Monday, September 22, 2014

POST-"DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE" PERSPECTIVES: "DuckTales Remastered" and "Scrooge's Loot"

DuckTales Remastered: The Cutscenes Movie now -- comments later!  (By which I mean, it would be a good idea for you to watch the video game's cutscenes before tackling my observations, since the latter will make more sense then.)


Evidently, some of the gamer magazine reviewers were not too pleased with the inclusion of "so much" interstitial material in this release.  For them, the play's the thing.  Those of us whose loyalty is to the animated series, rather than the mechanical imperatives of joystick manipulation, know better.

The running backstory here lasts 76 minutes, two minutes longer than the running time of DuckTales: The Movie.  It's only natural, therefore, to consider Scrooge and company's search for five long-lost treasures, and their ongoing entanglements with the Beagle Boys, Flintheart Glomgold, Magica de Spell, and several additional (and, in some cases, surprisingly familiar) foes, as being a "second movie" of sorts.  What is more unexpected is that the material hangs together well enough to actually merit a comparison to a theatrical feature.  This is to the game designers' credit.

The sequential nature of the treasure quests makes for a rather rigid narrative structure, at least throughout the majority of the game.  After a thwarted Beagle Boy raid on Scrooge's Money Bin reveals the existence of a map detailing the locations of the treasures, we're locked into a series of individual forays, separated by returns to the Money Bin, consultations with Scrooge's supercomputer (which is located under Scrooge's desk in this version, as opposed to simply "being there," as it was in the original Capcom game), and decisions as to the next treasure to find.  During each individual treasure hunt, Scrooge must literally put together a number of subpieces -- scraps of paper, golden coins, sections of the Gizmosuit, etc. -- before discovering the headlined bauble.  Once all the treasures are in place, the "allied" Flinty and Magica (a first -- and, as one might expect, a "marriage" that will prove to be very short-lived) intervene, and the Ducks' struggles against them constitute the remainder of the gameplay.  In the end, Scrooge winds up empty-mitted, but he doesn't mind, since he and his friends and family have gotten to enjoy "the adventure of a lifetime."

Scrooge's Nephews are captives on no less than three occasions during the game.  No surprise there, given that Scrooge's rescues are part of the gameplay, but I find the scenario somewhat ironic.  After all, many of Carl Barks' earliest DONALD DUCK adventures featured HD&L saving their Uncle Donald from one peril or another.  I could have asked for a bit more variety in the conditions of the boys' incarceration, however.  Each time they're jugged, HD&L are put in cages similar to the one they inhabited in "The Land of Trala La."  The only difference is that, the third time around, the boys are all in the same cage.

While the Beagles are first seen running en Rota-like masse towards the Bin, the only individual Beagles to get any game time are those old standbys: Big Time, Burger, Bouncer, and Baggy.  They're not searching for riches, but rather, an old painting that holds a "secret code" giving directions to the various treasures.  First on the "finding line": the Sceptre of the Incan King, deep in the Amazon jungle.  (Yes, this does make geographical sense... barely.)

While it does include both of the show's major second-season additions, many of the attitudes evinced by the characters are very much in the tradition of the first season.  The string of insults that Scrooge addresses to Launchpad will surprise no one who has seen "Scrooge's Pet," among other episodes.  Unfortunately, LP doesn't get any chances, here or anywhere else, to truly prove his mettle, serving instead as a means of (frequently bumpy) transportation from place to place.  The local natives who cede the Sceptre to Scrooge (and giggle behind Scrooge's back that the "treasure" is actually King Manco Capquack's old back-scratcher) look like miniature versions of the somewhat more, er, "traditionally depicted" locals of "Jungle Duck."  Their chief is extremely well-spoken, which should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone living in 2014.

Duckworth has little to do here other than chauffeur Scrooge to the Money Bin, stand around, and make dryly ironic comments.  Mrs. Beakley's plate is a bit fuller... literally.  At various times during gameplay, Mrs. B. appears OUT OF NOWHERE to provide Scrooge with sustenance (and, I presume, extra game points).  To me, this is additional evidence that the devoted nanny and housekeeper possesses immense innate talents, of which DT fans had the poor fortune to see only a few.

Phase two finds Scrooge, HD&L, and Webby in Transylvania, at the haunted castle of Count Drake Von Vladstone, aka Count Dracula Duck.  (Cue grumbling from Britishers in the audience.)  The McGuffin in play here is the Coin of the Lost Realm.  Both Scrooge and HD&L are in familiar form during this trek, with hard-headed Scrooge pooh-poohing the existence of "vampires, banshees" and similar ephemera (evidently, he's forgotten all about the events of "Ducky Horror Picture Show") and HD&L dissing Webby as "a big chicken."  Karma comes to call when the boys subsequently fall into a trap, and it's up to Scrooge to save their tail feathers.  The Beagle Boys, disguised as ghosts, wander around the castle and cause mischief for a while, but Magica is the (entirely appropriate) main foe here.

All of the surviving voice actors from the TV series perform more than honorably in their return engagements.  Alan Young sounds a bit subdued, as one would expect of a 94-year-old, but his Scrooge is right on point.  Ditto the HD&L and Webby of the 70-year-old Russi TaylorChuck McCann, Terry McGovern, and Frank Welker are themselves, nuff said.  As for June Foray... well, if her accent for Magica has slipped just a bit, then that is certainly understandable for someone who will turn 97 this fall.  The signature cackle and attitude remain pretty much intact.

Magica's appearance in the mirror is the occasion for what is, remarkably, Webby's first-ever comment about Magica, at least in an animated format:

Well, it IS in character.  Right, Joe?

The next two treasure treks add to our comforting sense of familiarity by directly retracing the steps of DuckTales -- and Barks -- adventures past.  First, Scrooge and HD&L visit Scrooge's African diamond diggings in search of the Giant Diamond of the Inner Earth, only to discover a panicked workers' stampede that seems -- and sounds -- mighty familiar:

Following Scrooge's mine-car descent to the depths, the Terri-Fermians make their reappearance.  They're pretty much identical to the multicolored clone-guys seen in "Earth Quack," though their King (once again, voiced by Welker) is a little more distinctively characterized this time around, and they refer to the diamonds that are interfering with their "Great Games" as "garbage rocks."  After defeating the King in a roll-and-crash-off, Scrooge has little trouble acquiring the Giant Diamond as part of a deal to take out the rest of the "garbage."

There's a bit of a continuity error in the setup to this sequence.  Before departing for Africa, Scrooge instructs the boys to "find Gyro," presumably to take him along for the ride.  The subsequent helicopter ride, however, includes Scrooge, Launchpad, and HD&L, but not Gyro.  Instead, Gyro is already in Africa when the Ducks arrive on the scene. 

The post-Africa Money Bin confab also features my favorite line in the "movie" (starting at time mark 35:05 in the video).  The line itself isn't exceptionally witty, but Russi Taylor's reading of it is.  She lays on the sarcasm with a trowel, as if she were channeling a line from the slightly more cynical Nephews of Barks' later period.  Or, perhaps Russi has spent so much time working on The Simpsons by now that she finds it easier to sound snarky, no matter what character she is voicing.  You be the judge.

Treasure number four turns out to be nothing less than The Lost Crown of Genghis Khan.  And the Ducks need to find it in Shadow Pass, no less.  The setup isn't quite the same as it was in the TV episode.  In a gambit reminiscent of Scrooge's reverse psychology in "The Golden Goose, Part 2," HD&L are left at home this time, while Webby is charged with "looking after them."  But Webby isn't to be put off so easily this time.  Instead, in the time-honored (if not wholly time-justified) tradition, she tags along.

Scrooge finds himself saddled with an additional passenger when he discovers Bubba Duck frozen in a block of ice inside a cave.  How Bubba got there (and why Scrooge was unaware of his disappearance and subsequent location) is more than I can tell, though unpleasant images of "one-way Himalayan rides" come to mind.  After being freed, Bubba subsequently has little more to do than run in cycles in the background, jumping up and down and pounding his club at random moments.  I don't know about you, but I find that to be extremely funny, especially considering Bubba's ultimate fate in the series.

Glomgold also makes his first appearance of the game during the trip to Shadow Pass, hurling insults and bombs at Scrooge and company.  His biggest moments are still to come, though.

In Shadow Pass, Scrooge discovers the (female) Yeti himself, though he needs some assistance from Webby in order to communicate effectively with it.  In a nice callback to the series, Webby claims to have gotten her ability to deal with monster-speak from the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook.  (And she doesn't even need to consult it in order to tell what the monster is growling -- most impressive.)  The "thorn" plaguing the Yeti turns out to be the Lost Crown itself.  A bit simpler than DT's original telling of the tale, but perfectly acceptable.  Launchpad manages to get in a variation of a much-beloved line from the TV episode when he claims, "Usually, it's me the girls go ga-ga for."

Incidentally, you know that Launchpad is having a rough day (or, a rough series of treasure hunts) when even Webby feels free to make with a wisecrack after Scrooge temporarily leaves her in Launchpad's care.

The fifth and final treasure takes us the farthest afield: the Green Cheese of Longevity (is that referring to Duck longevity, or to the age of the cheese?) is located on the Moon.  This time, Scrooge's traveling companions are Gyro and Fenton (with Gizmosuit in tow, in a natty new briefcase this time).  The new voice actor for Fenton makes the character sound a little "goonier" than seems proper to me.  Hamilton Camp's Fenton was enthusiastic and somewhat naive, but he wasn't "goony."  Scrooge's insults to Fenton seem a bit more justified here than they did in the series, which I don't think was the idea.   

At least this Fenton seems a bit more on the ball when it comes to protecting his secret identity.  He is well aware that Gyro might get suspicious when he disappears and Gizmoduck reappears.  Scrooge blows it off by making a derogatory reference to Gyro's deductive reasoning skills, but the fact remains that Fenton was aware of the issue.  (Of course, there is always the distinct possibility that Gyro learned the truth about Fenton when he rebuilt the Gizmosuit after the original suit was destroyed in "Attack of the Metal Mites."  Given how thoroughly the series had mucked up the issue of Fenton's secret ID by the end, perhaps we should simply pretend that this whole sequence doesn't exist.)

Scrooge bests Glomgold, the Beagle Boys, and a giant rat (yes, really) for the Green Cheese and returns to Earth... only to find that Flinty and the Beagles have HD&L and the other treasures in their possession.  Flinty has barely finished chortling over securing the treasures and thereby becoming the richest Duck in the world (exactly how he would do that is never made clear; perhaps he was planning on auctioning them off, or something?) when Magica blows in and assumes ownership.  Intending to use the treasures to revive Count Dracula Duck and "rule the world" (a parlay of similar opacity to Glomgold's), Magica takes HD&L as hostages, demanding the Old Number #1 Dime in exchange.  (It's always good to have a backup plan, especially when it should be the main plan.)  Flinty and Scrooge decide on a "Robot Robbers" redo and agree to cooperate in order to get HD&L and the treasures back.  If this isn't confusing enough already, just wait.

Scrooge and Flinty brave a couple of snares inside Mount Vesuvius -- with Scrooge doing all of the heavy lifting, big surprise -- before the showdown in Magica's lair.  (Sorry, Greg, but there's no pentagram in evidence this time.)  There, Glomgold proves that he's been playing a double game all along by swiping Old #1.  Magica uses the treasures to summon Dracula Duck, whom Scrooge must then dispatch.  Dracula's demise turns out to be surprisingly creepy, with the undead monster writhing in apparent agony before drying up to ashes and blowing away.

Magica's lair subsequently begins to fall apart (huh??), and HD&L's cage breaks, freeing the lads (ditto??).  To finish the job, Scrooge must recover Old #1 from Flinty and Magica, who are tussling over it.  Glomgold won't give the dime up until Magica hands over the treasures... and, here, I really must object.  Magica used the treasures to summon Dracula, so, presumably, they don't exist any more, just as Old #1 would no longer exist if Magica were to melt it down to become part of a magical amulet.  Glomgold must therefore be either exceptionally naive or exceptionally stupid, neither of which I can truly buy.  To me, this is the most questionable moment of the entire narrative.  The fact that it comes at the climax is most unfortunate.

Scrooge short-circuits the villains' somewhat contrived quarrel by barging in and recovering the dime.  Following a 'copter rescue from a fiery fate, we get a flyoff scene suspiciously reminiscent of the ending of "Send in the Clones."  Given that "Clones" was Magica's first major starring role *annoyed side glance at "Magica's Magic Mirror"*, there's a pleasing symmetry in this.

Back in Duckburg, the proverbial "whole gang" grins with glee as Glomgold and the Beagle Boys are carted off in the paddy wagon.  (Seeing as how Flinty was last seen hanging onto Vulture Magica's tail feathers, while Magica had transformed the Beagles into pigs before taking her leave of Scrooge's office, there are some obvious continuity issues here.)  We iris out on a reprise of a familiar gag from "Scroogerello."  Scrooge's short-bordered generosity is even narrower than it appears to be; he takes HD&L to the ice-cream shop while ignoring everyone else, including Webby.  Somehow, I don't think that the "wee lassie" would take that dissement lying down.  Perhaps she will defy Scrooge and tag along again?  (Let's not even talk about Bubba's reaction.)

The creators of DuckTales Remastered have a lot to be proud of.  With the perspective of a quarter-century and the help of advanced technology, they were able to revamp a much-loved video classic while using the cutscenes to pay a more elaborate, and highly knowledgeable, tribute to the series that inspired it.  That mythical 101st episode of DuckTales?  Close enough, I deem.

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Oh, there's another DuckTales-related video game out there, you say?

Actually, this one is of comparatively little interest to DT fans.  Alan Young and Terry McGovern do appear as the voices of Scrooge and Launchpad, and Flintheart Glomgold, Magica de Spell, and Ma Beagle are the villains who have absconded with Scrooge's (ugh) loot, but the gameplay features a generic Duck-boy character.  (HD&L are off visiting Uncle Donald, in case you're wondering.)  It appears to be a pleasant diversion for gaming enthusiasts, nothing more, nothing less.

Some DUCKTALES comics reviews should be coming your way next.

Book Review: THE COMPLETE PEANUTS, VOLUME 21: 1991-92 by Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics Press, 2014)

In this latest collection, Schulz continues to consolidate the aesthetic ground he had regained during 1989 and 1990, when he started to fully exploit the potential that had been opened up by his decision to change to a variable panel format.  This time, however, most of the innovations center on the Sunday strips.  Schulz seems to have realized at some point that the Sunday format was every bit as much a candidate for a shakeup as the dailies.  He subsequently begins to employ far larger Sunday panels than he had ever used before (e.g. the crashing ocean wave of 4/21/91, the Victoria Falls panorama of 4/19/92).  In an even more radical departure, he begins to assume the virtually unprecedented role of an OMYUN (Omniscient Yet Unseen Narrator; (c) Joe Torcivia) and use narrative captions, an early example of which appears in the Victoria Falls Sunday strip.  A daily caption duly follows in the one-panel strip of 8/22/92.  Clearly, an old dog can learn new tricks, whether you feed him cookies (which Snoopy continues to guzzle here as if they're going out of style) or not.

Only one new character is included herein: Cormac, a little boy who meets Charlie Brown at summer camp and subsequently shows up in Sally's class, where he, not very artfully, contrives to interpose himself between Sally and her supposed "Sweet Babboo," Linus.  If subsequent appearances by Cormac will help to drive the by-now-tiresome "I'm not your Sweet Babboo!" six feet underground for good and all, then I'll be eternally grateful to Schulz.  Old routines, such as Snoopy's assaults on Linus' blanket, maintain their position in Schulz' arsenal, while Rerun, who will play a much more significant role later in the decade, begins to pop up once again in late '92.

Friday, September 19, 2014

"Remaster"ing the "DuckTales" Universe

My review of the "cutscenes" from DuckTales Remastered should be posted sometime during the next several days.  Expecting some sort of "sneak peek" at my verdict?

