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Revisiting a 20 Year Old Controversy: Was The Lion King a Stolen Idea?

It was 20 years ago this month that the popular Disney film The Lion King was released.  The film is well loved, especially by children. But it’s been accompanied by controversy ever since its release, due to charges that it stole much of its content and look from the Japanese anime/manga series Kimba the White Lion.

The Lion King was critically acclaimed when it was released in June 1994, and it won a Golden Globe for Best Musical feature. It became the highest grossing 2-D animated American film ever  and is the fifth highest grossing animated film world-wide. But did you know that the Lion King was accused of intellectual theft by the creators of the anime Kimba the White Lion, who claim that Disney stole their plot, characters, and even much of their animation style? Some of you may have heard about this already. For the rest of you…draw your own conclusions.

 

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Kimba the White Lion began as a Japanese manga (comic book) called “Jungle Emperor”, which came out in the 1950s. It was written and drawn by Osamu Tezuka. The story was adapted for television in 1965. The anime (cartoon) was retitled Kimba the White Lion. The show ran for 52 episodes and was shown for a time on American TV. (I remember watching the show back in the late 60s/early seventies.) The show is not well-remembered in the United States but it is still beloved in Japan.

Kimba/Jungle Emperor tells the story of young cub Kimba, son of the leonine Jungle King Caesar. Caesar is killed by hunters when Kimba is young. Kimba has to learn to become the new king of the Jungle. He gets some help from a wise Mandrill, a talkative parrot and a shy deer. Kimba vows to become a great king and keep peace in the jungle, but first he has to contend with his father’s old rival, a lion named Claw, and his hyena minions.

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The first season of the show dealt with Kimba’s youth and his training to be a great king. The second season showed the older Kimba bringing a semblance of order to the wild jungle.

All this is rather similar to Disney’s story of young cub Simba, who just can’t wait to be King, sees his father get killed, has a Mandrill for a counselor, an argumentative parrot as a sidekick, and an adult Lion rival in the form of his uncle Scar. (Scar also has hyena henchmen.)

Aside from the general basics of storyline, taking the facts one-by-one, there does seem to be some validity to the Japanese claim that Disney stole their ideas.

A few facts:

*The similar names of the lead characters; Kimba and Simba.

*Simba sees images of his father in the clouds, just as Kimba did years earlier.

*The design and behavior of the hyena henchmen in both stories are very similar.

*Claw and Scar both have fur which starkly contracts with the good lions. Both have a deformed eye.

Aside from the plot and stories, there is a strange similarity in much of the animators work. Look at the pictures below for comparisons.

(KIMBA SEES HIS DEAD FATHER IN THE CLOUDS)

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(SIMBA SEES HIS DEAD FATHER IN THE CLOUDS)

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(YOUNG KIMBA TRIES NOT TO BE A MEAT EATER)

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(YOUNG SIMBA TRIES NOT TO BE A MEAT EATER)

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(THE CLIFF SCENE FROM KIMBA)

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(THE CLIFF SCENE FROM THE LION KING)

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Although the late Mr. Tezuka’s family and production company acknowledge the similarities between the two stories, they chose not to bring a lawsuit against Disney. There were three reasons for this. One is because of the good relations that the company has always had with Disney and hoped to continue to have. Secondly, Tezuka was a huge fan of Disney’s work and at one time had hoped to have Disney do an adaptation of Kimba the White Lion. The third reason was that the release of the Lion King and the resulting controversy in Japan brought new attention to the old Kimba cartoond and helped with VHS sales of the old show, and the 1989 remake The New Adventures of Kimba.

Reaction from the animators who worked on the original cartoon was more vocal about their outrage, because they claim that Disney stuck far too closely to their original drawings for their liking. That, they assert, is intellectual theft. However, no litigation was ever initiated.

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Matthew Broderick, who provided the voice of Simba in the Lion King, was very familiar with the anime Kimba the White Lion. He original thought they were making an American adaptation of the same story because of the similarities he noticed.

Obviously, there are many differences between the two storylines (the most notable being the greater involvement of humans in Kimba’s tales) but some would say that there does seem to be enough here to justify the complaints of stolen ideas.

2-Kimba-stampede2-Simba-stampede

Disney’s position was—and remains—that they were unaware of the Japanese anime Kimba the White Lion while they were making the Lion King, and had never heard of Kimba until the controversy began. (Some point out that the film’s co-director Roger Allers worked for years in Japan in the anime industry before returning to make the Lion King, which makes it unlikely that he was unaware of Kimba.)

Could all this be coincidence? Could it be possible that so many similarities occurred between two animated films about lions? Was Disney unaware of Kimba the White Lion?

 

 

 

 

 

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