Thursday, December 29, 2011

Happy 2012!

This card from the Carl Barks estate collection was sent to Carl at an unknown date by... well, see for yourself!

Enjoy the New Year's weekend, everyone!

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 46, "The Return of Fancy Prancy"

It's been almost exactly eleven months since I announced this series of posts. We're headed down the home stretch with only seven episodes to go. Six of them are good to outstanding. Unfortunately, we first have to vault over this stinker in order to get to them.

Like "A Friend in Deed," "The Return of Fancy Prancy" seems to be radically out of place in the "official" Kimba episode order. The Kimba we see here is explicitly presented as a juvenile, but that's not the worst of it. The jungle prince's authority over the other animals also seems to be in a nascent stage, which it clearly should not be by this time. In no other episode are Kimba's prerogatives as jungle leader repeatedly questioned on the basis of youth and (apparently) nothing else. Even when Bucky scolded "pupil" Kimba at the end of "The Troublemaker," he qualified his disciplinary action by saying that Kimba was a wonderful leader in spite of his behavior. Here, by contrast, Bucky is among the characters who give Kimba the "hey, kid, stay off my lawn!" treatment. To say that such an attitude doesn't ring true at this stage of the game is to state the obvious.

Unfortunately, Kimba comes off nearly as badly as some of his subjects here. As the jungle community tears itself apart following the homecoming of the "citified," self-absorbed Prancy Cheetah, Kimba essentially stands aside and lets it happen... at least, until he washes his paws of the whole mess and goes off to sulk in his lair. Then, when an invading army of ants threatens the safety of the jungle, Kimba basically pooh-poohs the disappearance of one of his best pals. To accept this level of indifference from the hero of "Jungle Thief" and "Dangerous Journey" is to demand the absolutely impossible. To be sure, Kimba redeems himself in a grand spasm of last-minute valor that manages to nudge this ep over the "low bar" of "Running Wild," but it's hard to ignore what came before. Internal evidence suggests that the Titan crew dubbed this episode sometime in the Summer or Fall of 1966; I wouldn't be surprised if they were a little taken aback at its profoundly retrograde approach.

Watch episode on AnimeCrazy

The kids' tree game (with no apparent safety precautions -- tsk tsk!) immediately alerts us to the fact that we're in "Kimba the Kid" mode. Perhaps the tykes are also playing "Character Mash-Up" in that Dot suddenly has a masculine voice, Wiley Wildcat has changed his name to Lynxie, and, most significantly, Dash is taking the role of "Speedy Cheetah" for the duration. Perhaps I should call Wiley "Wynxie" and Dash "Spash" the rest of the way?

It's a shame that Sonia Owens had to waste her delightful Southern accent (for Prancy) in an ep like this. Might the accents of Prancy and her former owner indicate that Prancy was brought up in... South Africa? (Ba-dump-bump!) Prancy's ex-missus makes a clear reference to the movie Born Free, hence my remark about "internal evidence" above.

Strange that "Wynxie" should be the character complaining about Prancy epitomizing a "citified" wild animal. If anything, Kimba, with his extensive experience in the human world, should have been the one to make that comment. But then, Kimba seems almost willfully obtuse in the early stages of this episode.

The old definition of a "Southern belle" as "a bulldozer disguised as a cream puff" certainly applies to Prancy. What's more, Prancy's wilfuness immediately appears to rub off on "Spash," who commences his own nose-in-the-air routine. It is this one-off moment, we'll ultimately learn, that apparently convinces Kimba that "Spash" deserves to be bitten to pieces by the ants. But did "Spash" actually do anything specific to rate such treatment?

Scarlett O'Hara would probably have killed for the "powers" that Prancy starts to exert once she determines that she wants to live in her own home. Holding a mystical attraction for other leopards/cheetahs/?? is one thing, but Prancy's "siren song" proves to be irresistible to other animals as well. Even if you grant that he was partially under Prancy's sway at the time, Rapid Cheetah's angry demand that "you kids" abandon the tree is exceptionally maladroit, just begging for a forceful Kimba to set things right. Kimba, instead, folds up like an accordion at a single wink from Prancy. Then, Kimba quietly acquiesces in Dan'l's decision to try to settle the bad feelings kicked up by Prancy's presence himself. Is Kimba a lion or a RINO in this episode?

The jungle's division into pro-Prancy and anti-Prancy factions is no doubt the silliest internal conflict that Kimba's kingdom ever experiences. Dan'l's claim to Kimba that "This is bigger than the both of us!" is, however, even more laughable. This situation is just screaming for something akin to the "open your borders some of the time" resolution of the Speed Racer episode "The Fire Race," yet Kimba refuses to exercise even the faintest sign of leadership -- passing over in silence Bucky's numbskulled comment about not getting involved in "grown-up matters," letting himself get dragooned into Dan'l's army, and finally blowing the whole conflict off with a childish "I don't wanna fight." He gets one final chance to put his paw down and stop the madness when Dan'l comes to tell him that he's been selected to face Rapid Cheetah in the "trial by combat," but he passes it up. We don't get a single "breakdown moment" akin to the one that disfigured "Running Wild," but this "death by a thousand cuts" is almost more distressing.

