Saturday, August 20, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA, Episode 28: "The Wild Wildcat"

"The Wild Wildcat" certainly isn't the best episode of Kimba, but it's probably my personal favorite, the one I never get tired of watching. Here are three main reasons why:
(1)  Kimba, after so many episodes in which his "direct" leadership skills (decision-making, fighting, etc.) take center stage, finally gets to employ some "indirect" psychological "strategery" to accomplish a goal. Aside from being fun to watch, this illustrates (yet again) just how different Kimba is from his father Caesar. It's impossible to imagine Caesar handling the bad-boy Wiley Wildcat (Hal Studer) in anything like the manner that Kimba handles him here. This flexibility speaks well for the future success of Kimba's civilizational enterprise... though, as we'll see, he could have laid the groundwork for his unusual gambit just a little more expertly.

(2)  Hal Studer's Wiley Wildcat simply MAKES this episode. In their history of Kimba, Fred Patten and Robin Leyden make the point that Studer, who was added to the production team primarily to voice Roger Ranger, "wasn't a 'man of a thousand voices' as a good voice actor has to be." That was pretty much true, as far as it went, up to this point in the series. However, with Wiley, Studer begins to show that his "chops" aren't quite as limited as all that. I've been watching online eps of The Flying House, in which Studer has far greater voicing responsibilities, and can vouch for the fact that Studer handles multiple voice changes extremely well in that series. "The Wild Wildcat" may, in truth, have been Studer's breakout ep as a legit voice actor, though the full fruits of that revelation wouldn't be harvested until a decade-plus later.
(3) For a tale prominently featuring a semi-comedic supporting player in Wiley -- a character whose broader attributes could have easily tipped the scenario over into farce or slapstick -- the episode includes some shockingly savage moments: a possible attempted rape (!!!), an attempt at vigilante justice, and dramatic night-terrors. You can easily imagine a Wiley-like character turning up in a mid-60s Hanna-Barbera cartoon and causing comedic chaos, but he certainly wouldn't have gone through the wrenching transition that Wiley does here. Rarely do we get a clearer picture of the essential difference between Kimba and many of its animated contemporaries on American TV.

We start with another memorable nocturnal curtain-raiser, albeit one with an immediate continuity goof (the food that Wiley swipes from the busily "fourthmealing" chimps suddenly changing from fruit to some sort of liquid). I assume that Kimba overheard Kitty's cries for help before being alerted by Bucky, which would explain why he's sufficiently steamed to resort to ramming the tree in which Wiley is perched. The "lunar revelation" is pretty much a waste of time -- even when he's a shadowy figure, we can already see that Wiley is some sort of cat -- but this scene effectively establishes Wiley's antagonistic, semi-anarchic character without a lot of explanatory verbiage.

Kitty probably concealed some of the details of Wiley's attack when telling Kimba and the others, but the sheer gratuitousness of the assault (after all, Wiley could just as easily have grabbed his food and run away after Kitty addressed him) makes it all but certain that it was at least partially sexual in nature. Of course, had Kitty spilled all the beans right away, Wiley wouldn't have lasted beyond the first commercial break. As for Kitty's established fighting skills (cf. "Battle at Dead River," "Two Hearts and Two Minds"), I imagine that Wiley simply caught her by surprise, else she'd have put up a much fiercer struggle.

After Kimba is charged by his lady love to forgive Wiley, some of the other animals who didn't get the memo apparently attempt to subject the caged Wiley (so who constructed that cage, anyway? The "Omnipresent Yet Unseen Builder Guy"?) to a jungle version of a lynching. Pauley and Bucky's participation in the vigilantism is somewhat strange in that they were present when Kitty issued her request, so they shouldn't be so surprised when Kimba reminds them of Kitty's wish. Would Pauley getting hit by a rock do that much to change Bucky and Pauley's minds? Knowing Pauley's temper, I suppose it's not impossible. And it gets worse; the "chase him away with a landslide!" business is pretty clearly a fig leaf to cover for an attempted stoning. Perhaps the other animals gleaned more from Kitty's story than we thought (or else the jungle "rumor mill" has been acting up like the "magical mill" in Don Rosa's "Quest for Kalevala"). In any event, Bucky and Pauley are quick to reverse course and sign off on Kimba's determination to make friends with Wiley. (Which, by the way, is not precisely what Kitty requested; you can forgive someone without befriending them, after all.) The out-of-nowhere "elephant stomp" (I suspect a cut here) is a fitting footnote to a decidedly queer scene.

Now Kimba steps well beyond the friendship initiative by inviting Wiley to stay with him at his lair... and sleeping close enough to the interloper that I can easily imagine activists starting a petition to have Kimba and Wiley "come out" like Bert and Ernie! I know that Kimba is devoted to Kitty and wants to respect her wishes, but this seems... excessive. The weird dream sequence with the "Mallet of God" (and does THAT seem like an appropriate trick for the decidedly Toonish Wiley to pull) features another cut, though you have to look quickly in order to glimpse the evidence:

So why is Kimba wearing boxing gloves here? *crickets...* Perhaps he got a few nocturnal licks in on Wiley, but the Titan crew considered the notion of Kimba fighting in such a manner to be distasteful. Heck, Kimba has punched foes before this with his bare paws, and we took no particular notice of it.

My all-time favorite "ROTFLMAO" moment from Kimba:

KIMBA: And this is our farm, where we grow food for the animals.

WILEY: Yeah. Sure.

Aside from being delivered perfectly by Studer, that second line deflates the whole noble notion of the animals' farm at one stroke. After Wiley does some more dirty deeds to further establish his badass bona fides, we get another classic line, Kimba's "'re gonna be my friend, like it or not!" This could have been much more risible than it is (and, in fact, Nicky always brings this line up to me as one of the reasons why she doesn't think much of Kimba), but Billie Lou Watt delivers it just right, with enough of a clenched-teeth sound to get across the extent to which Kimba's devotion to Kitty is clashing with his irritation at Wiley. For his part, Wiley could have "abandoned the field" long before now, so we already suspect that he is not quite as antagonistic towards Kimba as he's let on thus far.

"And what's more, I'm gonna give you birthday and Christmas presents every year, so there!"

We finally learn about "the roots of Wiley's rage" starting with the school scene (you know it's a good episode when the voice actors are singing this well). The Hanna-Barbera-ish "Heeeesssshhhh!" takes a little of the edge off Wiley's visceral reaction, but only a little. The ultimate revelation of Wiley's psychological torment is handled a bit crudely -- it was thoughtful of the wildcat to unwittingly uncover his past to Kimba in such complete, easily digestible sentences -- but it's worth it to hear Billie Lou's beautifully performed subsequent rumination about Kimba's mother, complete with flashbacks to "Go, White Lion!" Note that Kimba suddenly starts talking in a somewhat childlike manner when he remembers "the people [taking Snowene] away in the big ship that went down in the ocean." It's as if he is connecting with Wiley's scarred soul and trying to understand it as a child would. Wiley's need for love is far more affecting, I think, than Newton's simple need to establish honest relationships in "The Chameleon Who Cried Wolf." It certainly presents a challenge to Kimba...

... who responds with the "feline see, feline do" routine (throwing in a "sudden reappearance" worthy of Droopy for good measure) and subsequently bonds with Wiley in that spasm of random destruction, all to get on the wildcat's good/bad side. There's one big problem with this psychologically rich initiative: Kimba apparently does NOT fully clue the other animals in on what he's doing. This comes back to bite him in a big way when the hunters occupy the deserted village (guess Leona was on vacation, huh?) and Kimba's subjects are reluctant to buy his non-explanation as to why the interlopers suddenly became enraged. At least Wiley responds to Kimba's efforts by trying to butter him up a bit. That claim of his that he went into the camp to avenge Caesar, combined with the twisting of the knife regarding Kitty ("we couldn't be friends anymore, could we?"), sounds awfully manipulative to me, and Kimba apparently recognizes the fact (a dubious "Uh huh..." delivered perfectly by Billie Lou).

Wiley's subsequent leaf-turning actually comes in two stages: the obvious one (his decision to go back and save Kimba from the hunters) and a more subtle one, in which Wiley runs off because "I bring [Kimba] trouble." The latter demonstrates that Wiley really has developed a friendship with Kimba, though he's still not willing to admit it. With the rescue mission, by contrast, Wiley shows that he now knows how to live in community with others in a spirit of cooperation. The apology to Kitty completes the cycle (and also shows that Wiley has retained some of his more forceful traits, albeit in attenuated form), and we are led to assume that Wiley will take his place as a valued member of the jungle community... though, sadly, he will never be a featured player again.

The "fourth-wall-busting" paean to motherhood is a rather peculiar coda (and might be challenged by more than a few folks!), but this is a thoroughly satisfying episode that, like such previous classics as "Jungle Thief," keeps overt "pawsticuffs" to a minimum and concentrates instead on the emotional underpinnings of Kimba's rule and the traits that make Kimba such a wholly appealing protagonist. It's definitely on my "short list" of the best Kimba episodes.

Up next: Episode 29, "The Nightmare Narcissus".

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