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When The Lion King came out in 1994 I was eleven years old, and starting to develop an interest in movies that extended beyond just watching them. I remember reading a lot of the newspaper articles that came out before, during and after its theatrical run (and there were a lot them, I think we sometimes forget that this movie was an almost Jurassic Park level cultural event). One of the things I remember reading about this movie was that it was the first animated Disney movie not to be based on an existing story. That may strike you as surprising, considering that it’s pretty much cemented in everyone’s mind now as “Disney’s adaptation of Hamlet”, and even Disney themselves have pretty much owned that assessment. But the origins of this movie are a lot hazier than that. From what I can gather, Lion King began in the eighties from a conversation between Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy Disney and Peter Schneider (president of Walt Disney Feature Animation) that boiled down to “We should do a movie set in Africa.” “You know what, we should do a movie set in Africa.” From that conversation the movie took a long and often deeply weird journey to the big screen (in some alternate universe, there’s a version of this movie where Scar is a baboon, Rafiki is a cheetah and ABBA provided the music.) So many different theories and suggestions and accusations have been flung at this movie that its true creative origins may never really be known.
Just who is Simba? Hamlet? Moses? Joseph son of Jacob? Is he the young Jeffrey Katzenberg, overcoming his own insecurities and self doubt to become the king of the animation jungle? Is he Roy Disney, the heir trying desperately to escape the titanic shadows of his uncle and father? Is he Jesus?
But the “Lion King as Hamlet” story is the one that’s stuck, and for good reason. I don’t just mean the obvious similarities in plot. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, and the one usually proclaimed as being his best. At well over five hours, you will almost never see the entire text performed fully, meaning that every production cuts and trims the play to create a new version that best reflects the artistic vision of the director and cast. In this way, every production of Hamlet is unique. Some will focus on the relationship between Hamlet and his father. Some focus on his love affair with Ophelia, turning the play into a romantic tragedy. Still others will excise almost every other character and focus on Hamlet’s inner turmoil, turning the play into a psychological study. There are as many potential Halmets as there are stars in the sky. This is because the play is about, well, everything.
Shakespeare took a relatively simply story, the Danish revenge tale Amlethus, and within this finite framework staged one man’s contemplation of the entirety of human existence boiled down to the one single, terrifying question embodied in the play’s most famous line. Those six little words that we’ve all heard so often that their true power is often overlooked.
To be. Or not to be.
Is it better to be alive, or dead? To exist or to not. To be something, or to be nothing. It’s the single most important question. It is, in fact, the question that must be answered before any of the others can even be considered.
If Hamlet seeks to ask the first question, Lion King can be said to ask the second. Obviously this is a Disney movie, so the answer to the first question will always be “To Be.” Disney is all about optimism. Hope. Good triumphing over evil, no matter how powerful or malevolent it is and notwithstanding its ability to turn into a gigantic monster at the end of the third act. So once you’ve answered “To be”, what’s the second question? Well it’s the question we all deal with every day; “How do I live my life?” The Lion King is about finding your place in the world, represented in the movie as The Circle of Life, a natural and harmonious order that is only kept in balance when everyone meets their responsibilities to themselves, to the world and to their fellow creatures.
Oh God, are we actually doing this?
Yes, this movie has long been accused of being a ripoff of Tezuka Ozamu’s manga and animé Kimba the White Lion. And frankly, I find the entire idea preposterous. Why would Disney, the greatest animation studio in the world, need to steal from a relatively obscure children’s cartoon from the sixties? But fine, let’s see the so called “evidence” for this supposed theft which I am sure is not at all compelling in any way.
Okay, so it’s pretty obvious that someone in Disney who was working on the Lion King was familiar with Kimba the White Lion and snuck that in as a visual reference. And you know what? That’s fine. It’s called “an homage” if you’re feeling arty, or “a shout out” if you’re keeping it real, man. You may call it theft, but film makers do it all the time. The Untouchables recreates the “pram on the steps” scene from Battleship Potemkin but no one’s suggesting that Brian De Palma should write Eisenstein a cheque. Which is good, because Eisenstein is dead and De Palma has been having a pretty bad run lately and probably doesn’t have a lot of cash to spare.
What else ya got? Well, the name surely? Kimba. Simba. I mean, what do they think we’re stupid or something? Disney obviously changed that one letter of the name so we wouldn’t realise that this is a remake of Kimba the White Lion!
BEEP! Wrong answer.
As I’m sure quite a few Disney fans and Swahilis are screaming at the screen right now, “Simba” is Swahili for “lion”. The Disney animators learned quite a few Swahili phrases when they went on a field trip to Africa to research the film, and they ended up working these phrases into the movie. Well…then where the hell did Ozamu get “Kimba” from? Not a clue. TV Tropes offers the theory that Ozamu was going to name the main character Simba but changed it because there was a popular soft drink of the same name, and then goes on to say that that theory has been disproved and that the real reason is “complicated and doesn’t make much sense” and leaves it at that.
The ripoff story actually began (as so many problems in this life do) with Matthew Broderick. When originally offered the part, he misheard and thought that they’d said “Kimba”. Being familiar with the old cartoon he then proceeded to run his mouth off saying that he was doing a remake of Kimba the White Lion . He later said: “I kept telling everybody I was going to play Kimba. I didn’t really know anything about it, but I didn’t really care. I’m kind of an asshole like that. Also, I have the genitalia of a mosquito. I don’t mean that they’re small (although they are). I mean that I actually literally have the reproductive organs of an insect.”
The case for ripoff gets steadily weaker after that, ranging from the somewhat plausible (okay, both father lions have a wise baboon friend) to the pretty lame (of course the hyenas are comedy relief villains in both, THEY’RE FUCKING HYENAS) to the just kind of pathetic (Here’s Kimba running! Here is Simba also running!). The only other compelling piece of evidence is a very early piece of concept art depicting a white lion cub playing with a butterfly.
Okay. I am willing to entertain the theory that at some point, very early on in its production they considered making this movie a Kimba remake. But here’s the thing. That’s not the movie they made. If Disney released this movie in its current form as Kimba the White Lion they would have been in contravention of the Trade Descriptions Act. Because, a few similarities here and there notwithstanding they are nothing alike. In the areas where it really matters, characters, plot, dialogue, animation The Lion King is completely its own movie. Its art style is totally different from Kimba (I’d get into Ozamu’s shameless aping of Bambi but he’s not on trial here). And as I said in my Aladdin review, what’s in it for Disney? Why would they hide the fact that the movie they made was a Kimba remake if that was actually what they intended? To stiff Ozamu out of the money for the rights? Please. After Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin Disney had more money than your average sultanate. Jeffrey Katzenberg could have gathered up a few million from the back of the couch and paid for the rights. He certainly would have if there was any reasonable chance that Ozamu could have taken Disney to court for IP theft. No. What we have here is one possible visual homage, the coincidences that will inevitably arise between two pieces in the same genre using the same setting and Matthew Broderick running his big stupid mouth off. I find the accused…
Now let’s take a look at the film.