Simba and Mufasa standing on a cliff Voice Acting

The Lion King – Diversity in Voice Over

Diversity in media is a welcome and long due trend. Directors and producers are now carefully addressing the topic by casting talented and diverse actors in more and more films, and this is only possible because audiences worldwide have chosen to acknowledge and applaud such strides in diversity. The 2019 release of the live action version of Disney’s The Lion King proves that, when it comes to casting, diversity reigns. The Lion King’s live action cast includes Hollywood’s biggest stars, and most importantly, diverse voice actors. The movie has surpassed Disney’s Frozen, becoming the highest grossing Disney film of all time, raking in more than $1.3 billion. 

Let’s look at how the cast is making waves in the industry.

The Lion King (2019)

Disney’s latest remake, The Lion King (2019) has not only become their biggest remake to date, but also one of their most diverse and culturally enriching projects. 

The amazing cast features actors from diverse backgrounds, with many of the cast members having African roots. The casting announcement shook not only industry insiders, but also audiences worldwide. 

As the Director, Jon Favreau, makes a strong effort to incorporate the essence of Africa within the film, and voice over plays an important role in this. The Lion King’s 2019 casting retains the voice of Mufasa, voiced by the legendary James Earl Jones, but reinvents other characters through new voice actors.

The Lion King’s live action cast

The amount of representation in this casting is a breath of fresh air because Disney has previously faced a lot of backlash regarding their casting decisions. Chiwetel Ejiofor voices the character of Scar and has Nigerian roots. Florence Kasumba, the voice of Shenzi, was born in Uganda. Favreau’s remake makes changes, yet still stays true to the classic storyline and this is probably where the formula of success lies.

Rafiki sitting in a tree

The characters of grown-up Simba and Nala are voiced by Donald Glover and Beyonce Knowles-Carter, respectively. The film features a group of talented and diverse actors who voice the characters in styles that transport you to a beautiful African desert. The wise Rafiki, voiced by John Kani, echoes the rich wisdom ingrained in traditional African stories. Kani’s script includes several indigenuous sounds, which is very different from the previous version of Rafiki, whose script mainly injected humor into the film. Favreau reinvents the character, making him a beautiful symbol of tradition, rather than a simple comedic addition.

Keeping with the original production, the names of the main characters come from Swahili, a popular African language. Pumbaa, in Swahili means ‘to be foolish,’ while Simba translates to ‘lion’ and Rafiki equates to ‘friend.’ 

Authenticity and Diversity in Hollywood 

Disney’s casting decisions

The Lion King live action movie is similar to Disney’s Moana (2016), in the sense that the casting takes cultural representation into consideration. Africa is not just a backdrop in this movie, it’s a part of the characters, the soundtrack and the very essence of the film. 

If you compare the previous version’s voice actors to The Lion King’s 2019 cast, you see how Disney made major decisions to incorporate heterogeneity and authenticity into the live action film. 

Given the backlash Disney faced a few years ago over casting decisions, it’s no surprise that the new, more inclusive and authentic casting approach is resonating so well.

Realism in voice over

Considering that they’re both animated films, The Lion King (2019) and Moana (2016) rely on voice over and graphics to develop a connection with viewers. At the same time, we mustn’t ignore the breathtaking photo-realism used in the Lion King remake. 

Favreau’s use of realism extends to sound, because the selection of voices also come together to make the whole experience convincing. His use of accents in the voice overs really makes the film’s theme whole. Characters like Mufasa and Rafiki use indigenous accents and sounds, creating a cultural experience for the viewers.

Producer Jeffrey Silver explains how Favreau directed the Lion King by saying, “He wanted everything in the movie to be rooted in reality. He felt that if we started improving upon reality, we’d be headed down a slippery slope towards an unbelievable, unrelatable and unemotional film.”

Beyonce Knowles-Carter, has taken the idea further by releasing a multi-artist album titled, The Lion King: The Gift. The album features amazing African artists such as Yemi Alade, Tekno and Busiswa and steers away from your typical Disney soundtrack. This album, along with the film, shows the importance sound plays in representation. Hearing words in different accents, dialects and languages creates a sense of belonging for communities because diversity is much more than just a purely aesthetic quality.

How the Lion King’s new cast affects the voice over industry

The film’s success means that diverse voice overs are now being featured in mainstream Hollywood films, and this trend will continue after such positive examples. In 2015, no actors of color were nominated during the Academy Awards and people also noticed the lack of representation in the voice over industry. Now we see how casting directors and voice actors are doing their research to deliver an authentic feel to the films. 

