Interview: Producer Don Hahn of 'The Lion King'

‘The Lion King’ has proven to be one of Disney’s top animated movies. When the “Circle Of Life” starts playing, it’s guaranteed goose bumps and smiles across the faces of everyone in the audience. The 1994 film is internationally known for that wonderful phrase “hakuna matata” which will never die out. A story about a father and son, friendship and love, “The Lion King” is certainly a tale beloved by all ages.

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“The Lion King” recently was re-released theatrically in a 3D edition, snaring the top spot at the box office for two straight weeks before settling for third over the Oct. 1-3 weekend.

“Lion King” producer Don Hahn’s impressive credits include “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” the first animated film nominated for Best Picture Oscar. In 1996, Hahn published a book entitled “Disney’s Animation Magic,” explaining the step-by-step process of making an animated film. Currently, he is working with director Tim Burton on “Frankenweenie,” scheduled to hit theaters in October 2012.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Hahn on the development of “The Lion King” and how he and his team made what was a stunning 2D picture into a 3D masterpiece. I asked Hahn how he originally began production for “The Lion King.”

“We hoped it would be special, and we all knew it was a little bit of a risk since we haven’t made a film with just animals,” Hahn says. “At first, it was hard to get people to work on it since it was unconventional and seen as kind of the B-movie in the studio. But we did some test screenings before the movie was released, and people really responded to it. It’s astounding 17 years later to see the phenomenon it’s become.”

Hahn feels lucky to have “The Lion King” compared to other Disney classics.

“We stand on the shoulders of so many Walt Disney animation movies in the past like “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin,” so to be favorably compared to those and not be a disappointment was like winning the lottery,” he says.

Hahn credits “King’s” recent box office success to people going back and revisiting this story on the big screen with family and friends.

“The kind of audience reaction we’ve had in these last two weeks has been wonderful. I think it’s fun for them to hear the music with all the other people in the theatre and applaud with them. It’s an emotional story that people love hearing again and again,” he says.

I asked Hahn how the 3D conversion process started, and what steps he and his team had to take in developing it for the big screen.

“When we all got together again, the main question was ‘how do we enhance the storytelling in this movie by using 3D?’ Whether that be to show the audience Africa or an intimate moment between father and son with the technology of 3D was very fun for us, and it was very much like a class reunion for all of us to come together again,” he says. “We remixed the entire movie with a 3D sound mix so it feels like you’re sitting in the middle of Hans Zimmer’s orchestra and feels like you’re in the center of a wildebeest stampede and have to duck your head when they run. We wanted to make it as experiential as possible and feel like you’re there.”

Hahn took part in the film’s Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack, including work on a hilarious blooper reel.

“Well, we had never done [a blooper reel] before since there are no outtakes in animation,” he says. “But we went back to the original recording sessions from the early 1990s and our editor found some of the funnier moments from James Earl Jones or Jeremy Irons and strung those up. Then, I went back and called the original animators and asked them if they could come back and animate Scar or Mufasa and all of them said ‘yes.'”

Hahn is no different than any fan of “The Lion King” – he has his own favorite character.

“I have a soft spot in my heart for Pumba. He ‘s a gentle soul who probably knows a lot more than he thinks he knows. He’s a big, huggable warthog so I’m a big fan of Pumba,” he says.

“The Lion King” Diamond Edition will be released October 4.

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