Sunday, October 16, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA, Episode 34: "Jungle Fun"

Kimba is chock full of continuity -- however confusing it may sometimes be -- but "Jungle Fun" and its follow-up episode, "The Pretenders," mark the only time that a single storyline was extended over more than one ep. The circumstances -- Claw's "ultimate" attempt to defeat Kimba once and for all -- certainly hold the promise of a tale with an epic sweep and a "conclusive" feel, a la Gummi Bears' two-parter "King Igthorn." Alas, "Jungle Fun" and "The Pretenders" mimic "King Igthorn" (at least, the original American broadcast of same) in a more unfortunate manner; Claw would make another appearance in "Legend of Hippo Valley" just two episodes hence, while Tom and Tab still have several appearances to go. The current reconstruction of Kimba's chronological timeline was arrived at by several parties after plenty of discussion and debate, but I can't help but wonder whether these two eps should have been positioned just a bit later in the series' run.

Future return engagements by "decisively defeated" villains are far from being the only major problem here. During the production process, the Titan dubbing crew appears to (1) have had second thoughts about presenting the story as a "formal" two-parter and (2) have gotten extremely skittish at the thought of winding up "Jungle Fun" with a cliffhanger in which Kimba is seriously injured. The decision to wait to reveal Kimba's near-fatal accident until the end of a flashback sequence at the start of "The Pretenders" stands as arguably the most questionable editorial decision that the Titanistas ever made. Aside from failing to give the audience the benefit of the doubt for being able to stomach an episode's fading out on the image of a prostrate Kimba, the move badly mucks up the introduction of a significant new set of supporting characters: The Black Four, a Beagle Boys-esque quartet of "villainous hireling" leopards who have apparently accepted a contract from Cassius to take Kimba out. I say "apparently" because the dirty deed is conjured out of the narrative equivalent of thin air, literally leaving the audience gasping, "Huh?!?". The B4 never do get a proper introduction, not even the improper one that was provided in the form of a surrealistic "sing-and-sashay" sequence in "The Pretenders" but was clipped for time (or, perhaps, in despair that the musically challenged Titan crew wouldn't be able to hack what would have been a hellaciously tricky job of dubbing). The leopards with the nasty attitudes and the Jimmy Carter pearlies would have to wait until "The Day the Sun Went Out," in which they freelance and torment Kimba and Leona ("Mystery of the Deserted Village") for more or less the hell of it, to craft their most lasting impression on the audience.

Mushi Studios' handling of this ungainly project is itself far from adroit. Characters appear in two places at once, or appear in a setting before we actually see them arriving at said setting. Big chunks of both "Jungle Fun" and "The Pretenders" are devoted to filler material, including a simply dreadful song by Sonia Owens (as Kitty) in "Jungle Fun" and a must-see-it-to-believe-it vaudeville routine in "The Pretenders" that absolutely MUST have been dreamed up under the influence of some very strong hallucinogens. The filler would have been packed even tighter had the Black Four "trip" been taken. Plenty of visual imagination is on display in these sequences, but they do tend to detract somewhat from what we really want to see, which is a truly epic set-to that decides once and for all whether Kimba or Claw will rule.

You might think that I'm setting these eps up for an unholy panning. But... in the manner of a baseball team rallying dramatically in the late innings, the latter stages of both "Jungle Fun" and "The Pretenders" make up, to a considerable extent, for all the goo, dribble, and artistic faux pas in what has gone before. The conclusion of "Jungle Fun" gives the frequently buffoonish Claw a rare chance to come across as legitimately menacing and presents Kimba with a true ethical dilemma, the resolution of which is executed to near-perfection. The fight sequences that wind up "The Pretenders," meanwhile, while perhaps falling short of what they could have been, are certainly vicious enough, with Kitty, in particular, getting in her most memorable licks of the series. It's a mixed bag, to be sure, but in the manner of a bag of Cracker Jacks -- some of the best stuff can be found at the bottom.

"For those just tuning in" -- and, it would seem, all the "slow learners" in the audience -- the Narrator helpfully presents a potted backstory. I would have liked the monologue better had parts of it not been written in the manner of a primer aimed at really small children. "Kimba does not want to fight, but Cassius does!" And cookies are a sometime food. I get it.

The fact that Kimba's supposed "friends" appear useless enough to be intimidated by Tom and Tab, of all critters, does not bode well... until Dot snaps out of what had appeared to be a pothead's trance and "winks" Dash and Dinky into surreptitious action. D-cubed actually wind up contributing quite a lot to the cause of good in this story, so bully for their bold moves here, but would the kids really be the first choice of attackers in an ambush such as this? If the Narrator's claim that Kimba gives special protection to the smaller animals is to be taken at face value, then the larger creatures in that knot of allies should probably have taken the initiative in defense of their prince. Bucky, in particular, seems to have slipped back into his inert "City of Gold" state, at least for the moment.

Holy Vlad the Impaler, Cassius teased a literal staking of Kimba for a moment there! The panther's target, moreover, appeared to have been right between Kimba's eyes. Excuse me if I regard Cassius' taking of "a different fork in the road" as something of a cop-out.

At the same time that Dot, Dash, and Dinky are bravely piling into Tom, Tab, and Cassius, they also seem to be in the silhouetted crowd that is seen celebrating at 2:33. Phooey Duck, anyone?

