Sometime in the near-future, non-stop environmental destruction leads the United Nations to commission a private company called "Eternal Earth" to create an artificial jungle. Drawing its power from an active volcano, this so-called Neo-Jungle acts as a nature preserve for endangered spiecies. Animals are abducted from their natural habitat and forced to live inside a computer-controlled artificial environment where scientists monitor their every move. One such animal is white lion cub Leo (Taeko Kawata). Since little Leo can neither leap nor hunt as well as his father, the fabled jungle emperor Panja (Saburo Tokito), other animals call him a coward, but his fighting spirit drives him onward, encouraged by his mother Elsa (Nanako Matsushima) and kindly Koko the bird (Rie Kugiyama). What Leo can't understand is why Panja won't fight for his subjects even though he knows they are unhappy in this strange new world.
Their activities are observed by dedicated chief scientist Professor Hikawa (Saeko Chiba) and visionary project controller Oyama (Akio Otsuka), who is idealized as an eco hero by his young son, Kenichi (Akiko Yajima). When Kenichi discovers he has the amazing ability to talk to the animals, he ventures into the jungle hoping to meet Leo. Instead, he encounters Toto (Eichiro Funakoshi), an escaped, genetically-engineered, super-intelligent panther who has been attacking teams of hi-tech stormtroopers working for Eternal Earth. Rescued by Leo and his family, Kenichi discovers his father's motivations are not as altruistic as they seem. Oyama is cloning species for sale on the international market and has developed a major god complex, which he demonstrates unleashing an apocalypse upon Neo-Jungle, intended to clear his tracks with the United Nations, wipe out all animal life and start again...
More than a decade after the last Jungle Emperor Leo (1997), a new creative team produced this intriguing science fiction oriented reboot of the iconic Osamu Tezuka creation. Imagine The Lion King (1994) meets The Matrix (1999) with a dash of Jurassic Park (1993). Leo debuted as a manga back in the Fifties then gained international fame as a television series and spin-off feature film retitled Kimba the White Lion (1966), notable for including more ambitious stories, mature themes and ingenious concepts than were common in children's fare back then. Back in the Nineties, The Lion King stirred some controversy amongst anime fans and drew accusations of plagiarism, but Jungle Emperor Leo: The Brave Can Change the Future steers its adorable animal heroes in a direction Disney would never go.
Gorgeous animation in vibrant colours and sweeping aerial shots over lush jungle vistas lend an epic scope to a film that is not the anime Lion King but a science fiction adventure full of ambitious and well thought out ideas worthy of Tezuka's legacy. Like Frankenstein (1931), Jurassic Park, or more recently Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) this tells a tale of good intentions gone awry and nature rising up to chastise mankind for its hubris. Goro Taniguchi, a veteran of science fiction anime like Infinite Ryvius (1999) and Planetes (2006), touches on Tezuka's stock Buddhist-Shintoist themes of respect for all living things, but also acknowledges environmental issues have grown more complex since back in his day. Instead of despoiling the environment, here a big heartless corporation is out to save it, but still doing all the wrong things and concerned largely with turning a profit. "Animals are products", remarks Oyama.
Taniguchi stays true to the spirit of Tezuka's work with ostensible villains unveiling a streak of goodness and a potent subtext about the difference between false strength (bullying force and ruthlessness) and true strength (compassion, selfless heroism). One break with tradition is that whereas before Leo spoke human languages and served as a mediator between the world of men and the animal kingdom, here it is Kenichi - a character present in the manga though excised from the original anime - who takes on that role.
One of those confusing instances where a film exists as both a remake and a prequel, The Brave Can Change the World rewrites the mythology and reimagines certain key characters. It takes the title hero back to a point where he was not as smart or capable or able to perform his famous flying kung fu leaps. Some Jungle Emperor Leo fans may find this a regression too far as on occasion, Leo's cutesy antics make him seem like a supporting character in his own movie. On the other hand, the point is evidently to emphasise Leo's gradual transformation from naive lion cub to visionary jungle emperor. The film climaxes in a rousing rebellion as the young emperor storms Oyama's hi-tech underground complex with his huge animal army. Explosions and eye-catching effects ensue, including one humourous aside wherein a little mole unable to tell the difference between men and machines, beats up a radiator. Takefumi Haketa's excellent score increases the excitement with its pounding jungle drums. Character designs by celebrated fine artist Yoshitaka Amano who actually started his career creating animal heroes for anime like Hutch the Honeybee (1974) when he was only fourteen years old.