Sunday, December 4, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 41, "Destroyers from the Desert" (and a new KIMBA KONNECTIONS Kontribution!)

Back when "Kimba scholarship" was just getting started -- specifically, in the first iteration of this pioneering article in the early 1980s -- Fred Patten and Robin Leyden flagged "Destroyers from the Desert" as the "intended" final episode of the series. Despite the Tezuka Company's correction of the episode order number, which is itself rather problematic, the ep certainly does seem to be trying for an epic feel, a mounting of the "ultimate challenge" to Kimba's rule. The stern test provided by a trio of legendary marauding beasts from the wastes almost proves too much for our jungle prince, who undergoes another crisis of confidence -- a sort of adolescent version of the doubts that dogged him in "The Insect Invasion," "Jungle Thief," and (to a frankly absurd extent) "Running Wild" -- and must undergo rigorous physical training before he can bounce back and save the day. Along the way, Kimba takes a horrific physical beating, Kimba's subjects plan and at least partially execute a mournful exodus from their long-fought-for home, and Pauley Cracker enjoys his most admirable and, yes, even heroic moments of the series. With all of these ingredients, this should have been one of the series' very best adventures. Somewhat surprisingly, though, my opinion of the ep has actually declined a bit since the first time I watched it.

As has been the case with several of our recent entries, I think the problems with this episode are primarily a matter of tone. The Destroyers -- wildcat Chiller (Hal Studer), monkey Butcher Boy (Gilbert Mack), and near-mute elephant Nero (Ray Owens) -- are introduced and ballyhooed as something akin to unstoppable forces of nature, and there they should have stayed. When they start giving off quips and comments that could have done equivalent duty for a school-hallway bully or a Mafia underboss, the severity of their challenge is undercut just enough to take some of the starch out of the "epic." Atypically, the Titan's crew's voice-acting also lets the project down at times. Aside from Chiller and Butcher Boy's highly problematic voices, Billie Lou Watt and Gil Mack all but sabotage what should have been a truly memorable and powerful "crisis of confidence" scene with some of THE worst "cry-acting" I've ever heard. In a sense, the most distressing fault of all -- especially for an episode that is supposed to take place late in the game -- is that Dan'l Baboon and the other animals, upon hearing of Kimba's defeat by the Destroyers, crack like chicken bones and quickly surrender to the villains' demands. They've already fought, both literally and metaphorically, for Kimba's vision of civilization against the not-inconsiderable threats of Claw on several occasions. By this time, they should be at least a bit better prepared to react to a challenge of this magnitude.

I shouldn't really go overboard on the criticism of "Destroyers" -- on balance, there's much, much more good here than there is bad. It could, however, have been even better than it is. This is one instance in which the more "realistic" tacks taken in the various modern (and less-beloved) Japanese incarnations of the Janguru Taitei series would probably have handled the plotline better.


Link to episode at Hulu

Oh, how close this dramatic, superbly-mounted opening sequence came to being perfect! We know that something unusual is afoot when we open without the usual scene-setting panorama shot and soaring symphonic music. Instead, it's off to the desert in silence, though apparently not to check on the present condition of James Brawn and the Super Miniature Bomb. The lack of music makes even Dan'l's bug-eyed reaction to the initial appearance of the "devil wind" seem less like a channeling of John Phillip Law's skull-straining histrionics in the infamous Space Mutiny and more like a wholly appropriate reaction to what is initially sold as something akin to an other-worldly phenomenon.

Ray Owens really outdoes himself with the opening narration, and the writing is impressive as well. "This will be a sign for all to see" takes us into the realm of the Scriptural, and you've got to love the way Ray's voice trails off, ever so slightly, after "nothing grows..." (well, except for that ever-pesky baobab tree). The gang stays frozen in place as the shadowy Destroyers come into view, further amplifying that Something Really Big is Going Down...

