What's Good About It?
A poster depicting much of the series's cast.
The First Half of the Series
As Leo attempts to succeed his father, he is confronted with many challenges. Not all of the animals believe that he has the capacity to rule as his father did, and they often argue amongst themselves. Panja's (Leo's father's) jungle is a refuge for disenfranchised animals who have been been driven out of their homelands due to famine, feuds or human activities. The law of Panja's jungle decrees that no animal can kill or harm one another, so Leo must remain vigilant of law breakers. While humans are a concern, they only appear occasionally. The series's primary antagonist is Bubu (Claw), a scheming, dark-maned lion who holds a grudge against Panja after losing one of his eyes in battle.
Don't let his ridiculous sounding name fool you. In this version, Bubu means serious business.
The Early Episodes Maintain a Positive Outlook
Fortunately, Leo isn't alone. He is supported by a small core network of friends. His closest companions are Cocco the green parrot and Toni the gazelle, who often serve as comic relief. Cocco is Leo's bossy, self-appointed 'advisor.' (Think of The Lion King's Zuzu, but as even more incompetent and annoying.) Toni is Cocco's foil. He is simple and down to earth. Toni is easily scared and prone to run away at the first sight of danger, but will defend his friends when necessary. Both Cocco and Toni are also sympathetic towards humans like Leo, having been either kept or saved by them at certain points in their lives. Additionally, Leo frequently turns to an old rhino who was a friend of his father for support (who seems to be the 1989 version's replacement for Mandy the baboon), and his love interest, Lyra the lioness. He even wins the respect of Marody (a wise, conservative Barbary Lion), who shared a friendly rivalry with Panja.
Forget white lions, Marody is a true rarity. Just look at that 'stash.
These earlier episodes manage to properly balance darker and more dense topics with a sense of hope, accomplishment, and an occasional dose of lightheartedness. For instance in episode two, a young Leo attempts to help three panthers escape a zoo so they can go to Africa. Ultimately, the panthers are either captured or shot for being 'dangerous,' but they thank Leo for his help, and the experience allows for Leo to grow and witness the trials of leadership. Episode 12, on the other hand, simply involves Leo helping teach a baby eagle how to fly by overcoming his fear of heights. Likewise in Episode 22, Leo reunites briefly with his previous human owner, Kenichi, but must protect the boy from animals who see the child as a threat. In the end, it is apparent that the two can no longer live together and they part. (In fact, it takes a while for Leo to recall Kenichi's scent, because the lion has lived in the wild for quite a while now.) Leo's and Kenichi's friendship has influenced both of the character's lives, however. By living with kind humans, Leo has learned how to be empathetic and to be a good judge of character. Kenichi's experience with Leo inspires him to travel and work with wildlife protection services.
Leo and Kenichi, symbolizing the link between humanity and nature.
Well Rounded, Believable Characters
In terms of character development, nearly all of the personalities in this show are very fleshed out and even relatively minor characters have arcs. Leo is very hardworking and aims to be just towards all things while heading to his father's laws. Although Leo's transition of moving from the city into the jungle is a bit of a shock for him, he chooses the pristine wild over living in a nature reserve. Ironically, Leo is accused of being 'too nice' at first by the other animals. He refuses to fight with Bubu on several occasions, and insists that he will only fight invading humans because they 'bully everyone.' It is only until Leo is severely beaten by Bubu and lectured by Marody that he decides to fight.
However, Leo becomes so engrossed with protecting his homeland and honoring his father's ways that his concern (and pride) temporarily becomes his downfall. After worsening a feud between two packs of wild dogs and nearly killing (!) one of the humans who attempted to capture his aunt, Leona, Leo exiles himself from his own jungle for several months. It is only then that he begins to understand more about the true meaning of leadership and realizes that he can't do everything on his own. He also comes to learn that even his father was not perfect. (Panja was more of a traditionalist and would kill animals tamed by humans because they had 'thrown away their pride'.) Leo realizes that he must make the jungle reputable with his own name, and that is ok that he is not exactly the same as his revered father.
Leo is a pacifist, but must learn to control his own violent tendencies before he can be an example for others.
Lyra is frequently Leo's voice of reason and takes a more active role in this series than in other versions.
Interestingly, Marody's two sons, Obishan and Karadu, are given a considerable amount of screen time. Their personalities mirror those of Lyra and Kimba respectively, but are more exaggerated. Like Lyra, Obishan is inherently gentle and level headed. However, he often is too timid to stand up to his more volatile brother. Karadu is very prideful and constantly believes he has to prove himself to his father, Marody. Karadu's short temper often gets the best of him and he becomes extremely jealous of Leo after Marody takes a liking to the white cub. It is only towards the end of the series that Karadu experiences a humiliating defeat (which results in the death of half of his pride while trying to drive off humans invading Marody's mountain). Like Leo, Karadu temporarily exiles himself from his homeland after the event. Still, Karadu remains a flawed character. He outrightly kills a human at the end of Episode 46, something that Leo would never do.
"Hey Leo, move out of the frame. You're hogging my space."