We all know The Lion King. It has been hailed as not only one of Disney’s greatest films, but one of the greatest animated films of all time. It has been nominated for and won several awards including Golden Globe’s Best Picture – Musical or Comedy, being one of only three animated films to win the title. It has a wonderful voice cast including the powerful voice of James Earl Jones, an award winning musical score, and top notch animation that holds up today. With all this critical acclaim and historical significance, I well understand the blasphemy of the title of this article. Though, if you will, I would like you to read on so I can explain myself.
For a time as a kid, I had no cable TV (which means no Saturday morning cartoons for me! GASP!); thus most of my animated media came in the form of Disney movies. I’m a 90s kid, so The Lion King was big while I was growing up. I enjoyed the film as a child and even sometimes imagined myself as a lion while playing pretend. As an adult, I still have an appreciation for what this movie meant to me as a kid. And if I put my film critic glasses on, I would say that The Lion King is in-arguably a great film. However, with those same critic glasses on, I do have some issues with the film, to the point where I find it overrated. Not that it isn’t deserving of praise; just that it simply has had an in-proportionate amount of attention paid to it compared with its actual goodness. It is similar to the feeling that many people have today over the hype (and the constant singing of the songs) of the more recent Disney flick, Frozen.
One of my issues with The Lion King (as well as many Disney films) is that it is lacking in plot originality. Disney is rather famous for taking ideas from classic fairy tales, legends, or novels to make its films, and The Lion King is no exception, taking its plot largely from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The Lion King was largely marketed as the Disney studio’s “first original story,” but I’d argue that with the Shakespeare connection and a certain major issue that I will get to in a bit, it is not as creative as it makes itself out to be. In this vein, I’d say that many of the Disney films that came out the decade following the so-called “Disney Renaissance” were much more original. Of these, I’d say films like Lilo and Stitch, Brother Bear, and even The Emperor’s New Groove, have much more unique and creative ideas in comparison.
As for the characters of The Lion King, Mufasa has an epically strong presence, Scar is beautifully evil, and Timon and Pumba are an amusing comic duo. But admittedly, I find fault in our main character, Simba. I don’t know, I always found Simba a rather bland and uninteresting character. The situations he’s in are interesting and he has an impressive and tragic backstory, but his immature and childish attitude always seems a bit detached from the script. I know that’s part of his growth at the end, but even then I feel like his development is rather rushed.
I personally tend to find it difficult to like a story if I do not like or relate to its characters. Simba seems like he is more relatable to and was written for a young boy in mind; almost like how Disney Princess films are written for young girls in mind. I never liked the traditional Disney Princess movies either, so maybe I just dislike obvious pandering towards specific genders.
Now about the music… okay, the music is just plain awesome. The Lion King, hands down, has probably the best musical score in a Disney movie, with an amazing Broadway musical to showcase it. Seriously, all of the song sequences are beautifully animated, expertly performed, and you can’t help but just get into the music. There is nothing here for me to nitpick. The music of The Lion King is perfect.
As you may have noticed, my problems with the movie stated above are kind of nitpicking, or just boils down to liking other films better by comparison. There’s not enough there to make me hate the movie. However, the plagiarism controversy that surrounds the film is. No, I’m not talking about how the plot is similar to Hamlet; the writers themselves even mark it as an inspiration. Instead I am talking about the 1965 Japanese cartoon called “Jungle Emperor Leo”, or as it is known in the west, Kimba the White Lion.
Kimba the White Lion was created by the “God of Manga”, Osamu Tezuka, who is an animation icon in Japan for inspiring modern comic artists and animators, and whose works put Japanese anime on the map. His most famous work was Astro Boy, and it and others were some of the first animated shows to be played on Japanese television. Kimba the White Lion was Japan’s first fully colored animated show (which I find ironic since the main character is mostly black and white). It followed the life of a young lion cub from childhood to adulthood as he learned to take up the position of the king of the jungle after his father’s murder. Its side characters included a fussy bird, a wise mandrill, comic relief hyena henchmen, and an antagonistic lion with a scar over one eye. Sound familiar?
The resemblance between Kimba the White Lion and The Lion King is uncanny. Not only are certain characters very similar, but certain scenes seemed to be stripped right from the anime. There are even a couple of scenes where Kimba is guided by his deceased parent’s spirits in the stars/moon, similar to Simba’s talk with Mufasa in the clouds. And yet, those who worked on The Lion King deny any connection or prior knowledge of Kimba. This is despite the fact that there have been some alleged interviews in which the creators accidentally refer to Simba as “Kimba”, and the existence of developmental artwork depicting a white lion cub.