Disney’s latest casting shows how voice overs are no longer whitewashed or heavily stereotyped, and this shift is extremely important for audiences, as many young children will be able to see themselves represented in movies. It is important to have representation in animated films, because children begin to develop their ideas of what society should look like, at a very young age. 

Moreover, remakes give directors and producers a chance to revisit the film and incorporate important changes in the updated project.

By using local dialects and languages in a film, you are able to connect with multiple audiences by showing them that diversity exists.There is still a long way to go in terms of representation and The Lion King’s live action cast shows how it can be beautifully done.

Who are the voices in the original Lion King movie?

The Lion King is one of Disney’s most celebrated feature length animated musicals. Originally released in 1994, it was turned into a Broadway hit in 1997 and still runs in theaters to this day. It was re-released to the IMAX big screens in 2002, and then re-released to theaters in Disney Digital 3D in 2011.

The film is an epic musical that takes place in the Pride Lands of Africa and tells the story of Simba, a young lion cub, as he journeys into adulthood and learns to accept his royal destiny. The cub’s happy childhood turns tragic when he is tricked into thinking he killed his revered father Mufasa, King of the Pride. The cub is exiled by his devious uncle Scar and as Simba flees the pride he abandons his identity as the future King.

A great deal of thought was put into casting the right voice actors in the Lion King. They were selected based on how well they fit with the characters, for instance, James Earl Jones was cast because the directors found his voice “powerful” like a lion’s roar. The characters and original actors of choice were shuffled around in order to get just the feel for the characters. Nathan Lane originally auditioned for Zazu and Ernie Sabella for one of the hyenas.  At that time the two actors were starring in Guys and Dolls together and were instead asked to record Timon and Pumbaa, giving a hilarious performance. The original intention for casting the hyenas in the film was to reunite Cheech & Chong, but Tommy Chong was unavailable. His role was changed into a female hyena, Shenzi, who was voiced by Whoopi Goldberg.

With a perfect cast, stunning animation and a beautifully written story of hope, love, and family responsibility the Lion King is still one of most beloved animated movies to come from Disney.

Voice Over Cast of the Lion King:

  • Matthew Broderick as Simba – Mufasa and Sarabi’s son
  • Jonathan Taylor Thomas voices young Simba
  • James Earl Jones as Mufasa – King of the Pride, Simba’s father
  • Madge Sinclair as Sarabi – Mufasa’s queen, Simba’s mother
  • Moira Kelly as Nala – Simba’s best friend and later his wife
  • Niketa Calame as young Nala
  • Zoe Leader as Sarafina – Nala’s mother
  • Nathan Lane as Timon, the meerkat
  • Ernie Sabella as Pumbaa, the warthog
  • Robert Guillaume as Rafiki – a wise old mandrill who is referred to as a baboon
  • Rowan Atkinson as Zazu – a hornbill who serves as the king’s majordomo
  • Jeremy Irons as Scar – Mufasa’s younger brother and Simba’s deceiving uncle
  • Whoopi Goldberg as Shenzi, the hyena
  • Cheech Marin as Banzai, the hyena
  • Jim Cummings as Ed, the hyena

Disney released a little known direct-to-video sequel titled Lion King II: Simba’s Pride in 1998. Even though most of the original cast reprised their roles the film lacked the panache of the original and was a flop with critics. In one review, TV Guide said it “comes nowhere near the level of its big-screen predecessor.” Although not popular among critics, the film reportedly sold 3.5 million copies in just three days and has developed a large cult following with dedicated fans of the original film.

A third film titled Lion King: 1 ½ turned the franchise into a trilogy. It was released direct-to-video and had a short run in theaters. The film centers this time on the comedic pair Timon and Pumbaa with many of the actors from the original reprising their roles including; Nathan Lane, Ernie Sabella, Matthew Broderick, Moira Kelly, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin and Jim Cummings. The Lion King: 1 ½ was well received by critics with this one measuring up to the original Lion King both musically and in its artistry.

Have you seen the Lion King remake? Do you prefer it over the original?

About the Movie The Lion King

This Disney animated feature follows the adventures of the young lion Simba (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), the heir of his father, Mufasa (James Earl Jones). Simba’s wicked uncle, Scar (Jeremy Irons), plots to usurp Mufasa’s throne by luring father and son into a stampede of wildebeests. But Simba escapes, and only Mufasa is killed. Simba returns as an adult (Matthew Broderick) to take back his homeland from Scar with the help of his friends Timon (Nathan Lane) and Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella).

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