Robin Pen's
CRITICAL
EMBUGGERANCE


The Evil Empire

The Lion King is perfect, I mean really perfect. You can't get much more perfect than The Lion King.

The Lion King is fucked, I mean really fucked. You can't get much more fucked than The Lion King.

The Lion King is fucking perfect.

The Lion King is perfectly fucked.

That's right, you guessed it, I'm angry. I'm fucking pissed! I'm angry at The Lion King and doubly angry at the people who brought it into being. Not angry at the artists and animators, I'm disappointed with them, but not angry. It's difficult to be angry at talent and hard effort, particularly when you so clearly see the skill involved in The Lion King. No, I'm angry at the executives of the Disney Corporation who commissioned this bastard son and who determined the calculating and manipulative callousness of the whole product.

Yes, The Lion King is perfect - perfect product. As a film it's fucked. Or is that as an animated feature it's . . ? Either way it's fucked, other than as product, then it's perfect. Perfect to several decimal places. Perfect like a mathematical equation. I wouldn't be surprised if more calculators were employed on this production than animation tables. I do get the impression that the number of marketing accountants was greater than the number of animators. Don't look for the finance executives in the credits though; that's the rightful place of the artists and craftsman. The accountants get the money not the acknowledgment.

But this is still a joint effort by business-person and artist. That's as long as you're an artist who can play ball. You have to be open to executive suggestion if you wish to remain part of the team. A close, productive and profitable team where art and purse strings are intertwined like tight bridge cabling supporting the Disney Empire as it gently doesn't budge an inch in the cool gale of merchandising and marketing.

But back to The Lion King and how it's so perfect: so perfect that each character's nose looks like it was worked out with a slide rule (to use a euphemism). Then the designs - the characters are more designs than characters -are tested in secret experiments on children for conscious and unconscious responses. Then they are fine-tuned for maximum attraction while still ensuring they fit neatly on a paper cup for that watered shit we consume to get quickie sugar rushes, all the while pretending it's the film that is responsible for the unexpected high (did they take the cocaine out of Coca-Cola because they didn't need it anymore?).

But there was a group of characters in The Lion King which weren't considered important enough to be merchandised, and were therefore abandoned by the marketing consultants - left to the unimportant judgment of the animators - the adult female lions. Left untainted by marketing forces and commercial attitudes they have the rare distinction of having the appearance of coming through the "creative" system looking natural and balanced. They are the only truly beautiful creations in the entire film.

But other than these few "unimportant" characters, it was irritating that most of the characters were designed in a manner strongly suggesting an ulterior motive. This had something to do with the large number of characters which bear an uncanny similarity to the well-exposed actors that played them, thus inclining audiences to picture Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, Rowan Atkinson and Whoopie Goldberg performing in the studio. And something to do with cheap little throw away bits of plastic that kiddies scream for at greasy cheap-chicken outlets. But I could be very wrong here. Maybe the fears that I have are of a nature largely due to my irrational belief in big business conspiracies, rather than the obviously "truthful" image of a loving creation aimed at nothing more than seeing the expansion of innocent children's delight. I mean that's what it's really about, is it not? That's what the hundreds of millions of dollars of ceaseless promotion are openly and honestly communicating to us.

Ah, fuck that bullshit. It's all the big company lie to get your money and I see very little more than that: the callous exploitation of childhood innocence and adult ignorance, both wishful and blissful.

Believe it or not, but I'm a little uncomfortable going on like this at a Disney animated feature. My childhood is rich with memories of Disney's animated features: from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Fantasia to Bambi to The Rescuers. So, I have to admit that to so harshly criticize a Disney cartoon in this manner can make me feel like I'm being disrespectful to someone who has in the past earned my respect. I almost feel a sense of performing an act of betrayal: like I'm turning on my own childhood. But the truth is that Disney is the machine that has turned against my childhood. This isn't Pinocchio or 101 Dalmatians, this is some kind of passed off shit, pretending to be part of that glorious canon. This is a creature that has passed under the radar of innocence and is reaping in the cash. It's a grotesque copy of great works.

