Creators of "The Lion King," Disney's summer box-office smash, say they were surprised to learn of reported similarities in the animated film and a Japanese-created American television cartoon series of the 1960s called "Kimba, the White Lion."
"Frankly, I'm not familiar with (the TV series)," said Rob Minkoff, who added that he and co-director Roger Allers first learned about the controversy on a recent trip to Japan to promote the Disney film, whose lion cub is named Simba.
Disney's promotional material says that the idea for its African-based coming-of-age story originated "in the story department of Disney Feature Animation more than four years ago."
"The project was initially called 'King of the Jungle' and, like most animated features at Disney, its development was evolutionary, taking years to create and refine," stated a Disney press kit.
An expert on Japanese comic books and the American producer of "Kimba" both said that while the story itself is far different from the "Lion King," they noticed striking similarities in several characters and in at least one scene.
The similarities in characters include an excitable bird who accompanies the lion, a guru-like baboon who gives sage advice, and even a pack of smart-aleck hyenas, according to Fred Ladd, who produced the "Kimba" TV series.
"When one sees the film, it's inevitable that one should be reminded of similar material in the TV series of 30 years ago," Ladd said.
Frederik Schodt of San Francisco, author of a 1983 book on Japanese comic books called "Manga! Manga!," said the Disney film contains one scene that is amazingly similar to a scene on Page 173, Vol. 3, of a paperback edition of the 1950s comic book series called "The Jungle Emperor" by animator Osamu Tezuka. The cartoon TV series was based on the comic book series.
In that scene, Schodt recalled, the lion father, named Leo, has just died (by a hunter's gun) and his son, named Lune, runs into a man who has witnessed the killing.
"They are about to walk off into the distance when the clouds on the horizon start to take on the shape of Leo," Schodt said. "The man says to the little lion cub, 'Look, that cloud looks just like Leo.' Then, on the horizon, we see the shape of the lion's father."
Schodt said he thought a scene in "Lion King" where Simba sees his ghostly father, Mufasa, in the clouds "too similar to be a coincidence."
Indeed, Schodt said, it would be nearly impossible for the hundreds of animators at Disney not to be aware of the similarities in the comic book.
"There are an awful lot of young Americans who are big fans of Japanese animation today," he said. "Many of those people are now working in the United States animation industry. It would be inconceivable that no one (at Disney) had never seen 'Kimba, the White Lion' before.
"In animation," he added, "it is common to have allusions to other movies and in-jokes."
But, while some see obvious references and influences to Tezuka's work in "Lion King," the story itself is quite different.
In "Kimba," the cub's mother dies aboard a ship and Kimba escapes, swimming back to shore. While trying to go home, he visits cities and realizes that mankind has created a wonderful civilization of laws--quite different from the law of the jungle.
In "Lion King," Simba leaves the pride after mistakenly believing that he had a role in his father's death.
In "Kimba," the hero battles poachers and trappers, a magic serpent and even the monster of Petrified Valley. He defends his domain against "the insect invasion," "the red menace" and "the gigantic grasshopper." Aiding his efforts are his animal friends, Dan'l Baboon, Pauley Cracker, Tadpole, Samson and Roger Ranger, who is a human.
In "Lion King," however, there are no human beings and Simba fights hyenas and Scar.
The character of Scar, the power hungry "black sheep" brother of Mufasa, is particularly intriguing to some observers. In the TV series, the villain Claw, who has a scar above his eye, takes over the throne in Kimba's absence.
Takayuki Matsutani, president of Tezuka Productions in Tokyo, said there is some similarity between the animated creations on two counts: the son grows up to be the king's successor after his father's death, and the symbolic scene where Simba stands on a rock in "The Lion King," whereas in the Japanese version, the opening scene has Kimba standing on a rock. He also agreed there were similarities in the baboon, the bird, the hyenas and the evil lion.
"However, quite a few staff of our company saw a preview of 'The Lion King,' discussed this subject and came to the conclusion that you cannot avoid having these similarities as long as you use animals as characters and try to draw images out of them," Matsutani said.
"If the Disney Co. had gotten a hint from 'The Jungle Emperor,' Osamu Tezuka, a founder of our company, would have been pleased," he continued. "And, we feel the same way, rather than making a claim.
"Therefore, our company's general opinion is 'The Lion King' is a totally different piece from 'The Jungle Emperor' and is an original work completed by the Disney production's long-lasting excellent production technique."
Asked about the apparent similarities, Minkoff said that whenever a story is based in Africa, it is "not unusual to have characters like a baboon, a bird or hyenas."
"I know for a fact that ("Kimba") has never been discussed as long as I've been on the project," said Minkoff, who joined the film project in April, 1992. "In my experience, if Disney becomes aware of anything like that, they say you will not do it. People are claiming copyright infringement all the time."
Times researcher Chiaki Kitada in Tokyo contributed to this story.