Friday, October 3, 2014

Jungle Emperor Leo (1989) TV Series Review: Part 1

Director(s): Rintaro, Osamu Tezuka (original concept, oversaw direction of first six episodes)

Company: Tezuka Productions

Year: 1989-1990

Country: Japan

Although it may look cute, this is one of the most polarizing remakes in cartoon history.

The Controversy about the Series*

In the past couple of years, Hollywood has gotten a lot of flack for its recent fixation with creating 'grittier' and 'more realistic' revisions of popular franchises ranging from the likes of the misguided Man of Steel to this year's summer blockbuster, Godzilla. Of course this is nothing new, back in the 1960s-70s the James Bond and Planet of the Apes film franchises were exceptionally popular and continue to be made today, and other countries spout out remakes frequently as well. The problem with many these reboots/remakes is that tend to focus too much on superficial aesthetics and end up ignoring the core values of the original property that they were supposed to represent.

Many have claimed this is the case with the 1989 version of Jungle Emperor Leo (aka The New Adventures of Kimba the White Lion). The series has been accused of lacking the charm of the original 1960s show, and being devoid of any value beyond its much improved animation. It is often written off as a footnote in animation history compared to the '80s remake of Osamu Tezuka's other famous series, Astro Boy; and information about the series in English is surprisingly scarce (more on part of the reason as to why later). Yet, the remake has also been defended by members of its small community of fans. They claim that the series is a misjudged re-imagining that explores many dense topics that were skimmed over in the '60s version. The 1989 version of Kimba must have also been met with some success in its home country because it did receive several tie-ins and merchandise during its run in Japan (including a canceled video game).  

This is the one thing fandoms can agree on apparently.

Like the original 1965 TV series, the basic plot follows the exploits of Leo (Kimba) a young, white lion cub raised by humans who eventually returns to his homeland in order to follow his father's footsteps as ruler of the jungle. (Leo is an orphan. His father was shot by a hunter before he was born and his mother perished in a shipwreck after being captured by humans.) Both series also choose to focus on Leo's youth (with the later focusing on a 'teenage' Leo) rather than portraying him growing into an adult lion, as he does in the manga. Unlike the first series, the 80's show draws more influence from some of the manga's darker themes which were absent in the '60s show in order to appease the network standards. (This is even more apparent in the English dub). For this reason, the mood of Jungle Emperor 1989 bears more resemblance to the series, Onward Leo! (Onward Leo! was produced by Tezuka without his American partner NBC. It is a sequel to Kimba the White Lion, focusing on the titular lion's adulthood.)

Shift in tone aside, the other most obvious difference between the two TV series has to due with budget. The 1965 version looks very dated by today's standards and its animation is very limited/static, which makes sense given that it was the first color anime to be ever produced for TV. Kimba the White Lion's art style is very 'cartoony' compared to its newer incarnation. The remake's animation, on the other hand while somewhat dated, holds up quite well as its art style is more 'realistic' and modern looking.

For comparison's sake, here is the first episode of the 1965 show (of the English dub; sorry purists!).

…and the 1989 version (in Japanese).