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With a film as iconic as Disney’s The Lion King, there are bound to be comparisons between the 1994 animated original and the new CGI adaptation. When it came to taking over for Nathan Lane as the voice of meerkat Timon, though, Billy Eichner wanted to put the past aside and “bring my own certain something to it.”
“Whenever I got intimidated by the scope of the movie or the fact that it already is a classic, I just thought that Jon Favreau is a brilliant director, he knows how to make a spectacle feel very human and very organic and very real and genuinely funny, so Seth [Rogen, who voices Pumbaa] and I really let him guide us,” Eichner told The Hollywood Reporter at the world premiere in Los Angeles on Tuesday. “Luckily I had Seth there too, we recorded everything together, which is pretty unique for these movies, so we leaned on each other. And I thought Jon cast us for a reason; people would kill to be here, so even though it’s nerve-wracking and intimidating on a certain level, I just wanted to make the most of it.”
Eichner added that taking on iconic songs like “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” was a return to his musical roots and his favorite part of the Lion King experience.
“I started out as a singer as a kid, and the first thing I wanted to do was be on Broadway,” he said. “I basically wanted to be a Nathan Lane or a Martin Short or someone like that, and life and comedy led me in a different direction. I haven’t gotten to be on Broadway yet, but this a great step back towards what I wanted to do.”
Recording “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” was also a standout moment for Donald Glover, who voices Simba, as he jokingly told reporters it was nice that he didn’t have to learn the words like with most of his projects.
Working alongside Beyonce on the performance, Glover said, “it was very emotional, I felt really close to that song and you try to do it the way it felt to you when you were a child.”
Like Eichner and Rogen, Keegan-Michael Key, who voices hyena Kamari, also got to record his voiceovers with his scene partner, comedian Eric Andre. The two took a “Tweedledee and Tweedledum” approach to their characters, Key said, and tried to play it as themselves per Favreau’s request.
“In a lot of the animated work I’ve done for the last couple of years, you don’t know it’s me when I’m doing it,” he said. “In this one, you’ll definitely know it’s me.”
The premiere, held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, also welcomed castmembers Beyonce (in a surprise appearance), Rogen, Andre, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Florence Kasumba, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Chance the Rapper. In addition to those involved in the current film, Disney invited some of the original creators behind the 1994 original.
The Lion King‘s original story supervisor Brenda Chapman and screenplay writer Irene Mecchi were both in attendance, and marveled how far the film has come since its release 25 years ago.
“No one at the studio believed in this movie back in the day, we were the little movie that could,” Mecchi told THR. Chapman added, “We were the ‘B’ movie. Pocahontas was the ‘A’ movie, Lion King was the ‘B’ movie, and then suddenly it became the ‘A’ movie.”
“Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was running the studio then, said, ‘If this makes $45 million in its lifetime, I’ll be pleased.’ And it made $43 million its first weekend in 1994 dollars,” Mecchi said. Of the reboot, Chapman said, “I’m really proud of it. It grows with each iteration and I can’t wait to see what this one does. I still feel like I’m part of it.”
The Lion King hits theaters July 19.
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