This weekend The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar premieres on Disney Channel. The special TV event, which faithfully continues the story of The Lion King, is a precursor to an animated series of the same name, set to debut next year. The series is spirited and fun in the same way that the film was, incorporating both elements of the original feature and its direct-to-video follow up The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride. It follows Kion (Max Charles), Simba (Rob Lowe) and Nala’s (Gabrielle Union) son, as he joins a prestigious group to protect the Pride Lands and finds out what really makes a hero.
One of the strongest links between the Academy Award-winning feature film and the new series is the casting of Ernie Sabella who reprises his role as Pumbaa, the lovable warthog—and in the new series, an adoptive uncle to Bunga (Joshua Rush), a feisty honey badger and friend of Simba’s.
We were lucky enough to debut an amazing clip from The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar, and chatted with Sabella about what it’s like reprising his role, what his favorite turn as Pumbaa was, and how the new series differs from the original film.
Let’s go back to the beginning: What do you remember from getting the job on The Lion King?
I remember it well. Nathan Lane and I were doing Guys and Dolls on Broadway and we got called in to audition for the hyenas. So we went into the same little booth and we improvised around this hyena situation and we saw that everyone’s mouths were hanging open and we said, “Okay, bye!” While we were in the elevator I said, “Well at least we have our nighttime job.”
Did you have any idea when you landed the role that you’d still be playing it all these years later?
Heavens no! I told Nathan two sessions into it how I felt. Nathan said, “I think it’s going well.” And I said, “Yeah, yeah it’s going well. They’ll get Dom DeLuise or somebody else. We’re doing this and one day we’ll get a call and they’ll say goodbye.” And he said, “No, I think they really like us.” I said, “I hope so, because this is a dream come true.”
You’ve played this character in everything from theme park attractions to public service announcements. Is it still fun to play?
Oh yes. I see this as a real blessing. When they say, “Do you want to play Pumbaa? Here’s the script,” I say, “I’m there.” I love it. And I love that kids love it. I can be anywhere and if I start talking like Pumbaa, they turn around very slowly like, “Oh my gosh, it’s him!”
What is your relationship with the character now?
Pumbaa makes me happy. He’s such a giant character and an iconic voice for Disney. Of all the things I’ve done, this is the thing that will outlive me for a very, very long time. When I watch Cinderella or Snow White, I’m transported to such a magical land. And hearing these voices, they are not dead. They are alive. They are beautiful. And I hope that happens for me.
The Lion Guard continues the story of The Lion King. Was it particularly exciting to be a part of this project?
Yes, it was. Because I’m older and so is Pumbaa. He’s Uncle Pumbaa. It was a real chance to be an older, wiser voice for Simba’s kids. It’s very thrilling, very thrilling.
What can fans of the character expect from The Lion Guard?
More of the good stuff. To the young world, it’s Simba’s kids. They’re the stars. They’re doing the battles and they’re protecting the Pride Lands. And I’m there to make sure nobody gets hurt.
What’s your favorite thing besides The Lion King that you’ve done as Pumbaa?
Well, I think Nathan and I won an Emmy for Timon and Pumbaa, the TV series. And to know that my brother took his kids to Epcot and I had forgotten that I had done the voice-over for this huge nature movie, and they’re sitting there, and they’re going, “Oh my gosh, that’s Uncle Ernie!” I said, “It was?” It was like: Oh right, I did that.
Is there anything you’ve wanted to do as Pumbaa, but have not done yet?
That’s a good question. Give me some time on that. Maybe lock Timon in a coconut.
Watch The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar this Sunday on Disney Channel at 7 p.m./6 central.