... And then Butcher Boy opens his mouth, and a portion of the tension and awe is kissed goodbye. The Titan crew had to give these characters some kinds of voices -- they spoke in the original version, after all -- but Mack and Studer's voices for Butcher Boy and Chiller simply aren't, well, special. (Studer does give out with a pretty nasty growl during the initial charge at Kimba, I will admit.) Something unusual on the order of a Gollum-like or Voldemort-like voice was called for here, and apparently the actors couldn't, or wouldn't, create one. The dialogue is also somewhat problematic; all-powerful destructive beings shouldn't feel it necessary to bait their foe by calling him "Princie." That being said, this fight sequence is the closest that Kimba ever comes to being legitimately grisly. We do get the chopsocky-flavored "slow-motion takedown" of Kimba by Butcher Boy, which seems a little out of place in such a "hammer-meets-anvil" beatdown, but Kimba almost seems to be sweating blood at 4:55, and the aftermath of his final fall, framed against a lowering, muddy sky, is painful to behold:

The Destroyers then head for the jungle and commence to... eat the available food. Another problematic bit. I should think that any Destroyers worthy of the name would have immediately pitched into living animals and tried to consume them. Pauley quickly demonstrates that he'll have to be reckoned with by daring to challenge the great Nero (whose silent flipping of the stone with his trunk, a la George "Scarface" Raft and his coin, is an inspired ominous touch, much more intimidating than any of Chiller and Butcher Boy's baiting). Still, the alacrity with which the other animals stoop to serve the interlopers is disheartening. I'd have either (1) rushed off to aid Kimba or (2) hightailed it for the depths of the jungle, leaving the marauders to fend for themselves. As things ultimately shake out, Kimba's entire kingdom will ultimately opt for "neither of the above."

Chiller's mobster-inflected "[Kimba] had a pretty bad accident" is definitely cringe-worthy. So where would one be taken in the jungle if one were being taken for a "one-way ride"? And in what would one be riding at the time?

The sulfur springs to which Dan'l and Bucky bring the wounded Kimba may be connected in some way to the steaming springs seen in "Gypsy's Purple Potion." It's a suitably spartan location for Kimba to begin putting his physical and mental selves back together. It is rather strange, though, that Dan'l doesn't post a guard or something similar to make sure that Kimba doesn't try a premature comeback, which he certainly seems willing to attempt.

Pauley now really comes into his own, as he seems to be the only member of the jungle community who hasn't completely knuckled under to the Destroyers. His attempts to get a drink while Nero is emptying the pool are meant to be comic relief -- as is a later bit in which he gamely tries to nab the one lonesome water-driblet that the Destroyers have left behind, leading to the standard "driblet taunts Pauley as if it were alive" shenanigans -- but they also serve the grander purpose of setting up his refusal to heed the fatalistic Dan'l's litany of gloom and despair and the beginning of his effort to help Kimba master some new fighting tactics. (BTW, we never do learn where Pauley picked up this knowledge. I can understand him learning about restaurants by living in a hotel and about stalking a suspect by watching detectives on TV, but where in his experience in the human world would he have learned about what seem to be animal equivalents of martial arts?)

As with the opening scene, the first training sequence is an "incomplete success," tone-wise. The seriousness of Kimba and Pauley's strenuous purpose is emphasized by the lack of background music and Billie Lou Watt's well-sold grunts, groans, and pants. Pauley's pleading with Kimba not to give up sounds 100% sincere and heartfelt, albeit with some standard-issue Pauley over-exaggeration:

But then, when Kimba crashes yet again and despairs of his abilities, it all goes to pot. A weeping Kimba -- for example, the Kimba who thinks that Claw has finally bested him in "The Pretenders," or the Kimba who cries at the thought of making peace with Viper Snakely and Tubby in "The Trappers" -- would have been entirely appropriate here, and, indeed, Billie Lou starts out that way. After that, though, Billie Lou and Gil seem to be competing to see who can provide the most ludicrous-sounding wails. Suffice it to say that I DON'T see this as being a "Whaaaa-la-la-la-la!" moment.

To his everlasting credit, following this breakdown, Kimba "turns on a dime" and apparently partakes of a good, stiff belt of self-motivation. No spanking and/or talking-to required here, as in "Running Wild." When she arrives on the scene, Kitty practically seems in awe of the punishment her love is going through to prepare to face the Destroyers once again. But is the phrase "Let's go home" meant to suggest that Kitty is living in Kimba's jungle? We know that's not correct, so I suspect another intervention by the "mail stork" here.

