your kids will mumble to themselves for months on end.

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Bolstered by vocal turns from Julie Kavner and Jerry Stiller as Timon’s Ma and Uncle Max, respectively, this movie has its funny moments and uses the inessential plot as a way of poking fun at the original. It’s much closer in tone to the Timon & Pumbaa series than it is to the other movies, complete with a fourth-wall-breaking framing device where Timon takes umbrage with the original film underselling their role in events.

The Lion Guard (2015 – present)

Bear with us, this is where it gets a bit weird. In 2014, at the time of The Lion King’s 25th anniversary, Disney Junior started exploring the idea of a new spin-off series based on the film. They settled upon a premise described as “The Lion King meets The Avengers” and set out the stall for a series in a TV movie titled Return of the Roar.

Taking place entirely in between the first and second act in Simba’s Pride, the series follows Simba and Nala’s second-born cub, Kion. As the leader of the king’s guard, he’s dutybound to protect the Pride Lands from various interlopers, including gangs of hyenas, vultures, and other predators that, er… don’t respect the circle of life.

Empowered with a magic roar that echoes those great kings of the past that we’re always hearing about, Kion selects a super squad comprising a fearless honey badger, a super-fast cheetah, a keen-sighted egret, and a super-strong hippopotamus. The show plays a little more like a re-badged Paw Patrol than a spin on The Avengers, but its place within the franchise gives it some serious Star Wars Rebels vibes, too. 

If The Lion King 1½ was entirely lightweight, The Lion Guard may seem entirely too involved in the franchise’s mythology. For one thing, it immediately creates a continuity problem and a similar sort of awkward tension as the Star Wars spin-offs had with Ahsoka Tano, a popular, crucial character who isn’t around in the films set later on. Kiara’s brother Kion is never mentioned in Simba’s Pride, so that’s a bridge that the series is going to have to cross at some point.

Further Reading: How Does a Disney Junior Show Tell Compelling Stories?

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Despite introducing a rogues’ gallery of animal baddies in the territories beyond the Pride Lands, the show is especially fixated on Scar, who gets a new backstory about killing his own Lion Guard and losing the magic roar as a result. As of the show’s second season, the ghost of Scar is the series’ Big Bad supervillain, as he rallies the various Outlanders to launch an all-out assault on the Pride Lands.

Behind the scenes, there’s not much in common with the original film. Just like Favreau, the producers seem to know that no one but James Earl Jones can play Mufasa, who appears here as an occasional spirit guide to his grandson, but otherwise, it’s all change in the voice cast, with Rob Lowe voicing Simba and David Oyelowo voicing Scar.

The sequel series also has its own spin-off show, an educational spin-off based around Bunga the honey badger, uniquely titled It’s UnBungalievable! Each episode concentrates on a different species of animal and their habitat, bringing in live-action DisneyNature footage to complement the animated wraparounds. As yet, they haven’t really got into the afterlife of animals as much as the parent show.

This kind of genre crossover is atypical for the rest of the aforementioned Lion King expanded universe, but the series does seem to be a hit with the target audience. With a third season due later this year, this leftfield serialized fantasy action series feels like an altogether less reverent addition to the IP than we’ve seen before.

Long Live The Lion King

All of which suggests that 2019’s The Lion King is more in keeping with Disney’s generally conservative use of its own legacy features. Following a variety of live-action remakes in the same vein, Favreau’s reimagining brings the circle of life back around with a newly digitized but almost unerringly faithful recreation of the 1994 film.

As an epic coming-of-age tale that packs in comic relief and tear-jerking moments in equal measure, the original encompasses a variety of tones that each of the subsequent takes have played with. From the character comedy of Timon and Pumbaa to the spooky doings with lion ghosts, it’s all there in the original in some form or another.

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Perhaps it’s down to its original popularity or the timing of its release right as Disney was looking for ways to maximize its properties outside of the metaphorical Vault, but The Lion King has come in for several follow-ups that elaborate upon its themes without necessarily expanding upon them. The unfailing success of these different endeavors over the years suggests that the property is as popular as it ever was. 

Either way, it’s only logical that the latest addition to the franchise amounts to another revamp of the original film. The Lion King remains a hugely impressive achievement in animation, but even 25 years on, it tends to overshadow any of the wildly varied efforts that have sprung from its popularity.

Make sure to check out our 2019 SDCC Special Edition Magazine!