“The Lion King” is getting re-released on Blu-ray and digital in August, and, to celebrate, Disney held a panel for the 1994 animated classic at Disney’s D23 Expo Sunday morning.
Director Rob Minkoff and producer Don Hahn were on hand with animators Mark Henn and Tony Bancroft, and voice actors Ernie Sabella and new Disney legend Whoopi Goldberg to reveal behind-the-scenes secrets and share never-before-seen footage from the making of the hit movie.
INSIDER also sat down with Minkoff and Hahn after the panel to learn more about the making of the movie.
Keep reading to see what you probably don’t know about the animated classic before its Blu-ray release August 29.
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It was tough to get people to work on “The Lion King.” It was referred to as the “little engine that could” during the panel.
“The Lion King” was being made at the studio at the same time as “Pocahontas” in 1991. Minkoff recalled a studio breakfast meeting to discuss the development of both movies and it was clear everyone wanted in on “Pocahontas.”
“The head of the studio got up and basically said, ”Pocahontas’ is a home run. It’s ‘West Side Story’ meets ‘Romeo and Juliet’ meets ‘Dances with Wolves’ and ‘Lion King,’ on the other hand, is clearly an experiment.'”
“Yeah, our pitch was Moses meets Joseph and ‘Hamlet’ in Africa’ with music by Elton John,” Hahn joked.
“[The studio head] said, ‘Well, we’re not sure about ‘Lion King.’ We’re not sure if it’s going to be a success and, so if the movie makes $50 million I’ll get down on my hands and knees,” said Minkoff. “Let me tell you, he did.”
Minkoff didn’t mention names, but Jeffrey Katzenberg was the studio chief at the time. While “The Lion King” was a commercial and critical hit — it has made nearly $1 billion at the box office — “Pocahontas” brought in $346 million worldwide after its debut.
The crew referred to the movie as “Bambi in Africa.”
You may know that “The Lion King” wasn’t the original name of the animated movie. When Minkoff was first brought onto the film, he says it was called “King of the Jungle”; however, he and Hahn said internally they referred to it as “Bambi in Africa” when explaining the movie’s concept to others.
“It was the early, short version of it that people could understand,” said Hahn.
An early version of Elton John’s now-iconic “Circle of Life” was awful.
Minkoff recalled getting a version of the song “Circle of Life,” which was an early version, which was totally different than the one we ended up with.
The director then sang some of it for the audience in a sing-songy jingle, “And we’ll all join in the ‘Circle of life.”
“And we thought, ‘That’s terrible,'” he said.
“It’s really bad,” added Hahn. “Please don’t tell Elton.”
Minkoff said they weren’t sure what to do, but that there was no way they could use that version of the song. They had Tim Rice, who helped get John involved with the movie, go back to Elton John and tell him that the story had changed and they needed a new song to go with it. This time it was described as big, rock anthem about animals gathering together to celebrate the birth of a lion and he delivered the song they were looking for we know today.
Hahn and Minkoff told INSIDER we’ll probably never hear that version of the song released.