Sunday, November 6, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA, Episode 37: "Legend of Hippo Valley"

If I were a philosophy professor and taught an ethics class, I'd want to use this episode as fodder for discussion. It's that good -- a fascinating "ethical dilemma" story packed to the brim with more "serious" content than just about any TV-cartoon ep I could name. Among the issues tackled here are: (1) the nature of good public policy -- specifically, whether the dire needs of the many should outweigh the desires and beliefs of the few; (2) the corrosive effects of religious hypocrisy; (3) the clash of mutually uncomprehending cultures; (4) the nature and importance of forgiveness. Lest you think that the "thinks" being "thunk" here are wholly highfalutin, Kimba and his subjects are also faced with executing a daunting task of engineering. Put it all together, and it's essentially the Kimba version of Bridge on the River Kwai. And I'm not just pulling that particular analogy out of my ear; I first got the idea that this ep could be used as an instructive tool when I remembered a sequence from the Alec Guinness classic (specifically, the business where Guinness has his war of wills with Sessue Hayakawa's Japanese prison commandant over the matter of officers performing manual labor) that I saw in a high-school theology class.

Much as I'd like to, I can't classify this episode as flawless, primarily because Claw makes an appearance after suffering his "definitive defeat" in "Jungle Fun"/"The Pretenders." Granted, Claw cooks up most of his villainy behind the scenes, which would make sense if he no longer felt capable of directly challenging Kimba one-on-one after the events of the two-parter, but the scenarists can't resist just one more tussle between Kimba and Claw -- and to call it perfunctory would be giving it too much credit. The opening and closing scenes are a little draggy (though the opening at least does a good job of establishing mood), and the plot's logic isn't completely airtight. That is about all that there is to rue here, however, and it's more than outweighed by the massive amount of good in this highly memorable ep.

We never do find out exactly WHY the monkeys are jumping up and down on the hollow log. Is this meant to be an equivalent of the Ben-Hur galley-slave scene, with the monkeys setting a work tempo? Then why isn't anyone following it?

The animals' attempt to alter the river's course for purposes of irrigation demonstrates just how sophisticated Kimba's kingdom has become since the days of "Jungle Thief," when the only responses to a drought were to turn to subsistence agriculture and otherwise pray for rain. The alteration of a natural landscape (for better or worse) is a sign that civilization's grip on the jungle world has become secure.

The scene in which Kimba and Dan'l explore Hippo Valley is creepy and effective, though that interminable "side-to-side-swinging shot" of the "crumbling" cliffs bespeaks just a bit of visual cheapskatery. There's nonetheless something bothersome here; surely, the duo must have visited the valley, even in passing, long before this? According to the maps that the ep helpfully provides for our convenience, the place is immediately adjacent to Kimba's kingdom. I call Kimba and Dan'l's unfamiliarity with the terrain a "security lapse," even though the hippos who give the valley its name are not antagonistic. At least, not most of the time...

Hippo Boss has a different voice (by Hal Studer) here than he did in his most recent star turn in "Jungle Justice," but he still sports the same laid-back attitude. As in his dealings with Clunker in the earlier episode, he "doesn't want any trouble," even to the extent of treating Kimba's accusation of a hippo attack with considerable restraint. Boss' attitude is a little more problematic here, though, because Tusker (Ray Owens) appears to be (1) a regular herd member, unlike the "newbie" Clunker, and (2) a past source of trouble (notice how quickly Boss calls out the sneak after Kimba and Dan'l have left the premises). Were Boss any kind of proactive leader, his next move would be to let Kimba know that Tusker's gang was responsible for the attack, but no such admission is forthcoming (a good thing, too, otherwise we'd have many minutes of dead air on our hands). Boss' responsibility for the coming trouble is therefore considerable. This is one case in which the "in, but not of" dwelling-apart nature of the hippos' relationship with the rest of the jungle shows to distinct disadvantage.

Old Methuselah (Gilbert Mack), the former "Bushdaddy" of "The Wind in the Desert," now makes his first appearance as the living, breathing repository of jungle history, and the tale he spins is a good one. Certainly, it's the series' best use of an "African tribal" motif; in its use of semi-stylized figures, the scene bears a certain resemblance to the opening El-Ahrairah sequence of the cinematic Watership Down. The sudden refreshing of the well when the old hippo (Studer) arrives is, however, problematic. The well presumably dried up because the Kurdus refused to share their water with a stranger, and, as we'll see, the valley's "curse" can only truly be broken by what is in effect an atonement for that "original sin." By contrast, the sudden interposition of a "miracle" that saves the old hippo -- the event that turned the valley into the hippos' "sacred place" -- seems to happen simply because it needs to in order to set the plot's main conflict in motion.

