On January 15th, Disney Junior premiered The Lion Guard, an animated series that continues the epic storytelling of The Lion King and follows Simba and Nala’s second-born cub, Kion, and his diverse group of friends as they unite to protect the Pride Lands.The Lion Guard is executive produced by Ford Riley, who was approached by Disney Junior to develop a series that would expand on the world of The Lion King. After watching his then-eight-year-old son, Quinn, and his friends play in the park as a make believe superhero team, Ford came up with the concept of a group of heroes with different traits and qualities who share a common mission to protect others, providing the inspiration for Kion and his friends.
Ford Riley developed and serves as executive producer of Disney’s The Lion Guard. Prior The Lion Guard, Riley created and served as executive producer on Disney Junior’s Emmy-nominated animated series Special Agent Oso. His additional credits include Doc McStuffins, Higglytown Heroes, Teamo Supremo, Teacher’s Pet, and Recess. Riley also developed the television series Land Before Time, and wrote for Harmony Gold’s Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles, helping to revive the franchise after twenty years.
A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Riley attended the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, where he studied playwriting, film and theater. Riley is an active member of Talk About Curing Autism (TACA), a national organization dedicated to providing information, resources and support to families affected by autism. He resides in Glendale, California with his wife, Holly, and their two children.
Art Eddy: My family and I have seen the first two episodes of your show The Lion Guard. We are fans of the show. It is cool to see the transition of Simba from a son to a father. How did you go about creating an older version of Simba?
Ford Riley: That is the whole idea of how this show came about. Those of us who grew up with The Lion King now have kids of our own. Just like at the end of the original The Lion King film, Simba and Nala have a kid. In The Lion King II we see that she is Kiara and that she is going to grow up and be queen.
Twenty years later all of us who have grown up with The Lion King have kids of our own and so it almost seems natural for this series to take place with Simba and Nala as parents. We are telling stories about their kids.
AE: The actors who are on the show are a talent group. Rob Lowe, Blair Underwood, Atticus Shaffer, Ernie Sabella, Gabrielle Union and so many more are part of this cast. What was the casting process like to get these actors for the show?
FR: We were really, really fortunate that so many people because The Lion King is part of our culture, when we announced that we were going to expand The Lion King universe a lot of people were interested in being part of it. Unfortunately we weren’t able to get all of the original cast because of time constraints. Rob Lowe was really excited about being the voice of Simba. The same with Gabrielle Union. They love The Lion King. They are excited to be part of the new show.
AE: The Lion Guard is very family friendly. As a dad I have to thank you for that. What are some of the themes and issues you guys look to cover in this series?
FR: Something that we established that aired in the 44 minute show back in November was that Kion has assembled this diverse group of animals. Even though they are all different they all bring their own strengths. In that sort of difference they find that they are stronger as a unit then as individuals. It is something that is different for The Lion Guard than is tradition. In the end it really works.
As we move forward there was something that was brought up to us by our wildlife consultants at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It was that hyenas actually play a role in the circle of life too. They actually asked us, ‘Could you please give us a good hyena character?’
So we thought about it. We were like yeah not all hyenas have to be bad. Certainly lions and hyenas are natural enemies. That is true in African savannahs. That is something in our very first episode, Never Judge A Hyena By It’s Spots is sort of the life lesson if you will. Kion gets trapped in the highlands where all the hyenas live. It is to his surprise he discovers that not all hyenas are bad. We even have a song with the Swahili phrase Sisi Ni Sawa, which means we are the same.
AE: The Lion King is an all-time favorite film for many. Did you feel any pressure to make sure you lived up to that film?
FR: Oh yeah, tremendous pressure. It is always in my head. It is not in the back of my head. It is always in front of my head. We are doing The Lion King show. It is something that I have said to our writers, our song writers, and to our animators. We are not going to be judged by all the other cartoons that are on TV. We are going to be judged by the original source, The Lion King feature. That is the expectation.
We are a TV show. There are different parameters that we got to operate by. At the end of the day that is where people are going to look at us. Did you reach that amazing movie that changed my childhood? (Both laugh.) So yeah, there is a little bit of pressure.
AE: You are no stranger to the animated series genre. You have worked on shows like Special Agent Oso, Doc McStuffins, Higglytown Heroes, and many more. What got you into the world of animation?
FR: It all goes back to when I was a little kid and I would draw my own cartoons. This is like the dream job for me to have an animated series. When I was in grade school I would draw cartoons. It was a little series called Spacies. It was sort of these stick figured things that lived in outer space. It is something that always has been part of my life.
