Hakuna Matata: The Lion King Controversy

The Lion King is an all-time Disney favorite, for both children and adults. The heartbreaking scenes, the life mottos and the iconic soundtrack make it the great success that it is. With the much-anticipated remake of The Lion King out to theaters, we thought this was a good opportunity to share something you probably didn’t know about this Disney favorite: The Lion King was based on a Japanese manga series called “Junior Emperor” (translated in English to “Kimba the White Lion”).


Meet Kimba

No, it’s not a typo. The Japanese manga follows the life of Kimba (originally named Leo in the Japanese version), a white lion who lost both his parents in tragic accidents (sounds familiar already, right?)

The background of his story isn’t the same as Simba’s, but the essential story is – the adventures of a lion cub struggling to survive in the African wilderness accompanied by friends, including some other uncomfortable similarities.

Startling similarities

Remember the renowned scene where Simba looks up at the sky and sees in the stars the image of Mufasa? Who doesn’t. In a similar way, Kimba looks up at the stars and sees the image of his dead mother guiding him.

This is just one small similarity between the films. Another major one is the idea of ‘the circle of life’, which serves as a core theme in both stories. In The Lion King, the song “circle of life,” composed by Elton john, is the opening song and one of the film’s most iconic tunes.

“Any story worth telling is worth telling twice” (-Rafiki)

Besides the general plot line and themes, other similarities include similar characters, names, colors and even gestures and expressions.

Perhaps the most striking similarity in terms of characters is the gang of cruel hyenas working with Kimba’s worst enemy, Claw. Oh, and there’s also a wise, insightful baboon, functioning as Kimba’s mentor.

The villain

Everyone knows that every good story needs a villain. Incidentally, both in Kimba and The Lion King this villain is the king’s envious evil brother.

In Kimba this viscous villain (yes, with a deformed eye) goes by the name Claw, and we all know the notorious Scar from the Disney version.

Copy like a boss

And how can you not have a delicate, yet brave, love interest? Both Kimba and Simba have a lioness mate – Kitty and Nala. You also have your chatty bird and other animals that are not unusual in the African safari.

Not convinced yet? The characters’ personality traits also match those of the Japanese manga. Simba, much like Kimba, isn’t really interested in the responsibilities of being a king (but then again, what child would be?)

Identical shots

It’s not just names and looks, but there are also specific scenes which feature identical shots in both films. For example, the famous shot where king Mufasa stands on the rock overlooking the Pride Lands of Africa.

Tezuka, the producer of Kimba The White Lion, is considered the Japanese Walt Disney. The two actually met the New York’s World Fair and Disney praised Tezuka for his work.

The Simpsons’ parody

This controversy still lingers to this day, and even The Simpsons have an episode that alludes to the famous scene where Simba/Kimba look at the starts and see the image of their father/mother.

Lisa looks up to the sky and sees a lion saying “you must avenge my death, Kimba…  I mean, Simba!” You can count on The Simpsons to make fun of every controversy out there.

There’s no such thing as bad publicity

The story was a big deal. Soon after the release of The Lion King, the story of the stealing was published in all the major newspapers in the US and Europe.

It wasn’t all bad, though. The release of The Lion King to theaters and the story of the rip-off reminded people of Kimba, which was somewhat forgotten by this time, and spurred VHS sales of the old show.

“I kept telling everybody I was going to play Kimba”

Apparently, this similarity was confusing for some of The Lion King’s cast as well. Matthew Broderick, the voice of adult Simba, assumed he was participating in a remake of Kimba the White Lion, the beloved cartoon from his childhood.

According to him, he told everybody that he was going to be the voice of Kimba, but when he learned that’s not the case it didn’t really make any difference. Two of the film’s animators also admitted to watching the Japanese show in their childhood.

In their defense

The film’s director, however, claimed that he remained unfamiliar with Kimba throughout the production, although he lived in Tokyo at the time when Kimba was airing on prime-time television.

He later claimed that it’s not unusual to have characters such as lions, baboons or hyenas in a story that takes place in Africa. After all, how original can you be?

Take it with a pinch of salt

If you thought the drama ends there you have another thing coming. The producers of Kimba found it hard to believe that The Lion King’s directors, who grew up in the sixties, have never heard of Kimba. It does sound a bit far-fetched to us as well.

The production company of Kimba was allegedly urged to sue Disney for copyrights but refused because “they’re a small company that wouldn’t stand a chance in court against Disney.”

Tezuka’s tolerant approach

Japanese Kimba fans were also outraged about this and organized a protest outside the movie theater where The Lion King was playing. Can you blame them? There were just too many similarities to overlook.

Producer Osamu Tezuka had a different approach. He appreciated Disney’s work and was honored to hear that the large, esteemed company was influenced by his work.

