A Review of the Movie Jungle Emperor Leo

This review of the movie Jungle Emperor Leo is written from the reference point of all the Kimba/Jungle Emperor stories that have gone before. The Commentary I quoted on the main Jungle Emperor Leo page seems to be written by one who came to this epic for the first time via the movie. I will be on the lookout for more such reviews and post links here when I find them.


Produced eight years after Dr. Osamu Tezuka's death, this movie is based on his epic "Jungle Emperor" manga. Jungle Emperor Leo tells approximately the last half of the original story. Previously, the first half had been adapted into the 1965 Jungle Emperor TV series (Kimba The White Lion outside of Japan), and the second half had been loosely adapted into the 1966 Susume Leo TV series (Leo the Lion in the U.S.). In some ways, the Jungle Emperor Leo movie is noticeably more faithful to the manga story than the latter TV series had been; in other ways -- most notably the relationships between the animals and humans -- it is very different.

The Story

Spoiler warning: Plot and ending details follow.

The movie takes place somewhere in East Africa where lives a white lion named Leo (Kimba grown up), ruler of the jungle. Leo lives happily with his wife, Riya (Kitty grown up), and their two children, Rune and Rukio. Rune is fascinated with flying, and when he discovers an crashed airplane in the jungle and is told that it was a flying machine, the plane becomes his favorite place to spend his time.

One day a ruthless mercenary (Hamegg) and his group come to the jungle in search of "moonlight stones". Only concerned with making money, Hamegg has less than no regard for the animals and the jungle. In the midst of a fire they start, Rune is rescued by Dr. Moustache, who becomes the image of all humans to Rune.

At the same time, a highly contagious disease sweeps through the jungle and a massive storm floods the jungle. Rune rides some flotsam out to the ocean, where he is picked up by some fisherman who sell him to a circus. Here the movie falls into unfortunate stereotyping dating from a century ago, as the circus is portrayed as dominated by people who are brutal to all the animals.

A young trapeze artist named Mary takes Rune into her care and trains him for her act. Rune at last gets to fly. When a fire threatens the circus, Rune's natural leadership comes to the fore, astounding Mary who helps him to return to his home.

While Rune is gone, the plague affects most of the animals in the jungle. In this portion of the story the movie denies its roots because Leo does nothing to drive the humans out of the jungle, nor does he turn to them for help with the disease--at least, not until Rukio is struck with it. One of the key elements in the original manga and the precedent Jungle Emperor/Kimba The White Lion TV series was Leo/Kimba's ability to talk; why that is not a part of the story here is a mystery.

Dr. Moustache has a cure for the disease, and in gratitude Leo takes it upon himself to lead the expedition up Mt. Moon for their quest for the moonlight stones. Leo eventually sacrifices himself to save Dr. Moustache. This leaves the young Rune to carry on in his father's place.


It has been widely reported that Dr. Tezuka did not want his 1965 TV adaptation of "Jungle Emperor" to focus on Leo (Kimba) solely as a cub, but he bowed to pressure from the American company that translated the series into Kimba The White Lion. However, both in the 1966 TV sequel (where Dr. Tezuka had complete creative control) and in this 1997 movie made by his production company, the adult Leo/Kimba is depicted as somber and often ineffectual--the energy, optimism, and hope belong to the cub, Rune, who is often physically indistinguishable from Leo/Kimba as a cub. Never is it explained how the attractive personality of the young Leo degenerates into the personality of the adult.

Taking the events in this movie on their own, one is left with a feeling of despair tempered with optimism for the future as embodied by Rune. Seeing this movie in its full context, however, leaves the viewer with a feeling of a repeating cycle in which optimism is always crushed by despair. Never is the viewer allowed any insight into this cycle; thus no hope of defeating the cycle is engendered. It is no wonder, therefore, that this Jungle Emperor Leo movie is more often received favorably by those who come to it with no previous exposure to the white lion epic. Fans of Kimba The White Lion often report feeling crushed and saddened by the movie. Dr. Tezuka himself was apparently aware of this problem with his story, for he changed the end of the story considerably for his 1966 TV adaptation (Leo the Lion).

Really, the centerpiece of the story is Rune's story as the youngster is swept off into the human world. His rescue by Dr. Moustache gives him an initial positive impression of humans, which he does not entirely lose during his ordeal, although the contrast in different people's behavior is confusing to him. Like his father had been in the past, Rune becomes a bridge between the human world and the animal world and at the end Rune appears poised to follow in the footsteps of his father. The depiction of his personal dreams is both startling and very effective, and at the end of the movie I am left longing for more of his story -- or am I just returned to the beginning of Kimba's story?

The comment I hear most often is, 'why does this movie have to end the way it does?' That question is a reflection of the depth and power of the characters in this story. The best spin I can put on the ending is that what we knew as Kimba's dream of animals and humans living together in harmony at the end of the movie becomes the responsibility of two individuals now--Dr. Moustache and Rune; they can be the beginning of a pyramid, the spreading of the dream.

Those coming to this movie without previous experience with Kimba can find a beautiful, touching story that earns the right to be called an epic fable. Leo's plea at the end of the movie isn't just about the McGuffin that drives the story, it's a plea for all animals.

On a technical level, the movie is beautiful. Isao Tomita again provides the symphonic score, and again it is sweeping and powerful. The opening title sequence is an expansion of his original Jungle Emperor theme, and it produces goosebumps. (The horn motif at the end of this piece is Tomita's musical depiction of Leo's roar, as heard in the Symphonic Poem.) The animation is for the most part, superbly lovely. The animated characters are rendered delightfully. Leo is so gorgeous you wish you could reach out and hug him. And Rune's adventure is a worthy descendent of the stories we knew from the Kimba TV series. CG and traditional animation are mixed, usually with great success. (But don't let my qualified praise put you off--I thought that "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" largely failed in its attempt to integrate the two animation techniques, so I'm probably just a tough critic.) All the characters are done in conventional cel animation, very satisfyingly. I already said that Leo is gorgeous, his face a beautiful mixture of leonine handsomeness and human expressiveness. The other animals, too, have just the right amount of realism to make them beautiful to look at while retaining the necessary ability to express emotion in an animated film environment. I have to say I wish Riya had been given more presence in her appearance--she always lit up any Kimba episode she was in, and she should have done the same here. (I also wish that she and Rukio had much more to do in this movie. But how much can you squeeze into 90 minutes?)

The DVD Release

AnimeWorks' DVD release of Jungle Emperor Leo is all I could ask for short of a full anamorphic version of the film. They have provided a beautiful letterboxed transfer of the film, subtitles that are very faithful to the Japanese dialog, and an English dub track that is well performed and also true to the original. This is a movie I have been eager to own ever since it was released to video in Japan, and AnimeWorks' DVD release of it is great.

Taken in the right context, I consider this movie to be essential viewing not just for any Kimba fan, but for all animal lovers. I am deeply grateful to AnimeWorks for their care and skill in bringing it to the U.S. Not one second has been cut; not one frame re-sequenced. It's all here, waiting for everyone to discover it.

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This page first appeared on 23 October 2003. Revised 29 March 2007.
Text ©2003-2007 Craig Andersen.