With the release of the live-action remake of The Lion King, Disney animation fans have once again been reminded of the Kimba the White Lion controversy. Over the course of 25 years, The Lion King has become one of the highest-grossing properties in all of pop culture. The 1994 animated movie had the number two box office spot of the year and in the decades since has continued to grow to take the spot as the year's highest earner, the top-grossing traditionally animated film of all time, and the best-selling film on home video.
The Broadway adaptation, which is the third-longest running musical in Broadway history, has grossed over $8.1 billion worldwide, meaning it is the highest-grossing entertainment property ever. Thanks to various sequels, TV shows, merchandising, and assorted materials, The Lion King has endured not only as one of Disney’s most beloved icons but one of the true titans of entertainment. The remake, featuring cutting-edge photorealistic CGI and an all-star cast, is tracing to gross between $150 - 170 million in its opening weekend. Suffice to say, The Lion King is a very big deal.
However, when it was first in production, nobody could have predicted how huge The Lion King would be. Production was troubled and executives at Disney were convinced their safest bet for success was Pocahontas, which was being made at the same time. Once the film broke box office records and won rave reviews from critics, the controversy didn’t stop there. It didn't take long for fans to note striking similarities between The Lion King and the 1965 anime series Kimba the White Lion. The accusations of plagiarism have haunted the film since its release. Even The Simpsons poked fun at it in one episode (“You must avenge my death, Kimba... er, I mean Simba!”) The problems were made all the worse by how Disney heavily marketed the film as their first true “original” movie, meaning it wasn’t an adaptation of a fairy-tale or classic story in the manner of their most iconic movies.
Kimba The White Lion Explained
Kimba the White Lion is an anime that ran on Japanese television from 1965 to 1967, based on the manga of the same name that was serialized in Manga Shōnen magazine from 1950 to 1954. The manga was the creation of Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Astro Boy and writer who is often referred to as "the father of manga." Tezuka was heavily inspired by Walt Disney during his formative years and was frequently compared to the American mogul, to the point where he was even called Japan's equivalent of Disney.
Kimba tells the story of a young cub, born on a ship after his mother was trapped by hunters and his father killed. After a storm wrecks the ship and kills everyone on board, Kimba is forced to swim to dry land and find a new home. The lion's share of the series follows him growing up in the jungle with his mismatched friends and learning how to become a true leader like his father. Kimba has been remade a number of times in Japan and the original anime was regularly shown on American television.
The Similarities Between The Lion King & Kimba
Animation fans have noted the extensive similarities between both cartoons. That iconic image of Mufasa and Simba atop Pride Rock can be found in Kimba in a near-identical manner. There are startling similarities in terms of characters too. Both stories center on lion cubs fighting to regain their rightful place on the throne after the deaths of their fathers. Both have evil lions as their primary antagonist, feature sage baboons acting as mentors to the protagonists, cackling hyena sidekicks, and comically hysterical birds. Both death scenes for the fathers are very similar, as are shots of the African plains and the animals moving across them. Both films feature the protagonist looking up at clouds in the shape of his father lion too, which was also parodied by The Simpsons.
Did Disney Know About Kimba Before The Lion King?
Disney were criticized almost immediately following the release of The Lion King for unavoidable similarities to Kimba. The Lion King co-director Rob Minkoff dismissed such criticisms in an interview with The Los Angeles Times, saying that it was "not unusual to have characters like a baboon, a bird or hyenas" in a story set in Africa. Both Minkoff and co-director Roger Allers have claimed that they were unfamiliar with Kimba while working on The Lion King, a point that has left many experts skeptical. Animators Tom Sito and Mark Kausler, who both have story credits, admitted to being fans of Kimba and had assumed many of their colleagues were too since it was such a part of their own childhoods.
"I thought he meant Kimba, who was a white lion in a cartoon when I was a little kid. So I kept telling everybody I was going to play Kimba. I didn't really know anything about it, but I didn't really care."
Mushi Production, the company behind Kimba, never initiated any legal action against Disney for the similarities, and Tezuka Production stated that Osamu Tezuka, as a big Disney fan, would have been honored that his work had influenced the company. Disney insists to this day that The Lion King’s biggest influence was Shakespeare’s Hamlet. When The Lion King was released in Japan, over 400 Japanese animators and cartoonists signed a letter urging Disney to acknowledge and credit Kimba.
What The Kimba Controversy Reveals About Disney Originality
The controversy of Kimba has endured for all these years because Disney remains such a titan of pop culture. Indeed, since The Lion King's release, their influence has only grown, as has their net worth. The Lion King alone has made them billions of dollars. In their current age of media dominance, wherein live-action remakes of those classic animated properties rule the roost and have redefined their brand, those questions of originality, influence, and possible plagiarism cannot help but appear once more.
Disney have been heavily criticized for so many of their live-action remakes being near identical to the source material. Given that these movies exist more to strengthen their pre-existing brands than offer anything new or creatively vital, it shouldn’t be too big a surprise when things like the 2017 Beauty and the Beast movie end up being extremely similar, nearly shot-for-shot to the original if not merely similar. The purpose is not just to remind audiences that Beauty and the Beast exists, but that Disney’s specific interpretation of it and all its brand-ready markers exists for generations to come.
That proves especially frustrating when issues of plagiarism are on the line. Originality barely enters the equation as it is when we discuss Disney’s remakes, but when the Kimba/Simba question is raised, the waters become ever murkier. At what point does “inspiration” become a full-on rip-off when you’re branding and licensing those very images you’ve been accused of stealing?
This isn’t the first time Disney have faced this problem either. 1991’s Aladdin was similarly accused of heavily borrowing from another cartoon, Richard Williams’s The Thief and the Cobbler. That movie has a very similar plot, characters, and aesthetic designs as Aladdin. The problem here is that The thief and the Cobbler hadn't actually been released when Aladdin made its way to theaters. Williams had famously spent decades working on the project, to the point where it had become part of animation lore. When the film was finally released, it was a hastily put together shadow of what it was intended to be, and Williams was not involved in the final product. Miramax Films released a version of the movie in 1995, titled Arabian Knight, which was ironically accused of ripping off Aladdin.
Disney’s bread and butter is pre-existing material, preferably stories with a universal appeal, that they can easily mold to fit their particular brand of narratives and morals. You know a Disney movie the moment you see if, even if the stories, characters, songs, etc, differ. It’s what has made them such a powerhouse over the decades, and a company adored by generations of people in a way you just don’t see with other Hollywood studios. Everyone knows they didn’t create Beauty and the Beast or Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, but their savvy branding has made it so that the majority of audiences see the Disney adaptations of those tales as the default. That’s why it matters when Disney call The Lion King their “original” movie when there’s such a glut of evidence to the contrary. It’s not impossible that these similarities are just a long and unfortunate series of coincidences, but there’s a reason so many are unwilling to give Disney that benefit of the doubt. Given the popularity and influence Kimba the White Lion has had on decades of animation, it’s a shame to see it so often referred to as a mere footnote in Disney’s history.
- The Lion King (2019) release date: Jul 19, 2019