By Marc Snetiker
April 26, 2019 at 11:30 AM EDT
2019 Disney Enterprises; Carolyn Contino/REX/Shutterstock
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While most of the actors in Jon Favreau’s The Lion King went wild in a black-box theater in California to record their vocals for the animated virtual-production remake, James Earl Jones performed his role from the solo comfort of a studio in New York. Call it royal accommodations — and oh, how appropriate they are.

The acting legend, 88, surprised the director by agreeing to reprise his role from the 1994 version of The Lion King as Mufasa, the intimidating yet affectionate lion king whose towering demeanor commands the respect of the entire animal kingdom (minus a few hyenas). In a similar fashion, Jones is a revered player in Hollywood and an institution when it comes to The Lion King.

“If you think that you are moved and have deep feelings when you hear his voice in our trailer, you can imagine what that must have felt like actually hearing him do it live,” Favreau recounts to EW. “Especially after not knowing whether we could get him to be part of the cast. He could have just as easily said no. His voice could have sounded different. There’s a lot of ways this could not have worked out. And that all of the stars aligned and there I was listening to him record… I felt something very powerful happening.”

The underlying importance of Jones’ reprise performance is not just in its nostalgia; if that were the case, any of the actors from the 1994 Lion King could have easily been brought back, reviving any of the memorable cartoon character voices that have spent 25 years etched into animation history. But it’s what Jones achieved in his 1994 performance, a delivery of carefully-calibrated emotions that strike a balance between fearsome and feeling, that resonated (as Jones’ basso voice is wont to do) with Favreau and demanded that Mufasa not be dethroned. “He’s a character that’s only in the film — spoiler alert — for part of it, and James Earl Jones really lands you into the movie and then sets you on your journey, as with Simba, where Simba has to break away and go off on his own,” says Favreau. “So many of his lines have not actually changed that much, because that’s the one role where it really didn’t feel dated at all. All of the speeches Mufasa makes during the film are timeless and apply to each age, whereas with the humor, the music, some of those other aspects, there were opportunities to update. But with him, that role stayed as close to the original as any.”

However, be prepared that side effects of Jones’ return as Mufasa may include chills, tears, and/or sudden out-of-body flashbacks to whatever age you were when you first heard this lion king roar. “His voice is iconic for so many different reasons, and  anything that involves him is so rich and has such depth and resonance and evokes all of these memories,” comments Chiwetel Ejiofor, the voice of Scar, who goes paw-to-paw with Jones’ Mufasa on, uh, at least one memorable occasion. “Obviously some young members of the audience won’t have really had that exposure [to his voice] before, but I think we can all be fairly confident how they’ll feel about it.”

Favreau echoes, “I grew up in the exact generation that grew up with him as a performer, so to have James Earl Jones and his voice and the memories that his voice evokes and how iconic he is, not just from this but as Darth Vader… it felt like a very significant milestone when we recorded him. And it was hard to not feel like an audience member. Even for me as a filmmaker, it’s very hard to do your job during those moments when you just get lost in it.”

So lost, Favreau found it difficult to even direct this acting legend in an equally legendary role. “He would do a take and then he would ask me for direction and I honestly couldn’t give an answer! I was like, ‘You’re Mufasa.’ Far be it from me… Everything he said sounded perfect because it was him saying it.”

For more on The Lion King and other upcoming summer movies, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands now, or buy it here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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