Created as a manga series by legendary Japanese artist Osamu Tezuka back in the 1950s, “Kimba the White Lion” was already a national phenomenon when the first “Lion King” movie aired.
When an anime was created in 1965, it became the first-ever color animated television series in Japan. It was also aired in North America a year later. A film version titled “Jungle Emperor” was released in Japan in 1966.
The animated series also enjoyed worldwide popularity later on when it began airing in Europe in the 1970s, in Asia in the 1990s, and rebroadcast in North America in the early 2000s.
The character similarities are pretty obvious, from the protagonist lion cubs Kimba and Simba; the antagonist lions one-eyed Claw and Scar; the sage mandrills Dan’l and Rafiki; the animated birds Pauley Cracker and Zazu as well as the hyena sidekicks.
Responding to the character similarities, “The Lion King” co-director Rob Minkoff stated that it was “not unusual to have characters like a baboon, a bird or hyenas” in films set in Africa.
Despite following different screenplays, the two properties have very striking artistic similarities, including numerous sequences that closely match each other. There were also deeper and more pronounced thematic similarities such as the theme of “the circle of life.”
YouTuber Alli Kat brilliantly matched scenes from the two films side by side in this seven-minute clip:
In both films, the protagonists are shown looking up at clouds in the shape of his father lion. This is also alluded to in an episode from “The Simpsons” titled “Round Springfield,” in which a parody of Mufasa in the clouds tells Lisa Simpson, “You must avenge my death, Kimba… er, I mean Simba!”
According to Georgetown law professor Madhavi Sunder, the number of very similar scenes comprises the “highest level of evidence of copying,” noting that if Tezuka productions had pursued legal action against Disney, they would have a “very strong” case.
When “The Lion King” was released in Japan, numerous Japanese cartoonists, including Machiko Satonaka, signed a letter urging The Walt Disney Company to give due credit to “Jungle Emperor Leo” in the making of “The Lion King.” The petition, which was signed by 488 Japanese cartoonists and animators, inspired a protest in Japan.
“The Lion King” director Roger Allers has since claimed that his film was nearly completed when he learned about Kimba. Co-director Rob Minkoff also claimed he was unfamiliar with the popular Japanese character.
It should be noted that Allers had previously lived in Tokyo and worked in the animation industry there during the 1980s. At the time, Tezuka had already become known as “Japan’s Walt Disney” and a remake of Kimba was being broadcast on prime time television.
Actor Matthew Broderick, who was hired as the voice of adult Simba in “The Lion King,” has famously said that when he was approached about the project, he thought it was somehow related to “Kimba the White Lion.”
“I thought he meant Kimba, who was a white lion in a cartoon when I was a little kid,” Broderick was quoted as saying. “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.”
At least two “The Lion King” animators Tom Sito and Mark Kausler have admitted to watching Kimba, noting that they assumed many of their colleagues had too.
Decades before the Disney film was released, Tezuka had actually met Walt Disney at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Disney reportedly said he hoped to “make something just like” Tezuka’s “Astro Boy.”
Tezuka, who died in 1989, had nothing but admiration for Disney. As Takayuki Matsutani, the president of Osamu Tezuka’s production company, Tezuka Productions, put it in 1994, even if Tezuka learned that Disney’s “Lion King” got inspiration from his work, he “would have been pleased.”
Tezuka has reportedly claimed to have seen Disney’s film “Bambi” over 100 times. The animator even licensed “Bambi” for a Japanese adaptation and credits Disney for some creative influence in his autobiography. Tezuka would later say his work on “Jungle Emperor,” aka “Kimba,” was an homage and a critique of the classic Disney film.