Kimba the White Lion, a 1965-66 animated Japanese television series known there as Jyanguru taitei ("Jungle Emperor"), was nearly as popular in America, where it first aired on NBC during the 1966-67 season before spending another dozen or so years in constant syndication, typically on local UHF stations. After 1978 Kimba the White Lion vanished for a time, then began reemerging in the form of various Japanese remakes and sequels to Osamu Tezuka's original manga, and in Americanized adaptations that included a completely redubbed version of the 1965-66 series with new voice actors. Yet another Americanized Kimba, Leo the Lion (a follow-up series produced in Japan during 1966-67) began airing on CBN (the Christian Broadcast Network) in the 1990s. That version, I hazily recall, imposed a Christian subtext to storylines not in the original versions, though I can't confirm this.
More notoriously, a Krakatoa-scale controversy erupted with the release of Walt Disney's The Lion King (1994), which despite some coincidental similarities, in other respects very clearly lifts whole cloth story elements, characterizations, and even specific imagery from the original manga and subsequent television series, at least it seems very clear to this reviewer. I don't think it was intentional theft, but Disney's project was clearly an effort to fashion something along similar lines, and certainly a story about a lion cub in Africa is bound to share some elements.
While in development, many of those associated with the production (including actor Matthew Broderick), mistakenly believed the project was literally a remake of Kimba, but later Disney's lawyers vehemently denied everything, even making the outrageous claim that no one associated with the production had ever even heard of the Japanese manga or TV show. I'm not aware that, even now, Disney has ever acknowledged Tezuka's original as an influence on The Lion King or has paid one penny to Tezuka's estate. Interested parties can read more about it (and see some startling frame-grab comparison shots) here.
Kimba the White Lion began turning up on DVD on the Rhino label in 2003, but these scattered episodes had poor video transfers and, according to some reviews, utilized the later, 1990s dubbing. In November 2005 another label, Right Stuf, released the modestly entitled Kimba the White Lion Ultra DVD Box Set (Limited Edition), but the 11-disc set apparently did live up to its name, judging by reviews. That set, still available and thus maybe not so limited after all, retails for $129.99, which may be what's prompted this new, much less expensive release, simply called Kimba the White Lion. It consists of the same, complete 52 half-hour episode series on 10 discs, but without the "Ultra DVD's" eleventh disc of special features, nor does it have that set's booklet.
Indeed, the packaging, despite undeniably beautiful artwork (which extends to the discs themselves), is notably vague about the set's contents. Some fans of the shows initially thought the set was to include the original Japanese language tracks in addition to the original 1960s English dubs, but only the English tracks are included here. Beyond the artwork there's only a list of episode titles (which don't match their order on Wikipedia and elsewhere, though I suspect Right Stuf is correct).
Adapting parts of Tezuka's 1950-53 manga, Kimba the White Lion, in its Americanized form, opens with Caesar, the white lion king of Africa, shot and killed by professional hunter Viper Snakely, who captures Caesar's pregnant mate, Snowene. and has her sold off and shipped away to a zoo. En route, Kimba (voice by Billie Lou Watt) is born and, after being told of his great and just father, Kimba faces an extraordinary challenge. A violent storm at sea fast approaching, the caged Snowene instructs the tiny Kimba to jump overboard, and the white cub attempts to try swim home to Africa.
After an arduous journey, Kimba reaches the African coast, determined to restore order among the bickering animals (including Daniel Baboon, who talks just like Walter Brennan) while dreaming of a world where wild animals and human beings can learn to understand one another and live together in peace.
I hadn't seen Kimba the White Lion since the early 1970s but the very juvenile series I'd remembered turned out to be surprisingly sophisticated, honest about jungle life (though apparently toned down considerably for the U.S. version) and, less under the overly-protective eyes of American censors and parents groups, has a weightiness that still surprises. I've been watching it with my daughter, nearly six, and she finds it compelling while clearly appreciating the maturity of its stories compared to her more innocent diet of Curious George, Our Gang comedies, and Sesame Street, programs she usually watches.
Video & Audio
Kimba the White Lion is a complete set of all 52 Americanized episodes. They are in English only with English opening and closing credits, and with the original 1960s dubbing, but without subtitle options and the original Japanese language track. The title elements are slightly soft but the shows, possibly utilizing original Japanese video masters, look very good. The set comes in a very attractive and thankfully sturdy cardboard box with two standard DVD cases, each with five single-sided, dual-layered discs, i.e., roughly five episodes per disc. No Extra Features at all, nothing.
Unlike many American cartoon shows from the ‘60s, which when seen today offer a lot of nostalgia value but little else, Kimba the White Lion is still a terrific family show worth seeing. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.