Thursday, February 16, 2012

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 50, "Soldier of Fortune"

Several of the later episodes of Kimba have, somewhat curiously, depicted the jungle prince as "younger" than we would expect him to be. In "Soldier of Fortune," however, the Titan crew may actually have taken things a bit too far. It is surely jarring, two episodes before series' end, to hear Kimba actually asking "Uncle" Dan'l Baboon for PERMISSION to join world traveler Floppo the Seal (Hal Studer) on a trip across eastern Africa to the Indian Ocean. Is this really the same lion who sailed away to combat the "chimera" in "Monster of the Mountain" with nary an audible peep being raised by his "peeps," save Cheetah, who just happened to be on the scene when Kimba shoved off? And could that truly be our Kimba essentially pitching a temper tantrum (a fairly mannered one, all things considered, but still...) in order to convince an atypically splenetic Dan'l to let him go? As we'll see, there's internal evidence that this episode was not one of the very last to be dubbed, but neither was it an early effort. It still seems a rather curious decision to suddenly amplify latent bratty tendencies in Kimba, no matter when the deed was actually done.

Iffy character quirks aside, this is about as straightforward an episode of Kimba as exists in captivity. The setup promises a scenic African jaunt, and that's exactly what we get, though the geography gets pretty wonky pretty quickly (as was the case in "Monster of the Mountain") and it's even harder to guess how the Floppo-less gang will get back to the jungle than it was to dope out how Kimba, Dot, Dash, and Dinky would make it home after the events of "The Balloon that Blows Up." Boss Rhino gets his most memorable post-"Volcano Island" role as what basically amounts to the Gruffi Gummi part in our little expedition. Floppo is an ingratiating one-shotter, and I'm glad that Hal Studer didn't simply try to reproduce the familiar Roger Ranger voice for the character; he really tries to do something different with his standard voice, though exactly what he had in mind is difficult to tell. Not a classic, to be sure, but there's a mellow, genial vibe to this ep that makes the occasional moments of tension and peril that much more effective by contrast.

Intriguingly, Ray Owens' brief opening narration sets the story up to be some sort of fairy tale. (We'll get a similar "And that's the story of..." bookend at ep's end.) What's funny about this is that there's no paranormal, otherworldly, or "magical" aspect to the story whatsoever. Not that Kimba would have stood for it, mind you.

We get several quick hints that Kimba is kinda-sorta meant to be a juvenile here: he literally runs Bucky over in his eagerness to see the mysterious "creature" and then requires the prickly assistance of Harry/Harvey Hedgehog (making his last bow here) to get through the crowd of curious animals. Um, he's the prince of the jungle... he should simply be able to request to be let through.

In introducing himself, Floppo goes all Gertrude Stein-ish on us by declaring "A seal is a seal," but, according to whoever wrote the Kimba entry on Wikipedia, he's a South African fur seal. If so, then I wonder where he started his trip around the world. He later declares that he entered the heart of Africa by following the Congo River "as far inland as it would take me," which makes some sense, as the river makes a huge bend to the South in mid-continent. But that would indicate that he entered Africa from the west. If he's from South Africa, then why would he do that? Hang on, I may have an answer for you later...

If a couch could talk, it'd probably sound like Floppo. He's got a cozy-sounding, laid-back voice that sounds like an imitation of someone, but I can't tell who. There may be some W.C. Fields in there, but, given Floppo's overall air of geniality, that seems like a questionable assumption. Wherever Studer got the notion for this voice, it quickly charms the audience, not to mention the eager, wide-eyed Kimba. Of course, Kimba has already seen a good portion of Africa thanks to the balloon trip in "The Balloon That Blows Up," but part of Kimba's anticipation may lie in the fact that this trip will be planned, rather than involuntary. This strongly suggests that "Soldier of Fortune" was intended to proceed, say, the events of "Monster of the Mountain." Extra-jungular adventure is still seen by Kimba as a bit of a lark, rather than a leader's mission.

So why does Dan'l have such a burr up his ass over the notion of Kimba going on this jaunt? He does everything but snarl "Get off my savanna!" to Floppo but never actually provides a reason for his opposition to the idea. It might have worked better had Dan'l made some reference to Kimba's need to stick to his duties as leader of his kingdom. Dan'l still would have come across as heavy-pawed, but he wouldn't have seemed so confounded crabby in the process. Kimba "matches" Dan'l's maturity level by doing the taunt-'n-tease bit with the rock. It's cute, but, once again, not really what we would expect from Kimba in what is billed as a "late-series" episode.