The dramatic ant invasion -- accompanied by a legitimately creepy musical motif that wouldn't have seemed out of place in a 1950's sci-fi movie -- gets everyone back on the same page. Even here, though, Kimba just seems like "one of the guys," cowering in the tree along with all the other animals. Strangely, everyone seems to be concerned with saving themselves, while the danger to the farm is not mentioned. Wouldn't this threat to the farm be just as dire as "The Insect Invasion"?

Prancy finally acquires some lovable qualities (those not impregnated into others by song, that is) when she panics over the absence of "Spash." Alas, we then get the painful sequence in which Kimba essentially writes poor "Spash" off. Dan'l's wrong; this is far worse than simply being "snooty." Indeed, Kimba probably deserves a brisk thwacking here even more than he did in "Running Wild." This whole sequence ONLY works if one posits the Kimba of "Fancy Prancy" as a very tentative, inexperienced leader who has not yet internalized the important truth that every animal under his rule deserves to be protected, no matter what the cost or risk may be.

To his credit, Kimba clambers over the "tipping point," sees the light, and just as quickly clambers down the rock face to rescue "Spash." A dramatic scene, and well played by Billie Lou Watt, who is in superb form the rest of the way... but again I ask, what is this "Road to Damascus" moment doing so late in the series?

The "salvation by burial" scene was also cadged from the manga; it was Kitty doing the burying and an unconscious (and considerably older) Kimba serving as the bury-ee. For me, however, the ultimate comics version of this scenario will always be from this story. (Oddly enough, in Episode 48, "The Red Menace," Kimba and his friend Pee-Wee the elephant brave a fiery ordeal similar to that faced by Donald and the boys. In that situation, however, they are more passive would-be victims than anything else.) Kimba's dramatic leap from the precipice -- with the ants trailing behind like so many spooked antelope -- almost makes up for his poor showing earlier in the ep. Almost, but not quite. It'll take more than one bath to wash that particular stink off.

The precise location of the reunion scene is a lot more confusing than it needs to be. Since Prancy locates "Spash" right away, we're presumably back in the jungle, at the place where "Spash" was buried. Kimba's "return" and Dan'l's claim that Kimba is "coming back," however, suggests that Kimba returned to where the rest of the animals had been waiting. So what happened? Did all the animals come back to the jungle, or did Kimba come back to them? This problem is present at the creation, not a product of Titan dubbing, so I don't know how it could have been repaired.

I have to admit, I got a chuckle out of the concluding bicker-thon between Dan'l and Prancy. Having met the Owenses, I can appreciate how far OUT of character this was for them. It does rather queer the mutual forgiveness of the previous scene, though. But, then again, it seems fitting that this particular "chamber piece" should end with a blown note. From here on in, though, Kimba will make plenty of sweet, sweet music.

Up next: Episode 47, "The Cobweb Caper."

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Movie Review: THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (Paramount/Columbia, 2011)

This movie, for all of the mega-name cachet lent by the team of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, is apparently finding it difficult to draw anything much beyond gnats at the American box office. It is a crying shame. Though it emphasizes frenetic action at the expense of subtlety and mashes together several of Herge's TINTIN albums in a somewhat cavalier manner that is sure to distress the more demanding of Tintinologists, The Adventures of Tintin is a marvelous distillation of many of the elements that have made Herge's creation one of the most popular and easily recognized comics icons in the world. With or without the assistance of 3-D (Nicky and I chose to experience the film sans glasses), the motion-capture technology that the film uses to create the look of Herge's characters and "universe" does nothing less than bring the distinctive world of Tintin to life. What the characters actually do in said world is a little more problematic... but only a little.



In order to provide proper introductions to Herge's main characters, Adventures combines elements from THE SECRET OF THE UNICORN (the quest to find a sunken treasure) and THE CRAB WITH THE GOLDEN CLAWS (the introduction of Captain Haddock, Tintin's perpetual partner in adventure). This is a natural pairing in that the sunken treasure was being carried on a ship helmed by Haddock's equally blustery, equally bibulous ancestor, Sir Francis Haddock. The movie goes one step beyond this by turning the conniving antiques collector Sakharine (Daniel Craig) into an outright villain and a descendant of the pirate Red Rackham, who put a curse upon all Haddocks after Sir Francis blew his own ship to kingdom come rather than let the buccaneer get the treasure. This allows for a key element in the original UNICORN -- Captain Haddock's lengthy telling (and acting out) of the tale of Sir Francis and Red Rackham to Tintin -- to be integrated into the story proper in a more imaginative manner. Likewise, the decision to change the coordinates designated by the three scrolls hidden in the masts of the model Unicorns from the location of the actual treasure to that of the ancestral Haddock estate, Marlinspike Hall, allowed Tintin and Haddock to finish what was originally part one of a two-album adventure (the second part being RED RACKHAM'S TREASURE) on a satisfying "up note" (finding the small portion of the treasure that Sir Francis had managed to salvage) and open wide the door for this movie's planned sequel. The purists may wince, but I thought that these changes made more sense than, say, some of the additions and deletions that Peter Jackson made in his version of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

As regards the sheer amount -- and the nature -- of the action packed into Adventures, I'm inclined to side with the purists. To be sure, Herge included plenty of derring-do in his albums, but he never went so far as to feature a battle between a hero (Haddock) and a villain (Sakharine) using ship's winches. (Spielberg is a well-known Carl Barks fan, so I wonder whether he might have had Donald and Scrooge's famous steam-shovel fight from this story in mind.) Likewise, Spielberg isn't content to mount a mere "chase scene" during which heroes and villains scrap for the scrolls in the streets of the Moroccan port of Bagghar; no, the sequence must include Tintin literally flying through the air in hot pursuit of Sakharine's pilfering pet falcon and a local hotel literally being dragged down to the dockside (whereupon the proprietor puckishly adds an extra star to the place's Michelin rating). Most disturbingly, the mania for action allows for the inclusion of wildly improbable stunts that Herge, with his keen sense of the difference between the plausible and the implausible, would never have countenanced. Thus, the desert plane crash from THE CRAB WITH THE GOLDEN CLAWS is presented with computer-enhanced panache, but it ends with Haddock literally being whipped around and around by the propeller and an unconscious Tintin lying directly on top of the plane's engine without having his face burned. Viewers who are encouraged to read the original albums may be surprised to learn that such Perils of Pauline-style close shaves were the exception, rather than the rule, and that most of the actual physical danger was of the "someone knocks you out from behind with a blackjack" variety. (Not that we don't see some of that in the movie, as well. Spielberg is nothing if not thorough in his overkill.)

I was originally dubious when I heard that Adventures was going to rely on "mo-cap," with its inherent quotient of creepiness. But Adventures is nowhere near as weird-looking as, say, The Polar Express. Those unfamiliar with Herge will need a bit of time to get used to the stylized looks of the characters, but the decision to "start slow" (with the flea-market scene from the beginning of THE SECRET OF THE UNICORN) allows "newbies" to settle in a bit. Thankfully, no attempt whatsoever is made to include any modern technology or slang -- the forbidding opera singer Bianca Castafiore's reference to Bagghar as part of "The Third World" is the only true misstep -- and, though the characters are made to sound British, the setting and atmosphere of Tintin's home town are those of the somewhat generic "Europeville" so familiar to Herge's readers. The depictions of the main characters are also straightforward, eschewing cheap attempts to make them seem "relevant" or "cool" for the 21st-century audience. Tintin (Jamie Bell) remains his trademark bland, albeit courageous and admirable, self. Haddock (Andy "Gollum" Serkis) gets a noncanonical Scottish accent that, it must be admitted, seems to fit the character's bombastic nature quite well, and Haddock's trademark weakness for drink is, thankfully, not glossed over or eliminated. And Tintin's faithful terrier Snowy is... well, simply adorable. One does miss the verbal asides that Snowy tossed to the audience (like a bone??) once in a while in the albums, but Snowy gets plenty of funny, character-building bits anyway, mostly relating to his loves of (1) food, (2) bones, and (once he is introduced to it) (3) whisky.

The Adventures of Tintin, on balance, fully justifies Herge's wish (expressed shortly before the artist died in 1983) that Spielberg should someday get the chance to work with his characters. The failure to "prepare the groundwork" for the movie's American debut, however, is to be sincerely regretted. The movie is doing extremely well abroad, so we're bound to see the search for Red Rackham's treasure reach American theaters at some point. Perhaps by that time, positive word of mouth will have done the job that Paramount, Columbia, and other involved parties failed to do here.

Book Review: DONALD DUCK: LOST IN THE ANDES by Carl Barks (Fantagraphics, 2011)

If this first volume is any indication, Fantagraphics' "THE CARL BARKS LIBRARY: The Next Generation" (my designation, not theirs) bids fair to become the CARL BARKS LIBRARY for not one, but several, generations of delighted readers to come. Impeccably produced in a sturdy, reader-friendly, slightly-smaller-than-comic-book-size format, intelligently organized and supplemented, these books will appeal to both the young reader who "just wants to read the stories" (or, for that matter, have the stories read to him or her) and the serious adult collector who wants some analytical "food for thought" on which to nibble after perusing each tale. Giving it to a family with an interest in comics but no prior exposure to Barks might therefore be an ideal way to get everyone in the family interested in Barks' world.

Another Rainbow's oversized black and white CBL was organized chronologically according to publication (WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES, DONALD DUCK FOUR COLOR, UNCLE $CROOGE, etc.). FG's approach -- using a mixture of adventures, short stories, and gag pages in each volume -- is less rigid and more "modular" in nature. While stories will still be published chronologically -- LOST IN THE ANDES is volume #7 of the planned 30-volume set, covering material that originally appeared during the period December 1948-August 1949 -- they will be rearranged to give pride of place to the most noteworthy story in each individual volume. Thus, "Lost in the Andes," the third of this book's four adventure tales in order of original publication date, gets the leadoff slot it so richly deserves. It's not yet clear whether the same practice will be applied to the short tales. They're printed in original pub. order here, but that could easily be adjusted as circumstances warrant. Barks' "ten-pagers" were at or close to their peak of quality at this time, so I can readily believe that FG found it hard to identify one short tale as markedly superior to the others.

