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Remake of Tezuka's Popular Story Turns Into Denial?

From the Disney Co. presentation reel
The image above is © Disney. It can be found as part of the "Presentation Reel" extra on the Lion King Platinum Edition DVD.

If you only read one thing on this page, may I suggest
Roy E. Disney's own words linking The Lion King and Kimba.
Simba the white lion?
The picture above shows artwork from early in the production of Disney's The Lion King.

NEW: More evidence for a white lion in TLK?
If you want to get my perspective on the whole thing,
jump to the end of this page.
And see's comparison of Kimba and The Lion King.

"There is no doubt in my mind
that The Lion King is a copy of Kimba."

-- Billie Lou Watt,

original voice of Kimba the White Lion
"I said to my wife, 'Don't tell me that the father lion is going to appear in the clouds.' And he did! I couldn't believe it!"
--Fred Ladd,

executive producer of Kimba The White Lion, on seeing The Lion King for the first time

  Did the Disney studio steal Kimba The White Lion and rework it as their "original story", The Lion King? They certainly give that impression with their corporate stance ("we never heard of Tezuka nor Kimba until after The Lion King was released"). And why would they have filed suit to try to prevent the showing of Tezuka Productions' 1997 Jungle Emperor Leo movie at the 1998 Toronto FantAsia Film Festival? (Jungle Emperor was the original title for Kimba The White Lion.) It seems quite simple; Kimba had been kept out of sight in North America for 20 years by that time. And once you can see the two together...  

Tezuka, 1965

Disney, 1994

  I'm sure you've heard how every character in The Lion King has a matching character in Kimba, all the way down to the level of both having a sage mandrill mis-identified as a baboon. (Here's a couple of pages by people in Japan on that subject:
Y-Asada's page
Reekan-J's page

If you want to read more on this subject, I've got just the guy to tell you about it: Click here to retrieve Robin Pen's essay, originally published in Eidolon Magazine, and reproduced here with the author's permission. Even if you know the full Lion King debate, if you haven't read Robin Pen's review, it's really an excellent essay and well worth your time.

Tezuka, ca.1980?

Disney, 1994

  The shame of the matter is that the Disney company is sticking to their official line --that their people never heard of Kimba before The Lion King was released-- even in the face of logic and evidence. As Robin Pen pointed out (in the essay referenced above), if we were to take their statement at face value, it actually means they were stupid and irresponsible. But more than that, many examples say just the opposite of the Disney statement. Peter Schweizer and Rochelle Schweizer have these and even more examples in their book Disney: The Mouse Betrayed.  

Tezuka, ca. 1980?

Disney, 1994

  During planning sessions for The Lion King, Simba started out as a white lion until one of the animators spoke up: "Not even OUR lawyers are THAT good!" Maybe so, but notice how both characters have a tuft of hair in the middle of their foreheads, and the very unusual dark ear rim. That alone shows how Kimba is the direct predecessor of Simba.

It is my opinion that the creative people at Disney most definitely knew of Kimba as they were making The Lion King-- but somehow, before the movie could be released, it was decided that the tie must be denied. Even if that means a slap in the face for Osamu Tezuka, the "Walt Disney of Japan".

Let's look at some more similarities...

Tezuka, 1965

Disney, 1994

  Both title characters turn to eating bugs to save their herbivore friends. In The Lion King, they blow past this idea in under a minute, but it was a major plot element in Kimba; the meat eaters tried eating plants until they hit on the idea of eating bugs.  

Tezuka, 1965

Disney, 1994

  And more... the patch of thorns... (This scene called the matching scene from Kimba immediately to my mind. I couldn't believe how much alike they were.)  

Tezuka, 1965

Disney, 1994

  ...dangling from a cliff with the villain above...  

Tezuka, 1965

Disney, 1994

  (FYI: The antagonist lion in Kimba was introduced as his "aunt", while Scar was Simba's uncle.)  

Tezuka, 1965

Disney, 1994

  ... and the stampede.  

Tezuka, 1965

Disney, 1994

  And there is of course the opening sequence of Jungle Emperor (the Japanese version of Kimba) and the parallel opening sequence of The Lion King. The most famous comparison of the two is the image of the lion on the jutting rock, as shown at the top of this page. You can download a RealVideo file of the Japanese opening sequence here. Compare it for yourself to the opening of The Lion King.  

  I've left for last the big thing everyone mentions when comparing the two works: the parent lion appearing in the sky. There's good reason people pay attention to this: When Kimba's mother appears to him in the stars shortly after being killed, it is one of the most touching and moving scenes in television animation history. And, several times during the Lion King, the idea of ancestors in the stars is mentioned. However, this has a different parallel in Kimba.

When Simba does have a vision of his father, it is in a cloud and (perhaps) the moon (there is a lot of light in that scene, which suggests the moon, and indeed in the pre-production stages, there was a scene with Simba's father appearing in the moon).

Tezuka, 1965

Disney, 1994

  In the episode "Dangerous Journey", Kimba is faced with the need to undertake a, well, dangerous journey in order to save an important member of their community. He doesn't think he is capable of doing it, but that night his father appears to him in the moon, and convinces him that this is something he has to do.
In the Lion King, Simba is faced with the need to save his entire community, a task he doesn't think he is capable of doing until his father appears to him in the moon[/clouds] and convinces him that he can.
As you can see from these pictures, the moon imagery matches with the Kimba TV episode; the cloud imagery matches with the end of the original manga story.

Tezuka, 1950

Disney, 1994

  Anyone still want to try to convince me it's all a coincidence? Peter and Rochelle Schweizer interviewed Disney animators and report that while working on the Lion King the animators held up stills from Kimba for comparison to their own work.

Kimba is one of the landmarks of animation. The Disney company has earned over 1.5 billion dollars from The Lion King but has not given either any sort of compensation to Tezuka Productions nor credit to Osamu Tezuka. I know their creative people know better. In and of itself, it's not a crime that they did take elements from Tezuka's work--there are also elements in The Lion King that would seem to come from Kipling's Jungle Books (not the Disney version) and from a famous pre-WWII Nazi propaganda film (Triumph of the Will). Cultural references are to be expected. But when a work derives so much from another, denying the source is wrong. To deny the source does an injustice to Osamu Tezuka, the original creator, and to Disney's own people who love Tezuka's works.

Why must the Disney company take such a stance about their main source of inspiration for this film? Could it be that The Lion King started out originally to be a remake of Kimba The White Lion?
  • As stated here, the similarities between the two are many, and well documented.

  • The Disney corporate stance, that none of Disney's people knew of Kimba before the movie was released, has been exposed as untrue.

  • The most congenial theory up til now has been that the creative staff, given a chance to produce a lion story, decided to make it somewhat of a tribute to the TV show they knew and loved. That theory is an attractive one, but fails to explain the extreme extent to which similarities to the earlier production appear in the later production. Lots of movie makers include tributes to those who went before them. A tribute doesn't leave people involved with the earlier production up in arms over being plagiarized.
So, here's my question: Was The Lion King was originally intended to be Disney's big-screen re-make of Kimba The White Lion, but when things didn't go as planned in regards to obtaining the rights to it, were changes made to transform it into "Disney's first animated feature based on an original story"?
  • Fact: The rights to Kimba the White Lion were tied up in legal battles for many years, beginning when the original production company, Mushi Productions, went bankrupt in 1973. NBC was forced by the FCC to sell its rights before its original contract expired in 1978. Nobody knew who had the US rights to Kimba from 1978 on. However, there was some sort of action in 1993 that led to the production of a new English-language version of Kimba -- the "1993 version" that has been shown around the world and is now on the air in the U.S.

  • Hearsay (although heard from several sources): Disney was right in the thick of the battle to obtain rights to Kimba.

  • Pieced together from various reports: Right Stuf International was prepared to release Kimba to home video in 1993, but this was delayed by the court action. And around the same time Disney announced they were delaying the release of Lion King.
Disney is not accustomed to losing its legal battles. So, now add this speculation into the picture: What if at one point the outcome was such a "sure thing" that it was considered safe to go ahead with the movie re-make idea? What if Disney's "sure thing" suddenly went in an unexpected direction? What if the court ruled, Solomon-like, that nobody owned the English-language rights to Kimba The White Lion? Faced with such options as going ahead with an un-copyrightable production or scrapping entirely the expensive production efforts that had already been done, would they choose to make a few strategic changes and then deny any knowledge of the original production?

Where do we go from here?

The big question after pondering that Lion King derived from Kimba is: What does it mean to us?

There is no doubt that Disney's movie has a different plot than the Kimba shows (this is common in any Disney adaptation). But The Lion King lacks what for me was the single greatest element in Kimba the White Lion: the relationship between humans and animals. This aspect has so much vital meaning for our world.

And yet, what do I hear within the words of Lion King fans? They identify with the lions in the movie. They bring that human-animal connection to the movie themselves. If, by way of this derivation controversy, Lion King fans discover Kimba The White Lion, and explore this connection further, then it's all good.

Kimba The White Lion can exist in the 21st century as The Lion King taken to the next level. Kimba's story lines, which involve the struggle to build strength of character, and the need for ALL life to be part of the great circle--animals AND humans, are things that most Lion King fans can enjoy.

The first time I heard the little white lion say that he needed a way to get humans to understand animals, my heart jumped for joy. The same thing can still happen for lots of other people, and thanks to The Lion King connection, lots of people now know about Kimba.

"Animation buffs believe Disney ripped off Kimba to create The Lion King. Disney insists similarities... are coincidence. If anything supports Disney's argument, it's the depth of the Japanese show. The Kimba episodes deal with justice and morality, never presuming children deserve only light entertainment." --PETER HONG, Los Angeles Times, May 19, 2002

Note concerning recent commentary.

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This page changed January 26, 2012.

Text 2001-2012 Craig Andersen.
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