Pauley's past experience in the human world (cf. the flashback in "Two Hearts and Two Minds") would presumably explain his interest in going on the trip. The lottery that selects Dodie, however, is a bit curious. I wonder whether this was a clever ploy to hide the fact that the animators didn't want to take as many characters on the expedition. The trip will, as it turns out, venture into some decidedly deer-unfriendly territory.

Boss Rhino's epochally stubborn "adherence to instructions," to the point of ramming (and destroying) the only tree within miles rather than alter his course, is positively brilliant. To resurrect the Gruffi analogy, this is like Gruffi insisting on repairing floorboards in Gummi Glen even as the Gummis are preparing to "leave for good" during the episode "Up, Up, and Away." It doesn't make the character any more or less likable; it simply encapsulates his personality perfectly.

The encounter with the gorillas basically burns time and little more, but the Titan crew does make some clever use of the embedded Japanese song, and Hal Studer slips in the nugget of news that Floppo once belonged to a circus. That might explain Floppo's port of entry into Africa; he may have escaped somewhere on the West Coast of Africa and decided to turn his departure into a circumnavigation of the entire globe. For sure, I'd want to celebrate my newfound freedom in a big way.

I'm not sure what's more improbable -- the existence of mammal-munching pitcher plants in Africa or the sudden appearance of forbidding mountains in our friends' path. Here is where the geography spins out of control. Assuming that Floppo, Kimba, et al. followed the most logical path from the environs of the bend of the Congo, they must be traversing part of Uganda and the South of Kenya on their way to the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, there don't appear to be any massive mountain ranges in that general vicinity (Mount Kenya is closer to the center of Kenya). The cliffs are just there... no, not to suck, Greg, but to provide a fitting backdrop for the obligatory "Never give up... never surrender!" scene between Floppo and Kimba (which I don't take entirely seriously, BTW; it's not very likely that Kimba would abandon the pinniped in such a treacherous area) and the memorable "Saving Boss Rhino" sequence, in which the Titanistas sell the animals' physical duress exceptionally well. Even Kimba of the seemingly indestructible tail seems to be tested to the utmost here.

No sooner do we get over the mountains and into the lake than we get a CONTEMPORARY POP CULTURE REFERENCE COMPLETELY OUT OF NOWHERE! Kimba's delighted cry, "I love this dirty water!" during this scene:

makes absolutely zero sense in context, so Billie Lou Watt must certainly have been referencing this garage-band standard:

This song peaked on the charts (at #11) in early July of 1966, so that allows us to pinpoint the recording date of this ep with reasonable accuracy. Was it something that Billie Lou thought of on the spur of the moment? Had she heard it on the car radio that morning during the drive into Manhattan? Who knows?

The encounter with the (somewhat implausibly situated, not to mention implausibly artistically rendered) "sea monster" is notable primarily because it gives Kimba a belated chance to pay Pauley back for all the support the parrot gave him during the darkest moments of "Destroyers from the Desert." Pauley has shown a number of moments of conspicuous courage on behalf of Kimba's ideals during the series, dating all the way back to the classic "Jungle Thief," so one might consider this Kimba's way of showing just how much he has appreciated all of those gestures. It's too bad that Kimba didn't smack the beastie in the face with his tail as he was doing the slow-motion backflip into the water... just for old time's sake.

"Pardon me... could you kindly direct me to the set of GODZILLA

Perhaps that mountain lake is the source of the Fountain of Youth; during the escape, Kimba suddenly changes appearance to the cub of "Go, White Lion!" Whatever the nature of the effect (besides cheapness, that is), it's quickly remedied as the perilous passage under the rocks rather improbably opens up into a waterfall by the oceanside. Well, whatever works to get you there. Just don't expect to get back home by the exact same route. You should also hope that Floppo was just kidding about actually swimming the Indian Ocean. Even a mammal who possesses the amazing ability to talk under water without drowning -- a trait he imparts to Kimba, no less! -- will have his breath control tested by that challenge. In any event, have a safe journey home, guys.

Up next: Episode 51, "The Day the Sun Went Out."

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