I love animation. I gained greater appreciation in high school and college. Moving out to Los Angeles when I had the opportunity to write for Timon and Pumbaa the TV series. I was saying to the girl I was dating, who is now my wife, if I can just get this one job it would be like a dream come true. I pitched three story ideas to the executives of Timon and Pumbaa. They bought all three. I was like oh my God.
Now with the circle of life I am running the new Lion King TV series, The Lion Guard. It really has been extraordinary for me. Living the dream.
AE: Switching to fatherhood now, what are some of the core values you looked to instill in your kids as they grow up?
FR: Well certainly responsibility is a big thing you deal with life long as a parent. As a father you try to instill a sense of responsibility and a sense of ownership of your own actions. Good judgement, which entails a lot of things. Respect for people’s differences. That is something that is big with us.
Those two are sort of the core values that I work with. Then from that it entails all sorts of other things beyond that. That plays in when I am writing for children’s animation. It is something that I want to have present in the shows as well.
AE: Your kids must thing it is pretty cool to have a dad work on animated shows. I also heard that your son helped inspire you for The Lion Guard. Is that correct?
FR: Yes. I have a daughter and a son. My daughter is the oldest. My son is the youngest. It is kind of like Kiara and Kion. In developing The Lion Guard obviously Kiara was established in Lion King II. If we are going to have the boy character let’s let him be the second born. Let him be the youngest. Usually the youngest never gets to be the hero. It is the comedy relief of the younger brother.
I wanted this show to be about the younger brother who gets to be the hero too. That is about as far as I got. I was standing in my kitchen thinking about what I was going to pitch to Disney about expanding the Lion King universe. My son came home from the park. Every Thursday he and his buddies play this super hero game in the park. He is telling me about the imaginary adventures he had with his buddies.
That is when it hits me. That is what I do in expanding the Lion King world. We put superheroes in the pride lands. It is like The Avengers meets The Lion King and call it The Lion Guard. Honestly that evening the whole show took shape. I knew the five characters and their qualities. The fiercest, the bravest, the fastest, the keen of sight and they all are going to be different animals. We wanted it to be diverse.
The next morning I called Emily Heart over at Disney Junior and asked when can I pitch this? He really did inspire it. What is funny is that before I pitched it to Disney I pitched it to my son. He was eight years old. He kind of listened to it. He was like, ‘Yeah, that is cool dad.’ Then he went upstairs to his room. Later that evening and I checked in on him. He pulled out all of these little plastic animal figures. I asked him what he was doing. He told me that he was playing The Lion Guard.
At that time he hadn’t seen The Lion King film. All he knew was of this idea of a group of animals defending the pride lands and upholding the circle of life. I was like okay, if it is resonating with him on just a verbal pitch I think I have got something.
AE: What advice do you have for new dads out there?
FR: It is a piece of advice that the doctor that delivered both of my kids gave to me when my daughter was first born. It is a bit silly, but it is two things really. One was whatever you love to do include your kids with that.
My wife and I love to travel. He said don’t stop traveling. Take your kid with you. Let them learn your love of whatever it is you do. When they grow up it will be a natural part of their lives. It is not like you have to stop doing what you love because now you got a kid.
The other piece of advice that he gave to us was don’t buy them anything unless they ask for it. (Both laugh.) I got to say it is really, really good advice.
Life of Dad Quick Five
AE: What is your favorite family movie that you guys like to watch together?
FR: Right now it is Guardians of the Galaxy.
AE: Do you guys have a favorite song that you all like to dance to?
FR: That is a good question. This is going to sound awfully self-serving, but my kids have been singing stuff from The Lion Guard. They have been hearing it for years and now that the album is out they kind of like just sing it to themselves as they are walking around. It is a good and bad thing. I can never escape my work.
AE: Describe the perfect family vacation.
FR: We really had a perfect family vacation. I don’t think that we can ever top it. In 2012 we went to the London Olympics. I got to say that it was perfect. It was the ultimate dream vacation. We were really fortunate to get tickets to the Women’s all-around individual competition. We got to see Gabby Douglas win the Gold Medal. Nothing will ever, ever top that. (Both laugh.)
AE: What was your favorite cartoon growing up?
FR: Throughout all of my life I have been an Anime buff. Speed Racer and Star Blazers in grade school. Those two were my favorite TV shows. In middle school it was Robotech. I watched a lot of cartoons. I loved the Disney classics and the Warner Brothers stuff. For some reason it was the story arcs of Japanese Anime that really interested me.
AE: Who is the next actor you would love to work with for an animated series?
FR: Michael Palin. I am going to admit this. I have created a couple of characters where he could do this voice. It has never, ever worked out. He is a busy guy. He is over in England. It has never worked out, but if someday I could get Michael Palin to do a voice I would just be so psyched.