Thursday, December 15, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 43, "Monster of the Mountain"

"Monster of the Mountain" is at once an "ethical dilemma" story in the classic mold of "Jungle Thief," a vest-pocket African travelogue (with, it must be admitted, some truly peculiar geography and zoology to contend with), and the closest that Kimba ever comes to a true "solo effort" by its star. Above all, though, it's a textbook lesson in how outstanding writing and characterization can paper over a plot twist that seems altogether too obvious in retrospect but catches one by legitimate surprise upon initial exposure. Would it be too much to call this episode Kimba's version of The Sixth Sense? Probably, but I'm going to give out a big, fat SPOILER WARNING right here and now. You have been warned.

In "Destroyers from the Desert," Kimba arguably faced his sternest physical challenge. In "Monster," by contrast, it's the well-packed space between his perked-up, white-furred, black-tipped ears that gets the main workout. Unlike his counterpart in "The Balloon that Blows Up," the Kimba of "Monster" is obviously a fully mature adolescent (a contradiction in terms, to be sure, but this is KIMBA we're discussing) and fully in charge of his kingdom -- so much so that he's palpably feeling his oats as the curtain goes up. Why else would he insist on going alone to confront a legendary creature hundreds of miles from his jungle? Kimba seems uncomfortably close here to coming down with a bad case of hubris. No tragedy of an Oedipean nature awaits Kimba in the Atlas Mountains, but he does wind up getting impaled upon the horns of a devilish dilemma, to wit: what happens when his well-honed ideals clash with the needs of another creature? Unsurprisingly, the jungle prince struggles for an ethical paw-hold before the timely appearance of a good, old-fashioned physical challenge helps to propel him onto the proper path.

The "chimera"'s moonlit attack on the village makes for an arresting opening that even that flapping terror Darkwing Duck might appreciate. Right away, though, we get some highly problematic "local color." The Atlas Mountains, where all the action is taking place, are in extreme northwest Africa, so you'd probably be more likely to see the stone homes of North African Muslims than the stereotypical "grass shacks" of equatorial black Africans. Not that it really matters, because the inhabitants of said "shacks" turn out to be... white guys clad in striped PJ's that look as if they came right off the rack at Marshalls.

If you're scoffing at this point over the whole notion of an African bear, even "the last of an almost extinct breed"... well, it just so happens that a now-extinct species of bear did "[roam] the mountains of the north" (i.e., the Atlases) during ancient Roman times. The Atlas Bear apparently furnished the ursine action in those "bear-baiting contents" featured at the finest Roman colossi in between the Christian-chomping lion acts. There's only one hitch: the Atlas Bear was apparently not carnivorous. So the frankly amazing feat of oral strength performed by the "chimera," that of carrying away a full-grown cow in its maw, was probably beyond it. I can see where this kind of troublemaker might have come to the attention of Kimba, even so many miles away.

Kimba (sounding a bit nasally -- maybe Billie Lou was getting over a recent cold) now appears while engaged in his most impressive "construction job" to date, one that makes the simple raft of "Volcano Island" look pretty shabby. Not only that, but the boy can converse with crabs! Is there nothing he can't do? Well, aside from taking on the responsibilities of a freelance, off-site trouble-shooter. Judging by the initial reaction of Cheetah (Ray Owens) to Kimba's announcement of departure, Kimba didn't even think it necessary to tell any of his subjects that he was going off on a potentially dangerous mission. Does he think it's a mere overnighter? Kimba's maturing self-confidence seems to be tipping over into cocksuredness here, and his laughing dismissal of Cheetah's verbalized worry that the "chimera" may destroy him queers the scale even more. You just know that Kimba is riding for some sort of fall at this point. It's strange -- what would normally seem to be admirable initiative, pluck, and enterprise acquire a negative spin in this scene, precisely because it has been so well-established in previous episodes that Kimba's bravery is balanced by his sense of responsibility. That's what carefully honed characterization will do for a series.

I can't for the life of me guess the identity of the (apparently extensive) body of water that Kimba and Cheetah travel over to get to the Atlas Mountains. Given the putative location of Kimba's jungle, I don't think that it's the Atlantic Ocean, but, given that a part of the Sahara Desert would block the duo's progress on land, what else could it possibly be? Whatever it is, the waterway winds up being forbidding enough to justify the gratuitous insertion of a ferocious storm (which Kimba greets with that classic Watt-ism, "Rain, rain, go 'way!") with a wailing, demonic chorus in the background. After the big blow blows itself out, we then are asked to consider the possibility that Kimba and Cheetah were traveling on the Amazon. Piranha fish?! Nope, not even an ancient African piranha fish can be used to justify the little devils' appearance here. All of this seemingly pointless, time-wasting action, however, may have an ultimate point: that of diverting our attention from memories of the opening scene and softening us up for the appearance of Mama Bear (Sonia Owens) and Teddy Bear (Gilbert Mack) in the "diamond cave." (That last is another "literary embellishment," BTW; Wikipedia lists "iron ore, lead ore, copper, silver, mercury, rock salt, phosphate, marble, coal, and gas" as the major natural resources found in the Atlases.)