Comics Review: MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDS FOREVER #9 (September 2014, IDW Publishing)

Another do-over of sorts, as the featured players in this latest issue are Granny Smith and the carny-con duo The Flim-Flam Brothers.  Up until this point, the boys' character arc in My Little Pony has traced a path intriguingly similar to that of Flintheart Glomgold in Carl Barks' stories.  The first time out, in season two's "The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000," F&F were not out-and-out con artists so much as slick-talking rivals to the Apple Family, laid low by their own carelessness.  Season four's "Leap of Faith" presented them in a much more conventionally negative manner, as they tricked Granny and other lame, halt, and blind ponies into shelling out for a phony cures-whatever-ails-ya tonic, subsequently slipping out of Ponyville after their scheme was discovered.  Here's where the Glomgold analogy breaks down, as Christina Rice and Tony Fleecs' new story does NOT, repeat NOT, find the tricksters suddenly devolving into cold-blooded, would-be murderers.  Instead, they're mutually alienated rivals in love, and it's up to Granny to restore their partnership.  If you're wondering why Granny would even bother doing so, given the trouble F&F have caused the Apples to date, then you obviously aren't fully hep to the Apple Family credo of "family coming first."

That is pretty much all there is to the meat of FF #9; the real wonder is that Rice and Fleecs were able to stretch such a simple plot idea out to 22 pages.  This is done through the media of, among other things,  not one but two flashback sequences, a two-page spread showing the reunited F&F doing their usual singsong routine to a gaggle of excited ponies, and another two-pager display depicting the setting of the drama, AppleCon 45, which appears to be a combination of a Farmer's Market and a... do I even need to say it?  Rice actually does surprisingly little to exploit the comic potential of a fruit expo serving as an agricultural equivalent of a "fanboy" mash-up.  Granny complains a little about the Con getting too big and diverse over the years ("Comic-Con International," just saying), but the gripes soon narrow down to a specific mad-on about the presence of *gasp!* orange salesponies.  I know that Granny's supposed to be a bit ossified and devoted to apple-mongering, but Rice overplays her comments to the point that the old greenish mare sounds, well, a bit "fruit-ist."  The backstory on Flim and Flam's breakup over a comely librarian mare named Marian removes whatever picogram of a doubt may have remained that these characters were directly based on Professor Harold Hill of The Music Man.  The fact that the young Granny found herself at the center of a similar set-to many moons ago seems a bit convenient, but I'm not complaining.  Just about every background and foreground pony ever seen in the series, and even a few from the comics, appears here, as if to make up for the plot's comparative lack of substance.

A decent enough effort, but a bit too much on the slight side for my tastes (which encompass both apples AND oranges, if you don't mind, Granny).

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Comics Review: MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDSHIP IS MAGIC #23 (September 2014, IDW Publishing)

"The Legion of MLP Pets" get to star in a comic all their own, as they must free their mesmerized mistresses and the other denizens of Ponyville from watery destruction at the hands (?) of a frankly self-deluded water sprite.  Dialogue occurs on only two of the book's 22 pages, and you know what that means... REBUS TIME!  Well, no, not exactly.  The animals communicate through a series of simple symbols, most of which are tolerably understandable, a few of which are not.  (Though I suppose that Pinkie Pie's pet alligator Gummy's non sequitur symbols are an accurate reflection of his personality, if not his actual thoughts, such as they are.)  It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the show that Fluttershy's bossy bunny, Angel, does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to leadership.  Besides the fact that he's easily the most aggressive of the sextet, he's the pet to whom it is easiest to give funny facial expressions and comical reactions.  This might actually be Angel's most likable role of any sort in MLP, full- or semi-canon editions; most of the time, his appearance on screen leads to an immediate hankering for Hassenpfeffer.  All of the other critters get useful things to do at various times, but Angel pretty effortlessly hogs the stage.

Amy Mebberson's art is just fine, particularly her renderings of Angel's reactions.  As for Jeremy Whitley's script... Ehh, once he gets us through the symbolic portion, his conclusion could be considered a source of some potential disputation.  The sudden existence of an old-fashioned dam in Ponyville (this, after the episode "The Mysterious Mare Do Well" depicted a sure-nuff hydroelectric dam in the vicinity!) is iffy all by itself, though I can see why Whitley created it, so that the inhabitants of Ponyville could be more easily hypnotized en masse.  But the recovered Twilight Sparkle's blowing off of the water sprite's attempt to force the ponies to break the dam as "silly" and "the wrong act for the right reasons" (the sprite needed to get her baby sprites [I guess...] to the ocean but found the dam in her way), an action that was done in the name of friendship and therefore could automatically be excused... just... NO.  Is the phrase "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions" unfamiliar to Equestrians?  Twilight herself has engaged in "this is for your own good" actions that backfired horrendously, e.g., her decision to denounce Princess Cadance as evil in "A Canterlot Wedding, Part 1," which led to her being shunned by her friends, her brother, and even Princess Celestia.  She's also one of the ruling Princesses of the land.  Is it really conceivable that she'd be quite so forgiving of an action that would have destroyed Ponyville and a lot of its residents?  At the very least, the sprites should have had to make some sort of recompense for the not-inconsiderable damage they caused. 

Whitley also leaves the fate of one of the pets completely up in the air, which seems more like the ending of a Darkwing Duck episode (specifically, "Planet of the Capes") than the neater and tidier conclusions that we've become accustomed to in MLP eps.  It's still a pretty good issue, on balance, but Whitley seems to have gotten so enamored with pet-sitting that he neglected to take care of the "plot wolf" at the door.

Book Review: THE AGE OF GOLD by H. W. Brands (Anchor, 2003)

My 900th post!

"They made their fortunes by being tougher than the toughies, smarter than the smarties, shiftier than the shifties, slyer than the sly-ies, luckier than the luckies... and they made it any shape they could!"

Brands' history of the particulars and aftereffects of the famed California Gold Rush plays out on an exceptionally broad canvas, though the true extent of the canvas does not become apparent until two-thirds of the way through.  The triggering event (the discover of gold near Sutter's Fort in early 1848), the logistics of getting to the gold fields by fair means or foul, the hardships the "argonauts" endured en route, and the increasingly elaborate ways in which the miners extracted the precious ore get a generous amount of space, to be sure.  But Brands is actually after bigger game.  He argues that the race for riches (of which, of course, this was only the first and the splashiest) gave birth to a new version of the "American Dream," one in which the old, Puritan-inflected method of "pursuing happiness" was roughly elbowed aside by the aggressive drive for instant wealth.  In this new paradigm, audacity, risk-taking, and a healthy measure of luck counted for more than the inculcation of steady and sober habits.  Brands contends -- and it is difficult to disagree with him -- that the Gold Rush provided the template for numerous booms to come, up to and including the dot.com boom of the 1990s.  With boom, of course, there often comes bust, and those who came to California (or were already there, but alert for the main chance) and provided the miners with supplies, equipment, and urban amenities in such jumping-off towns as San Francisco frequently enjoyed far more financial success than the majority of orediggers, who often found easy riches harder to come by than they'd imagined.

Once the mechanics of the Gold Rush are out of the way, Brands turns to some of the more immediate social and political fallout.  The vast influx of people to California made the huge territory ready for statehood even before it had truly been organized as a territory, and the Compromise of 1850 was constructed to find a common ground between North and South when the resulting fallout over slavery threatened the Union.  The notorious Kansas-Nebraska Act, which probably did more than any other measure to make the Civil War inevitable, had its roots in the desire to facilitate travel to California by transcontinental railroad.  California itself, despite being admitted as a free state, had a number of pro-slavery settlers, some of whom wanted to see the southern portion of the state secede, or to use the wealth of the state to finance the Confederate war effort.  The importance of the railroad wound up keeping California in the Union, but it was a closer-run thing than many people might think.  The development and "civilizing" of San Francisco and other California towns, and the impact of the mass migration on native Californians and Native American tribes, also get their due amount of attention.

You'll find many well-known figures discussed in these pages, but I found the stories of the more obscure (or obscure, but soon to be famous) people to be just as interesting, if not more so.  The narrative becomes a bit diffuse in its last third, as if Brands is trying to fit in as many ramifications of the Gold Rush as he can, but the quality of the prose remains high from beginning to end.  I could also have asked for more detailed maps of the gold fields.  Still, this is a story that everyone should know -- especially since the risk-taking individual entrepreneur, without which the "American Dream" still cannot survive, is at the core of the tale.