Dan'l's independent decision to haul up stakes and lead the others to quit the jungle is, for all the haze of defeatism that surrounds it, arguably just another way of trying to fulfill Kimba's dream -- one that seems quite believable coming from an elderly denizen who's seen "The Law of the Jungle" in action too many times to count. It still bugs me, though, that Dan'l didn't have this idea right from the very beginning, when it became glaringly apparent what the Destroyers intended to do. The exodus also militates rather strongly against this being the final episode of the series. If Kimba's kingdom had been firmly established at this point, beyond all gainsaying, then the other animals would probably have opted for retreating deeper into the jungle, rather than completely abandoning ground that they had defended so many times before. After all, Kimba's legacy is Caesar's as well.

Carefully planned Dan'l's rearguard action may have been, but flawless? Not when Dot, Dash, and Dinky -- who merely represent, at least in part, the jungle's future -- get left behind to serve as waitstaff/potential snacks. Were the trio SO buffaloed by Butcher Boy's imperious command to "Smile when the Great Nero passes!" that they subsequently lost all capacity for rational resistance to the Destroyers' demands? Geez, you'd think that the Destroyers were "Mary Sue" characters.


Just when Nero is apparently ready to fulfill Bob Dylan's command that "everybody must get stoned," Pauley dive-bombs the bad guys and rescues D-cubed. Did the parrot come up aces full in this episode, or what? Pauley even appears to make the supreme self-sacrifice as Dan'l clues Kimba in on his decision to lead the exodus. Coincidence elbows its way into the room here; what if Kitty had not arrived just at that moment to tell Kimba about Pauley's capture? Would Kimba actually have agreed that Dan'l had done the right thing and opted to avoid fighting in favor of starting over somewhere else? The point is moot, of course, since Kimba is not about to let his staunchest ally in this episode down... and off we go with what I suppose might be considered the ultimate "Kimba Runs to the Rescue!" sequence, in which we get all the standard running-Kimba poses (and, yes, Joe, the infamous "moving ground" can be seen as well).

I speculated during my review of "City of Gold" that Kimba's tail must be made of some super-strong substance. Here, we get incontrovertible proof of that fact. Kimba doesn't even hit Chiller in the eyes, yet Chiller is sufficiently blinded and/or panicked to react to Kimba's attack by running straight into a rock formation. Then it's "down goes Nero" in fittingly melodramatic style. The most memorable moment in the battle, IMHO, has nothing to do with tail-lashing, or even trunk-nipping; it's when Kimba makes clever use of sunlight and shadow to throw Butcher Boy off guard just long enough to make his decisive strike. It took a little doing to get this screen grab of Kimba's shadowed face -- which is immediately followed by a blinding flash of white light -- but it was worth it for the neat effect it produces. (The subsequent "Madonna" shot of Kimba surrounded by a halo of white light, by contrast, seems a bit like overkill.)

Kimba shows his true qualities as a leader, as opposed to a "mere" warrior, in the last couple of scenes. He displays his strong sense of responsibility to his kingdom -- the same sense that drove him to undergo all that training and to decide to face the Destroyers again rather than abandoning the jungle -- by reacting angrily to Dan'l's decision to bring the other animals to see the battle. Then, he performs the "ultimate act of forgiveness" and invites the Destroyers to become jungle citizens. "There's no place here for the Destroyers," responds the silence-breaking Nero... such could be said of "The Law of the Jungle," the plots of man and beast, and any number of additional threats to Kimba's domain. Given that the Destroyers merely retreat -- presumably to find another jungle to despoil -- Kimba might actually have been justified in being a little more forceful here, especially since other animals may be put in danger as a result of the Destroyers' defeat. The phrase "Compel them to come in" does not seem out of place in this instance.

As they say in the debt-consultation advertisement, "the feeling of relief" at the end of this episode is indeed "real." Sure, it's not all it could have been... but it seems to me to be a heck of a lot better putative final episode than the one belatedly designated as such by the Tezuka organization. Perhaps Robin Leyden and Fred Patten were right all along.

Up next: Episode 42, "The Balloon That Blows Up."

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Over at kimbawlion.com, Craig Andersen has let loose another goodie from his stash... this one, an audiotape from a 1977 fan gathering in which the Kimba crew (sans Gilbert Mack) discuss some of their best-known roles. I came along too late in the game to attend this, more's the pity...



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