Let’s face it, talking animals are bizarre. The idea is fun and entertaining, but sometimes the execution can be shaky, especially when talking animals are placed side-by-side with talking humans with no language barrier, and especially when said talking animals are completely naked and prance around in the jungle with a human civilization right down the street. And that’s just the beginning of Babar‘s weirdness. When the world of man collides with the world of talking animals, things start to make even less sense. It’s easy to accept the land of Celesteville, which has talking civilized elephants and a king, when you assume it’s always been like that. However, season one of the 1980’s Nelvana Babar series gives a detailed account of where Celesteville came from over the course of several episodes. It’s actually kind of epic in its own way, but it’s the kind of story you can only accept if you don’t question it too much. The second half of the season settles into a more standalone episode format. There is a total of 13 episodes on 2 discs.
We’re immediately introduced to an adult Babar: husband, father, and king of the elephants. However, the star of the series is kid Babar. Each episode starts out in the present, where one of Babar’s children has a problem, which prompts Babar to impart some wisdom in the form of a flashback to his youth. By the end of the episode, his kid feels better.
Appropriately enough, the flashback in the first episode takes Babar all the way back to his earliest memory of being a pack elephant in the wild, and the next half dozen episodes progress directly from there. Young Babar looks like an actual elephant. He doesn’t wear fancy clothes, and he walks on all fours. He lives with a group of elephants including the previous King of the Elephants as well as other elephants whom we’ll recognize as Cornelius and Pompadour (who, strangely, are wearing glasses despite being jungle animals). Babar experiences a tragedy involving a hunter that would make Bambi weep and then loses sight of his pack. He winds up in the world of man, where, understandably, he’s confused until a kindly old lady teaches him about civilization. He finds the other elephants and, using all he’s learned, teaches them to become more human-like and helps them build their own city. He interacts with other animals, including Lord Rataxes and the rhinoceroses, who get the same idea about becoming civilized. The arc is concluded when Babar has a final, chilling confrontation with the hunter. Since the hunter doesn’t talk (or have a mouth for that matter), somehow he manages to be the most animal-like creature in the jungle.
The first half of the season does a thorough job of presenting Celesteville’s origin, but it raises even more questions: Why haven’t humans realized animals can talk? How do the elephants somehow shrink to a more human-like size when they start walking upright? Where did Rataxes’ fingers come from? I like Babar, and I think he’s a positive role model for children who has fun and heartfelt adventures, but the first half of the season is just tough to get into with the high weirdness quotient.
The second half of the season is a lot more straightforward. Babar continues to regale his children with tales of the problems he faced as a child king, whether it was making friends with a runaway circus star or learning to play the piano to perform a duet. Actually, about a third of the episodes in season one are about putting on some kind of performance. I guess when Babar isn’t dealing with diplomatic relations, he has to entertain the citizens of Celesteville somehow. It’s actually pretty smart to go back and forth between the two, as the audience would find Babar more relatable when he’s facing the kind of problems a child would as opposed to making kingly decisions.
However, the episodes where he deals with being a king end up being the more entertaining ones. In “No Place Like Home”, Babar has to negotiate with Rataxes, and it’s funny to see Babar’s advisor Pompadour and Rataxes’ advisor Basil get technical about their means of negotiation before the negotiation actually begins. Babar says diplomacy is “extremely boring and almost never works.” Even without typical kid problems, those episodes still manage to have a good message for the audience, and the situations make for some of the funnier jokes.
Overall, season one is a great start to the series. Despite how odd the first few episodes come across, they do adequately explain where Celesteville came from, and after that the audience can just accept the lessons Babar conveys to his children. The characters are all fun and imaginative, and while the animation is about as advanced as you can expect from a product of the 80’s, the simple character designs work within the charming nature of the show. In fact, the opening title sequence of the adult Babar greeting his family in front of a roaring fireplace with a book practically dares the audience to watch this and not have their heart warmed.