The "Story Notes" here land on the good side of what might be called the "Donald Phelps Line," the marker separating straightforward, WSYIWYG analysis from incomprehensibly muddled quasi-academic musings. Happily, FG didn't simply reprint essays from the Another Rainbow CBL but instead commissioned entirely new comments from American and European Barks scholars. And, yes, even the one-page gags get a once-over. Indeed, the most insightful comment in the "Story Notes" section comes from Jared Gardner in his discussion of "Tunnel Vision" (aka: "The One Where HD&L Fight Over A Good Seat From Which to Watch TV, Forcing Donald to Drill Peepholes in The Wall"). It had never occurred to me before that Barks was so far ahead of his time with this gag, which originally appeared in the Spring of 1949, well before television itself, much less the "watching etiquette" of same, had been established in more than a relative handful of American homes.

If you think that this series of albums is just another excuse to peddle the umpteenth reprint of Barks stories, then you've got another think coming. They are "must" buys.

Friday, December 23, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 45, "Such Sweet Sorrow"

"Such Sweet Sorrow" ranks as one of the best Kimba episodes in terms of sheer level of accomplishment alone. Somehow, the intertwined stories of Roger Ranger, Mr. Pompus, and Mary/Captain Tonga are disentangled and neatly retied in a way that, if it doesn't make entirely coherent sense in terms of what has gone before, at least presents the viewer with a reasonable approximation of a thematically consistent denouement. The "retconning" comes at a fast and furious pace, to be sure, but it seems almost low-key compared with what Marvel and DC comics fans have had to endure over the years.

The episode's script borrows liberally from a similar sequence in JUNGLE EMPEROR, albeit one that takes place considerably later in the narrative, at a time when Kimba is a grown lion and Kitty is his mate. In both the manga and animated versions, we see the "reunion" of Roger and Mr. Pompus, an attack on Kimba's kingdom led by Mary (who is the queen of a jungle tribe in JUNGLE EMPEROR, as opposed to the head of a hunting ground), the second appearance of the Mammoth of Mt. Moon, the "final dispensation" of Mary's jungle m.o., and the permanent departure of Roger and Mary from the jungle. Numerous individual moments, both dramatic and humorous, are transferred intact or quasi-intact from page to screen. Perhaps the most significant change -- one that was initiated by Mushi Studios, it must be noted, rather than the Titan dubbing crew -- concerns the whole matter of how Mary turned into Captain Tonga. In Tezuka, Mary, who's already been established as being an even bigger bitch than she seemed to be in the animated series' "A Human Friend" and "Fair Game," steals a page from Sean Connery and Michael Caine and uses "incomprehensible technology" (to wit: a fountain pen!) to manipulate the gullible primitives into thinking that she is some sort of goddess:

A real charmer, eh? By contrast, Kimba's Mary turns out to have literally lost her memory from grief after Rainbow Bridge collapsed in "A Human Friend" and she thought that she had "lost" her beloved Roger for good. Belated sympathy for the ruthless Tonga -- who'da thunk it? But it still works, provided that you're willing to accept one of the hoariest fictional tropes known to man or beast. Given that the Mary of JUNGLE EMPEROR doesn't appear to face any future legal or moral consequences for her consciously ruthless treatment of natives and jungle animals, I actually prefer the fictionally cruder, yet more emotionally satisfying, demise of Kimba's Tonga.

That l-o-o-o-o-o-n-g opening camera pan is nothing if not langorous. It's evidently meant to pump up the idea of this episode being a meaningful epic, but it's the content that makes the ep special, not the presentation.

In leading the hippo-tank invasion of Kimba's kingdom -- a much lower-tech incursion in the manga, BTW -- Tonga initially doesn't mention any particular interest in Kimba. What would be the purpose of "occupying" the entire jungle? Is the hunting ground that hard up for firearm fodder? Tonga will change her tune to an obsessive quest for the white lion soon enough, but only after the initial invasion is defeated. It might have been a better idea to have snuck in a reference to Tonga's longstanding hatred of Kimba right at the start, in order to reorient the audience to the status quo ante of "Catch 'Em If You Can" and "The Hunting Ground" (not to mention write right over the top of the later "Too Many Elephants," in which Tonga didn't appear to recognize Kimba).

The Titan crew wisely seized upon Tonga's meeting with Mr. Pompus on the riverbank as an ideal place to let the "retconned" backstory begin to flow. I'm not going to try to piece it all together just yet, since some additional backstory is coming, but it's immediately clear that Roger, Mr.P., and the newly-acquired Kimba must have picked up Mary after the hotel bill had been settled ("A Friend in Deed") and before they headed for Paris as part of their round-the-world trip. (Presumably, Roger and Mr.P. stopped going to "girlie shows" after Mary joined the party. At least, I would hope so.) Mary's belated participation in the trip may explain why she seemed so resentful in "Fair Game." Having just acquired Kimba, Roger was naturally devoting a good deal of attention to his new pet, and Mary didn't appreciate it. So far, so good.

Methusaleh makes a much better impression here than he did in "Running Wild"; he seems to be legitimately concerned about Kimba's ability to protect the jungle by himself once Roger is no longer on hand to help (can't you just smell the foreshadowing here?). Of course, he's neglecting to mention the large number of eps in which Kimba has shown such leadership qualities in Roger's absence. Even in the case of Tonga's tank attack, the animals were performing reasonably well with their defensive measures before Roger showed up; Roger's advice about attacking the tanks from underneath was more of the "tipping point" of the encounter, and it was Kimba who dreamed up the actual plan of counterattack that put Roger's brainstorm to use.

