Heading into this week’s opening of his new photorealistic CGI remake of “The Lion King,” you might assume that director Jon Favreau would be coasting on a wave of pure “hakuna matata.” After all, if you’re following in the footsteps of one of the most successful and beloved films of the past quarter century, animated or otherwise, what could there really be to worry about?
But the morning after the film’s world premiere in Los Angeles earlier this month, Favreau admitted that, to some degree, he felt like he was stepping into the pop culture lion’s den. “Everybody has an opinion about ‘The Lion King,’ ” he said. “They grew up with it. They could like ‘The Lion King’ and not like our ‘Lion King.’ There’s a lot of potential outcomes here.”
With projections of a domestic opening weekend haul of upwards of $170 million, it’s a safe bet that, despite mixed reviews, “The Lion King” will easily dominate the box office competition much as the original film did 25 years ago. Still, when you’re working with one of the most valuable crown jewels of the Disney empire, the stakes are dizzyingly high.
No one knows that better than the 52-year-old Favreau, who, over the past decade, has become an integral player in nearly every arm of Disney’s film empire, an empire whose dominance over the studio landscape “The Lion King” is expected to extend.
As the director of 2008’s smash “Iron Man” (released by Paramount), Favreau helped set the table for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, going on to direct 2010’s “Iron Man 2,” executive produce the “Avengers” films and act in seven Marvel superhero films as Harold “Happy” Hogan, including the Sony/Marvel collaboration “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” Having directed 2016’s critical and commercial hit “The Jungle Book,” he is bringing that film’s Oscar-winning visual effects to “The Lion King.” And he has created an original “Star Wars” TV series, “The Mandalorian,” that will debut in November with the launch of Disney’s streaming service, Disney+.
“I don’t think it’s a surprise to find Jon at the helm of many of the most important stories being told inside Disney,” Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy, who has known Favreau since he broke out as the writer and star of the 1996 indie hit “Swingers,” told The Times via email. “Walt Disney was quoted as saying, ‘It’s kind of fun to do the impossible’ and I think that perfectly describes Jon. ... When I took over Lucasfilm, he was one of the first people I approached, because Jon likes to have fun attempting the impossible.”
“The Lion King” star Donald Glover, who voices Simba — the young lion who must challenge his villainous uncle, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), for the throne after the death of his father, Mufasa (a returning James Earl Jones) — says that is precisely what Favreau has done in marrying cutting-edge digital tools to the film’s timeless mythic story.
“Jon did something kind of incredible that I feel is good for our cultural environment,” Glover said. “He was able to bring some of the best parts of the past forward, which is what ‘The Lion King’ is about at the very end. It’s about learning from your elders and, when they leave, taking the good parts and refining them and making them even better and sharper so that your family can do the same. ... I think in the future people will look back and be like, ‘Oh, that was really important.’ ”
For Favreau, becoming a creative force within Disney has been one unexpected twist among many in an unlikely career that has taken him from shambling indie-comedy stalwart to blockbuster director. When the original “Lion King” came out in 1994, the Queens, N.Y. , native was living in a modest L.A. apartment with no TV and trying to capture his life as a struggling young actor on the fringes of Hollywood in the semi-autobiographical script for “Swingers.” In one scene Favreau wrote, a fellow wannabe actor, eventually played by Ron Livingston, laments that the only audition he can get is to wear a Goofy suit at Disneyland. “Hey, at least it’s Disney,” Favreau’s character tells him by way of encouragement.
“And look at me now!” Favreau said with a laugh. “Maybe I knew something. I was plugged in to the circle of life.”
Favreau came into the studio somewhat through the side door. When “Iron Man” was released in 2008, Disney was still more than a year away from its $4 billion purchase of Marvel Entertainment. Though he hasn’t directed a Marvel film since “Iron Man 2,” he has continued to be a trusted creative voice within the cinematic universe he helped establish. “My connection is to the Marvel family, just trying to be of service, offering advice when asked but often not knowing exactly what is unfolding,” he said. “It’s like being a grandparent. They’re the ones who have the sleepless nights and you’re the one who gets to show up on the holidays with the presents and just be there proudly if needed.”
Following Disney’s 2012 acquisition of Lucasfilm, Favreau was one of a handful of directors whose names were in the mix to helm what became “The Force Awakens.” While that job ultimately went to J.J. Abrams, he maintained his relationship with Lucasfilm and a few years later came to Kennedy with the idea of a TV series with shades of a Western that would be set after the events of “Return of the Jedi” and centered on a lone gunfighter in the outer reaches of the “Star Wars” galaxy.
“Jon’s idea to do ‘The Mandalorian’ was fully formed the minute we sat down to begin our conversation,” Kennedy said. “What I loved about that first meeting was that we didn’t spend any time discussing possibilities. We dove right into talking about how we were going to make it, what new technology we could develop around his ideas and what new talent we could bring with us to try and achieve something fresh, new and unique. I loved his enthusiasm and his fearlessness.”
Tackling anything “Star Wars"-related comes with risks, given the intense passions of its fan base but Favreau — who has revealed few details about the show — says doing “The Mandalorian” for Disney+ helps mitigate them somewhat.
“What’s great about this new streaming service is you don’t have the same scrutiny and pressure,” said the filmmaker, who has started writing the show’s second season. “It’s so new that I think it’s novel just to see ‘Star Wars’ premiering in your home. Nobody has really seen [live action] ‘Star Wars’ on TV other than I think the [famously misbegotten 1978] ‘Holiday Special.’” He smiled wryly. “We can definitely give the ‘Holiday Special’ a run for its money.”
As close as his relationship with Disney has become over the past decade, Favreau says he has no desire to formalize it with an exclusive deal of the kind Abrams’ Bad Robot recently signed with WarnerMedia. For one thing, he has a number of creative irons in the fire — including a Netflix food series in collaboration with Roy Choi called “The Chef Show” that’s an offshoot of his 2014 film “Chef” — that wouldn’t fit under Disney’s umbrella.
More than that, though, he simply enjoys having the freedom to tinker with ideas — a small stop-motion film here, a VR project about gnomes and goblins there — without thinking about how they all tie in to some larger business plan. That’s how he keeps alive the passion for storytelling that was sparked as a kid in Queens, watching Ray Harryhausen movies, poring through issues of Starlog magazine, going with his dad to see the revival of 1933’s “King Kong.”
“I like to roll up my sleeves and work really intimately with a few projects that aren’t necessarily strategically put together,” he said. “I don’t always know where these things are going to lead. I just have the most fun when I’m nerding out on something.”