Sunday, October 2, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 32, "The Last Poacher"

I believe that the proper term for an episode like this is "thematically problematic." Translation: We'd censor the m'f'ing thing for gross political incorrectness if we didn't think that it would look too hypocritical. For the first and only time, a black native African character -- the ruthless poacher Devil Man (Ray Owens) -- serves as the main heavy, and, worse yet, he's the obsequious lackey of a greedy white merchant named, logically and unimaginatively enough, Mr. Greedy (Gilbert Mack). But, as the Narrator notes during an ending scene that sets a new record for brazen "we-know-that-there's-been-a-death-but-we're-not-admitting-it" shamelessness, there's more to the story than you might guess. After clearly being led to regard Devil Man as a symbol of the old "dark continent" of "devil's masks and voodoo drums," we're abruptly invited to regard the defeated poacher as a semi-sympathetic figure. This causes the triumphant "March of Progress" theme to ring just a bit hollow at the last, and, arguably, kept this ep from being permanently blackballed. Despite the sudden tone-swerve, as a "completist" sort of fan, I'm grateful.

When I began "recovering" Kimba on public domain tapes in the early 90s, this was the very first episode on the very first tape that I watched. The box cover trumpeted "The Last Poacher" as "The Ranger's Origin," and, indeed, a ranger character is prominently featured here... but it's not Roger. Seymour Hart (Mack) is a rather more "grown-up" character than the brave but somewhat callow Roger -- so much so that Kimba, while he plays a major role in the takedown of the poaching operation, may almost be said to have been a "supporting cast member" here. Part of the reason is that Kimba, Dan'l, Bucky, and Pauley spend most of the episode away from their home turf, but the gang is only too willing to serve as "cogs in the machine" and help Seymour and the other rangers with their well-laid plans, no matter where said plans are being hatched.

After the dramatic, well-staged rescue sequence, Bucky gets off to an equally quick start, making up for his bumbling fecklessness in "City of Gold" by pulling a fast one on the young'uns. Since Kimba is already at the hospital, Dot, Dash, and Dinky's "junior" status is made altogether too clear here.

Who the heck built that giant onion of a hospital? And why there?! Is the "Omnipresent Yet Unseen Builder Guy" who built Wiley Wildcat's cage back on the job again? If so, I hope that he helped them get Seymour up that ladder.

Note how the Narrator's description of Seymour's home turf and responsibilities segues seamlessly into a flashback describing the events leading up to Seymour's wounding. Ray Owens may have "stated the obvious" a bit too frequently here, but I think that the blending of narrative streams goes quite smoothly. Devil Man doesn't seem to have a problem with using (relatively) high-tech methods of transportation, but, despite the shot that winged Seymour, we'll learn that most of his followers are equipped with bows and arrows. The contradiction seems pretty startling, for reasons of self-preservation if nothing else; after all, the Native Americans became a far more serious threat to settlers after they acquired guns. For Devil Man, however, the reliance on bow-and-arrow turns out to be a "pride thing" first and foremost.

Note that virtually all of Devil Man's associates are white. No doubt, if they had all been black, it would have been "memory hole and bust" for this ep a long time ago. It's also intriguing to note that Seymour himself appears to be, if not black, then, at the very least, of mixed racial origin.

The drugs kick in for the first time since "Mystery of the Deserted Village" as Kimba's attack on the poacher wannabes becomes a cornucopia of creepiness. Not much to say about this, except that those guys were rather poor copycats if they were so dumb as to leave a giant pile of bones out where any ranger could see them.

I know that the "March of Progress" business (the building of the highway) is supposed to be forward-looking and inspiring, but, even here, there's a distinct element of coldness to it. Perhaps it is the scene of the pistons banging, banging, banging away... too bad that they couldn't have used a piece of Raymond Scott's music to lighten things up a bit. The news that the corvee lives, in a manner of speaking, doesn't make me feel much better.

I didn't know that Kimba knew Butt-Head.

After the rangers round up their dogies (including the ones of the wild variety that Kimba spooked, I presume) but Devil Man escapes, Kimba gets his one "bright idea" of the episode. The plan does have an obvious flaw -- what if both members of a pair are captured and neither can get back to alert the others -- and, sure as fate, the glitch wastes no time in making its presence felt. Kimba and Dan'l, having lost Bucky and Pauley's trail, are reduced to scrambling around and asking "whoever" for assistance, and only Kimba's happening upon the injured Pauley (how did he get so skinned up, anyway?) saves the day.

Things start to get a bit dicey as Devil Man's subservience to his "Master" triggers Bucky's angry reaction. You must admit that this episode handles the issue of "humans and talking animals" quite well. Characters are amazed, frightened, and stunned in turn to hear Kimba and friends speak -- all very believable reactions. Nowhere here do we find such oddities as Professor Madcap, Tonga, or the snooty guys on London Bridge exchanging dialogue with Kimba and not really giving it a second thought.

Starting with the face-down between Seymour and Devil Man, the tone begins to change. Devil Man's pride comes to the fore as his determination to cling to "old ways" begins to acquire an air of nobility, while his apparent recognition of the fact that he and his way of life are doomed ("I knew this day would come!") brings memories of the Native Americans' fate to mind. In this respect, letting Seymour's accidental shot be a killing blow would have been the appropriate thing to do. The stage is clearly set for the last act of the tragedy... and the Titan crew chickens out, even as we watch Seymour, the animals, and some Scroungeville loyalists paying their respects at a thumpingly obvious grave site. (What did you think we'd think that thing was, guys -- a bed of nasturtiums?) Even with the cop-out, this last sequence is powerful, but the deceitful dodge, all by itself, forces me to drop the ep from "near-great" to merely "good."

Dan'l throws us the final curve as he hopes that the supposedly desirable "March of Progress" will leave Kimba's kingdom alone. Given what we know now about what has happened to African wildlife -- not to mention the continent of Africa as a whole -- I think that Kimba's reaction should've been a bit more waspish than a wistful chuckle. This episode may have a few major flaws, but it does leave you thinking, and any ep that does that is certainly worth remembering.

UP NEXT: Episode 33, "Jungle Justice"

1 comment:

Gregory Weagle said...

--- The stage is clearly set for the last act of the tragedy... and the Titan crew chickens out, even as we watch Seymour, the animals, and some Scroungeville loyalists paying their respects at a thumpingly obvious grave site. (What did you think we'd think that thing was, guys -- a bed of nasturtiums?) ---

At least Titan was brave enough to show a grave site. Telefilm Canada completely cut out the last scene of Astro and company looking at a wooden cross and Odin's grave. The only way I knew that Odin had died was the ship turning into a ghost.