Tezuka's Leo built many things to benefit his kingdom, but nothing so apparently frivolous as an "amusement center." Sure, Kimba means well, but the notion smacks more than a little bit of "bread and circuses." Kimba appears to be feeling his oats a bit, as, for the first time, HE is taking the initiative against Claw, actively provoking the latter by choosing to build the park in Claw's hunting ground. Kimba's use of the phrase "whether he likes it or not" is an edgier addendum to that now-classic scene with Wiley Wildcat and almost sounds like a challenge to Claw... who, surprisingly enough, appears to be quite well-prepared for such a challenge, judging by how roughly he treats Cassius for "failing to follow orders." Claw definitely sounds much more like an actual menace here and much less like a blustering puppet. But the best from Claw in this ep is yet to come.

So, following their atypically cocky leader's lead and throwing Claw-caution to the winds, the gang commences to build the park and... Uk-wuk?!

Can upended... beans spilled! Kitty will indeed receive an invitation to join the festivities, and Tom, Tab, and Cassius will indeed join the fun as part of a devious plan to sabotage the works. But they haven't done so yet. Who was at fault here? I'm guessing Mushi, since I doubt that the Titan gang had the extreme editorial freedom to shift entire sequences hither and thither. Clip and trim, perhaps, but not perform such wholesale internal restructuring.

The gun-jumping gaffe aside, I think that the park-building sequence is one of the more pleasant filler sequences in the series. Gil Mack is in good voice, though the lyrics probably needed a bit of polishing ("Like which you never have heard"?), and we get a whole bunch of cameos by guest stars past: Gargoyle G. Warthog and Wildey Boar, Speedy Cheetah, Allie the Alligator (still wearing the bows), Wiley Wildcat... it's almost like the crowd scene at the end of DuckTales' "Till Nephews Do Us Part," on a somewhat smaller scale. Where the head-bobbing, buck-toothed Happy Hooligan wannabe came from, however, I have no clue. I don't think that was a Tezuka cameo.

After Tom and Tab abruptly revert back to "standard factory setting" with their cheesy tree disguise, Sonia Owens BURSTS OUR EARDRUMS with her channeling of some ungodly combination of the vocal stylings of Bea Benaderet and Liv "The World is a Circle" Ullmann. "Kitty's Theme" was originally written as an instrumental, and IT SHOULD HAVE STAYED THAT WAY. Sorry, Billie Lou (and Sonia), but it's the truth. At least we get a brief, semiconscious cameo from Uncle Specklerex out of the deal. It appears that Uncle S. has mellowed considerably in what one would presume is now his extreme old age.

The "Attack of the Crow-nes" makes for a pretty good action sequence, though I wonder why Cassius never made use of these "allies" until now... and since when can crows decimate entire trees like an army of invading locusts/grasshoppers? It's also a little unclear as to why Cassius suddenly appears in the scene -- at least, until things calm down a bit and we learn that Cassius actually intervened to "save" Kimba and Kitty from a Hitchcockian fate. After Cassius spins his tale of woe, Kimba, to his credit, doesn't fall for the ruse right away. It's at least plausible that Kimba's ultimate decision to let the supposed ex-villains prove themselves by helping to build the park stemmed from his memory of the captured poachers' treatment in "The Last Poacher." I'd call this an example of "subconscious continuity" at work.

Another animatory goof: while he's carrying the log, Cassius suddenly reacquires his claws, on one paw at least (16:44).

Starting with CT&T's aborted kidnapping of Kitty, the ep kicks into high gear. Kimba demonstrates just how serious things have suddenly gotten when he reacts to Cassius' attempt to ambush him in the cave. Rather than fight Tom and Tab, Kimba simply runs them over like so much Astroturf. I think this is the moment where, as Greg Weagle would put it, T&T lose all their heat (or, rather, as much heat as they still possess by now) as threats. Cassius poses more of a challenge (I thought that he couldn't fight without his claws?), and Kimba, for once, lays aside the ju-jitsu and the humanoid punches and grapples with the panther in a vicious manner befitting a noble beast of the jungle.

Speaking of beasts, Claw now makes his most dramatic, and effective, entrance of the series. I have no idea where the demonic light suddenly came from -- did a marshmallow roast just break out somewhere in the canyon? -- but the shadow on Kimba beautifully amplifies the dilemma that the latter now faces. There's no better way to demonstrate that this is Kimba's version of the invitation to "go over to the Dark Side."

The ensuing "I'd be no better than they are if..." scene is far better than most of that ilk, in large part because Billie Lou underplays the emotion so well. Claw then nails his dismount with the mocking laughter following "Give us another chance!". Kimba and friends seem legitimately frightened and/or appalled by Claw's cold-bloodedness:

And after all this, Cassius and T&T's "true reformation" actually seems believable. Will it "take"? What do you think?

Unfortunately, the rest of the ep is compromised by the snipping of the accident scene, as we fade out on the Narrator's innocuous, and somewhat strained, simile. You can see the actual ending here (2:50-3:35). Two comments before we flash the "To Be Continued" sign: (1) How did The Black Four DO that?! Do they have an "in" with a supplier of plastic explosives?! And I thought that Cassius' possession of human traps was questionable. (2) Why do Cassius, Tom, and Tab look so appalled at the carnage? After all, they... but let's not get too far ahead of ourselves...

To Be Continued Next Week, Same Blog, Same Jungle, with Episode 35, "The Pretenders."

No comments: