The Lion King became an instant classic when Disney first released the animated movie in 1994. At the time, it was a game-changing moment for the studio, inserting a story about animals into a collection then dominated by human characters and becoming the highest-grossing film of the year. So it makes sense that Jon Favreau's reboot, which swaps the classic cartoon look for hyper-realistic CGI, would be pretty faithful to the beloved story. Still, as necessary to any remake, there are some changes beyond the visuals. Notably, there’s a new kind of darkness veiling the film’s villains, the traitorous Scar and his hyena cronies, Shenzi, Kamari, and Azizi. Florence Kasumba, who voices Shenzi in the updated movie, recalls being “amused” the first time she saw the hyenas in the animated feature. “I thought that Scar was a bad character, but I wasn't scared,” she told MTV News. “When I watch this version, both the hyenas and Scar scare me.”
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Scar is more straightforward than Jeremy Irons’s “bored, wicked, and royally sarcastic” interpretation of the notorious Disney villain, while the hyenas benefit from an evil boost, trading their idiocy for a more sophisticated, scheming existence. Their renewed sincerity is evident in their names alone, with two of the three, Banzai and Ed, getting new monikers altogether, now called Kamari and Azizi. Voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre, the characters are still tasked with offering the comedic relief they’ve always given, making them slightly more likable than Scar himself, but the shift is still clear — and perhaps for the first time, the hyenas feel like true villains.
Much like the movie overall, the hyenas’ basic storyline remains. They are outsiders to Pride Rock, Scar recruits them to help him take the throne, and they serve as his royal henchmen until he betrays their trust in the end. But in Jon Favreau’s telling, there’s more intention behind their decisions. “When Simba’s born and everybody goes to see the future king, I don’t see any hyenas. If we’re talking about the circle of life, shouldn’t all animals be included? So there must be a reason,” Kasumba said. “When I listen to [Shenzi’s] dialogue, she thinks that hyenas and lions have been at war. They don’t trust each other, and it’s just a question of who is stronger in order to be on top. In this case, it’s the king, it’s Mufasa. But Shenzi still tries to get on top and, with the help of Scar, she gets what she wants.”
Having a more active desire for power, Kasumba noticed one major difference between her character from the original film and the award-winning stage play to now: After Scar successfully kills Mufasa and urgently convinces Simba to flee from the Pridelands, he gives the hyenas their simple directive. “Kill him,” Scar pans.
“In this version, it’s Shenzi,” Kasumba noted. In ‘94, the hyenas chase the lion cub until he worms through a thicket of thorns, and the three of them decide to let him go, assuming he won’t last much longer without the protection of his pride. But in 2019, the hyenas follow Simba until he falls down a cliff, at which point Shenzi charges Kamari and Azizi to end the hunt. “She’s like, ‘Look, I don’t need to do the work, just finish it for me.’ That’s the difference.”
Kasumba, who had previously portrayed Shenzi on stage, called the change “interesting.” This time, she wasn’t playing the same character she’d recognized. “No, I had to go deeper,” she said.
Overall, the hyenas’ more sinister tone added a new layer to the characters, but they also couldn’t abandon their original purpose. “We had the challenge of injecting comedy into some of the most dramatic scenes in the movie,” Andre said. Far from the only funny characters in the movie (Timon and Pumbaa remain and are voiced by Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen), Key and Andre were tasked with bringing the mood back up after what’s seen as one of the most devastating scenes in Disney history. “We’re trying to be the comic relief after Mufasa dies.” In itself, that directive is pretty grim. Andre compared this to a stand-up comedian taking the stage after another comedian bombs. It’s an extremely undesirable spot in the line-up, he explained, because it takes more effort to make an audience laugh when they’re not already feeling good.
At the same time, Andre noted, that particular moment is “so heavy, people need to laugh to break the tension.” And since Key and Andre, both comedy veterans, had the benefit of recording together, “we just kind of improvised until we got it right,” he said. More polished than the ‘94 hyenas using their hysterical laughter as the cue to buck up, the duo’s humor worked, with one ongoing bit in particular garnering the necessary chuckles to warm audiences up for Timon and Pumbaa’s mid-movie debut.
The differences between who the hyenas were then and who they are now are subtle, but the nuances add up to more fully realized villains, who aren’t just bad because they’re too dumb to be good. “As an animal, I would think hyenas are just there, they do whatever they need to do to survive, and they move on with their life,” Kasumba said. “But I know that Shenzi has a different agenda.” And that agenda is what turned these bumbling, one-note aides into villains in their own right.