And so, as is usually the case, Joe's turn comes last. Hey, someone has to be at the back of the line, so why not everyone's favorite perennial schmuck of the team of digital defenders? In this case, anyway, the context seems to be specifically highlighting the eternal game of catchup Joe's playing compared to the more classic cartoon heroics that come naturally to his peers; Yamato and Sora, along with the others on the parallel Taichi team, have all gotten their hot new Ultimate Evolutions and theoretically proved their worth in terms of bravery and ability with that growth. So it fits to have this episode open with Joe generally acknowledging that he's basically just along for the ride at this point. That sets up an obvious path for his character to grow as everyone's had these past couple months, but you have to wonder if it needed to be so clear-cut as this episode turns out.
Indeed, the big issue I take with this episode is that even as it's functioning just fine in terms of telling a story and advancing the focal character of Joe just enough to feel like he and Gomamon earned this last-in-the-batch of Ultimate Evolutions, it all feels so basic in doing so. Joe starts off not feeling motivated to act reliably or responsibly, and learns by the end that those are things he, as everyone else has, must contribute to the team. This limits things in a couple of ways. First off is the point that ‘Reliability’ (or its linguistic derivatives) is supposed to be Joe's especial contribution to the destined team's dynamic. He may mess up and get owned a bunch while doing so, but the point (supposedly embodied by that glowing crest-symbol on his Digivice) is that he pushes through with sheer determination anyway. It fits in the case of this storyline that he really learns to do that as a part of this trial-by-fire growing process, but it's not really highlighted as a special element to him the same way as Mimi's raw emotional empathy or Koshiro's powers of observation and analysis. Everyone else in this episode performs pointedly reliably from the start, so it feels more like Joe simply being brought up to everyone else's level of contribution rather than discovering and growing into a new, stronger side of himself.
The other problem is that the journey we took to arrive at this point for Joe isn't a particularly clever one. It starts with the germ of an idea: one of the other team members getting roughly incapacitated (Sora, of course), spurring Yamato and Joe to have to act to protect her in the midst of an attack by Mammon and Yukidarumon. So there's something here in terms of the characters coming to understand that they've got to watch out for each other the same way they've been prompted to help out various Digimon in the other episodes of this arc. But it doesn't really get anywhere beyond the base idea of that setup, with the rest of the plan and Joe's actions devolving into a long-winded chase scene for the rest of the episode. It's a constant, repetitive push-and-pull of him thinking he's not reliable enough, Gomamon encouraging him, then him finally stepping up at the end because, hey, it's the end of the episode and we've got to see Gomamon's Ultimate Evolution somehow. I almost liked the call-back to the Garudamon episode, with Joe effectively returning the favor for Sora saving him, but it's not highlighted or really brought up in any meaningful thematic way.
So like I said, that means we're left with just a very basic, mostly functional little story that provides a modicum of growth for Joe. The structure of this whole thing is fine – it's not a mess on the level of Sora's episode, nor does it feel unearned and hollow like Taichi's. It's just your usual ‘character learns a lesson’ cartoon story with an obligatory power-up at the end. And while that storytelling element just skates by, this episode gets let down more with its presentation of Zudomon himself upon his debut. I praised Digimon Adventure:'s work with its resources in previous episodes even as it was clear its artists were working with levels of constraints, but the show really gets hit with a budgetary bludgeon in this one. There's almost no dynamism or stylistic exploitation on what should be the one big scene in this episode, with Zudomon sliding around in cheap pans, jerky clashes of movement, and the action generally lacking in any cool factor you might expect from “Viking walrus wrestles giant mecha-mammoth”. Ikkakumon was already one of those creatures the show seemed to struggle to portray with exciting animation (alongside poor Birdramon), but to see it extend to his Ultimate-level version is another disappointing blow.
For all the overwhelming feeling of ‘Meh’ I had in this cap-off to the Ultimate Evolution exercise, there were some flashes that worked. I love that we're still taking moments to stop and check out the various bizarre, beautiful landscapes of the Digital World, from the dragged-through desert we see Taichi and co.'s little adventure with Kiwimon in, to a frozen waterfall in the ice area Joe and the others go through. Even if it completely lacks dynamism, the big fight here finally taking place as a neat conceptual setpiece on an impromptu ice bridge is appreciable. And Joe's contributions to his partner's big battle neatly demonstrated how the kids have grown more strategic in their conceptual contributions to the monster confrontations, the show seemingly making a conscious effort to avoid the cheerleader effect endemic to the original show's partner dynamic. On top of all that, they do get our attention for the next phase of the show immediately with this one's twist ending: the revelation of Taichi's crew seemingly back in Tokyo out of nowhere. Granted, I don't believe for a second that this is what it seems, but that makes it an engaging setup regardless. We're through the contractually-obligated evolution-level showcase, so I'm excited for this new take on Digimon to potentially start really surprising me again!
Digimon Adventure: is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.