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."

No comments: