Monday, November 28, 2011

THE BEST (AND REST) OF KIMBA: Episode 40, "The Troublemaker"

"The Troublemaker" is an exquisitely exasperating episode of Kimba. Many of the series' episodes, good, bad, or indifferent, dote on mixing frequently serious subject matter with slapstick-style humor. In this ep, however, the two strands don't just clash, they positively annihilate one another, in the manner of matter and anti-matter. Remember how "Volcano Island" divided neatly into a lame, slapstick-y prequel and a dramatic, adventurous wrap-up? "The Troublemaker" is a 21-gun salute to that ep's cherry bomb. (Have I used enough strained metaphors already?)

Two pictures will sum up the problems I have with this episode:

The tone of the early, supposedly "humorous" material is much too strident and shrill. Most of the blame can be laid at the feet of Benny the ostrich (Hal Studer), the "cute" sower of discord amongst our happy band. Benny can actually be seen in numerous episodes before this one -- which begs the question of where in "true" Kimba continuity this ep should be placed -- but, in all of those instances, he kept blessedly silent. Suffice it to say that Studer does as much here to make Benny a loathsome pest as he did to make Wiley Wildcat a quasi-likable rogue. Benny's grumpy grandpa Big Ben (Gilbert Mack, using his standard-issue old-man voice) isn't quite as irritating as his grandson, but he sure as shootin' has his moments.

In previous episodes, Kimba occasionally displayed "paws of clay" in terms of judgment. Here, for what amounts to the most minor of peccadilloes, he is made the "fall guy" to a positively painful extent. Since Kimba is quite clearly presented as a "minor," in a manner akin to such "school-based" episodes as "City of Gold," a number of the gags are evidently meant to reduce him to the "junior-league level" of Dot, Dash, Dinky, and Kimba's other young peers. But when the (supposed) adults start to pile on... well, that's a lot more problematic, particularly when Kimba snaps back into hero mode later in the episode when fighting a vicious bunch of wolves. The violent jerks and jolts in tone here go well beyond the standard boundaries and make for, IMHO, a less than satisfactory whole.

Link to episode at Hulu

Pretty brutal opening, no? The zebras' fate at the paws of the wolves here is far grimmer than it seemed to be during the brief flashback sequence in "Jungle Thief." The wolves (or wild dogs, for the nostalgic among you) seem a much more formidable threat here than they do at any other time, because they display intelligence (cf. luring the zebras into the trap at the water hole) in addition to the usual ferocity. They come off as much more than just a bunch of scavengers. Indeed, they might even have deserved a continuing role as an "outside-the-lines" menace to counterbalance Claw's jungle-focused scheming.

The gang's decision to camp near the water hole despite the warning signs is NOT a good sign for the episode. Does Kimba have "rocks in his head" to match the ones he piled together to make that egress-less shelter? More so than in "Volcano Island," this "school field trip" seems like a Junior Woodchucks-style campout, complete with specific tasks for the small fry to perform.

Kimba's sparring with Dinky, messing up his own picture, lazily rolling away, and then letting the eager Benny do his work for him sets up the premise: Kimba's "supposed to be a kid" here. All well and good, but Kimba will come to pay dearly for what amounts to a very minor sin. If he'd picked a fight with Benny, now that would have been truly childish. Notice that, from almost the very beginning, Studer has trouble giving Benny's voice a consistent sound.

Big Ben's constant bellowing of "BENNNNY BOOOOYYYY!" may cause some viewers to tear out their hair (or the plumes from their tail feathers?) before the ep's conclusion. Even more bothersome to me is the old goat's immediately deciding that Kimba must be up to no good. Even Boss Rhino wasn't that bull-headed. In a sense, Big Ben's funny proclamation, "I won't allow anyone to tamper with my grandson's ignorance!" rates as a joke told on himself -- if he had any sense of humor, that is.

We start to sense that "the fix in in" regarding Kimba as "fall guy" when Bucky doesn't seem to comprehend that it was Benny's mere presence, rather than Kimba's work-shirking, that caused Big Ben to come a-running. Big Ben didn't even find out about Benny's desire to become an artist until after the ostrich chieftain had arrived and trashed the camp. Then, after Kimba avoids further trouble by returning the recalcitrant Benny, he gets dunned for "causing [a] commotion" that was essentially nonexistent. I honestly don't blame the embarrassed Kimba for dropping the ear-shutters over his eyes at this point.

After Benny returns again and sustains his not-particularly-gruesome injury, we devolve to something between farce and "pathegy." Benny squalls in chalk-screeching-on-blackboard fashion, Bucky and Pauley irrationally blame Kimba for everything (I don't think that even "Dubya" got this much undeserved opprobrium), and the jungle prince is reduced to the role of "bootlicker." The other kids, at least, do not merely parrot the "all Kimba's fault" meme, as Dot says that Benny's injury was due to his own carelessness. So what excuse do the supposed "adults" Bucky and Pauley have for piling on?

The "blame game" is finally called -- and none too soon -- when the gang agrees to help Kimba return Benny after the latter is found in Kimba's jungle. Kimba rightfully looks relieved at this turn of events. Now, we kick into high-gear action as the wolves attack and our friends are forced into Fort Apache mode. Dot nails down the change in tone as she verbally slaps down Benny's previously "cute" squalling and directly (and entirely correctly) blames him for causing all the trouble. I'd like to think that Benny's subsequent disappearance to get help from the ostrich herd was motivated by this long-delayed comeuppance.

We now get, in quick succession, one of the series' most effective uses of weather to build drama (the sudden storm and flash flood literally washing our heroes out of hiding; the sodden chase; the abrupt return of sunshine) and one of the most vicious one-on-one fights of the series (Kimba vs. the leader of the wolf pack). It's all very impressive, and yet... and yet... I'm still smarting from the load of laugh-out-loud (not!) silliness dumped on us in the episode's first half. I do wish that Mushi had toned down the slapstick a bit and set up the dramatic scenes with more finesse. Then, the eye-popping scene of Kimba suddenly acquiring "spider-sense" and running on the side of a wall might have seemed more like the display of a hitherto-unrealized new power and less like another bit of random, off-the-wall goofiness. I will give full marks to Dot, though, for flashing some "grrrrl power" and pitching directly into the wolves to help Kimba while Dash and Dinky apparently hung back to kibitz, or something. At least one character in this ep improved her overall standing with the audience.

The ostriches' run to the rescue has always bugged me for a very simple reason: why should Big Ben, who hasn't evinced an iota of concern for Kimba and friends up until this point, suddenly want to come to their aid? Could Benny possibly have been so persuasive that he was able to overcome all that antagonism so quickly? Unfortunately, the dialogue between Benny and Big Ben is not one of the "deleted scenes" of Kimba, but, in a sense, it should have been.

Kimba absorbs a final jab in the closing scene as Bucky (rather implausibly) plays disciplinarian in the classroom. Here, however, Kimba was acting like a child, and the admonition is much milder in tone than the unfair abuse that he was obliged to swallow earlier in the episode. This moment presages the much more charming, and much more thematically coherent, "Kimba the Kid" episode "The Balloon That Blows Up," which is right around the corner. If this episode proves anything, it is that balancing the twin notions of Kimba as jungle prince and Kimba as callow youth is an exercise in equipoise worthy of Karl Wallenda... and it's all too easy to slip.

Up next: Episode 41, "Destroyers from the Desert"

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