One could get a great debate going, not on Kimba's laughing dismissal of the "curse" of Hippo Valley -- his disdain for supernatural phenomena has long since been established -- but on his apparently casual off-the-paw decision to continue trying to flood the valley, which would essentially flush the hippos' holy ground to hell in order to bring on high water. Should Kimba have been more sensitive to the hippos' feelings here? Does the "for the greater good" argument, um, hold water? Would Kimba's decision have looked better had he made a more strenuous effort to establish a closer "governing relationship" with the semi-autonomous hippos? There is plenty to chew on as we swing into the "action-oriented" portion of what has, up to now, been a very "talky" episode.

Evidently fully convinced that he's on the right course, both logistically and morally, Kimba flashes an unusual amount of "attitude" in the ensuing scene. Giving his subjects a serenade on the "birdophone" is not exactly S.O.P. for our normally proper jungle prince. Then, when Kitty arrives (how did she find out that Kimba needed help? Did the "mail stork" intervene here?), Kimba essentially uses sarcasm in order to shame the other animals into helping him and his lady love tote them rocks.

Hippo Boss' recognition that "the greater good" may require the use of the "sacred valley" comes too late as Tusker forcibly takes command of the herd and, full of apparent righteousness, calls the other hippos to a holy crusade. (Tusker must have felt himself possessed of a sudden spasm of "divine" strength here, else how could he have drubbed Kimba and Kitty so easily?) The truth then dribbles out as we learn that Tusker's "hippopietistic fidelity" is basically a cover for a supposed alliance with Claw. Move over, Tartuffe, you have company. Cassius sounds even more sinister in this scene than is his normal wont; he almost sounds as if he's channeling Mephistopheles. It seems fitting under the circs, given Tusker's religious posing.

Give Claw at least a tiny bit of credit; he must really like (or lust after) Kitty a lot in order to completely blow his scheme in favor of a mad "heroic" dash to save her. The best thing about the ensuing "fight," by far, is the little butt-shimmy that Kimba gives us before pitching into his arch-enemy. He's an "old paw" at this sort of thing by now. Alas, the sound then mysteriously snaps off (was there a problem with the original soundtrack at this point?), and the ensuing chase sequence looks more like a level of Donkey Kong. I half expected to hear a "Pew-pew-pew..." sound effect when Claw fell into the river and drifted out of our lives.

The exchange between Dodie and the defeated, but newly repentant, Hippo Boss is my favorite scene in the episode. The imaginative lighting effects behind Dodie are a particularly classy touch... and thank goodness that the soundtrack stayed away from an intrusive musical underscore. There was no need to hammer the point home. The same understated drama is on display when Boss decides to sacrifice the valley in order to help the other animals and save the farm. The good he does pays off, as the "curse" is definitively shattered once and for all. The episode... well, just sort of peters out from there, but in a pleasant sort of way, so I don't mind the shapelessness too much.

No doubt you're wondering, "What became of Tusker?" Good question. Did he have to pay for his treachery, face a little bit of "Jungle Justice"? This isn't the same as forgetting about Mr. Potter at the end of It's a Wonderful Life; Tusker actively conspired with Kimba's main adversary, fer gosh sakes. Given Kimba's generous nature, Tusker probably stood a chance of being forgiven, but the hippos would have had just as much to say about Tusker's fate, and I doubt that they would be as willing to acquit him. Here is where the larger theme of the ep may have come into play. Might Hippo Boss, having now recognized the virtue of forgiveness, have convinced his fellow hippos to let Tusker off lightly, or at the very worst banish him? If so, then the lesson really did take -- and the animals of Kimba's kingdom would have proven themselves to be more "civilized" than many of the human societies that they are striving to imitate. Sounds like a good note on which to dismiss the class...

Up next: Episode 38, "Volcano Island."

1 comment:

Bob Thing said...

There is a scene where Kimba throws his foreleg (arm?) across Kitty's chest to "protect" her from the hippo's attack. Kimba comes to Kitty's defense many times throughout the series but it's usually effective. This irrationally hopeless act obviously comes straight from his heart.