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“The Lion Guard” – Returning To “The Lion King” Pride Lands With Showrunner Ford Riley

By: Marjorie Galas

Ford Riley has a soft spot for “The Lion King.”  It was the film’s television spin off, “Timon & Pumbaa,” that provided the animation veteran his first series work, as a production secretary and ultimately episode writer.  Since that time, Riley has been a series writer and lyricist on many Disney properties including “The Land Before Time” and “Special Agent Oso”, which he created and also executive-produced.  When Disney reached out in March, 2012 pitching a re-imagining of “The Lion King” world, Riley jumped at the chance.  Thus began his journey to create two entities: a one-off special and subsequent series.

“(The Executives at Disney Junior) wanted to expand upon the land of ‘The Lion King.’  I’m familiar with the brand and what they were looking for in the end,” said Riley.  “I came in with finding a concept that could stand on its own.”

Reviewing the characters from “The Lion King” and its subsequent incarnations, Riley found himself refreshed on the lyrics of the original’s hit song, “Circle of Life.” Noting that Simba’s first born cub Kiara automatically received the title of Queen of the Pride Lands, Riley found himself pulled towards Simba’s second cub, Kion, who had no birth right to royalty.  Recognizing the youthful exploits of this son and his occasional sibling rivalry would fit nicely into the Disney Junior demographic, he knew he found his protagonist.  Excited to define Kion’s journey, story inspiration hit Riley as he prepared his young son for his daily meetup with friends.

“I’d see my son play imaginary super heroes with his friends in the park, and it gave me the idea to put together a team that must protect the pride lands,” said Riley.

Inspiration came quickly – the young cub and his friends’ youthful playtime is interrupted when they are thrown into a position of responsibility. Kion, subsequently, is allowed to step up and take on a leadership role.  Interested in his son’s reaction, Riley pulled some clip art together and shared the concept.  Although met with initial ambivalence, Riley knew the story was on target when he witnessed his son reenacting the tale with toy animals.  His initial outline became the backbone for the forty-four minute stand alone special, “The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar.”

With a concept fleshed out, Riley recognized the value of establishing an aesthetic to the series that would meld the worlds of the prior films and animation series.  He was pleased by be partnered with Howy Parkins, the special’s director.  The two met in the 90s working on “Recess” and Riley had watched Parkins’ twenty year Disney career which included successfully re-imagine the world of “Peter Pan” in “Jake and the Neverland Pirates.”  They decided early on that “The Lion Guard” had to stay true to the visual qualities of the original film.

“We wanted the look to be familiar, in the spirit of the original feature,” said Riley.

Many of Disney Junior’s animated programs are created with 3D graphics, as was the case in “Special Agent Oso.”  Eager to ensure the appearance of the animation was akin to the hand-drawn original, Riley received the green light to create “The Lion Guard” in 2D animation. Riley reviewed the overall qualities of each character with animation director Christian Larocque (“Kick Buttowski: Suburban Daredevil,” “Jake and the Neverland Pirates”).  The two also discussed the importance of color to the series.  Throughout season one there will be a wide use of greens to reflect the African Savanna’s rainy season, however as the series progresses so will the color scheme, reflecting the drier seasons in the outlands of the pride.  To ensure the 2D graphics simulated the flat, hand drawn quality within the tight timeframe of a television show,  the artists at Mercury Filmworks were brought in to keep the animation flowing.

As showrunner, Riley not only had to sign off on the animation, but also the vocal talent and writing staff.  Riley found very capable hands in David Wright, Vice President, Casting & Talent Relations, Disney Television Animation.  Actors joining the cast include Rob Lowe, James Earl Jones and Max Charles as Kion.  The script for “The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar” was fleshed out from Riley’s original treatment, however he turned to a diverse array of writers to help define the course of the series.

“I wanted a team that came from different backgrounds that could complement each other while they break and discuss stories,” said Riley.  “There are writers who have worked in animation, live action and children’s books.  They all have such wonderful gifts to help the series.”

“The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar” will air on the Disney Channel November 22, 2015.  To learn more about the movie and series, please visit: