Jungle Emperor Leo (1997 Film) Review

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AKA: Jungle Taitei Leo (1997), Jungle Emperor: The Movie, Gekijouban Jungle Taitei

Genre: Adventure/Drama
Year Released: 1997
Distributor: Discotek/Eastern Star

Origin: Japan
Running Time: 100 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG
Related Films/Series: Kimba the White Lion, Jungle Emperor Leo (1966 Film), Leo the Lion, The New Adventures of Kimba the White Lion, Jungle Emperor Leo Symphonic Poem, Jungle Emperor Leo: Hon-O-Ji, Jungle Emperor Leo (2009 Film)

For Fans Of: The Lion King, Black Jack TV
, Watership Down
Notes:

-This review covers the original Anime Works DVD and Discotek’s Blu-Ray release. Both language tracks are taken under consideration.

-Any characters that return from Kimba the White Lion will be addressed by their Japanese names. Here’s a comparison guide:
Kimba=Leo
Kitty=Lyra
Pauley=Coco
Bucky=Tommy
Boss Rhino=Uncle Rhino
Mammoth=Earth Mother/Great Mother
Kelly Phunt=Pagoola
Viper Snakely=Ham Egg
Dr. Pompous=Dr. Mustache

-This movie follows the manga’s canon instead of the Kimba TV series. Expect there to be some differences in character interactions.



Fun Facts:
-Hilarious in Hindsight: So if Simba is Kimba/Leo and Nala is Kitty/Lyra, does this mean their daughter Kiara from The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride would be the Disney parallel to Lukio? Oh yeah, wouldn’t Kion from The Lion Guard would be Lune in this instance, too?

-Lukio’s Japanese voice actress is Hekiru Shiina which is interesting because one of her most famous characters she’s played is Hikaru from Magic Knight Rayearth. Her animal motif is a lion and Lukio is a lioness. Also, both Jungle Emperor Leo and Magic Knight Rayearth were formally distributed by Anime Works, yet re-licensed by Discotek.

-The ending theme “Wind Song” is done by Takako Matsu. Would you like to know what her biggest claim to fame is? She would eventually provide the Japanese dub voice of Elsa from Frozen.

-This movie almost didn’t get a North American release because Disney attempted a lawsuit against the 1998 Fantasia Film Festival for playing this movie. Luckily, it didn’t go through. However, it didn’t even get an official DVD release stateside until 2003.


So I saw Kimba the White Lion for the first time ever last year and I knew that this sequel film got an American release, so I had to see what other adventures were going to be had here.

Jungle Emperor Leo takes place during the adult years of Leo and Lyra. They have two cubs and there’s been peace in their kingdom. In the meantime, the hunter Ham Egg has been commissioned to find the Moonlight stones on Mt. Moon (no relation to the Pokemon landmark of the same name) which can provide an energy source to mankind. Him and his crew fly to Africa and leave a wake of destruction in Leo’s kingdom. Other things happen such as Lune, the next prince of the kingdom gets kidnapped and a plague eventually sets into the jungle.

The first thing that caught my eye was the animation quality. This was a huge quantum leap compared to the original Kimba series. The backgrounds are lush, there’s fluidity in the character’s movements, and the character designs have so much life in them as they retain most of Tezuka’s original designs as opposed to modernizing everything. Jungle Emperor Leo was made 20 years ago as of this year, and everything still looks amazing. I would say that the visual presentation rivals that and in some cases exceeds movies made by Disney and Warner Brothers during that time period. The fight scenes look amazing and Lune’s dream sequence about the human world are both mind-blowing. Discotek did a fantastic job on the Blu-Ray release where the remastered visuals are just jaw dropping. Any arguments about the Kimba franchise having crappy animation are invalid when it comes to this film.

Isao Tomita has really outdone himself in the music department in Jungle Emperor Leo. There are flourishing orchestral pieces, some incidental music that’s action packed, and each piece fits each scene like a tailor-made jacket. The opening theme is a symphonic take on the original Japanese theme song which is just beautiful. The ending theme “Wind Song” is a lovely piano-driven piece that’s purely bittersweet and the lyrics are purely accentuated by the context of the film without coming across as a soundtrack piece that only works because of the movie. They really stepped their game up when it came to both the visual and audio production.

It was fascinating seeing Leo and Lyra as adults. Leo still cares about his subjects since he’s the king and all, but there’s a hint of cynicism in dealing with some of the humans. One plot point from Kimba the White Lion that was lost in translation was that the humans had to leave the jungle after the Silvertail situation in the last episode. His bravery is only stronger here as he survives punishing elements and the scene where he yanks Ham Egg’s gun with his fangs while the jungle is burning is just awesome. Lyra doesn’t have as big of a role, but she still has an integral part being the mother of two cubs while also helping the animals in the kingdom when natural disasters occur.

Lune and Lukio, the cubs can be a bit of a mixed bag, but they do get character development. Lune actually gets a lot of screen time given his story arc being in the circus. Lukio can be a worrisome little sister, but she’s redeemable despite not seeing her in the third act. I felt that she should have a bigger role. Lune can be a bot annoying at first and his English dub voice provided by Tara Sands (Mokuba from Yu-Gi-Oh!) didn’t help, but he is a brave character who legitimately grows in personality.

Both language tracks are quite good and everyone does a solid job here. I was really surprised with the English dub track which should have been a warning since most of the voice actors have done various 4Kids-based series (AKA the scourge of otaku everywhere) based productions, but I was genuinely shocked by how competent everyone was. Leo was played by Dan Green (Yugi from Yu-Gi-Oh!) and he was surprisingly well-cast. I do admit that there were a couple of times where he unintentionally sounded like Mufasa if he was possessed by Yami Yugi, but he showed a lot of range. Truth be told, I like the English dub voices of the returning characters more than the ones in Kimba. Got to be brutally honest about that original series, the double and triple duty usage of the original voice actors got stale after a while, but in Jungle Emperor Leo, I can tell there’s several voice actors involved. I’m also glad that nothing was censored in this movie.

If anyone watches Jungle Emperor Leo without any context of Kimba or that one controversy, they may think that Tezuka Productions is ripping off Disney. The opening scene with the cubs being born could be audioswapped with “Circle of Life” or “He Lives In You” and it would still work. There are even potshots against The Lion King that involve a meerkat family getting bulldozed and the first animal that gets shot onscreen is a warthog that looks suspiciously like Pumbaa in what I like to call a “death by parody” moment. It’s hard watching those scenes and not thinking that it’s a middle finger to Disney. Not to mention the famous cloud spirit scene in the end will be confused with a very certain scene in that Disney movie despite it being a shot-for-shot take from the most iconic scene from the last volume of the Jungle Emperor Leo manga dating back to 1954. Much like Kimba, you will get Lion King flashbacks by watching this. Despite this film coming out 3 years after Disney’s movie, it is an adaptation of the final story arc in the original manga, but some people won’t notice it.

Unlike Kimba, Jungle Emperor Leo gets really dark. There are several characters who die onscreen which can be very depressing. This could throw some viewers for a loop given all the cute animal characters around. Interestingly enough, I watched this movie with some friends and one of them said to me after a major death scene that happens a little over midway through the movie: “This movie is really dark. Are some of your favorite movies about the Holocaust or something?”. I couldn’t believe I was asked that, but I could see where he was coming from. I do enjoy dark movies and I’ve seen anime much more somber than Jungle Emperor Leo, but some of these plot points and death scenes can be too much for some given the contrast between the content and the character designs. You might want to bring some tissues for some of those death scenes.

Jungle Emperor Leo does have two major flaws. The first one would be some of the plotting. While the characterization is great, it can be a bit confusing with Lune’s subplot with the circus, Leo defending his kingdom, and the search party to find the Moonlight Stones. There’s a part of me that wished it could have been a multi-episode OVA to flesh out each story a bit more, but they were able to make due given they time they were allowed. Certain characters could have been developed more like Lyra and Lukio with their stories. The biggest flaw would be the canonical inconsistencies with this and the Kimba show. I understand that Tezuka Productions wanted to do something more accurate to the original manga, but some of the changes threw me off after watching the original show. The most noticeable ones are the animals not being able to talk to humans with the exception for one very heartbreaking scene and Coco saying that humans can’t be trusted. The latter really surprised me because that parrot used to work at a hotel where he was with humans all the time. I was more surprised that Leo wasn’t angrier with Ham Egg since he’s the man who killed his father and indirectly allowed his mother to drown in the ocean. Yes, I’m aware about Leo the Lion AKA Susume, Leo! (Onward, Leo!) being a direct continuation of the original TV series, but with Osamu Tezuka having more creative control, but good luck trying to find legal DVDs or even finding streaming services for it. I wish there would have been more canonical cohesiveness because people watching Jungle Emperor Leo straight after watching Kimba the White Lion will get mood whiplash. If you watch this movie without seeing the original series, you won’t have that feeling, but you will be interested in learning more about the characters though.

The stuff that I liked about Jungle Emperor Leo, I actually liked more than what was in Kimba the White Lion, to be honest. I thought there was a better balance between the comedic and serious moments even though it gets a huge dosage of Cerebus Syndrome not even halfway through. The voice acting and several of the returning characters are better. The biggest improvement would be Dr. Mustache who I enjoyed a lot more than his original Kimba incarnation given his bravery and medical knowledge to heal the animals. The music is an improvement, and not making it a musical worked a lot better here. The darker elements made me engrossed in the story much more. I seriously wish that Tezuka Productions would remake Kimba with a unified canon bridging some content from the TV series and this movie. If they can remake Black Jack and Astro Boy several times, then Tezuka’s beloved white lion should get a reboot, too.

Jungle Emperor Leo is certainly one of the better animated movies that should have gotten more attention. The animation is simply breathtaking and has barely even aged. The darker storytelling is great even though it didn’t follow the TV series’ continuity. I’m surprised this isn’t up there with any Studio Ghibli or Makoto Shinkai works in terms of great anime movies. The absence of censorship gave this even more respectability and having an option to check out both the English and Japanese language tracks in the DVDs and Blu-Ray was a smart choice. While Jungle Emperor Leo may not have the lighthearted atmosphere like it’s 60s predecessor, I feel that it certainly improved several elements. Check it out if you want to see some stories involving this true king, in the words of Dr. Mustache.




Adjustable Point System

Add 1 point if you’re an Osamu Tezuka fan
Subtract 2-3 points if you don’t like your animated movies getting really dark

Pros:

-Exquisite animation/visual production
-Incredible score and ending theme
-Good characterization with lead characters

Cons:
-Continuity divergences from the Kimba show
-Some plot juggling
-Lack of character development for some characters that needed it

Final Score: 9/10 points

Content Warning: The original Anime Works DVD gave both a 7+ sign and a PG logo straight from the MPAA itself. I agree with it. This movie is more violent than the earlier Kimba/Leo incarnations and the body count is much higher for both animals and humans including some main characters. There may be some cute animals, but the themes are a lot darker than what the cover would suggest. Also, the English dub has one instance of profanity involving Ham Egg which surprised me since several of the voice actors have done various 4Kids productions.

-Curtis Monroe

Photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws.

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