Mr. Pompus' escape from the hunting ground, and his and Roger's subsequent battles with the alligators, are "inspired" by events in JUNGLE EMPEROR more than they are direct copies of those events. The only direct swipe is Roger's "twirl-a-thon" when he's fighting the gator underwater. The animated version slathers on a much heavier layer of slapstick; Mr.P. may have fought the gators rather ineptly in the manga, but he certainly wasn't knocked koo-koo by falling logs at the time. Gil Mack makes the most of the opportunity for wackiness with his funny riff on the Popeye theme song. Was he inspired by memories of his turn as "The Hungry Goat" when he did so?

First a Maginot Line of defenses (as seen in "Catch 'Em If You Can"), now a ring of bulldog-shaped defensive structures (which later turn out to be mobile)?! Between her apparently unrestricted power to detain "suspects" and the arsenal of weaponry at her command, one has to wonder why Tonga stopped at "merely" running a hunting compound. There must have been at least one "Unsteadystan"-ish country in the vicinity that she could have taken over...

Tonga's origin story, as related by Tonga's hirsute adjutant (Ray Owens this time), ties in quite nicely with what we learned about Tonga's "Daddy," Mr. Triggerman, in "Too Many Elephants." The picture-book-like stills used to illustrate the story give the fanciful encounter a mock-legendary feel. I wonder what happened to "the former boss." Did he die and will the hunting ground to Tonga? (I didn't know that such government positions were hereditary.) Or did she *ahem* "get rid of" him at some point? Given the adjutant's claim that Mr. Triggerman "was very impressed [*cough cough*]" with Tonga "but [knew] that he was old enough to be her father," I can think of some very unsavory scenarios that might have led to Triggerman getting a "one-way ride" into the jungle, or into some hungry animal's cage.

Note below that Mary appears to have changed her wardrobe after the events at Rainbow Bridge; she was wearing a worn brown hunting outfit in the Bridge scene. She may have lost her mind, but she apparently didn't lose her fashion sense.

More "retcons" incoming! Based on Roger's brief flashback to the Rainbow Bridge collapse, we must now wipe the events of large portions of "A Human Friend" and "Too Many Elephants" from our memory banks. If Roger and Mary's trip to the jungle in "A Human Friend" was to deliver Kimba, then, obviously, we have to ignore Kimba's saving them from the snake, Roger and Kimba's meeting at the Bridge being a "reunion," etc., and limit the "real" events of "A Human Friend" to (1) Roger and Mary's delivering Kimba, (2) the Bridge disaster, (3) Mary's crack-up, and (4) the stranded Roger's deciding to stay and teach the animals to speak human language. Likewise, Mr. Pompus' first attempt to get Roger to leave the jungle in "Elephants" never took place; only Kimba's meeting with Pee-Wee, and Kimba's attempts to save Packer Dermus and his elephant herd from being exterminated, did. Got it. Considering how mucked up the storyline had gotten, I don't think that these sacrifices are too much to accept.

Having tidied up the narrative, we now get a beautiful scene that is drawn straight from JUNGLE EMPEROR. Well, that's not strictly true; Mr. Pompus does the piping in Tezuka, and he's not in a cage at the time. But the sentiments and emotions involved are identical.

I prefer the shot of Tonga silhouetted against the starry night sky, myself. But it's strictly a personal choice.

On to the Big Battle sequence! But where would Tonga have gotten a giant flag with Kimba's face on it? Must we now posit the existence of an Omniscient Portrait-Maker Guy, as well?

Relative to JUNGLE EMPEROR, the second invasion, like the hippo-tank attack, involves the use of heavier-duty technology (those bizarre-looking bulldog attack... thingies; given the presence of hound-dog-shaped police cars in Astro Boy, perhaps Tezuka had some sort of bizarre fetish for canine-shaped conveyances). But the participation of Tonga's animal minions is an exact replica of what is seen in Tezuka, right down to the "Noah's Ark in reverse" scenes of identical animals fighting one another and the violent collision, followed by a dizzy Alphonse and Gaston routine, between Pauley Cracker and a much larger beastie. So, too, does Tezuka include the dramatic scene in which Kimba's defeated legions are forced to take shelter on the island in the midst of a rainstorm:

But here is where Kimba actually gives its title character more credit for leadership than does Tezuka. Kimba's vocal lead-in to "Sing a Happy Song" may be feeble (though I do accept that Billie Lou was trying to get across Kimba's depressed mental state by making him sound pathetic), but the manga featured nothing like Kimba's determined dash for the shoreline following the reappearance of Mt. Moon and the Mammoth. In Tezuka, at the animals' moment of deepest despair, the Mammoth appears and starts fighting back against the natives -- a far cry from simply "taking a little stroll," as she does here. Rather than simply pitching in to help the Mammoth fight, Kimba draws strength from the simple fact of his "guardian"'s return and takes it upon himself to lead the counterattack. Need I say that I vastly prefer Kimba's version of these events? The use of the ethereal "Mt. Moon music" in the absence of any additional sound effects gives the whole sequence a dream-like, quasi-mythological feel.

