When you think “Disney Junior series” words like “mythology” and “biblical” aren’t exactly the first things that come to mind. However they’re what Ford Riley uses when describing The Lion Guard, a Disney Junior series he executive produces.
Described by Riley as “The Avengers meets The Lion King”, The Lion Guard follows the fierce Kion, the second born to Simba, and a diverse group of animals friends as they protect the Pride Lands and the Circle of Life.
That premise sounds like it has a lot of potential but how can a series that’s aimed at such a young audience (eight and under) tell compelling stories? Other series for that age group have frankly been pretty terrible because they lack strong character conflict or a world that can really draw you in.
Riley admits it’s a big challenge. Even just writing characters that mostly walk on all fours could keep the stories from being engaging but Riley was able to use this to his advantage. While developing the series he’d drive down to the San Diego Wild Animal Safari Park just to watch the lions and other wild animals. Watching how they co-existed helped to inspire many of the main characters interactions.
Riley also drew heavily from classic mythology to fuel the ongoing plots of the series.
“The whole laying on hands where Kion gives the mark of the guard to the rest of the team, that goes back to the Bible,” Riley says. “We want it to feel epic and so we’re trying to draw from as many epics in classical literature and classical television in addition to (The Lion King) itself.”
It’s in that film where Riley found the strong central conflict that would make up The Lion Guard. Protecting the Circle of Life.
“In The Lion King the Circle of Life is the natural order of things,” he says. “The animals who respect it don’t eat too much, allow for the grass to grow, and larger animals to eat smaller animals. Our bad guys come from those that don’t respect the Circle of Life. They just want to eat and wreak havoc.”
Disney also supported Riley in deepening the mythology of The Lion King. This included bringing back the “ultimate baddy” Scar and establishing that he was the leader of The Lion Guard before Kion. “We’re able to do back stories and history that just makes our show feel a little more rooted in the Lion King world.”
It seems like an easy answer to the question of “how does The Lion Guard telling compelling stories” but it’s really just that Riley along with the rest of the staff treat the series like any other. They work within the constraints of being a Disney Junior show but don’t let that stop them from telling rich stories with a deep mythology and conflict that feels natural to the world around them.
To put it simply, don’t judge The Lion Guardsolely on it being a Disney Junior show. It has just as much hard work and thought put into it as other action adventure series, perhaps moreso.
Shamus Kelley might just have to watch more of The Lion Guard now. Follow him on Twitter!