It is very rare for me to experience what I did while watching The Lion King; of being the victim of a massive and very slick con job. A damn good confidence trick. Indeed, a perfect performance. It sucked me in quickly before the slow but inevitable slide into emptiness, then disappointment, then irritation, before culminating in anger about thirty minutes after Hans Zimmer's seductive sounds have faded away.

The simple truth is that The Lion King isn't fucked at all. The Lion King fucked me. It fucked some of you too. Some felt it, some didn't, some actually liked the experience. Good for you.

So a lot of what you just read is admittedly the spewing forth of irrational anger. My apologies if you have been easily offended. To try to appease the more sensitive of you, I will explain where this anger at The Lion King comes from. But many of you, I'm quite sure, will already know. There is another animated program that I have the highest respect for: a show that I admire without reservation; an irrational, but justifiable, love for a sixties animated series by Osuma Tesuka. Originally known as Jungle Emperor (Jungle Taitei) when it was serialised as a comic from 1950 to 1954, it became Japan's first colour animated television series in 1965. Fifty-two episodes were released in 1966 in English under the title Kimba The White Lion. A substantial section of this magnificent series deals with this lion king's child-life, as he learns the responsibilities of leadership and gains the respect of his kingdom and all the animals which reside in it. But how many of you do I actually need to explain this for? Many people have grown up with Kimba and have fond memories of it. If you have never had the privilege then I pity you just a little. I do not exaggerate or make fun when I express my personal and sincere judgment that Kimba The White Lion is one of the very best programs produced for television and one of the best things that can happen to a suburban kid. It is my not-too-distant memories of Kimba which make me react to The Lion King the way I do.

Some of you may be thinking that I'm leading up to an accusation of plagiarism on Disney's part. But you'd be wrong. Indeed, it would be very, very wrong of me - as with many people - to make such an accusation. It is not valid because there is no proof what-so-ever that such an act has occurred. It would be irresponsible of me to do any more than make comparisons between The Lion King and Kimba The White Lion. And certainly I can make many comparisons . . .

. . . and I think I will.

Let's look at certain characters of The Lion King in regards to Kimba. No, let's look at all of the characters.

Firstly, The Lion King is the story of Simba, a lion cub who witnesses his father (Mufasa the king) murdered and is told it is his fault. Too young to understand, he exiles himself before returning to claim his kingdom. Then there is Kimba, whose father (Caesar1 the king) is murdered and whose mother, pregnant with Kimba, is abducted from Africa. Kimba makes his way back and learns to be a good king.

Kimba upon arriving in his rightful kingdom comes across two fellows who become his companions: Bucky, an antelope, and Pauley Cracker, a parrot wise with modern sensibilities and ready and willing to give advice on how to be civilised. Bucky is not so bright but shows he is good of heart and worthy of Kimba's company. These descriptions can easily be applied to the two fellows that befriend Simba, Pumbaa and Timon, a warthog and a meercat respectively. Like the guys from The Lion King, Pauley and Bucky are often together. But Pauley was also a good friend to Caesar and therefore takes on the task of teaching young Kimba more civilised codes of behaviour. Simba is instructed in a similar way by Zazu, a hornbill and Mufasa's major domo, and like Pauley, he can be a bit of a toffy-nosed lecturer. Usually both end up the victim of regular prat falls.

Caesar had another close companion by the name of Dan'l Baboon who was Caesar's, and becomes Kimba's, closest adviser. Mufasa had a sort of spiritual guide by the name of Rafiki, who provides the same services to Simba. Now Dan'l and Rafiki are both described as baboons, but remarkably in both productions the character presented has the markings of a mandrill, not of a baboon. I find it rather amusing that Disney would make the same mistake independently of the adapters of Kimba (I don't know if the original version described Dan'l as a mandrill or a baboon). Especially embarrassing for Disney, whose promotion took pride in their "true-to-life" recreation of the African savannah and the creatures that dwell there (I also don't know that if Dan'l was described as a mandrill if there would have been a corresponding change to Rafiki).

