Did Disney’s The Lion King rip off an old Japanese TV series?

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Dear Cecil: While waxing nostalgic over our favorite cartoons from the 60s and 70s with some friends, we suddenly realized that Disney’s The Lion King bears a striking resemblance in plot and cast to the Japanese-made 60s TV series Kimba the White Lion (of which we can all remember every word of the theme song, by the way). To wit: (1) orphaned lion cub destined to be king (Kimba/Simba); (2) father who died in treacherous circumstances (Caesar/Mufasa); (3) annoying busybody bird (Polly/Zazu); (4) wise but eccentric baboon (Dan’l/Rafiki); (5) cute girlfriend cub (Kitty/Nala); (6) villainous hyenas who are always trying to take over. So what’s the straight dope? Is Disney’s hit really just a cheap rip-off? I have never seen this issue addressed in print and look to you to correct this injustice. Dr. M.G., via AOL


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Well, it wasn’t a cheap rip-off — have you been to a first-run movie lately? You also missed a few other parallels: (7) name similarity: Kimba/Simba (duh); (8) evil Japanese lion, Claw, with one eye versus evil Disney lion, Scar, with scar over one eye; (9) little lion looks up to see the ghost of his father in the clouds; (10) heroic pose of lion on jutting rock. Item number 10 is particularly striking — see www.cs.in diana.edu/hyplan/tanaka/Tezuka_Disney/Tezuka_Disney.html.

A coincidence here and there I could see. But ten? When The Lion King came out in 1994, a lot of people concluded that Disney — so zealous in defending its own intellectual property that it once demanded removal of Mickey and Minnie Mouse images from a day-care center — might have appropriated someone else’s.

Kimba the White Lion was the work of legendary Japanese manga (comic book) artist Tezuka Osamu, who also created Astroboy. Originally called The Jungle Emperor, the white lion’s adventures appeared in print during the early 50s and were made into a weekly TV series that aired on NBC starting in 1966. The show’s 52 half-hour episodes could be seen in syndication until the late 70s and are now available on video.

When The Lion King opened in Japan, the uncredited Kimba parallels caused an uproar. More than 1,100 Japanese manga and anime (animation) artists and fans signed a petition asking Disney to acknowledge its debt to Tezuka. Disney refused, saying that the similarities were coincidental and that it had had no knowledge of Kimba.

Not true, investigation revealed. Of eight production people for The Lion King contacted by the San Francisco Chronicle, three admitted familiarity with the series. But virtually everyone involved denied Tezuka’s influence, saying the real inspirations were Bambi and Hamlet (you know, prince avenges father’s murder by evil usurper). They claimed the parallels were an inevitable result of working with similar material, and in fact the two stories are quite different in many respects.

They haven’t budged on that story since — and I’m not just talking about Disney brass. Most animators for The Lion King are still with Disney and have to clear their comments with the head office, but I was able to reach Tom Sito, the head of the animators’ union. He worked on storyboards for The Lion King but is now directing for Warner Brothers. “Believe me when I say that this Kimba/Lion King parallel is a nonstory,” Sito told me. “I have no vested interest in defending Disney. It just never came up. We worked for months on the story and I remember the anime show from my childhood, but honestly, no one to my knowledge ever made the connection.

“We were more than halfway through production with most of the story locked when one animator found a Kimba comic with a setting that looked very close to Pride Rock. He posted it and we were all very amused by the similarities but none of us felt we were ripping it off.”

But Tom, I said, making an animated film is a collaborative process. You throw out ideas, dredge up dimly recalled stuff from your youth — and how many animated productions about lions have there been? It’d be only natural to lift an idea from Kimba and not remember where you’d seen it. What’s more, none of the younger animators had seen the Japanese show, so there’d be no one at the table saying, No, can’t do that, been done. One source quoted by the Chronicle, in fact, said Tezuka’s influence may have been “subliminal.”

Sito didn’t buy it. Think Hamlet, he said. “Zazu is Polonius, Scar is Claudius, Rafiki the Shakespearean fool. The father in the clouds is the ghost king appearing on the battlements — it looks more impressive in the clouds than a ghost walking through the weeds. The one-eyed Japanese villain is an iconographic favorite that appears in dozens of anime and manga stories; it would be hard to base a court case on that one.” Sito conceded that animated films are collaborative but said professional pride prevents animators from knowingly ripping off others.

A reasonable argument. But you be the judge.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.