Sunday, July 10, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 22, "Dangerous Journey"

About 18 years ago, when Landmark Entertainment redubbed and rescored the Kimba episodes, the company's publicity bumpf trumpeted Kimba as "A Hero for the 90s" -- by which they meant, of course, that he was an ecologically aware leader "defending his jungle home from devastation of all kinds." Au contraire -- as Ben Jonson wrote of William Shakespeare, Kimba's heroism was "not of an age, but for all time." As Exhibit A in this argument, I give you "Dangerous Journey," arguably THE seminal "Kimba as Hero" episode. Looking for physical courage, determination, compassion, quick thinking, respect for others, fulfillment of duty? They're all here, bundled into a deceptively simple plotline that plumbs unexpected depths.

The epidemic of "Stony Mountain speckled fever" that strikes Kimba's jungle here is based on a similar plague in JUNGLE EMPEROR, the coming of which represented an almost unmitigated disaster for Kimba, who by that time had become an adult and consolidated his rule. As a symbol of his power, Kimba had commanded that a tower be built to serve as a sort of protective citadel for the animals. (The tower -- built for a somewhat different purpose -- will appear in "Gypsy's Purple Potion," two episodes hence.) No sooner has this work been completed than a "spotted disease" appears and fells animals left and right. Among the victims is Kimba's mate and queen Kitty. Tezuka was no doubt trying to make an "Ozymandias"-style point here about the vanity of earthly wishes for fame and "eternal" glory.

When Kimba's daughter Rukyo also falls ill, Kimba is at his wit's end, "howling gigantic curses" in Job-like fashion from the top of his tower. Only an intercession by a visiting human scientist who's with an expedition to Mt. Moon to find the Moonstones (cf. "The Hunting Ground") stops the epidemic. Kimba doesn't cover himself with laurels during the "cure phase," actually attacking the Doc before he realizes that the cure has taken and that Rukyo will live. He does redeem himself, though, by gratefully offering to help the Mt. Moon expedition -- a decision that ultimately costs him his life.

Whereas the adult Kimba of JUNGLE EMPEROR is a panicked victim in the face of the "spotted disease," the young Kimba of "Dangerous Journey" looks the specter in the face and rises to the challenge -- first by helping mountain-goat chieftain Pop Woolly (Gilbert Mack in "benevolent old man" mode) on the latter's journey to fetch the cure, and then by defying the "Law of the Jungle" and risking his own life to try to get the cure for Pop Woolly himself. As in "Jungle Thief," Kimba makes the needs of one animal a priority. Unlike in "Jungle Thief," where Kimba's decision to give Hedda Riverhog the seeds legitimately places the whole farm project in peril, Kimba asks no one else to share the risk, but takes it on as the responsibility of a true leader. This is a very easy episode to love, and it's one of my very favorites for that reason.

Those chilling, shivery violin strains as the first few antelope fall make for an unforgettable curtain-raiser. I'm glad that Ray Owens held off on the narration for a bit here. Here is one situation in which it's far better to let the pictures and music set the tone. Speaking of tone, Harry/Harvey Hedgehog's (Billie Lou Watt) bad sickness/quill pun sets the little guy up as the closest thing this ep will have to comedy relief. The comedy actually works much better here than it will in an even grimmer scene a while later.

Kimba's appeal to Dan'l Baboon for assistance launches one of the less noticeable, but nonetheless significant, subplots on display here: Kimba's respect for the wisdom of the aged. This is less cut-and-dried than it seems, as the whole thrust of Kimba's efforts to bring aspects of human civilization to the jungle goes strongly against the grain of many lessons learned from the past and therefore is prone to criticism by "old heads" (e.g., the antipathy of such characters as Boss Rhino and Kelly Funt). What makes Kimba an effective leader is his ability to listen to and heed the voice of experience when he feels he needs to.

Much like Kelly Funt, Pop Woolly appears to be running more or less of a "semi-autonomous fiefdom" as leader of the mountain sheep. Since the sheep tend to hang around the mountains while the elephants remain on the move, Pop Woolly has even more credentials as a true "local clan leader" than does Kelly. Pop Woolly's status may help explain why he's even more insistent that he "hasn't lost the touch" than, say, Dan'l. Note that Kimba pays him considerable respect from the start, as one leader of a kingdom or clan would do to another.

So why didn't Pop mention the leopards along with the flying lizards? Did the leopards just happen to be in the general vicinity and see an opportunity to waylay Kimba in an unfamiliar place? Kimba has proven to be somewhat vulnerable in such situations (the sulfur pit in "Battle at Dead River," the pit in which Bella Donna trapped him in "The Hunting Ground"), so I suppose that such an ambush would be logical, albeit somewhat chancy when you're dealing with a Kimba in "Superlion" mode, as Kimba clearly is here. Kimba will wind up not making the entire journey to the top of Stony Mountain (at least, NOT YET!), but here you clearly see that his presence was vitally important to the success of Pop's original mission. In fact, given the number of leopards that Kimba was fighting here, this may be one of his most impressive physical achievements in the entire series. But, as the man says on TV, wait, there's more.

At 6:40: Now, that's one abrupt sunrise. The sunrises at sea that I've seen on cruises didn't materialize that quickly! But it makes for a great visual. It also won't be the only memorable "lighting trick" in the episode.

The sudden appearance of Stony Mountain, and Kimba and Pop's run-up to the peak, has always struck me as a rather Tolkien-esque moment. I'm not thinking of LORD OF THE RINGS here, but, rather, THE HOBBIT, in which Bilbo and the Dwarves go on their quest to The Lonely Mountain. I suppose that all the flying lizards, added together, would probably sum to Smaug.

On the heels of the great musical accompaniment, we now get some equally fine sound effects: the echoing voices and clickety-clacking rock noises on Stony Mountain. Interestingly enough, in an ep that focuses so tightly and dramatically on an heroic Kimba, Pop Woolly gets two full minutes to show his quality as he fetches the curative tree bark (or nodules, to be precise; it looks as if Pop is only scratching off material from the round growths on the bark). In truth, we need to see Pop's feat in order to fully appreciate the challenges that Kimba will face later, but giving it such space displays the writers' confidence in the basic strength of their narrative. As for the magic (as in magically appearing) bag: perhaps Pop has been taking lessons on the adumbrative properties of beards from Brian Wilson.

We really could have done without the "wah-wah" SFX accompanying the distribution of the medicine to Kimba's subjects. The gag in which Pauley Cracker is accidentally swallowed by the hippo would have been quite enough, thank you. But the mood turns darker quickly enough as Pop falls victim to his fatigue and the lingering pestilence... and the cured animals do their creepy "fade-back," infuriating Kimba and Pauley. Harry/Harvey going first with the "do-di-do..." business is an obvious attempt to draw some of the sting out of this emotionally troubling scene, but it falls rather flat, I'm afraid.

Give Pauley credit: He is always willing to stand up and be counted when he thinks that an injustice is being done, though he is rather more direct here than he was in "Jungle Thief," where he "merely" pitched an exaggerated fit. He also shows more "emotional intelligence" than normal by piling into Harry/Harvey, who is at least the same size as him. This is definitely better than going one on one with the likes of Samson, Claw, or the "flyger"!

Pop's willingness to sacrifice himself for the good of the other animals is a clear reprise of the "Law of the Jungle," and it's particularly poignant here since the decision is entirely self-motivated. Kimba is at least partially appreciative of the logic behind Pop's mournful decision; he initially obeys Pop's angry command to leave him alone and doesn't set out at once for Stony Mountain. But Kimba also doesn't leave Pop's mountain home, providing a memorable bookend to the magisterial scene of the doomed Pop surveying the jungle.

