Wednesday, 2 August 2017

The Lion Guard

I’m happy the The Lion Guard is on our screens.

As a lifelong fan of The Lion King, I received the news of this series with mixed emotions. I was happy the property was getting more attention and that I would see a continuation of a favourite story, but of course the premise made me pause. So it’s a mid-quel during The Lion King 2 about Kiara’s little brother…who just never gets mentioned at all by his family or friends after that movie’s time skip? And plays a prominent role in Pride Lands politics with his group of friends, many of them belonging to species never seen in the movies, yet we have to accept all of them just vanish?

Well, to enjoy the show you simply have to accept that aspect of it. And I very quickly did, because I found myself liking the show in almost every way very quickly indeed.

A big part of that is that it’s very nostalgic. Not just because it’s obviously based on The Lion King and the animators have made great pains to emulate the style of the movie in modern vector animation – particularly successfully when it came to the lions’ facial animations, which are amazingly faithful to the cel-animated high-budget original movie. But more because of the premise and the writing, which evoke many other shows and properties of the past. With a fantastic voice cast where every actor not only evokes his or her animal but has a mellifluous voice that it’s a pleasure to listen to, I was reminded of Little Bear. The idea of young animals from different backgrounds coming together to solve the problems of nature reminded me of The Land Before Time and its sequels. The brisk writing, humour and musical numbers that were sometimes inspired and sometimes generic pap echoes the early My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. And while it’s not really a positive, the all-purpose overpowering deus ex machina of ‘The Roar’ put me in mind of the Sword of Omens in Thundercats and its ability to fix just about any problem at the end of the episode.

There were jarring elements here. Fuli the Cheetah somehow doesn’t fit the aesthetic, looking much more like vector animation than the rest of the cast. The show starts out obliquely mindful of the fact that while they prize the Circle of Life, these lions and cheetahs tear apart and eat the zebras and gazelles they live alongside, it soon descends into a herbivore-good, predator-bad pattern that conveniently leaves out how the lions actually eat. Despite this natural division, there’s obviously a bit of care taken about racial insensitivity here, too, for while the hyena bad guys still mostly sound like street gang members, there’s also some good hyenas (who sound different) to show it’s not because of their race that they’re evil – which is a pretty good message to include, but gets conveyed in a rather cumbersome way. And it was also strange and hilarious at first to hear Brick from The Middle as Ono.

Hyenas aside, I rather like the message of diversity that The Lion Guard brings, which is less simplistic than it may at first appear. The premise is very inclusive – young Kion, Simba and Nala’s cute mohawked son, is gifted with the supernatural Roar of the Elders, a roar which seems to channel the forces of nature and the magic of generations of ancestors and sends nasty hyenas flying off Team Rocket style. Scar once possessed this roar, but lost it because he misused its power – and for some reason never mentioned it in any of his appearances. It’s traditional for the lion who can use the roar to assemble the Lion Guard, the members of the pride who are the best there is at what they do – the Guard must comprise the fiercest, the strongest, the bravest, the fastest and the keenest of sight. 

Progressive Kion doesn’t stick only to lions, but assembles his Guard from throughout the pridelands – a keen-sighted egret, a swift cheetah, a bulky hippo, a fearless honey badger and then Kion at the centre of it all. Why I like this is that it celebrates diversity but also differences in cultures – each member has their own strength, their own way of living and their own knowledge, different from the others. They are diverse and fundamentally different from one another – they don’t have to mash together to all be the best at everything, or convince themselves they are all the same.

The Lion Guard become a kind of police force and community support. They keep the denizens of the Outlands at bay and help mitigate the effects of natural disasters. Some original cast members make their appearances, Ernie Sabella ever happy to reprise his Pumbaa role and James Earl Jones returning as Mufasa’s  readily-accessible ghost for the pilot double-episode (a sound-alike taking up the reins later on). Jason Marsden, Andy Dick and Lacey Chabert reprise their roles from The Lion King 2 in a highlight episode, and Cam Clarke returns not as Simba but as a background vulture.
Some of the episodes are inventive and original, like when Reirei the jackal teaches the Guard about manipulation and two-facedness, or when aardwolves are mistaken for hyenas and their absence ruins the local ecosystem. Others are a bit tired, like when a boastful celebrity eagle turns out not to be what his legend suggests he is, or when two annoying gorillas have to be escorted back to their homeland. A stronger season finale also would have been a good idea.

But I have to say, I think The Lion Guard is the best show for young kids currently airing that I know of. In terms of production quality, writing, world-building and acting, it’s ahead of the rest. Season two has just begun, and I hope the show can actually develop, as it could potentially stagnate quickly, but so far I rather like what I’ve seen!