The sphere of Mt. Moon's influence appears to have expanded considerably since the events of "The Hunting Ground." It now includes the hunting ground itself, leading to another adaptation of a scene from Tezuka, that of the bonfire and the rebellion of Mary's long-put-upon animal charges. The animated scene is toned down in one important respect; in JUNGLE EMPEROR, before Mary is subdued, she engages Roger in a vicious knife fight. Plus, of course, Mary breaks down and drops the "Queen of the Natives" facade, as opposed to simply striking her head against a rock and regaining her memory.

The Mary-Roger reunion is almost, but not quite, ruined by the cheesy, tinkly piano-lounge music in the background. For a moment, I thought that a soap opera had suddenly broken out. Perhaps Mr. Pompus' sneeze was meant as a subtle meta-comment on the tackiness of the presentation. Or, perhaps he really was just cold.

The admirably underplayed grand departure scene -- the "ultimate" version of a very familiar Kimba narrative trope -- includes one unusual moment. What does Roger referring to when he "thanks" Kimba for everything the latter has taught him? It seems to me that Kimba should have immediately said the same thing, if not actually spoken the words first. Perhaps Roger is referring to the fact that Kimba has shown how one creature can literally make a world of difference, and that, therefore, the same may be true of the human world. That's a sentiment in which Dr. Tezuka -- and the Muse of History -- would have heartily concurred.

Up next: Episode 46, "The Return of Fancy Prancy."

Thursday, December 22, 2011

It's a Titan Crew Christmas! THE FLYING HOUSE, Episodes 1 and 2

The Flying House (1982-83) represents the "last bow" of the crew of talented voice professionals who brought us Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. It's at once a "sequel" of sorts to Superbook and a "leap forward" from that earlier series, both aesthetically and thematically. Indeed, I think it's one of the better animated series of any stripe from its early-80s time period -- a pretty fallow period, to be sure, but there's a considerable amount of entertainment value to be found here.

The "blowback" that Superbook received for thrusting its young protagonists directly into Old Testament storylines -- a backlash that led to the rejiggering of the series' premise into what I consider to be an inferior format -- evidently dissipated very quickly. One would think that, if making modern-day interlopers prime movers in Old Testament tales were a no-no, then doing the same with the story of Jesus Christ and His ministry on Earth would be absolutely verboten, especially for a show telecast on the CHRISTIAN Broadcasting Network. CBN bigwigs, however, evidently decided that it was "no big" for bungling Professor Humphrey Bumble's (Hal Studer) time machine to transport Justin Casey (Billie Lou Watt), Angela Roberts (Sonia Owens), and Corky Roberts (Helena van Koert) into "extremely close and incredibly extensive" contact with Jesus and His disciples. Fer corn sakes, when the gang lands in ancient Israel, the shepherds immediately mistake Justin for the Messiah... and the interaction only "ramps up" from there. I think we really have to salute CBN for its open-mindedness in sanctioning this show for American consumption. Put it this way: I rather doubt that a similar show depicting young Middle Eastern children traveling back in time to hobnob with Mohammed will be appearing on Al-Jazeera anytime soon.

The series' first two eps, "Blast off for the Past" and "Star-Spangled Night," introduce us to the characters and take us through the events of the Nativity and the flight to Egypt.  Go to the CBN Web site and enjoy, and we'll touch base on the "other side."




The flaws of The Flying House are present at the creation (sorry if I'm mixing Testaments on you there). You hear many of the same basic musical themes over and over and over again in episode after episode, which gets real old real fast. Yeah, I know that the earliest Disney TV series used stock music as well, but nowhere near as unimaginatively as The Flying House tends to. I'm also sorry to say that the annoying Corky doesn't improve that much upon further acquaintance. But the characterization of the robot SIR (George Gladir) is a distinct improvement upon that of Superbook's Gizmo, and Professor Bumble provides a humorous adult presence that Superbook did not have. Professor Peeper's prickly relationship with his son Christopher in Superbook may have given the adult-child relationships there an extra layer of realism, but Peeper could not be classified as endearing by any stretch of the imagination. Professor Bumble, by contrast, with his innocently inflated ego and deviated-septum-influenced voice, is a hoot. Here is where Hal Studer really came into his own as a good voice actor.

Though it's not apparent in these first couple of episodes, The Flying House also took some interesting stylistic chances in its narratives. Entire episodes were devoted to "expanded versions" of Jesus' parables, and, as if to emphasize the "story within a story" nature of these tales, the parables were generally animated in a highly stylized, almost two-dimensional fashion. In many cases, the look was almost that of a more serious version of Jay Ward's Fractured Fairy Tales.

The Flying House's core voice cast of Watt, Ray Owens (the adult Jesus), Studer, van Koert, and Gladir is supplemented by a rotating group of old pros that includes Gilbert Mack, Corinne Orr, and Peter Fernandez. (I suppose that this is why Hal Erickson, in his slightly sniffy entry on The Flying House in TELEVISION CARTOON SHOWS, complains that the show's supporting players, in particular the antagonists, tend to sound like Speed Racer villains.) Billie Lou Watt's "Astro Boy/Kimba" voice for Justin is getting a bit on the thin and strained side by this time, and van Koert's Corky will occasionally "scrootch" your inner ear with his wailing, but, by and large, the voice performances are sturdy enough. Amazingly, no end-of-show credits are given for writing, voice-acting, or anything else, for that matter -- a serious oversight, but certainly no more of one than the absence of any reference whatsoever to the show's New Testament setting in the opening sequence (which would have been a "title sequence" had a title card actually been shown at any point).

All 52 Flying House episodes are available for viewing on CBN's Web site. Give them a look!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 44, "A Friend in Deed"

Boy, that was some extended field trip! Not since Episode 29, "The Nightmare Narcissus," have we seen Roger Ranger. The next two episodes, "A Friend in Deed" and "Such Sweet Sorrow," will more than make up for Roger's lengthy absence, though. Indeed, they represent the Titan crew's belated, last-gasp, "Hail Mary" effort to make some coherent sense out of the hopelessly snarled series of events that originally brought Kimba and Roger together, later brought Kimba and Roger to the jungle, and created the fearsome Tonga from the psychic ruins of "sweet, lovable" (not!) Mary. With "damn the torpedoes" brashness, the Titanistas essentially "retcon" the events of "A Human Friend" and (I guess) hope against hope that no one will notice. In "Such Sweet Sorrow," which borrows quite liberally and imaginatively from Tezuka's JUNGLE EMPEROR, the subterfuge is carried off brilliantly; in "A Friend in Deed," not so much... especially since it is painfully clear that the latter ep belongs to a much earlier point in overall Kimba continuity than Episode 44.

To call the setup of this episode "contrived" would be an insult to soap opera writers and impresarios of stage melodramas everywhere. Indeed, I would have found it more believable had Kimba taken a hint from the writers of the old DONALD DUCK ALBUM series (or whoever wrote the 101 Dalmatians: The Series episode "The Making of...") and illustrated the lengthy flashbacks that make up most of the running time with "illustrative photographs" taken by some omniscient entity. Aside from providing a bunch of "jungle cubs" with a patently absurd physical challenge, the framing device literally doesn't make sense unless you posit than Kimba is a young, untried, and inexperienced leader -- which, at this point, he obviously should not be. Then, when you consider the fact that some of the events in the flashbacks completely fly in the face of what an extremely young Kimba should know or should be able to do... well, you're talking double-dipped disaster. "Friend" isn't quite that bad, but it definitely gets within shouting distance.

Right away, we can sense that this is an "early" episode, thanks to the i.d.'s of the kids who make up Kimba's posse: Dot and Dinky nowhere to be seen, Geraldine, Dodie, and... um, some generic monkey among the chosen few. Geraldine's expressed wish to "live" in Rainbow Valley (indicating that the animals have not yet fully committed themselves to staying in their present location), Kimba's lack of familiarity with the elephant graveyard, and Kimba's willingness to let Roger independently negotiate with the elephants also suggest that Kimba's claim on jungle leadership is still somewhat tenuous.

Kelly Funt (Gilbert Mack) is both more Irish-sounding and more truculent (coincidence?) than he was in "Restaurant Trouble." Is it likely that he would have been this blustery and unreasonable with Kimba had this ep postdated "Restaurant Trouble"? Kimba's unimaginative replies to Kelly -- "What's so funny?", "Which way is that?", "What swamp test?" -- infantilize the scene terribly and make Kimba seem very weak compared to the imperious elephant chieftain. This episode is not off to a good start, and Kelly's reference to the swamp "suckin' ye down" seems disturbingly apropos.

Notice how small Kimba looks when he's standing next to Dash on the bank. When you compare this shot to the one seen at the end of "The Balloon That Blows Up," it becomes all the more apparent that Kimba is very young in this episode. (I hope you're catching my drift here.) Nevertheless, Kelly thinks it's perfectly OK to challenge the youngsters to swim nonstop in the swamp for 10 days. Why do I think that the length of time was just a scoche more reasonable in the Japanese original?

The kids appear to have little trouble skimming across the surface of the swamp -- indeed, in the first few swimming shots, it's not clear that they're making any unusual effort at all -- but I still find it a little strange that Kimba would be willing to tax his lungs to the extent of spinning a long yarn about his past. Given that Speedy doesn't appear to realize that not all humans are bad, I think that we can safely assume that this ep predates "Fair Game." After "A Human Friend" and before "Fair Game" doesn't leave us with much room to work with, apart from figuring out when the swamp-swim occurred in relation to the events of "Great Caesar's Ghost."

With the brief, but very effective, flashback to the storm scene of "Go, White Lion!", we literally and figuratively lift our heads out of the muck. No romantic scenes of talking constellations or butterfly guides here -- just a short, dramatic glimpse of a helpless baby Kimba floundering in the face of danger before he rallies and swims for shore. Great voiceover by Billie Lou, too.