We get served additional "suckerage" when the appearance of the "chimera" is teased by a properly "frightened" Kimba before Teddy finally appears. The voices of Mama and Teddy -- matronly and cutesy-poo-ish, respectively -- couldn't have been better chosen. The two bears win our affection right away, and the attachment only gets stronger when we see Kimba get rag-dolled by little Teddy. If you're not going "Awwww..." by the time this introduction scene is finished, then you have a heart as hard as one of the not-supposed-to-exist diamonds in that cave.

If you remember that the Atlases are in northwest Africa, then the sudden appearance of the desert landscape doesn't seem quite so surprising. (The appearance of cacti that wouldn't seem out of place in a Western movie is another matter, since such cacti aren't native to Africa.) By the time spine-covered Cheetah and "tar baby" Kimba have concluded their slapstick pas a deux, we are thoroughly softened up. The scene in the bears' treetop home finishes the job, with Mama channeling no less than Winnie-the-Pooh by the offering of a "little something," the hiccuping Kimba being reduced to helpless protestations of "Aw, shucks!," and the wah-wah trumpet delivering something of a knockout blow to our wobbling natural suspicions...

... And then, we learn the awful truth.

Was this revelation set up beautifully, or what? Honestly, the first time I saw this episode, it came as, if not a complete shock, then at least a partial shock.

Now, given his well-established m.o., I can fully understand why Kimba would be so terribly taken aback by the notion of Mama battening on helpless cattle. But I think that there is an additional reason why Kimba, in particular, looks so aghast here. In my review of "The Insect Invasion," I noted that the Caesar of JUNGLE EMPEROR, far from "liberating" domesticated animals as was suggested in "Go, White Lion!", actually used them as a source of food, as opposed to letting the jungle animals fight it out amongst themselves. If the original Japanese script of this episode preserved the manga's backstory, then Kimba is now coming face to face with the harsh reality of what his father actually did "for the greater good" -- and "he can't handle the truth." Kimba's shocked realization of his wild-animal nature in such episodes as "The Trappers" and "Jungle Fun" was a gentle love-tap on the shoulder by contrast.

The use of Cheetah as the "voice of reason" actually makes a good deal of sense, precisely because he's a "generic" character. The use of the far-better-established Bucky, Pauley, or Dan'l as the sounding board would have confused the issue and put less of the onus on Kimba for working out the dilemma. For sure, Bucky, Pauley, or Dan'l probably wouldn't have simply tried to browbeat Kimba into helping Mama and Teddy. Well, perhaps Pauley would have, but he wouldn't have made such an, er, impression.

The appearance of the giant lizard (Gilbert Mack) plops the cherry on top of all of the ep's "strange sights." I'd sooner believe that Atlas Bears still exist than quietly acquiesce in the reality of this particular puppy. Just when we're getting used to the lizard's presence, we're asked to accept that he would have designs on a baby bear. Mama appears to be unprepared for such an unexpected visitor; despite her application of the Stegmutt/Hulk approach to villain-busting (namely: pretend they're on fire), not to mention her ferocious nocturnal rep, she finds herself hard-pressed to prevail. One could perhaps criticize Kimba here for being a little slow to finally ditch his "foolish pride" and help Mama out -- he could certainly have helped Cheetah out by taking the hint and cutting off the latter's breathless monologue after a decent interval -- but pitch in he ultimately does, using brains rather than brawn to dispatch the lizard. Kimba's use of cave-shadows to knock the overgrown salamander off-stride is a nice call-back to the scene that introduced Mama and Teddy... and, yes, I think we can safely say that Kimba's unnecessary voice-over was explicitly meant to take some of the edge off of the piranhas' "getting rid of" the lizard. I think that even the smallest kids understood what happened here, though.

How very convenient that it starts to snow just as Kimba and Mama have buried the hatchet. The bears will now hibernate, Mama won't be tempted to steal any cattle, and the problem of not being able to start a farm in the winter has been solved. (Where will the farm be located, though? In the desert?) As in "The Balloon That Blows Up," the existence of some sort of animal GPS is posited by the clear suggestion that Kimba and Cheetah will be able to run back home from a location that they reached only via an exceedingly perilous sea voyage. Yes, you do indeed need to grant "Nature's needle-eye" a very generous diameter in order to let this episode pass through. It's so superbly done, though, that one hardly feels the squeeze.

Up next: Episode 44, "A Friend in Deed."

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