Jungle Emperor 1997

Osamu Tezuka's material is having a revival of sorts. The legendary animator and author, who passed away in 1989, has had no less than three of his properties converted to major motion pictures within the last five years. Happily enough, the quality of these films has gotten better and better--Metropolis, released in 2001, is an amazingly thoughtful, action-packed masterpiece. Jungle Emperor is from 1997, and it's more entertaining than the beautiful but cold 1996 entry BlackJack. Some issues mar the overall impact of the story, including some unfortunate déjà vu caused by Disney's The Lion King, but it isn't a bad entry, either.

Before talking about this film, it's important to understand the history behind the show. The original Jungle Emperor show was financed in part by NBC, and it was shown as Kimba The White Lion in the US in 1965. It holds the title of first ever anime series made in color, and aside from Astro Boy was America's first major taste of Japanese animation. The story followed Leo (Kimba in the US version) as a child who would grow to be king of the jungle. Each episode stood alone, however, and an over-arching narrative never fully developed. Although the story was continued in animated form over the years, most fans familiar with this show in the US have seen parts of this incarnation.

Jungle Emperor 1997 takes us further along in Tezuka's story; it starts with the birth of Leo's two cubs and their introduction to the jungle. Lukio, the young son who will eventually take his father's place, is fascinated with human culture, having discovered a music box in an old airplane wreck. Thinking that humans are friendly and would make easy friends with the animals, he ventures out alone into the world, only to find that things are not as simple as they seem. Meanwhile, a pack of hunters led by the evil Hamagg have come to Leo's mountain to find a rare gemstone worth billions of dollars. They tear up everything in their path, leaving not only destruction but also disease in their wake. Only Kingyoen, an older guide who respects the ways of the jungle, and his friend Lamune understand the damage and try to repair it before it's too late. As Lukio finds himself trapped in a new and scary world, it's up to Kingyoen and Leo to stop Hamagg's expedition and the terror in its wake.

The first thing that a modern audience will notice in watching this beautifully animated film is its incredible similarities to The Lion King. Although Disney has repeatedly disavowed any knowledge of the Jungle Emperor narrative, the comparison is nothing short of shocking. They feature parallel opening sequences. The sidekicks are almost identical, from a wise baboon to a blustery but helpful adjunct bird. The warthogs here, though playing no role, look absolutely identical to Pumbaa. The only difference between the two at all, in fact, is in the plot--and that's because this film tells the story of the grown-up Leo. Leo's story in the original animated series and manga is virtually identical to that of The Lion King, right down to the scarred evil imposter lion king and a group of crazed hyenas.

If Disney truly had no knowledge of Kimba, then what we have is a real application of the theoretical proposition that if you sit a bunch of monkeys down in front of some typewriters, given an infinite amount of time they'll eventually type out Shakespeare's "Hamlet". Obviously, this is absurd, and so is the Disney assertion that nobody in the crew knew anything about its Japanese relative. The reason this is so important is that it virtually guarantees that Jungle Emperor will never see a Western release. With the resemblance being so great, any normal Western audience would assume that this show is in fact the rip-off, rather than the progenitor. Anyone who decides to see this should know the full story, because the comparisons are inevitable and color the viewpoint, even despite best intentions.

That whole argument aside, Jungle Emperor is strong yet flawed. The animation is brilliant throughout, though the stylistic choices are affected by Tezuka's very unique designs that emulate a cross between 1940s Walt Disney and 1920s Max Fleischer. Each story told here (and there are at least three) is quite decent in its own right, and most everything is easy to follow. The characters are easily seen as three dimensional, and although there isn't much time for major development, the fact that each main lead has a deep history is apparent. There's also a real sense of wonder and joy to the proceedings, which is rare anymore.

Unfortunately, Jungle Emperor has only one problem. It's schizophrenic. I haven't seen a movie this uncertain about what it wants to be in some time. Any of the stories told here--whether it be Lukio's venture into the human world, the plague that hits the forest, the conflict between Hamagg and Kingyoen, or a couple other subplots I'm deliberately leaving out for spoilers' sake--could have been made into a feature film on its own with more depth and complexity. It would take a great deal to juggle those disparate plots in a truly engaging manner, and the Tezuka Productions team just wasn't quite there yet. We usually are forced to completely disengage for some time from one plotline while another unfolds, rather than being involved in many at the same time. It leaves us feeling disjointed--often thoroughly entertained, but disjointed.

This schizophrenia also extends into what audience this movie is for. From the cute interactions of the cubs Lukio and Lune, as well as a dream sequence Lukio has, you could expect this movie to be for young children. However, this is far from the truth. Both humans and animals die at an alarming rate at times in the picture, with several sequences at least as scary for children as (and ironically reminiscent of) the most terrifying moments in Bambi and Pinnochio. The darkest moments aren't really appropriate for pre-teens; the lightest moments may be dull for the rest of us.

Burdened by its own history and a scattershot approach at storytelling, Jungle Emperor is still an interesting, beautiful film that works in many ways for a forgiving audience. Although I had hoped originally that this might be the original story of Leo/Kimba, whom I'd heard so much about, this tale was not only surprising but creates the feel of an epic saga, particularly for those familiar with the basics. For those who've done their homework or saw the original show, there's also a lot of history resolved here; certain characters such as Hamagg take on a great deal more meaning in the broad scope of the story than the movie suggests. Although my rating might be a little high, I think it's a worthwhile show despite its faults.

Jungle Emperor 1997 -- violence, too scary for young children despite cute characters -- B