Cartoon Controversy Over `Lion King' Percolates in Tokyo

I DON'T even like cartoons. The only animated movie my parents ever took me to see was ``Fantasia,'' and I remember being appalled that cartoons were so dull. It was only later that I learned ``Fantasia'' was really for adults and classical-music prodigies. The whole thing soured me on animation.

When the sniping started over Disney's ``The Lion King,'' with some people here saying the movie was too similar to work done by a famous Japanese cartoonist, I thought this was a story I would abstain from covering.

As is so often the case with trivial controversies, the teacup starts to swell. Soon CNN and major newspapers are sloshing around, and suddenly childless adults who wouldn't spend three seconds thinking about ``The Lion King'' are talking about the controversy at social gatherings.

Recently, the leading Japanese grouser, a cartoonist named Machiko Satonaka, sent a letter of complaint to the Disney subsidiary that distributes the movie in Japan. She says that aspects of ``The Lion King'' seem to have been inspired by the creations of Osamu Tezuka, the father of Japan's huge comic-book industry.

Tezuka did a comic in the 1950s called ``Jungle Emperor'' that was later turned into an animated film and then a television serial. Beginning in 1966, a dubbed version of the serial was shown in the United States as ``Kimba, the White Lion.'' (Despite my cartoon aversion, I saw a few episodes of ``Kimba'' as a kid.)

``The basic story of a Prince cast out to return as the hero King after his father is killed,'' Ms. Satonaka writes, ``is only the beginning of a long list of parallels. There is the eye-scarred, black-maned villainous Uncle backed by hyenas, the chattering bird friend, the wise baboon, the promotional shot of the jutting rock, the father lion in the clouds talking to his son, the stony wilderness habitat, insect-eating carnivores, even the names Kimba and Simba are strikingly similar.'' (Simba is the Disney movie's young protagonist.)

One avenue open to a journalist is simply to report this charge, obtain some sort of response from the folks at Disney, and call it a day. Disney, incidentally, says ``The Lion King'' was inspired by Shakespeare's ``Hamlet'' and Disney's own ``Bambi,'' not Osamu Tezuka's work. Instead I rented a tape of ``Leo, the Jungle Emperor'' episodes (as Kimba was titled in Japanese) and then went to see ``The Lion King.'' I figured it's all part of the glamorous life of the foreign correspondent - paying $18 to see a children's movie.

Without reviewing the entire ``Jungle Emperor'' series, it's impossible to track down all of Ms. Satonaka's parallels. I saw some, and the rest may be there. But the bigger point is that the Disney movie transcends the Japanese series. Artistically, ``The Lion King'' routinely verges on the three-dimensional, portraying vistas of the savanna with a texture, clarity, and brightness that surprises the eye. The ``Jungle Emperor,'' by contrast, is relentlessly flat, dark, and visually repetitive.

My limited Japanese makes this next observation risky, but I would argue that ``The Lion King'' is more sophisticated. The humor of the Disney script, the wit of some of its songs, and the artful characterization of the movie's voices carry a depth that I failed to detect in the Japanese episodes.

Satonaka may be right about the parallels. Disney would do well to consider her charges and respond. But ``The Lion King'' does a much better job of entertaining the cartoon-averse.

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