The 'Lion King' Secret Disney Doesn't Want You To Know
Create, cash-in, rehash. It's the natural progression in Hollywood, like a ... circle of some sort. And the next victim is the beloved classic The Lion King, whose computer-animated ultra-realistic remake finally answers the question: What happens when you watch Planet Earth on so much acid that the animals begin to sound like Seth Rogen and Beyonce?
Judging from the trailers, the remake doesn't seem to have changed things up much, beyond hiring a new voice cast (except for James Earl Jones, because he's James Earl Jones). The new Lion King sticks to the story, even repeating camera angles and lines of dialogue from the original. Yet despite this Xerox-like approach to filmmaking, Disney isn't compensating or even crediting the original writers. Screenwriters working in animation don't have the same protections (or residuals) as their live-action counterparts in the Writers Guild of America, all thanks to some random incident back in 1938.
While a lot of fans were understandably upset to learn this, we'd like to point out that there are possibly other creative parties being shafted here too. Namely, the folks behind Kimba The White Lion. We've talked before about how The Lion King is suspiciously similar to the '60s Japanese series. Both take place on the African savanna, featuring lion cub protagonists who have mandrill buddies, battle a scarred villain, and even see giant ghost clouds of their dead dads.
But to be fair, for all the similarities between the two, there are also a lot of differences. Like, we're reasonably sure there were no scenes in The Lion King in which Simba got spanked by a Parisian restaurateur.
So did Disney rip off Kimba? Let's take a step back and see if we can untangle this whole mess.
Strangely enough, the author of the original Kimba (or Leo, as he is known in Japan) manga, Osamu Tezuka, was a Disney super-fan. He reportedly saw Bambi over 80 times in one year. Ironically, Tezuka launched his career by ripping off Disney. He produced comics like Pinocchio, which deviated from the Disney movie's story, but totally cribbed its style. He also drew a manga version of Bambi that was officially licensed by Disney.
Tezuka's style soon evolved beyond emulating Disney, leading to him creating Astro Boy, which paved the way for him to start his own animation studio. Tezuka even got to meet his idol, Walt Disney, who called Astro Boy a "great work." As for the hero of his Jungle Emperor epic, Leo/Kimba became a Japanese pop cultural institution, like Godzilla or the ill-conceived singing careers of '80s child stars. The comic became an animated TV series dubbed for American audiences, and as noted by YouTuber Alli Kat's exhaustive video on the subject, Kimba is still the mascot for the Saitama Seibu Lions baseball team. Plus, in a move that was presumably also inspired by Disney, Kimba became a corporate shill in various commercials.
But the big question is whether or not the creative team at Disney knew about Kimba before making The Lion King. The two stories differ in many respects, but the core premise of an orphaned lion cub is key to both. Although in Disney's defense, Tezuka's story is in many ways Bambi in Africa. Which isn't surprising, considering how, again, he watched it 80 times like some kind of voluntary Clockwork Orange-esque venture. But there's no denying the resemblance between the designs of the two properties. An early piece of Lion King concept art even featured a white lion cub.
One of Disney's animators, Tom Sito, claims that they did purchase a copy of Tezuka's manga, but not until after the film was well into production, referring to the similarities as "an amusing coincidence." But the most damning evidence came from Roy Disney, who, in the most incriminating online chat that didn't end with meeting Chris Hansen, referred to Simba as "Kimba."
Even Matthew Broderick, who played the horny adult Simba, told a reporter in 1994 that he originally thought that Simba was supposed to be Kimba, "who was a white lion in a cartoon when I was a little kid." But let's again give Disney the benefit of the doubt -- not just because we're terrified of their legal team, but also because isn't it possible that this whole thing was merely an accident? The Kimba TV series ran in the U.S. in the 1960s, meaning that the writers and animators could have totally seen the show as children (like Broderick) and tucked it away in their subconscious, right?
Except there is a precedent for using the law to stake a claim to the copyright of this story, and it was set ... by Disney. Back in 1997, Toronto's Fant-Asia film festival screened a new feature-length animated version of Jungle Emperor. According to festival director Julian Grant, Disney sent them a cease-and-desist letter. If this is true, it's both A) galling and B) an acknowledgement on Disney's part that the two stories are similar to the point of being legally actionable. Which doesn't seem like a can of worms they would want opened.
So if even Disney thinks Kimba and Simba are the same, shouldn't we? It's not necessarily too late to rectify the situation, to a degree. A good point of comparison may be Bill Finger, who created all the things you love about Batman, but got conned out of the credit for it during his lifetime. Then, after decades of being hosed, in 2015 he was finally acknowledged by DC Comics as the co-creator of Batman. (He'd been dead for 40 years at that point, but still.) His name even appeared in the credits of Batman v. Superman, which is a ... moral victory.
Is it possible that Disney could similarly reevaluate the authorship of The Lion King? Probably not, seeing as they won't even credit the people who were literally their own employees in the '90s.
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