Simba . . . I mean Kimba . . . sorry, I did mean Simba, it can get confusing. Anyway, Simba has a companion: a young female lion called Nala who is destined to be his mate (along with a whole pile of other female lions, but you're not supposed to think about that). There is another female lion by the name of Kitty, who though is not actually "destined" to do so will undoubtedly be a life-long companion of Kimba.

Now to the bad guys. In The Lion King there is a chief villain and he is a dark lion with a dark mane by the name of Scar. He is not to be confused with a dark lion with a dark mane by the name of Claw in Kimba The White Lion. Nor should we be confused about the henchmen in respective programs. Actually there is a major difference here, and it indicates independent thinking on the part of The Lion King. In the more recent production Scar's henchmen are three Hyenas: Shenzi, Banzai and Ed. This differs from the old show where Claw is assisted by two hyenas called Tib and Tab. And though the hyenas in both productions are greedy, cowardly, nasty and provide regular comic relief, this is a major divergence. The Lion King has three hyenas rather than two, even though only two of them talk and interact.

Now there are a lot more characters in Kimba. This is not a flaw in The Lion King as there is a lot more story time in Kimba to fit them in. But it is astonishing that every character in The Lion King has a corresponding character in Kimba The White Lion, except Ed the Hyena. But I should try to be fair, if not impartial. Well, at least try. Most of these characters are archetypes of sorts and it's only natural that The Lion King would have used them. Just as it is only natural that they be similar to the archetypes created for Jungle Emperor. Similarities occur all the time in story-telling. It is not unreasonable for the remarkable similarities between these programs to be the natural course of story-telling taken to an unusual extreme. If we weren't so understanding of this, we would likely be quite suspicious.

I'm certainly not and I hope you're not either.

Indeed, though there is apparent similarity - characters and the way they interact - the two programs do have quite different atmospheres and styles. This is to be expected, particularly as there is a difference of almost thirty years between Tesuka's and Disney's creations.

But I was taken even further aback when I watched episodes of Jungle Emperor recently. This, the original Japanese version of Kimba, is largely like the English version with the exception of the opening titles (and the dialogue of course). Jungle Emperor follows Kimba's life from cub to mature king and the opening sequence shows him in all his grown up glory as the lion king being respected and followed by his subjects. To see an opening sequence that is so similar to the beginning of The Lion King, including the shape of the rock that the king stands upon observing his domain, certainly raised my eye-brows. I mean the coincidence is so extraordinary that it deserves to be highlighted on a new series of Ripley's Believe It Or Not. This is such an uncanny event that it might only be successfully explained by the occurrence of supernatural phenomena. That is assuming propriety on everyone's part, which is what we must do as it would be very, very irresponsible to accuse any individuals of anything else without any direct evidence to support it.

But though it would be wrong to make the Disney company responsible for deliberate similarities between The Lion King and Kimba The White Lion, I do not think it wrong at all to accuse Disney of acting irresponsibly. The closeness of the two productions shows a slackness on Disney's part. They have a responsibility to know what is out there. Kimba is not some little cartoon: it is a classic of animation and television, and at least in Japan it is of cultural significance. For Disney executives not to be aware is probably forgivable because their job relates to cash goals: cultural and artistic ignorance may well be a criteria to successfully achieve the job brief.

But the animators and artists worry me. I would think that they would be reasonably aware of Kimba and would have seen the similarities without much difficulty. At least I would like to think that. Maybe they did, but were too gutless to complain. Scary to think that they were powerless to complain. Maybe they were so caught up with the project that they never noticed. I find it hard to believe that they have little or no knowledge of animation outside the Disney canon. I think the noted stylistic similarities with sequences of The Rescuers Down Under (1990) and that of the work of Hayao Miyazaki2 - particularly the must sees Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Laputa, Castle in the Sky (1986) - shows that the animators generally keep themselves aware of quality animation.

But any serious accusations of irresponsibility must be aimed at the writers of The Lion King: I counted over thirty names involved in script and story! You would think that with so many people they wouldn't get it so close to another program. Maybe they were more involved in creating dis-similarities, but again this is only unsubstantiated conjecture. Regardless, it's a poor show by Disney Corporation that such comments can be made and such questions can be asked, as they have been in some formal circles of communication and I'm sure in plenty of unofficial ones.

The most obvious example of carelessness is in the name of the central protagonist. The name Simba is a name that can be considered independent of the name Kimba for good reason. Simba is an African name for lion. Fine, and it is a good name, but I don't believe they would have used it if the writers had been properly aware of another lion king hero called Kimba. But some could accuse them of deliberately trying to exploit Kimba's entrenched exposure, and I would find it hard not to sympathise with such accusers. However, I think incompetence is the best "official" explanation for such an obvious incident of regret.

But regret may not be the right word to use. The comparisons with Kimba by potential audiences may have only increased their chances of going to see it. I have met a number of people who went to see The Lion King and took their children because of their memories of Kimba. I've even met individuals who thought it was a Disney adaptation of Kimba done with permission. And I've met those who thought it was an adaptation without permission. But unintentional as it probably was, the controversy (no matter how insignificant it is) may well have only contributed to The Lion King's monumental success (no matter how little). It is incompetence that has richly paid off. It is probably their own arrogance that keeps them from being aware of other's animated creations (or admitting that they do), but The Lion King is evidence to support that it is a sound commercial policy.

However there is a good argument - a very good argument - why such accusations of plagiarism shouldn't even be speculated. You see, Kimba deals with a lion cub's growth and learning in order to become a good and wise king, while The Lion King doesn't deal with anything like that at all. It conveniently by-passes all that with a poxy song and a dissolve. How can you see correlations in story when The Lion King doesn't have any story, at least none worth speaking of. The fifty or so episodes of Kimba individually show (in their twenty-five minute instalments) more complexity in story and character and a richness of philosophy that The Lion King actively retreats from. The Lion King is distinguished by how little point it all seems to have. What morals and mythologies there are ring false and seem insincere; like watching a documentary about rain-forests by a company with controlling shares in the wood-chip industry.

It has been the issue of this essay to convince the reader that the similarities between The Lion King and Kimba The White Lion should not be ignored. Osuma Tesuka was happy to acknowledge the inspiration that the works of Walt Disney and his employers had on his own creations. He even acknowledged that Bambi assisted the creation of his lion king story. It is reasonable and responsible of artists to be inspired by others and to study their techniques, and there is no shame in admitting so. The reason you do is to show your respect and esteem for great and influential creators. Taking into account the extensive and extraordinary career of Osuma Tesuka, the latest of the Disney animated features' claims of being an all original creation stands as an immense measure of disrespect to an animation master. In short, no matter how well produced as some of the sequences are, The Lion King is an insult to the art of animation.


NOTES

  1. The character names used here are those from the English adaptation and are not the names given to the characters by Tesuka in the original Japanese version.
  2. Some controversy attached itself to Walt Disney Corporation's The Great Mouse Detective (1986) when comparisons were drawn between its climax and that of Hayao Miazaki's marvellous Lupin III: Cagliostro's Castle (1983) [described by Spielberg as one of the great adventure films], both of which occur inside a tower on the working mechanism of a giant clock. The main point of discussion was that the computer-generated scene from The Great Mouse Detective closely followed the hand-animated sequence from Lupin III, yet was noticeably inferior in quality.





Originally appeared pp. 65-71, Eidolon 16, February 1995.
Copyright © 1995 Robin Pen.
Reprinted by kind permission of Robin Pen.


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