The incident that brings Kimba, Roger, and Mr. Pompus together is a very mixed bag. It's creditable, and charming, that Kimba would think that the coastal city is part of the jungle, but how would he have gotten the idea to bite the crooks' car tire and let the air out? The delightful cameo by the unnamed dachshund (Sonia Owens, using a version of the "Southern accent" she'll later employ for the title character of "The Return of Fancy Prancy") is neatly cancelled out by the buffoonish antics of the robber trio, who might as well be carrying SPY VS. SPY-issue cartoon bombs. (Actually, the Spies would probably kill in order to master the crooks' ability to teleport from their wrecked car to a "perp walk" in the blink of an eye.) The Titan script calls the place where Roger and Mr. Pompus are attempting to get money a "post office," but how many p.o.'s do you know that accept cash deposits and have piles of money lying around in safes? Perhaps this really was a bank and Roger and Mr.P. were trying in vain to get an emergency loan. As we'll learn in "Such Sweet Sorrow," they were engaged in a trip around the world at the time (a jaunt that presumably included the sojourn in Paris depicted in "Fair Game"). Remember, folks, Travelers' Checks really are your friends.

M'sieur Meanly's (Ray Owens) unilateral decision to sell Kimba to the zoo (which is initially sold as straight, greed-based villainy, making Meanly's later confession to Roger more confusing than it needed to be) leads us to the ep's one significant swipe from Tezuka's manga. As presented on screen, however, Kimba's "proclamation of impending liberation" to the zoo animals is transparently absurd. For one thing, both the animals AND the humans seem to understand what Kimba is saying, else why would the humans start to panic at the thought of the animals being let loose? Obviously, this is happening well before Kimba started to learn how to "speak human language" in "A Human Friend." In Tezuka's version, the humans seem to be reacting, not to Kimba's words per se, but to the (presumably frightening) noises that the animals are making. At least, such is my impression; I don't have a translation.

Evidently, even the "God" of Japanese cartoon culture couldn't resist supping from the "lion escapes from the zoo" trope-trough. The standard authority overkill ensues, as what appears to be an entire battalion of troops and tanks (including men in Cossack hats?) threatens the peace and safety of the city far more than a frightened little lion could ever hope to. We get more teleportation magic as Roger and the betoweled Mr. Pompus pop into the alley just at the moment when the soldiers fire at Kimba (so where did those bullets go, anyway? Were they literal "magic bullets"?). Thankfully, the silliness stops for a while at this point as we segue into the most touching and effective sequence of the episode, the one that firmly bonds Kimba and Roger together.

I like the little flute theme that accompanies the distrustful Kimba's dash away from Roger and Mr.P.; it's a believable indicator of the state of flux that Kimba's mind must be in at this point. The brief glimpse of rising wind as Kimba enters the park is another nice touch, a clever bit of foreshadowing. The "collapsing tower" scene delivers the goods in terms of tension and sentiment and leads smoothly into the swamp-scene of the youngsters renewing their vow to keep swimming for Roger's sake.

As dramatic as it is, I find the "tenth-day pep talk" that Kimba gives his flagging mates to be a little problematic. To start with, there are some "technical difficulties." According to Kelly Funt, you're doomed if you stop swimming "for even an instant." Shouldn't all of the kids sink once they stop to watch Kimba try to revive Geraldine? (Said revival includes Kimba whacking Geraldine around in order to "bring her to." I don't know which is more jarring, watching that or watching Mr. Pompus beat up the robber.) The "pep talk" scene also provides additional evidence of Kimba's comparative youth in this episode. Imagine how much more forceful Kimba's oration would have seemed had it been one of the very first displays of his leadership skills -- to a group of young'uns who "represent the future of the jungle," no less! If Kimba were a well-established jungle prince at this point, then Speedy and the others would no doubt already know and appreciate what Kimba expected them to accomplish. The fact that Kimba felt the need to address Speedy's complaints at such length bespeaks an inexperienced leader who doesn't quite have his paws firmly planted on the ground as yet.

The flashback involving Kimba's liberation of the zoo animals and their subsequent trashing of the hotel doesn't accomplish much in and of itself, apart from making me nostalgic for the job that the monsters did on McDuck Mansion in DuckTales' "The Ducky Horror Picture Show." Roger certainly showed admirable understanding in forgiving Kimba's attack of near-terminal naivete, but I hardly see how this incident qualifies as one of the "many times" that Roger "saved" Kimba's life. The worst peril that Roger probably braved here was a severe case of dishpan hands after M'sieur Meanly had added the damage charges to Roger and Mr.P.'s hotel bill. The real significance of the event, of course, lies in Kimba's claim that Roger subsequently "made up his mind" to bring Kimba to the jungle to help the latter work out his true destiny. I guess that this shunts "A Human Friend," or a major portion of it, onto the list of "imaginary episodes"... unless one believes that Roger and Mary subsequently came back to the jungle to, presumably, find out how Kimba was getting along with that whole civilization-building thing. That would explain why Roger reacted with such shock and surprise to Kimba speaking to him in "A Human Friend," though not why Roger failed to recognize the fairly easily identifiable Kimba from sight alone in the first place. "Such Sweet Sorrow," as noted above, will take another -- and, this time, definitive -- whack at straightening out this muddle.

The kids' paddle-peril ends in a thoroughly conventional manner, complete with the obligatory ending "fellowship shot" in Rainbow Valley. The latter almost makes one forget the untidiness of the previous 20-plus minutes. In all significant particulars, however, this is literally "an episode out of its proper time." Hang on, though... redemption is on the way.

Up next: Episode 45, "Such Sweet Sorrow."