Thursday, July 19, 2012

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 2, "Earth Quack"

I can't prove it, of course, but I think it's a reasonably safe guess that someone involved in the development of DuckTales had a habit of bringing a copy of Celestial Arts' 1982 volume UNCLE $CROOGE McDUCK: HIS LIFE AND TIMES to those early production meetings.  "Earth Quack," DT's stab at adapting Carl Barks' "Land Beneath the Ground," is one of five episodes among the first 8 DT eps produced that were based on Barks stories reprinted in LIFE AND TIMES.  Later, "The Horseradish Story" and "Tralla La" would also get adaptations.  And the influence wielded by this first major Barks book project may not have ended there.  One can make the case that the "treasure ship in the desert" featured in "Wrongway in Ronguay" (part two of "Treasure of the Golden Suns") may be a riff on Captain Ulloa's ship in "The Seven Cities of Cibola."  The prominent appearances by Flintheart Glomgold and Magica De Spell probably didn't hurt their chances of becoming featured animated players, either.


Of course, simply having a handsome, richly-colored reference tome close at hand doesn't guarantee that you'll ace your adaptation of the source material.  "Back to the Klondike" was, at best, a mixed success... and pardon me for resorting to an obvious metaphor here, but the cracks in the foundation of "Earth Quack" seem to have grown wider over time.  I pretty much concur with GeoX's assessment that the best thing about this rushed, relentlessly bland take on the tale of the Terries and Fermies (squashed into "Terri-Fermians" here for convenience's sake) is that it makes you appreciate just how clever and nuanced Barks' subterranean saga was.  But a fresh-eyed viewing has also brought to light several irritating logical lapses that have caused me to slightly lower my initial rating of the episode.  Even the animation lets us down at times; the spectacular "first reveal" of the Land Beneath the Ground is still quite arresting, but the earthquake scenes -- both the ones in the "dream sequence" at the beginning and the real quake that drains Scrooge's Money Bin near the end -- definitely could have been handled better.  Coming off the visually impressive, if thematically dodgy, "Klondike," this ep has to be regarded as a disappointment.

How the Ducks should have traveled into the Terri-Fermians' lair?
(Cover of a South African DVD)

Piles of moneybags abruptly jutting up like geysers and tidal waves of cash appearing OUT OF NOWHERE with no real physical buildup aside, the "dream sequence" is still a decent way to start the episode.  But the existence of a real fault underneath Scrooge's bin inadvertently muddies up one of the most charming points in Barks' story: the fact that the Terries and Fermies, as opposed to "mere" physical processes, are responsible for making earthquakes.  In "Land Beneath the Ground," Scrooge worries about the possible presence of "weak areas," "deep fissures" and "hollow places," but the actual processes that cause earthquakes are cleverly left unstated, allowing Barks to fill in with his delightful conceit of a subterranean land of creatures whose job it is to make quakes.  By contrast, why would Fudderman's Fault be called a fault unless it were already understood that faults have something to do with the production of earthquakes?  The Barks scenario of a paranoid Scrooge digging and digging despite the lack of pro-quake evidence -- and thereby discovering the existence of the "Land Beneath the Ground" -- is dropped in favor of a straight (or as straight as a Gyro Gearloose project can be, anyway) engineering exercise. Giving Gyro his first role of the series (and with a strangely strangulated voice, to boot; Hal Smith seems to have been feeling his way with character voices at this point) isn't worth undercutting the role of the Terri-Fermians in such a manner.  The least that they could have done in exchange was to have given us a chance to have seen Gyro's giant shock absorber in the process of being built.

   
As for the looooooonnnnng sequence which takes first Scrooge, and then HD&L, into the Terri-Fermians' world... well, "double rolls" may save you some money when you're buying toilet paper, but they pretty much kill you when you're trying to add some depth to your story.  No surprise, then, that once the Ducks finally get out of their mine cars and start interacting with the game-playing blobs, the ep is left with so little time that the audience is practically foreordained to witness a simplified goodies vs. baddies scenario.  I wish that there were some way for Scrooge and the boys to have traveled down there together and thus to have saved a few precious minutes.  Granted, you would have needed an explanation as to why Scrooge would let HD&L go down with him on such a dangerous mission, but, heck, after the scared workers exit the shaft, Scrooge grabs the mine car and heads into the bowels of the Earth without even stopping to grab some supplies, or a light source, or...  How could he possibly have denied the boys a chance to come with him on the grounds of concern over their safety?

Dewey's description of the Terri-Fermians as "bad guys" has always intrigued me.  While Barks' Terries and Fermies may engage in more "technically" villainous behavior -- pulling the cable pins out of the Ducks' mine cars, preparing to "bargain" with the Ducks in exchange for their silence, and consciously starting the Duckburg-wrecking earthquake in order to get their trophy back -- they are so "exuberantly likable" (thanks, GeoX) and well-characterized that the reader doesn't really mind.  The Terri-Fermians, by contrast, get so little development that their function is automatically reduced to that of serving as antagonists, though they are more oblivious to the effects of their actions than anything else.  The more "formal" structure of the Terri-Fermians' world -- they have a king and put people in jail, whereas the Terries and Fermies live in something like a state of inspired anarchy -- also makes them seem more malevolent than they truly are.  In this respect, the subplot involving the little Terri-Fermian who wants to roll in the Great Games, cliched though it may seem, does serve a purpose: it ensures that at least one Terri-Fermian will be permitted to have interactions with the Ducks on something close to friendly terms.  In light of how little "real time" we actually got to share with the Terri-Fermians, I'll take what I can get.   


