I’ve written in the past about a version of The Lion King I’m sure most of you aren’t aware of: an Italian cartoon from 1995 that I would watch on granny’s VHS recordings as a kid, something I’ve since realized might explain the way I’ve turned out. Eloquently titled Simba the King Lion, the show itself is possibly one of the most stark raving mad things anyone has ever made, and when you consider that its creator, one Orlando Corradi of Mondo TV, also directed the animated Legend of the Titanic (no relation), which featured magical flying dolphins and a giant talking octopus with a dog nose, some pieces connect.
I never saw the whole thing when I was little, but having finally found the rest of it on Mondo’s official YouTube page, where the best English is that spoken in the episodes, I figured I might as well review it in more detail. Set in Africa, its plot concerns Simba, whose father “The Lion King” (not Mufasa) is shot dead by hunters within the first minute, making Simba an orphan who must grow up to seize the throne and such. See, kids, these guys axed off the father straight away. They didn’t ease you into it with all that pesky “character development” and “build-up” crap!
Now it gets interesting. The villain of the show, who naturally longs to conquer the kingdom himself, is not Scar, not Zira, or any other Lion King antagonist. It’s Shere Khan, the tiger from The Jungle Book, who has been turned into one of the most tragically incompetent and non-menacing villains I ever did see and whose right-hand man is a pitiful hyena that sounds like Peter Lorre. Hm.
Simba’s allies, meanwhile, include such inventive creations as Baloo the bear, a wolf family that raises him Mowgli-style, Kaa the python, Bagheera the leopard (?), a Bambi clone named Buckshot, a puppy dog with a ball, two comic-relief mice who dress like sailors (descendants to the mice from Corradi’s Titanic, I speculate), a bespectacled owl who looks like a mix between Winnie the Pooh‘s Owl and the Tootsie mascot, a raven with a top hat, magical fireflies, a terrifying talking tree, a goddamn dinosaur, and eventually a love interest for Simba to stare at while she smiles, giggles and looks unnervingly human (you’re welcome Zootopia fans). Did I mention that Simba and Buckshot eventually gain the power to shoot lethal beams of light and that the mice receive enchanted medallions? That happens.
The inclusion of the Jungle Book characters is partially explained by the fact that this show is a semi-sequel to a 1980’s Jungle Book anime that used the same design for Shere Khan and a similar story. Too bad they got Bagheera and Baloo’s colors wrong between shows then. Careful, Corradi. Something almost made sense there for a second! Another thing King Lion reminds me of is The Animals of Farthing Wood, mostly due to the long journey our heroes eventually have to make to reach Kilimanjaro and give Simba his crown (like, an actual king crown) but also because of how gritty it suddenly gets here and there. I’ll get back to that.
Some more characters to mention, firstly, are the Wild Boar Commandos, whose excessively militaristic leader is basically Pumbaa with Colonel Hahti’s demeanor plus an eye-patch, and a nefarious lion lord named Kingu, who looks so much like Scar that you gotta wonder how and why Disney could let this series slide. But then again, perhaps they’d appear hypocritical if they were to sue Mr. Corradi for something they themselves did to Kimba the White Lion?
It is hard to determine if this series is even suitable for kids. Earlier episodes are pretty tame and innocent, like the one that’s entirely about the owl misplacing his reading glasses, where the villain gets comically foiled and all that. But as Simba and friends grow older, things get darker and more violent. Simba and Khan’s forces are in an all-out war with each other by the end of it and much of the fighting and bloodshed is too grim for the little ones to watch. I wonder why granny let me?
Ignoring all the unsettling imagery and the sheer insanity of the concept, there still isn’t a lot to applaud in this show. Simba the King Lion is stiffly animated, the sound effects are minimal, some parts have been ignored completely during the English dubbing (several scenes will have the animals sing a “jungle anthem” but no words ever come out; it’s quite the fever dream), the editing can be loathsome, continuity is frequently disregarded, the drama is cheesy, the comedy irritating, and most of the characters are just there to be there, never changing or contributing much to the story. The ones that evolve the most are Simba and Buckshot, the former being too ruthless to be the likable noble hero he’s packaged as anyway. I’m pretty sure some of the others, like the puppy, don’t even age. Maybe there’s a magic explanation for that too in an episode I’ve yet to see?
The show also loves to drag things out, giving us multiple chapters in which everything between jack and shit happens, even after Shere Khan’s anti-climactic and frankly merciless defeat (Simba totally obliterates his enemy and looks like a blood-thirsty maniac while he does it). They were so desperate, in fact, to make this a long series that we got an episode where Shere Khan’s never previously mentioned cousin was the bad guy and several episodes in a row where the heroes had to say farewell to each other because they needed to return to their respective homes after the war. They cry, and like most characters on this show, they cry a damn lot, no matter how many times that one annoying canary reiterates to them that the tree-man can help them quick-travel between locations or at least keep in touch via the television he has in his bark vagina.
I don’t know how else to describe the images I witnessed.
I’m not gonna lie, it was oddly emotional for me to see the final episode of the series after all these years. The reason for this is that the last time I had seen the show, the characters had all split up and said their over-the-top tear jerking goodbyes. So when I finally found the remainder of a show I thought was too obscure to be documented anywhere besides on my grandmother’s old VHS tapes, I dunno, something about seeing them all get together again after what to me had been 15 years kinda got to me. I’m not saying this to praise the show, mind. It’s merely proof of how nostalgia can manipulate our judgement, even with strange nonsense like this. In the context of the show’s run, it only takes a couple of filler episodes before the gang is reunited and the semi-touching ending feels less epic once you learn of the sequel series in which Simba Jr. goes to New York to play football (proof that I wasn’t high as a tree-human when I wrote that last bit).
All that said, I’m hesitant to get too mad at this show. Compared to Orlando Corradi’s other work, it’s not as downright offensive as, say, The Legend of the Titanic; but it is definitely on the same level of weird and random in its mixture of ideas. Moments of it are endearingly bad, yet I don’t know if it’s enough for it to earn my 0/5 rating, which I usually just put on something that is so bereft of quality that it becomes amazing (looking at you, Birdemic). I think I’d give it that based on the experience I’ve had rewatching it with friends, which is far more hilarious than seeing it alone and having surreal childhood memories reawaken.
I mean, the only good parts of the show are “tolerable” at best (I somewhat enjoy the owl character and the Boar Commandos are at times the only genuinely funny characters in the entire thing), but they matter very little in a show that is otherwise either (A) hysterically bad and trippy, or (B) tedious and often ugly to watch. Half the time I’m not quite sure what emotions the animals’ faces are supposed to convey and even when it’s clear, it’s usually creepy as hell to look at. This is emphasized by their overly humanized designs – complete with awkward hugs and cringe-inducing kisses – and the voice acting, occasionally consisting of off-putting moans and poorly mimicked animal noises rather than words. If you choose to see this madness (instead of, say, the new Jungle Book film), bring a friend. Preferably a couple whiskey bottles too. Corradi is not a force to take for granted.