Friday, July 27, 2012

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 3, "Sweet Duck of Youth"

I still lack a positive confirmation of my speculation that the DuckTales production crew got most of its early "Barks-adaptation fodder" from Celestial Arts' UNCLE $CROOGE McDUCK: HIS LIFE AND TIMES.  However, I can offer up the Internet-delivered tidbit that Jymn Magon, a longtime Barks fan, brought volumes from Another Rainbow's CARL BARKS LIBRARY to some of those early production meetings... and that some of his colleagues weren't impressed.  Sorry to say, I can't currently locate a direct link for a relevant quote.  Perhaps someone can provide one.


Speaking of Barks adaptations: When writing our DUCKTALES INDEX, Joe Torcivia and I coined the awkward, yet apropos, neologism "semi-adaptation" to describe the occasional DT episode that contained bits and pieces of Barks material but did not count as a flat-out adaptation.  "Sweet Duck of Youth" is the first such example to be produced -- a tale flavored with essences of Barks' story "That's No Fable!" but, shall we say, pointing in a completely different direction.  GeoX correctly IDs the Florida swamp setting and the Fountain of Youth as the two main similarities between the stories; I would also posit that the old swamp dweller's use of a conquistador disguise may have been inspired by the presence of the two young-old soldiers Pedro and Pablo in Barks' story.

"Sweet Duck" isn't a classic by any means, but it's gained a bit of gravitas with time, not least because it features the debut of Launchpad McQuack and the brief appearances of several other series players, some culled from Barks (Gladstone Gander) and some emphatically not (Doofus, Quacky McSlant, Vacation van Honk).  Launchpad's persona at this early stage is still under construction, and it's intriguing to witness the ways in which his performance in "Sweet Duck" deviates from the future template of "good-natured, crash-prone incompetent."  The theme of a despondent Scrooge feeling his years and rushing off to try to find the long-lost Fountain, only to ultimately discover that (all together now!) "you're only as old as you feel," seems as cut-and-dried now as it did 25 years ago, but you do have to give DT some credit for grasping the "age" nettle at such an early stage.  The idea of centering a late-80s animated series around a crotchety, old, cane-toting, Scottish-accented duck was unusual enough; now they have to go and remind viewers of just how old he is?  By contrast, writers Ken Koonce and David Wiemers, who will come to cast two very, very long shadows over the course of the development of DT's style of humor, play things fairly close to the vest in their first go-round when it comes to verbal fireworks; they concentrate on the development of mood and atmosphere, as opposed to packing the script with one-liners.  Their plot line is "thin" (GeoX) and their wrap-up of the story is decidedly perfunctory and unsatisfactory (Greg), but some high-quality animation and background work from TMS help with the mood-setting. 

In retrospect, the opening "Scrooge's birthday party" scenes, which seemed either pointless or mystifying at the time when "Sweet Duck" was originally aired in mid-season, look like a tentative, toe-dipping attempt to give the audience a soft-pedaled introduction to several new players.  Granted, said players make no real impression on the proceedings, but you can sense the DT crew trying to get the audience acclimatized to the looks of these folks.  Gladstone, of course, would later get a featured role in one ep and an extended walk-on in another, so I find it somewhat ironic that this classic Barks character is the one "new guy" who mysteriously disappears from the proceedings in mid-stream...



(insert relevant "... is a form of work" joke here) ...  while Quacky and VVH remain on the scene throughout.

It's difficult to figure out why Quacky and VVH were brainstormed into existence in the first place -- or, more to the point, how the DT crew thought that they could be used on a regular, or even semi-regular, basis.  I mean, "mere background characters" wouldn't rate pictures and character write-ups in the "show bible" unless the creators felt that they should get fairly substantial roles, right?

   I askew...what kind of story angle would YOU use to give this guy a starring role? 

Well, he might have worked better as one of Herb Muddlefoot's long-lost relatives.