The connection between Disney and Tezuka is strangely deeper than you’d think though. The creator of Kimba, originally was inspired by Disney, and he purposefully made his characters in the round-wide-eyed style that Disney used, as well as included English signs in the background of his scenes in order to attract a foreign audience. It obviously worked, with many of his shows becoming popular overseas. Tezuka and Walt Disney himself even apparently met once and commented on each others’ work. Maybe the more modern Disney company was in turn inspired by the Japanese animator. Unfortunately, we will never know how Tezuka felt about the 1994 Disney film, since it came out five years after the “God of Manga’s” death.
During the time The Lion King came out, there were protests and petitions in Japan against The Lion King with people working to get the company to admit to plagiarism allegations. There were even some that assumed the Disney company had paid Tezuka Productions hush money. The Japanese company denies this, but also stated that there wouldn’t be much point with their small, weak company trying to fight a larger more powerful company like Disney. And this is what bugs me whenever I think of The Lion King. The Lion King reminds me of how much of a powerhouse The Walt Disney Company is. Today, with the company owning PIxar, Marvel, Lucasfilms, and even ESPN and ABC, it has a virtual monopoly in the animation and entertainment industry. With this excess and unchecked (and often uncheck-able) power, it gives them the ability to bully smaller animation companies. The Lion King reminds me that the Disney Company is often a money hungry company first, and a studio that brings the children of the world brilliant films second.
This Lion King controversy also brings up its more recently revealed, and apparently long standing controversies surround The Walt Disney Studio. One such involves the company conspiring with other animation studios, like DreamWorks and Pixar, to “fix wages…and suppress the compensation of their employees“. This in turn prevents creativity from their and others’ animators and “obstructs a free and open marketplace” in the animation industry. Another thing that they have done with their acquired companies, is force them to create more films and sequels at a faster pace in order to keep up the flow of money. For instance, Pixar originally was adamant about not creating sequels for their films, but now we have Cars 2, Monsters University, Finding Dory, and a fourth Toy Story on the way. This forced increase in production lowers the originality and story quality that these companies would normally bring us. No wonder I have been having issues with recent Pixar films. Not only that, but there was a more recent lawsuit, involving Disney replacing U.S. workers with immigrants with H1B visas, and then forcing those workers they pushed out to train their replacements. As a person who adores animation, it makes me incredibly upset to see the creators of my childhood joys do these things. Disney produces great works, but especially lately, it has been crushing any new imagination that may come into the animation industry today.
The Lion King, with its awards and critical acclaim smacks me in the face more with these allegations about the company that created the film due to its plagiarism controversy. To be fair and to say it again, The Lion King is a great film. In fact, it is a lot more well done than Kimba the White Lion which, being as old as it is, does not age well. Kimba‘s artwork cut corners in its animation in order to keep up with output, while The Lion King has 30 years on it and a Disney budget. Disney is pretty badass for actually killing off Mufasa midway through the film (is this still considered a spoiler?), but Kimba the White Lion was arguably more violent and even involves a scene where Kimba mourns over his father’s hide and then later keeps said hide laying around his den.
Thematically, the two are different. The Lion King is about a young cub who has to put aside childish ways and take on his responsibilities by taking part in the circle of life. Kimba includes humans, and has themes such as discrimination, war and peace, and environmentalism. Despite these harder hitting themes, The Lion King is a much better told story and more enjoyable even today, especially compared with Kimba‘s campyness.
Despite the issues I have with The Lion King and despite the high possibility that it outright stole from a Japanese animation legend, I can’t help but feel something when I watch this film. I can’t help but sing along to “I Just Can’t Wait to be King.” I can’t help but praise Scar as one of my favorite Disney villains. I can’t help but feel uplifted and get goosebumps after Simba defeats Scar, climbs up Pride Rock, and lets out a mighty roar in the rain as he takes his place as the one true king! Goddammit, I can’t help but love this film!!! And that’s why I hate it so much! The Lion King is the perfect embodiment of The Walt Disney Company! It is so good at what it does that it makes you forget its wrongdoings, no matter how terrible they are. If you read this far, I don’t want any reader to hate this film or Disney itself. If anything, I just ask that we as viewers are informed about what we watch, and maybe push for more honesty in the companies that give us the products that we love and enjoy.