Friday, March 11, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 6, "Jungle Thief"

I've got plenty to say about this one, the first truly outstanding Kimba episode since "Go, White Lion!" -- and I hold that latter opinion despite the presence of an inordinate amount of narrative "piddling-around" that could only have been originally intended as padding of some sort. When the plot does move, however, it moves with considerable gravitas. Aside from introducing one of Kimba's signature civilization-building initiatives -- the animals' (decidedly non-Orwellian) farm -- the episode provides legitimate fodder for a philosophical debate over a decision that Kimba makes in the midst of a deadly crisis. The decision represents Kimba's definitive break with any lingering temptation to cede anything to the time-honored "Law of the Jungle," but it also nearly backfires, bringing Kimba as close to complete despair as he would ever get in the series. Suffice it to say that this ep is simply packed with "Heart," and that, at at least one moment, said "Heart" is very close to breaking.

From a personal perspective, "Jungle Thief" is special to me because it features the single most iconic image of Kimba that I managed to preserve from my youth. I don't recall exactly when I first saw the ep in syndication, but it must have struck me with a considerable impact.  Even during Kimba's "wilderness years," when the show had vanished from broadcast TV and was not yet available on VHS or DVD, I could bring it to mind. As fate would have it, when I started collecting the episodes in the 90s, this one eluded me far longer than did most of the others. That made my joy in finally seeing it again all the more heartfelt.

Ray Owens' opening narration, with its dramatic declaration of "Africa!" at the start, must also have been lurking in the shadowy recesses of my memory. On my first re-viewing of the episode, I immediately recognized it as something I'd heard before and was promptly filled with "a wild surmise" that this ep might be something special. Good music and visuals help to make this one of the series' most effective curtain-raisers.

Kimba is learning quickly, as he's already recognized two key principles of effective leadership: (1) plan for the future; (2) what they don't know won't hurt them (more than they are already hurting, that is). Unfortunately, as everyone from Richard Nixon to Jim Tressel could tell you, the cover-up winds up being worse than the actual crime. Kimba's debate with the supposed Samson (Ray Owens, using a completely different voice and shifting back into antagonistic mode) shows the pressure that trying to maintain a well-intentioned deception has placed on him. You can definitely hear the strain in the voice of Billie Lou Watt (who's in superb form throughout, BTW) as the white lion throws a small portion of his weight around. Luckily, Tiny Hippo (Sonia Owens) manages to bail Kimba out, but keep this early "pressure point" in mind.

Kimba's decision to start the farm makes perfect sense in view of his admiration of various facets of human civilization, but did he really need to be told about such initiatives by Dan'l Baboon? Didn't Kimba see modern farming in action in the World's Fair sequence of "Fair Game"? Likewise, Kimba really should have been ready with a comeback when Dan'l presented a "rain dance" as man's "first response" to a drought. The explanation may lie in the fact that, according to Craig Andersen, "Jungle Thief" was recorded in early December of 1965, making it one of the very first eps "in the can." It's therefore highly probable that this ep was produced before "Fair Game." How I wish we knew more about those production dates!

The brief fire sequence, though effective, basically kills time until Kimba and Dan'l Baboon discuss starting the farm, just as the earlier post-"Bucky and Pauley snooze" tracking shot (complete with scenes very similar to those seen in the opening) spins footage between the establishment of the drought/food crisis and the other animals' discovery of the stolen food. Delaying tactics of this type will, alas, appear again.

The zebras' brief "mutiny" is far more serious than Samson's personal "mad-on" in "Great Caesar's Ghost," for it marks the first time that a whole sector of "animal society" has lost confidence in Kimba's plans. Were it not for the conveniently-prowling pack of "wild dogs" (which would also pose a threat in a couple of future episodes), Kimba's leadership would have been put to its severest test yet. But Kimba will soon be providing a scourge for his own back in...

The "farm groundbreaking sequence" just goes on and on, complete with goofy slapstick mayhem. It's an important step forward for Kimba's kingdom, to be sure, but did the physical work deserve that much screen time?

One could object that planting seeds (from flowers? Are the animals intending to become Lotus-Eaters?) with no immediate hope of rain is a classic example of putting the cart before the horse, but Kimba wouldn't be Kimba if he weren't proactive. Kimba's comment regarding the elephants' refusal to help -- "They don't believe in what we're doing" -- sounds believably plaintive.

The introduction of the plight of Hedda Riverhog (Sonia Owens) starts the "deeper" movements of the plot in motion. Kimba's nobly self-sacrificing (and, later, nobly forgiving) behavior towards Hedda provides a direct challenge to the "Law of the Jungle," but a far bigger one quickly follows when Kimba puts the entire "farm operation" in peril in his efforts to help Hedda get well. Is the life of one creature worth risking the needs of the many? Under "Jungle Law," clearly not, so Kimba is truly flouting "established standards" here. And the strain it is putting on him is obvious; he keeps his head down after delivering the seeds to Hedda (under cover of dusk, it should be noted) and then gets his dream-lecture from Dan'l. When your chief adviser is questioning you to this extent, you know you are taking a big chance -- one that even Caesar, with his lack of exposure to human mores, would probably not have taken. The plaintive clarinet music accompanying Kimba's actions only serves to spotlight the "moral island" on which he has placed himself.

The next five minutes or so lift "Jungle Thief" to the status of a stone-cold classic. Kimba's departure in search of more seeds (and vindication of his bet-it-all gamble) is symbolically perfect; he plods away with head bowed, then we see him break into a steady run, showing a renewed determination to atone for what even he must now suspect may be a terrible mistake. (Notice the way Dan'l grinds his teeth in response; that's no fatherly remonstrance Dan'l is projecting.) Kimba's journey through the parched, yellow landscape comes to an emotional climax when he fruitlessly climbs the barren tree and, for a moment at least, both looks and sounds utterly defeated. The dramatic "swoop-in" leads to the "money shot" that haunted me all those years...

I have to admit, it still gives me chills. That sunburst effect behind Kimba's head only adds to the impact.

What better character to cut to in order to "break the tension" than Pauley Cracker? Pauley's tantrum, so wildly overplayed by Gilbert Mack, lightens up what is actually a very serious moment... the moment at which "the light goes on" and the other animals see the tangible evidence (to wit: a recovered, but penitent, Hedda) of the positive effects of Kimba's rejection of "Jungle Law."

The climactic "wild dog attack" and the "let the rains come down" coda would had to have been spectacular to match these scenes, and -- well, they aren't. The "wild dogs" are basically a device to (1) get Kimba knocked out so that he could wake up "dramatically" a bit later on and (2) give Hedda a chance to physically atone for her thievery and pay Kimba back... and did we have to see so many scenes of the "dogs" chasing the animals? There were so many "chase" shots, in fact, that the other animals' subsequent refusal (excepting Hedda, of course) to lend Kimba a hand in fighting seems almost disrespectful. At least Pauley, he of the self-righteous tirades, might have deigned to assist Kimba. (I've heard of "chicken hawks," but "chicken parrots"?) The coda is little more than a random set of "rain"/"celebration" scenes, but we do get to hear a nice sample of Watt's "Gatling gun" laugh for Kimba at the very end. To be sure, if Kimba ever deserved to end an episode with a hearty laugh, then this would be the one. Despite its flaws, this ep is a wonderful example of Kimba at its "Heart"-felt best.

UP NEXT: Episode 7, "Battle at Dead River."

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