Saturday, February 4, 2012

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 49, "The Sun Tree"

Circle of Life? Kimba the White Lion don't need no stinkin' Circle of Life -- or, should I say, he need to try to disrupt said Circle out of sheer, cussed stubbornness.

OK, enough of trying to give you the wrong impression about this fine episode. Kimba's heroic effort to save the legendary Sun Tree, the jungle's oldest living denizen, is a well-told story with an ample supply of "Heart" and an ending that's sure to provide a satisfying feeling of closure. Kimba's dream-interchange with the noble spirit of the ancient tree in mid-episode licks most other animated arboreal encounters hollow (apologies to Grandmother Willow) and tees up the rest of the episode perfectly... this, despite the fact that Kimba chooses to ignore the tree's plea to be allowed to die with dignity. One would expect no other reaction, though, from a character fueled by idealism. The ep does have one major flaw; Dan'l's distant relative Muffy Baboon (Hal Studer), the most irritatingly schizophrenic one-shot character of the series, provides some conflict that quite frankly wasn't necessary in what would otherwise have been a perfectly acceptable "Lion vs. Nature" story. Muffy's mood-swings and consequent disputes with Kimba largely serve only to pad the running time of an ep the plot of which was already a bit on the slender side. Otherwise, this is rock-solid (oak-solid?) entertainment in the best tradition of the series.

If Pauley knew that he would be going on an extended "trans-jungular" journey with Kimba in Episode 50, "Soldier of Fortune," he probably wouldn't have been such a whiner here. In all honesty, haven't Bucky and Pauley already been taken on at least a couple of adventures outside Kimba's kingdom? "Two Hearts and Two Minds" comes to mind (and heart). Heck, Bucky actually led school excursions in "Volcano Island" and "The Troublemaker" that turned out to be chock-full of adventure. Still, B&P deserved a better rejoinder than a verbal slapdown from Dan'l and a pointless aphorism from Kimba.

Kimba and Dan'l's approach to the Sun Tree allows the episode to slide in a nice, subtle introduction to the notion of the tree as a complete ecosystem unto itself -- a miniature version of Kimba's realm without the civilizational trappings. The semi-comical bickering by the likes of Smelly Civet (Gilbert Mack) and Dan'l's description of the environs of the tree as "a mess" are a good-natured reminder that the natural world isn't nearly as neat and tidy as the most dreamy-eyed of tree-huggers evidently believe it to be.

So why IS Muffy so schizoid, anyway? He switches from threatening to toss Kimba "into the dirt" to docilely bringing Dan'l and Kimba to Dan'l's Uncle Scratch (Mack) with no "transition game" whatsoever. And this is just the first of his peculiar pivots. My own theory on Muffy's weird personality is that he simply couldn't handle... being named Muffy. This brawny young baboon with the tailfin topknot was given a handle more appropriate for someone who spends his time sipping on appletinis and monitoring his trust fund... or, in a world of talking animals, perhaps the more appropriate analogy would be to a high-society vulpine poseur who's actually a jewel smuggler. Yep, I think I'd be resentful too, though perhaps not to the extent of developing a split (or is that shattered?) personality.

"I hate you! ... But give me a couple of minutes, it'll pass."

It's quite believable that Kimba is originally noncommittal regarding the conflict between Muffy and Scratch as to whether to abandon the "ailing" tree. Aside from the fact that he's a stranger in these parts and doesn't know all of the backstory (in particular, what we'll learn later about Scratch's rather... intense identification with the aging tree), Kimba is a forward thinker. His whole mindset is geared towards bringing positive change to a world ruled by "The Law of the Jungle" and, yes, "The Circle of Life." To his credit, though, Kimba seems to keep an open mind as to whom to support... at least, until he has his unforgettable exchange with the spirit of the tree (Ray Owens, who really sounds like a creaky, but proud, old tree here -- I wonder how this voice effect was produced?) and is told the "Just So Story" of the tree's birth and growth. The animators have previously used the outlines of characters for visual effect -- remember Kimba's visualization of the imperiled Speedy/Dash in "The Return of Fancy Prancy"? -- but nowhere else is the effect employed so memorably. The "wave effects" during Kimba's dream are also noteworthy.

Fired with the idealistic impulse to fight on behalf of tradition, Kimba decides, of his own accord, to attempt to save the tree, albeit using what passes for modern technology in the jungle (the vine-binding used to construct the schoolhouse back home). I suppose his decision could be questioned, but it's hard to deny his good intentions. Unfortunately, it's also hard to buy his acceptance of the bet with Muffy. Truthfully, the valiant effort to save the tree would have provided more than enough motivation for Kimba, with Muffy perhaps playing the role of the Cassandra carping from the sidelines. But putting his life in the paws of someone who claims to want to "get back at [him]" for no apparent reason whatsoever (unless Muffy somehow assumed, with no real evidence in hand, that Kimba would "naturally" back him up against the stubborn older generation)? That's way too far-fetched to accept. Muffy continues his wildly schizoid behavior by (1) pitching enthusiastically into the work, (2) cackling gleefully when news of the impending monsoon arrives, and then (3) imploring Kimba to run for safety as if he actually cared about Kimba's well-being. Sheesh! This character literally makes my head spin.

Kimba, tormented by wind and weather, has rarely flashed such admirable stubbornness as he shows while he's trying to save the tree. Scratch's refusal to "bough out" is just as admirable, but he tips his hand as to his motivation when he cries, "If you [the Sun Tree] go, I go too!" Projection much? To his credit, Muffy refuses to let "Grandad" imperil himself any longer than necessary and (we may assume) helps Dan'l get the old baboon to safety.

Kimba's weeping when the tree finally falls (which Billie Lou sells well, all things considered; it really is weeping, rather than bawling) turns out to be for the past alone, as a "new sprout of the old tree" survives the deluge. To be sure, none of the former denizens of the Sun Tree will be alive to see the new tree flourish, but the Circle of Life's renascence prompts Kimba and Muffy to abandon their fairly ridiculous feud and bury the hatchet. It's a disagreement that should probably never have existed, but, hey, at least we got to see a formal end to the conflict.

It's easy to miss the subtle tear that Kimba sheds during the fade-out scene. This is just the right note on which to end -- well-earned nostalgia for the best of the past, coupled with optimism for the future. I'd like to think that Kimba has a deeper respect for jungle tradition after this adventure -- not the red-in-tooth-and-claw anarchy that his civilization was built to combat, but the rich, multi-layered, interconnected ecosystem that his civilization can both complement and enhance. In that regard, "The Sun Tree" could be termed a "growth in office" episode. Pretty fitting for an ep centered on death and REbirth, wouldn't you say?

Up next: Episode 50, "Soldier of Fortune."

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