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It may have been a cinematic date night for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, as they attended Sunday’s European premiere for Disney’s revamped The Lion King, but Beyoncé Knowles-Carter maintained top billing, arriving after the royal couple.
Knowles-Carter and Donald Glover’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” was aptly playing as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle held hands and walked the length of the lion-paw-printed golden carpet around London’s Leicester Square, enthusiastically chatting with waiting fans. Many were disappointed to barely get a glimpse of Knowles-Carter and husband Jay-Z, who bypassed the hubbub altogether and walked directly into the cinema on arrival. Their brief entrance still rendered the loudest shrieks of the evening, however, and the couple did spend time talking to the Duke and Duchess once inside the screening.
“Well, Beyoncé is part of what makes it [The Lion King] a new production,” director Jon Favreau told The Hollywood Reporter in London of the star’s 2019 voicing of Nala. “Her new music, her interpretation of the old songs and how we are able to expand the role of Nala because Beyoncé has such a significance. Look, I have two daughters and a wife, I’ve been aware of Beyoncé beyond just her music for many, many years, so that becomes part of what you have available to you as a storyteller.”
Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger, Keegan-Michael Key (Kamari), Florence Kasumba (Shenzi), Hans Zimmer and Tim Rice were also at the U.K. event, along with Elton John, who warmly embraced Pharrell Williams on the golden carpet, the latter responsible for producing the songs this time around. Donald Glover (Simba) was not in attendance as he was performing on stage in Perth for the Australian leg of his Childish Gambino tour.
Other celebrity guests included Taron Egerton and Vin Diesel, who prompted surprised laughter as he was spotted by Seth Rogen mid-interview (“Oh my god, Vin Diesel’s here!”). There appeared to be general excitement among the cast to be attending a royal premiere; the event was in support of the Sussexes’ charity conservation work through the Royal Foundation. Meghan and Harry also appeared particularly amused by one enthusiastic fan on their way in, who shouted out, wanting to let them know that she had traveled from Sussex, the English county of their royal title.
The fact that this new Lion King has been cast appropriately was something Keegan-Michael Key was keen to champion: “It seems almost obvious that we are looking at a story that is universal but is also very African,” Key said in London, “and the majority of people that live on the continent of Africa have melanin in their skin and I think that should be represented. I know they are animals, but it helps us tell human stories through people who are often not given the opportunity to tell those stories.” South African musician Lebo M delivers the iconic opening chant at The Lion King’s start, the rallying cry to “The Circle of Life,” and noted that “Simba was a refugee, he grew up in exile.” Lebo M also explained how the version used in 1994 was the original one-take demo that he had recorded before even landing the job.
While early reviews have been favorable to this 2019 photo-real take on the 1994 animation, some have questioned the further leap of faith it takes to witness seemingly real lions’ mouths move as they talk and sing. “Well I think that if you stick to the story and you trust your artists and your animators,” Favreau said at the premiere, “and ultimately tell it in a way that draws more attention to the cinematic quality of it, it’s a bit of a magic trick where you show them just enough to make them believe it but then you use the lighting and the composition, the rendering, the artistry to help the audience feel the story and I learned a lot on Jungle Book [the 2016 version that he directed] of what works and what doesn’t work and now we built on that experience.”
The actors responsible for the updated Timon and Pumbaa — Billy Eichner and Rogen — both agreed they delivered way more material than was needed for the comedy meerkat and warthog. “The good thing about recording a voice,” said Rogan in the U.K., “is you can provide them with a lot of material and then they can decide what to do with it. We mostly just tried to make each other laugh and tried to do whatever we thought was the funniest. I’m sure there were many times that veered into highly unusual material but in general, we tried to keep it on story.”
So does that mean there is an R-rated Timon and Pumbaa blooper reel lurking? “There probably is,” laughed Eichner. “Jon Favreau said there’s enough unused riffing between me and Seth to make a whole other movie so maybe Disney will do something with that at some point?” he added, before deadpanning, “probably not.”
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