The Terri-Fermians acknowledge their newly created hierarchical social structure.

The climactic quake sequence, though it features some funky (as in: slightly off-odor) animation while Scrooge's limo races the crack through the streets of Duckburg, does deliver the goods when Scrooge's Bin is drained dry.  I actually prefer the TV depiction of the money literally gushing out of the bottom of the Bin to Barks' comic-book crack at same.  Here's the thing, though...  why are the Terri-Fermians all rolling and crashing into the pillar in the first place?  Since they now have Scrooge's top hat to use as a substitute for the Crackpot Trophy, they have no reason to try and "get their trophy back," right?  So why not simply go back to their normal team competition, racially -- er, chromatically -- uniform roll-and-crash teams and all?  Were they simply engaging in the Terri-Fermian equivalent of a hissy fit?  I realize that the temptation was there to animate the Bin-busting quake in some form, but I just don't see the logic behind it here.  Nor do I see why the quake, apart from that single crack running down the street (I thought the fault was right under Scrooge's bin?), leaves the rest of Duckburg completely untouched.  This was like the paranoiac's version of an earthquake, one that targets one and only one location and/or person.  At least the Terri-Fermians' description of the money as "worthless litter," which prompts them to defy physical logic and return it to Scrooge (I notice that Barks didn't even try to show how this actually happened), maintains their episode-long stance of obliviousness to the doings of the world outside.  If they had started complaining about money being known to be worthless because it's given away on radio programs, then that would have been completely out of lack of character!

So, yeah, this ep represents something of a step back, IMHO.  The ingredients are there, but the show hasn't truly jelled yet.  Will the next couple Barks adaptations -- and the first few original stories -- show an uptick?

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DuckBlurbs:  A quick thank you is in order to everyone who commented on my "Klondike" post.  I was really gratified to see that level of feedback.

(Greg) We zoom into the rope and then we cut to Gyro telling the boys to give more speed as the nephews pushes on the lever (WRONG LEVER) some more. We head back in as Scrooge is calling this good and then the transmitter goes dead since Scrooge is out of range. D'OH! Okay; here's the logic break; if the workers were four miles down; how come Scrooge's transmitter is getting static; while the workman's was clear?! 

A good pointPhysically speaking, I'm more intrigued by the workmen's amazing ability to run four miles uphill THAT quickly.  What did they use, rocket boots? 

(Greg)  [T]he little one claims that the king is coming as the king blob and the circle coach along with his train arrive from the right corner of the arena. He's also carrying the Crack Pot Trophy. Okay; someone who had this idea is clearly on drugs. POW! OUCH! Ummm..Okay; Carl Barks is not on drugs.

I'd still like to know why the amphora was given a big crack and an official name.  Granted, explaining where the trophy came from (including the fact that it proves that the Terri-Fermians date back to the time of the ancient Greeks) would have taken up even more air time that the episode didn't have.

(Greg) And then here comes Scrooge and the nephews tired beyond belief. Webby thought the earthquakes got him as Scrooge proclaims that there won't be any more quakes now that he has the trophy.

Well, there's still the little matter of Fudderman's Fault to consider.  When's Gyro going to build that shock absorber, again?   

Next:  Episode 3, "Sweet Duck of Youth." 

4 comments:

Joe Torcivia said...

Chris:

That is one WILD THEORY about the Celestial Arts book! Yet, it’s plausible enough to be true. Especially, if the good folks at Disney did not wish to soil their hands with common comic books!

There sure WERE enough stories, or bits of them, contained therein turning up in early DT productions to make the case!

In all our years of discussions, I don’t recall your mention of it. Did you arrive at that conclusion independently, or did you hear it from somewhere!

No matter, it’s a great one to consider and is sure to change the way one might view DT’s early stages of development.

Joe.

Pete Fernbaugh said...

Fair assessment, Chris! I'm fascinated by how daring the writers and animators were on this episode, though. Despite the flaws, you can tell they were trying to "stretch" themselves, especially with some of the animation.

Even though the story suffered with some of the longer sequences, it was almost like they were seeing how far they could go visually after the rather intimate "Klondike." And it seems like they were trying to write Duck stories of their own making, rather than copying Barks word-for-word.

I like that you're taking these reviews in production order. It gives valuable insight into the creative process behind not just DUCKTALES, but TV shows in general.

As with everything, there's a learning curve.

Chris Barat said...

Joe,

I didn't formulate the Celestial Arts theory until I learned something about the production order of the episodes. The really interesting question is, why weren't the OTHER stories in the Celestial Arts book adapted into episode form? I think that we can guess why the Peeweegah story didn't make the cut, and perhaps the Many Faces of Magica story was simply considered too weird to adapt.

Chris

Comicbookrehab said...

Chris:

I think "Send In The Clones" is an approximation of "The Many Faces of Magica DeSpell"...ish. Both stories deal with changing appearances, confusion resulting from it and Barks' depiction of the superficial nature of magic powers (Mrs. Beakley performs the same transformation spells by just tossing potions around, willy-nilly). The fact that soap and water saved the day might have kept them from using it.