Heck, Quacky doesn't even stand at an angle in his first "crowd scene," which rather defeats the purpose of using him in the first place.  Without that self-defining shtick, he just looks like some homeless duck who wandered into Scrooge's mansion from off the street.  Evidently, even at this very early stage, the DT crew were already rethinking the whole idea of making Quacky any sort of major player (though he would get a clever bit at the start of "Home Sweet Homer" and, much later, would even appear in a couple of comic-book stories).  VVH would fare a little better, getting several speaking roles in the series, but even his "perpetual traveler" role would be undercut by the fact that we never saw him outside of Duckburg.  The closest he would ever got to a trip would be when he bumped into Magica De Spell at the airport during "Magica's Shadow War."  Unlike Quacky, I think that VVH could have reasonably been used more often than he was, albeit only as a gag character.  I can easily imagine him assuming the role of the pig lady who kept impeding Donald's progress in Barks' "A Duck's-Eye View of Europe," regularly bumping into Scrooge, HD&L, and Launchpad in the most unlikely places.  To say that Launchpad's debut is the most significant one in this episode, however, is to state the obvious.


Let it immediately go on the record that Launchpad's first on-screen landing is A SUCCESS!  The second one, in the Okeefedokee Swamp, does land the Ducks in quicksand, but LP still gets the gang down in one piece.  Even LP's first crash comes with a big asterisk, as the old swamp guy shoots down the 'copter.  We do get a hint during that third "landing scenario" that LP has had this sort of experience before, as the pilot speaks the soon-to-be-famous line, "Any crash you can walk away from is a good crash!".  With the temporary "reverse" of the ducks' newly-built watercraft, LP finally gets into the groove that will ultimately define him.  That being said, the overarching impression that one gets of LP here is that of "LP the airhead," as opposed to "LP the crashmeister."  Speculating over the possibility that "tiny little Indians" shot the copter-wrecking arrow (was this an oblique reference to the even-then-untouchable "Land of the Pygmy Indians"?) and reasoning that the conquistador must be "the ghost of a fisherman" because he uses nets to trap his prey, LP provides a good deal of off-the-wall verbal humor that Donald only rarely did in Barks' $CROOGE adventures.  Given that LP is the series' stand-in for Donald, it is significant, I think, that Koonce and Wiemers felt it necessary to establish the pilot's distinctiveness right off the top.  The "polishing and sanding" of the character would come later.



There's relatively little to say about the content of most of the episode, at least until the Ducks encounter the swamp guy.  We get some splendid eye-candy in the Okeefedokee (especially, as GeoX notes, the beautiful shot of the swamp at twilight) and a couple of nicely mounted scenes when HD&L and Scrooge are first attacked by the conquistador:


BTW, I don't particularly mind the use of what Greg calls the "Hanna-Barbera looping and running effect" in the bottom image.  It's not as if DT regularly resorted to such measures in its animation -- the use of it here is clearly to make a gag point -- and the scene in question is well-executed.

Before the gang gets back together in the swamp guy's cabin, we get two charming little scenes involving the Nephews, one post-conquistador encounter...

 ... and one as the boys prepare to come to the rescue of Scrooge and Launchpad...


The first is a cute little visual grace note; there's no reason for Huey to flick the water off of his head like that, but it's something that a young Duckling just might do under the rainy circs.  The second gives us our first touch of differentiation between the Nephews -- and a surprising one at that.  How often did a Nephew attempt to weasel out of his responsibility during a Barks adventure?  The fact that it's Louie is ironic in light of Dan Haley's seminal study "A Who's Who of HD&L" (THE BARKS COLLECTOR #11 [1979]), which reports that, in Barks' stories, Louie was more often than not presented as the most athletic of the three boys.  OK, Louie's moment of weakness is certainly not on the level (or at the depth) of the slacker Quack Pack HD&L "flicking forks into the ceiling and complaining that there's nothing to do," or even the boys' whining about the lack of a beanery amidst the wild scenery in Barks' "Gall of the Wild," but its appearance here is nonetheless intriguing.  Nice lighting effect during the scene, too.

HD&L's subsequent solution of Ponce De Loon's riddle is... well, I have to agree with GeoX that it's rather on the contrived and uber-convenient side, but, in all honesty, is it that much MORE contrived than the boys' doping out the location of Scrooge's dumped quarters in "The Secret of Atlantis," or of Tralla La in Barks' version of the story?  HD&L didn't even need to consult the Junior Woodchucks' Guidebook to figure the puzzler out, so, if anything, they should be awarded some extra plaudits here.  Actually, I would be more cheesed off at the swamp guy, who's had that armor in his possession for 30 years and never thought to examine it for potential secret compartments.  After three decades of living in swampy isolation, and apparently having little else to do but put on the armor (to scare intruders) and take it off again, you'd think that he might have discovered that compartment by dumb luck, if nothing else.

The ultimate reveal of the subterranean Fountain is another visually impressive scene, made all the more so by the fact that it's delivered without any dialogue being used.  The gags involving the Fountain's actual effects are clever, as well.  Then, alas, the time crunch bites the ep in the tookus, as our friends apparently walk out of the Okeefedokee and back to civilization (with an implied stop at an airport to catch a plane to get back to Duckburg).  That's a ramble to match the amnesiac Ducks' pedestrian escape from the ruins of "The Seven Cities of Cibola," so at least the logical lapse has some distinguished company, but, boy, does it strain narrative credulity.  Just as irksome is the question of how the long-isolated swamp guy could afford to celebrate his return to civilization by taking a trip to Tahiti.  Somehow, I doubt that he's been holding down a steady job during his search for the Fountain, so even if you speculate that the Ducks stopped at the cabin to allow the old feller to pick up some spending cash, you're skating on thin ice.  Plus, why didn't he simply fly to Tahiti from an airport in Florida?  (Unless Duckburg is on the West Coast?)  And where's his luggage?  Could Scrooge be... *gulp!*... paying for the trip?!  Admittedly, Scrooge did "learn a lesson" in this episode, but let's not get too carried away.


Scrooge's vid-character still seems a bit crude here -- I still find it difficult to believe that he would literally drop everything and rush after a legendary Fountain that may or may not exist, even if he were seriously worried about getting old.  I mean, wouldn't it be more cost-effective to think about searching for a more tangible "solution" closer to home?  Or, at the very least, to do some preliminary spadework to estimate the likelihood that the Fountain exists?  The priceless "Get rid of your money belt!/I'd rather sink" gag, however, is a promising sign; so, too, the "crocodile-dollar gag" (see below).

The frosting definitely outweighs the cake here, but at least it's reasonably tasty frosting.   I'd say that the series is making progress.

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DuckBlurbs

(GeoX) Launchpad just blows out Scrooge's candles like it waren't no thang. Surely that's a breach of etiquette...

Or a very early indication of Launchpad's cockiness, one of his most endearing (albeit often self-defeating) character traits.

(GeoX)  Scrooge, addressing the camera, after having rescued a dollar from an alligator's snout: "Phew! The things you have to do to save a dollar these days!" Yeah, it doesn't get much lamer than that.

I do think that this scene would have been greatly improved by dispensing with the dialogue entirely and simply letting it speak for itself (about Scrooge's frugality, that is).  Koonce and Wiemers had already used the funny bit of "woe-is-me" Scrooge wandering through the swamp as various perils are menacing him, a la "The Swamp of No Return," so the use of another sight gag involving a local predator wouldn't have seemed out of place.  The "save a dollar" line, however, unnecessarily jackhammers the point home.

 A level from the video game "DuckTales 3: Pitfall Scrooge"?

(Greg)  Scrooge is hopelessly lost in a deadly swamp (death reference #1) on the sky shot as he is without his cane too. Scrooge calls out for the nephews as we pan over about 200 feet to the right to the crashed helicopter as the nephews and Launchpad return proclaiming that they checked everywhere in the area. I doubt that very much guys.

Forget the problem-with-tracking issue (which is hard to believe anyway, given HD&L's Junior Woodchuck experience -- or perhaps they hadn't yet progressed in the organization to the point of earning that merit badge?).  Why can't HD&L and Launchpad HEAR Scrooge calling for help? 

(Greg)  We get some more thunder crashing and go to the far shot of the cabin as we head inside with Scrooge still in the net as Scrooge hears the front door opening. Launchpad thinks it's a real ghost of course. We cut to the door (which is next to the conviently placed armor. Nice to see DeLoon was on the ball here eh?) as the barrier get opened and in comes the nephews. Huey and Dewey tries to cut the nets; but Louie just had to see the armor and he walks backwards and knocks the nephews down with a thud.  Louie apologizes and the swamp guy wakes up and the nephews are forced to bail away stage right just before the door opens to reveal swamp guy in his pink PJ'S.

Hey, look whose fear-fueled clumsiness nearly caused the boys' cover to be blown!  Given the earlier "let me know how it comes out" scene, I'd call this a nice example of continuity.  Either that, or Dan Haley's research was flawed. 

(Greg)  So we cut to above ground near a tree in front of the ruins as Scrooge gets up and helps the nephews get out of the hole in the ground as Scrooge feels young once again. So we then go into the jungle swamp as Scrooge leads the charge to find something which is not clearly explained. Okay; this episode is dead as a doornail now and it's time to mercy kill it. We get more walking and Scrooge telling the rest to keep up; but nothing happens, literally. The music is the only thing keeping me from boredom at this point. So we get another scene changer as everyone but Scrooge is struggling to keep up with him. Swamp guy comments on Scrooge's energy level. Launchpad gleefully answers him for me as we then cut to the airport. Huh?! How the hell did they get home when they have no helicopter when the nephews created a motorboat out of it?! Stupid, stupid, stupid, STUPID! Did I mention stupid?! We head out of the airport as Scrooge is happy to get home. I guess he used his teleportion powers from earlier in the episode. Swamp guy comes out with a paper in his hands as he thanks Scrooge. If it's for sucking; then I agree with him.

Well, there actually was a point to Scrooge's purposeful striding here -- to get to the airport -- but I'm on board with most of your points here.  I wonder whether a scene was cut for time purposes.  If so, then it probably could have been preserved by slicing a bit of the blubber out of the mid-episode scenes in the swamp, but some of the episode's visual ambiance would then have been disrupted.  How might you have fixed this problem?  

Next:  Episode 4, "Micro-Ducks from Outer Space".

4 comments:

Joe Torcivia said...

So… The conclusion to draw from this is that when Barks created incidental characters (for the possibility of recurrence), he created Neighbor Jones, Gyro Gearloose, and Gladstone Gander, not to mention Scrooge McDuck himself. Even Vic Lockman created Dimwitty – a character that had SOME longevity and function. Dunno who actually created Moby Duck (Did he come from Disney, given his TV special, or Western?), but I’ll throw him in as an example as well.

And, when DT did the same, we got Quacky Mc Slant (that name’s not even FUNNY – in the way that a “Handlebars Mc Twirlsneer” might be) and Vacation Van Honk?

Really? That’s the best they could do? Exactly what were they thinking? Let’s draw up some goofy looking characters and worry about it later?! Even some of the lesser Harvey characters had better shticks than these! Though I like the notion of our Ducks running into V.V.H. in out of the way places and at odd intervals! That WOULD have been a nice recurring gag… um, had they thought to DO it!

If there’s one new perspective your series has given me, Chris, it’s that the brain-trust at DTVA had to overcome quite a lot of its own indecisiveness, and maybe even some ineptitude, in the early going to make DT the great series it would become!

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

I knew about Vacation Van Honk (who, I agree, at least had potential as a running joke), but I had no idea about this slanting fellow until you mentioned him here. It is pretty baffling. "He's like a regular guy, only--get this--he's TILTED!" It's almost impossible to see how anyone could possibly have thought that sufficient; it would be interesting to hear from someone involved with the series as whether that's really as far as the thinking went.

Chris Barat said...

Joe,

Well, judging by what Jymn Magon said about some of his colleagues' initial "meh" reaction to the Barks stories, it may not be QUITE so surprising to see such characters being proposed as cast members. At least some of the people involved with DT had not gone through the learning experiences of GUMMI BEARS and WUZZLES; Tedd Anasti and Patsy Cameron, for example, came to WDTVA having most recently worked on SMURFS. These newcomers may have had, shall we say, a different view as to "what sorts of characters work on 80's animated series" than the likes of Magon, who had extensive knowledge of Barks in addition to his experience on GUMMI BEARS. Since Q McS and VVH wound up as little more than background fodder, I think we can guess who won this particular argument.

Chris

Chris Barat said...

GeoX,

Quacky was even supposed to live in a slanted HOUSE, which would have been depicted in the series had those who dreamed him up inexplicably got their way.

Chris