Sunday, May 8, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 13, "The Trappers"

In this first-class, Heart-suffused -- though certainly not faultless -- episode, we finally get some closure on Kimba's pilot episode, "Go, White Lion!", with the return of master hunter-poacher-cad-and-thief! Viper Snakely. Snakely (Ray Owens) actually fares rather better here than he did in Tezuka's manga, in which he was killed by a lion (not Kimba). As a member of Tezuka's "Repertory Troupe" -- that is to say, a character who could appear in different guises in different stories, even stories set in a completely different "universe" -- the preserved TV Snakely could conceivably have returned under a different name. After all, he did so several times in Astro Boy, appearing as a crooked circus owner in Astro's pilot, an evil scientist in the later "The Man-Made Iceberg," and on one or two other occasions. Being much more of a single narrative than Astro Boy, however, Kimba kept Snakely in the distinctive role of a ruthless, money-hungry hunter -- which, it must be said, he fits exquisitely well.

"The Trappers" also presents Kimba with his sternest challenge to date -- though the challenge is not a physical one. For the greater good of preserving harmonious relationships between humans and animals, the jungle prince feels compelled to forgive Snakely and Snakely's partner Tubby for killing his father Caesar, a decision which obviously tears him to pieces inside. This would be a very heavy concept for a "kids' show" today, let alone in 1966. Kimba almost has cause to regret his leniency before the end, but this moment must rank as one of his noblest and most mature deeds of the series... and one that I sincerely doubt that his forbidding, imperious father could have duplicated.

I believe that there was some "gentle censorship" in the opening scene... and, no, it does not have to do with Tubby (Gilbert Mack) eating even more food than he is shown doing. Snakely and Tubby are supposedly going to Africa to "capture" animals for private zoos -- we're even given the mistaken impression that the hunters "captured" the "famous" Caesar as well -- but, if so, then what are all those stuffed animal heads doing on Mr. Tweed's (Ray Owens) wall? The cynical subtext is that Snakely is "authorized" to "use any means necessary" to satisfy the order, even if it means breaking a few animals' heads.

Tubby (aka Kimba's Wimpy) definitely has more of a personality in this episode than in "Go, White Lion!". Note how he acts like a boss here and apparently harbors the illusion that he's going to lead the expedition, only to sulk after Tweed gives the job to Snakely.

The weird sound effects that accompany Snakely's smoke-blowing represent the only aspect of this episode that I don't much like. For whatever reason, the SFX department was allowed to go hog wild with incidental background noises here. Astro Boy was full of such noises -- the "plunger" sound of Astro walking, the heavier "bing-bong" sound representing the tread of the portly Dr. Elefun, the "rolling trap drums" used when a character was running. Using them to such a heavy extent in the (theoretically) more realistic Kimba is an entirely different matter -- and in this ep, in particular, they sometimes detract to a considerable extent from what is happening on screen.

Roger's reverie (accompanied by the poignant flute theme from "A Human Friend") replicates events in the manga but is far more "generically wistful" here. Some of the power of the scene is diluted by Roger's specific memories of Mary in "The Hunting Ground," but, in JUNGLE EMPEROR, Roger was also convinced that Mary (who had actually been captured by natives) was dead, and hence his anguish was much more focused. Kimba and friends' concern for his pal leads to one of the iconic images of Kimba in both printed and animated form -- the jungle chorus, with the singing animals' open mouths uplifted in unison. Tezuka's version of the scene can be found at Craig Anderson's Web site (look in the Episode Guide section). The animated version humorously keeps the conceit of the magically appearing conductor's baton (I guess this definitively proves that Kimba is a Toon) and also gives the Titan voice crew a bit of a break by keeping the animals' song wordless, allowing the dubbers to present the scene without any attempt to "sing over" Japanese lyrics. Even such individual gags as Pauley and the "lovebirds" are preserved intact. This is a charming scene.

When Snakely and Tubby appear, we finally get an appropriate reaction by humans not "in the know" regarding the animals' ability to talk: Stark terror! Surprisingly, it doesn't appear to occur to Snakely that he would be able to make even more money exhibiting talking animals for his own profit than providing rich people with animals for zoos. Trust me, such a potential coup would not have escaped the attention of the uber-greedy Hamegg (Tezuka's name for the character).

There appears to be a cut of some kind just before Kimba has his "light bulb" moment regarding Snakely and Tubby. The ensuing flashback, to be perfectly honest, is rather problematic given the established events of "Go, White Lion!". When did this Snowene "info dump" take place? The cub Kimba appears to be talking perfectly well in the flashback, but, in the one extended scene in which we saw Kimba and Snowene interact in "Go, White Lion!", Kimba seems to acquire the power of sustained speech just moments before he exits out the porthole of the ship. So when did Snowene and Kimba find the time to have this conversation? It also seems strange that Snakely and Tubby don't notice Kimba and his mother talking right in front of them. The voices of Snowene and Caesar appear to be different in the flashback, too. This whole sequence could definitely have been handled in a more artful manner... but at least it provides Kimba with the spur to engage in his first true binge as "a wild animal" (the dream sequence in "The Insect Invasion" obviously doesn't count). Plowing into poor, flabby Tubby seems like taking the path of least resistance, though; wasn't it Snakely who actually pulled the trigger on Caesar?

After a "party animals" scene in which we learn that Japan still appreciates The Twist -- if it's played by an instrumental band that sounds much like Japanese favorites The Ventures, that is -- we get the "practically perfect" scene in which Kimba repents of his planned revenge. I say "practically perfect" because, unlike Kimba's "own feelings," those darn annoying SFX keep "getting in the way." Billie Lou Watt is never at her best when doing crying jags -- it often sounds like she's attempting to cough up a hairball in the process -- but she certainly does a fine job here by portraying Kimba as being on the verge of crying before he actually does break down.

As marvelous as this scene is, there is one problem with it that has always nagged at me. So Kimba decides to let bygones be bygones re Snakely -- fine. But neither he nor his friends really come to grips with the corollary question -- what is the established-as-bad-news Snakely doing back in the jungle? Dan'l's claim that, if Kimba forgives Snakely and Tubby, then "they'll be free to do more harm" applies to all animals in the jungle, not just the ones directly related to Kimba. Perhaps Kimba had in the back of his mind that Roger will be able to look after the animals at Snakely's camp to make sure that all goes well during the party (as he indeed verbally indicates a bit later). But the "penny" of suspicion of renewed foul play should probably have dropped a bit sooner than it did.

After the earlier "dancing" scene, we get an equally extended "drinking" (gasp!) scene with the usual complement of slapstick gags (Kids, DON'T try eating glassware at home, not even in 1966!). By this point, the animals, and certainly Roger, should have realized that something isn't right in view of the fact that the "professors"' camp is full of men and hunting gear. These extra men clearly aren't graduate students! (I'm reminded of the goonish "students" who were helping the villainous Egyptologist in MICKEY MOUSE #306's "Catch as Cat Can.") After Snakely deals out the dope-doses, the scales finally fall from Kimba's eyes, thanks to the conveniently discovered pair of rifles. Better late than never, I guess.

As Kimba makes his brave effort to catch up to the trappers' party, Snakely spikes his own punch (an apt metaphor, given the doping sequence) by (1) taking Roger along with him as a hostage, or trophy, or something, and (2) suddenly getting all gooey and sentimental about leaving behind his "favorite rifle." I don't know what Snakely hopes to accomplish by taking Roger back to civilization as a captive; all he's done is guaranteed that a potential enemy will be close at hand if rescue should happen to come.

Love the Astro Boy clip on Snakely and Tubby's TV. You can even hear the distinctive SFX that I mentioned earlier. If I didn't know better, I'd swear that their use here was meant to mock the unwise use of SFX in earlier scenes in this episode. But how did Snakely and Tubby get power for their TV and radio hookups? The image of "the world's longest extension cord" is a rather disturbing one, to be honest.

It may not be taking place in a (completely anachronistic) Western saloon, but the "savannah showdown" between Snakely and Kimba has much more of a High Noon feel about it than the improbable earlier faceoff between Kimba and Billy Bully. Snakely even goes all "Elmore Leonard" on us and tries to bluff Kimba into backing down with what turns out to be an empty threat... one which Kimba no-sells (I'm using that verb in its proper "ranting" sense, right, Greg?) until his attack on Snakely fails.

BTW, where have I seen that "between the legs vantage point" shot before? Only there's just one gun in this scene, and the guy at the "other end" has it. (We'll see another POV shot just like this one before the ep is done.)

When Kimba succumbs to despair, Billie Lou again does a good job of depicting "the tears in Kimba's voice" before they actually come out. Actually, this was one of BL's better (because brief) crying jags. You might criticize Kimba for giving in to despair too easily, but I'm willing to give him a pass because of the severe emotional strain he's been under during the latter portion of this episode... and, lo and behold, one of Kimba's earlier alliances is now paid back in full as Samson (note the broken horn!) leads a host of water buffaloes (I thought Samson was something of a loner, actually; perhaps he had just happened to invite some of the guys over for a nosh of marsh grasses that weekend) into battle. Kimba follows apace in a bit of marvelously fluid animation and subsequently pays off his earlier determination to "forgive and forget" (while still having taught Snakely a lesson) by saving Snakely from a fiery death. The battle scene is rather short, but it's still good.

The final scene with the hunters, in which Tubby claims that he has mended his ways, actually has a connection of sorts to the manga. In JUNGLE EMPEROR, following the sinking of the ship carrying young Kimba and Snowene, the cub is saved and placed on a raft by Tezuka's Tubby-character, but the latter soon puts Kimba on his own raft so that the food-crazed human won't be tempted to eat Kimba while they're marooned at sea! The same sense of humanity (coupled with a chuckle or two) is on display in the interaction between Tubby and Kimba here. The subsequent scene with the male postal worker (Hal Studer) and female postal worker (Billie Lou Watt) handling Tubby's postcard -- a scene which never fails to remind me of the post-office scene with Jack Albertson in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) -- only adds to the charm of this wistfully optimistic suggestion that, someday, humans and animals may indeed be able to live in peace. Given the proclivities of humans, I think that we're more likely to see The Great Gummis return first. But one can always hope... and, despite its darker moments, the hope that "one's better angels" will prevail is what this episode (and Kimba as a whole) is all about.

Up next: Episode 14, "Journey into Time."

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