Caesar's dramatic "mooning" of Kimba, of course, is just "one more brick in the wall" of the argument that Kimba influenced The Lion King. But in this case, I would argue that it is not the ghost or spirit of Caesar talking to Kimba, but rather, Kimba's conscience assuming the form of Caesar. For all of Caesar's gifts of leadership, it can fairly be argued that compassion was not his strong suit. Kimba clearly feels that he should try to help Pop -- otherwise, he would not have stayed near the old sheep -- but it takes a combination of his own personal compassion and the ancestral sense of duty inherent in the race of white lions to finally kick him into action and defy Pop's dying request. And who better than Caesar to remind Kimba of his duty? This scene puts the ep over the top as a true classic, with the emotional stress that Kimba undergoes here presaging the physical challenge that awaits him...

And so Kimba sets out on his equivalent of an "Astro Boy mission," with the difference, of course, being that real flesh and blood are at risk here. It's curious that the lizards ventured out into the daylight to chew up the bridge after Kimba passed when they could just as easily have tried to sabotage Pop in similar fashion; perhaps Kimba's small slip encouraged them to seize a chance, especially since Kimba is a "newbie" around these here parts. And where, oh, where did Kimba hide HIS bag? Yes, I know he's a Toon, but applying Toon logic to this very realistic episode seems a stretch. The DuckTales Nephews and TaleSpin's Kit Cloudkicker occasionally pulled things out of hidden pockets in their non-clothed hips; perhaps Kimba has one??

The "superimposition scene" (Kimba struggling up the rock face as first Caesar and then Pop Woolly appear before him) strikes me as a case of being too dramatic by half. I know that the animators were trying to emphasize the spiritual and physical link between Kimba and his father, but I think we already clearly understood the stakes here. No real need to "pile on," I don't think.

The scene in which Kimba reaches the broken bridge is simply beautiful, with another sudden lighting change being employed to brilliant dramatic effect. As the gorgeous broken-cloud background seen here...

...suddenly gives way to the abrupt arrival of a blood-red sky...

...we know all too well that Kimba's biggest physical challenge, his fight with the lizards, is just ahead. And what a battle it is, despite the recycled animation, as Kimba suddenly adds a touch of Kung Fu to his pugilistic repertoire! Even while he's whapping away, Kimba keeps his head and employs a plan of attack, though the lizards cooperate with him by suddenly all running headlong into him at once and knocking one another out. I guess that, with their leader temporarily indisposed, the other lizards became a "mindless mass" for one fatal instant.

Following the snipping of the lizard king's tail, a subsequent scene in which the king wraps himself around Kimba and the two take a dramatic plunge into a gorge -- presumably, the same gorge that the characters have been knocking rocks into from the beginning -- was cut by the Titan crew.  The fears about "excessive violence" seem to me to have been a little exaggerated here. I mean, we've just watched Kimba get hacked up by miniature flying monsters, and, after all, there is water in that gorge; we aren't talking Wile E. Coyote smashing into the desert here. Perhaps the spooky sound effect accompanying the drop -- an SFX that almost sounded as if it had been lifted from a Speed Racer episode -- was "one fright too many" insofar as Titan and NBC were concerned.

Thanks to his heroic efforts -- and, presumably, a waterproof bag in which to carry that medicine -- Kimba wins through and has enough left in the tank to greet Pop Woolly with a hearty "Hi!" He even takes the time to provide medication instructions. His subsequent deferral of credit may cause a few incurable cynics' eyes to roll, but, after all, in his mind, he was merely performing a necessary duty. Would that all leaders imitated his example.

As it happens, "Dangerous Journey" kicks off a skein of about a dozen consecutive good-to-excellent Kimba eps, so its good vibes are positively contagious. In honor of the recently deceased Peter Falk, though, I do have just one more question: Where was Roger Ranger while this episode was taking place? Two possibilities: (1) The ep actually took place after Roger left the jungle for good (in "Such Sweet Sorrow"); (2) Roger was on one of his moss-gathering expeditions, or something similar, and was therefore out of touch. In any case, Roger's assistance would surely have been helpful... but it's no doubt better that Kimba got to carry the mail here. You'd have to be positively "luney" to think otherwise.

Up next: Episode 23, "The Gigantic Grasshopper".

No comments: