Baby Simba in live-action 'Lion King' is modelled on real cub

In the great pantheon of famous historical lions, there aren’t many names that rank above Simba. He might not have the gravity of Aslan, or the tragic pathos of Cecil, but when you combine the crooning of a young Matthew Broderick with the sing-song joie de vivre of Elton John, it’s hard to argue that he doesn't deserve a place at the pinnacle of Pride Rock. 

Given his epic arc, fans could be forgiven for thinking that Moufassa’s much maligned heir is entirely the creation of legendary Lion King writers Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton. Back in 1994, this was mostly true.

However, as we celebrate the release of John Favreau’s technically wondrous and visually dazzling remake, Simba supporters have been shocked to discover that their hero isn’t as fictitious as they might have thought.

Two years ago at Dallas Zoo, the team behind The Lion King’s exceptional special effects decided to make a young lion cub named Bahati a part of movie history. In order to make their depiction of the young Simba as accurate as possible, The Lion King technicians were provided footage by the zookeepers, capturing Bahati’s various movements and antics. The resultant video was then used as the basis for young Simba in the film. 

When the film finally hit theatres last week, the Dallas Zoo team wasted no time in celebrating their new, if somewhat accidental star.

Posting the original footage on Facebook, the zoo wrote, "BAHATI OR SIMBA?: The world's most famous lion cub may have gotten some of his moves from our very own Bahati! When Bahati was just a month old, we provided Disney with video of her movements for their animation team to use for motion and behavior reference when designing Simba in The Lion King. From walking on wobbly new legs, to licking milk droplets off of her face, we captured every moment, no matter how small. So now you MUST go see Disney's The Lion King, and let us know if you see any bit of baby Bahati in Simba."

In an interview with local news station Fox 4, Dallas Zoo’s carnivore specialist Laura Baumhardt revealed the lengths that the team had gone to to ensure total accuracy. As she explained, "Bahati is one of the most famous lions in the country, we had our phones on us at all times. We were able to capture moments of her nursing, the first time she ate meat, to walking and running and climbing, even drinking out of water bowls and stumbling over logs and going through doorways."

It might be about as far away from the African savannah as it’s possible to be, but the work at Dallas Zoo just goes to show the level of commitment needed to make a movie like The Lion King. It might be entirely computer generated, but there’s something comforting in the knowledge that there is at least the paw print of a real lion on the final product.