Ban Disney

Kimba being a cultural icon in Japan, kind of like what Simba is in the US, the release of The Lion King raised a protest in the community of animators and cartoonists. In support of the producer Osamu Tezuka, thousands of Japanese cartoonists signed a petition against Disney.

Nothing came out of it eventually, and The Lion King became one of Disney’s highest grossing movies. Maybe there’s a lesson here that crime pays off.

To be or not to be?

A spokesman for Disney, in defense of the film, claimed that the movie wasn’t based on Kimba the White Lion but rather strongly inspired by Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.

For those of you who need to catch up on your Shakespeare homework – Hamlet seeks revenge against his uncle who has killed his father. Naturally, he learns this from the ghost of his father that appears before him in a dream.

Or maybe an Egyptian myth

If Kimba and Hamlet are not enough sources of inspiration, the lion king also carries resemblance to Osirian family myths of Egyptian mythologies. There, again, the protagonist’s father, who’s also the king, is killed by his resentful brother. The father’s ghost again appears to his son in a dream, and the latter emerges on a journey to avenge his father’s death. How original.

Who’s to say what was the real inspiration for The Lion King? It seems that this plot line of the dead father and the heroic adventurous son is one that all cultures can relate with. 

Monstrously misleading

Turns out that The Lion King is not the only Disney movie that resembles other films. One example is Monsters, Inc, where the secret world of monsters revealed through the children’s bedrooms.

While the idea of monsters under the bed is a story all parents tell their children probably from the dawn of time, Monsters Inc. carries a little more resemblance than that to the 1989 film Little Monsters.

A blast from the past

You’d be surprised to learn how many Disney movies are inspired not just by other films, but famous books or folk tales. From Aladdin, based on the folk tale One Thousand and One Nights which dates to 1706, to Mulan, based on an old Chinese legend, and the list goes on.

Some movies kept the original name, such as the case in Alice in Wonderland (based on Lewis Carroll’s book from 1865), while others played with the title and plot, such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (the book Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo).

The Pixar controversy?

Disney isn’t the only one accused of recycling ideas though. Pixar Animation Studios (the one with the lamp), was also accused more than once for copying some of their ideas from other films. For example, their musical hit Coco is suspected for its similarities with the film The Book of Life, released several years earlier.

Both films are celebrating the Mexican holiday Día de Los Muertos (the day of the dead), so perhaps the similarities are coincidental. The film’s director said his inspiration was the colorful and intriguing portrayal of this holiday in local folk art.

Why waste a good thing?

Disney doesn’t only recycle stories from other sources, but also recycles from their own films! In The Lion King, for instance, some of Mufasa’s vocalizations were taken from The Beauty and the
Beast (the voice of the beast, obviously).

Even more impressive, they recycle specific shots from different movies. In a countless number of films, you can identify identical gestures performed by different characters. Next time you watch a Disney film, try to notice this.

They learned from the best

Before you go on blaming Disney for unoriginality, you should know they have also been copied from more than once. One example is no other than the two times academy award winner Frozen. As it turns out, Frozen greatly resembles a Canadian animated film called The Legend of Sarila, which goes by the title “Frozen Land” in the American version.

Again, as in the case of The Lion King, the plots aren’t identical, but there are some suspicious similarities that would make you raise an eyebrow. Except this time, it was Disney that sued Phase 4 Films for their film, which was released after Frozen with a rather similar title and logo.

High School Musical: the Christian version

The list of mockbusters copying Disney (not well, we must add) goes on and on. Another example is the film Sunday School Musical. You can guess by the title what film they tried to copy.

Released two years after Disney’s High School Musical, the film has many artistic similarities (including the title and the logo), though they somewhat changed the story line.

Rediscovering The Lion King

Some other facts you probably didn’t know about The Lion King include the unjust representation of the hyenas. As we know, both Kimba and Simba portrayed a rather unflattering image of a gang of hyenas which gave them a pretty bad reputation.

What you probably didn’t know is that hyenas are a rather smart and competent animal, not a slimy scavenger as their portrayal suggests. Hyena biologists protested and sued Disney studios for this undeserved representation, and another researcher encouraged boycotting the film to help preserve hyenas in the wild.

An original story?

Another unknown fact about The Lion King is that despite its great resemblance to several different sources, The Lion King is the first Disney animated film that wasn’t based on a book or a folk tale.

The Lion King came out only in 1994, after a surprisingly long list of Disney picture films, starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 (yes, it was that long ago).

Long live the (lion) King

Recycling ideas is an indiscretion that apparently all production companies make. There’s only a limited number of stories out there, and why waste a good idea? If something works – remake it. This is probably the same thought that triggers all the recent Disney remakes, and it works.

So maybe The Lion King isn’t Disney’s original idea, but you must admit – they did a good job with it, and rumor has it that the remake is just as good as the original.