Friday, August 24, 2012

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 7, "The Money Vanishes"

Curse me kilts!  Sometimes great minds really DO think alike, to a positively frightening extent.  Consider the following appraisals of "The Money Vanishes," written a cool two decades apart:

It's silly time in Duckburg...  This is the kind of story that helped kill off the Whitman Disney comics.  The plot, such as it is, is exceptionally slight and fairly absurd, reminiscent of the farcical Vic Lockman-scripted stories in the BEAGLE BOYS comics of the 60s and 70s.  -- Chris B. and Joe Torcivia

It reminds me very strongly of those intensely mediocre Vic Lockman stories from the 70s, all incredibly contrived plotting and forced zaniness... -- GeoX

Greg seems to have had a higher opinion of this episode than any of us did, which is probably due to his relative lack of familiarity with the types of Duck stories that we were referencing here.  One Lockman-scripted story in particular, "The Atom-Mover" (UNCLE $CROOGE #206, 1984), is almost spookily similar to "Vanishes," dealing as it does with Scrooge's use of a matter-transporter to shift his money from place to place and the Beagles' subsequent use of the gizmo to rob Scrooge.  That story was published by Western just as the Whitman comics line was gasping its last, and the level of inspiration that it displayed matched the depressing circumstances.  "Vanishes" is better than "The Atom-Mover," in large part because some of its attempts at humor yield scattered laughs, but the loopier aspects of this episode -- clueless protagonists, cheesy disguises, pink clouds of gas that conveniently move from place to place for the sole purpose of setting up lame displacement sight gags -- are, quite frankly, unworthy of a series as ambitious and ground-breaking as DuckTales.  The first series appearance of the Beagle Boys gives the ep a bit of historical cachet, to be sure, but, given the *cough* *cough* mixed reviews of the "personalized" DT Beagles, even this plaudit comes with a distinct caveat.  I happen to have a higher opinion of the DT Beagles than does GeoX -- "It'd be impossible not to!," as one Nephew said once upon a time -- but I do take his criticisms seriously enough that I'll address them at length below.     
 
Writer David Schwartz may have been a bit more "Barks-literate" than GeoX gave him credit for being.  Schwartz may have called Gyro's Helper "Little Bulb," but at least he made use of the light-bulb-headed character, who isn't mentioned in the write-up on Gyro in DuckTales writers' bible.  Moreover, while Helper/LB doesn't get to do much, he does more "acting" here than in any of his other appearances. No, where Schwartz fails in capturing the "spirit of Barks" is in his characterization of Scrooge, who's depicted as exceptionally gullible and strangely passive.  Would the "real" Scrooge really have been fooled so easily by the Beagles' transparently phony TV commercial warning of the danger of "Money Moths"?  Wouldn't he have sufficient brain cells to realize that money-munching insects would pose no threat to paper money in bags and gold coins, which seem to make up the vast majority of riches in his Money Bin?  Above all, would the "real" Scrooge have collapsed so dramatically after his money vanished, doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to get it back and completely relying on the Nephews to work their magic?  Momentary despair, as in "Only a Poor Old Man," I can understand, but not this total fold-up.        

Perhaps Scrooge's "Barksian life force" was transferred to Dewey somewhere along the line.  The cleverest of the triplets (so saith Dan Haley -- and so the series will later implicitly argue in "Duck in the Iron Mask") clearly outshines his brothers here.  He's the first to question the veracity of "salesman" Big Time Beagle, the first to figure out the evil nature of the "CashGuard" spray, and, of course, gets to play Clint Eastwood with Gyro's furniture-mover ray when the tables are turned on the Beagle Boys at the end.  For good measure, Dewey then dopes out how to zap his brothers, Scrooge's fortune, and himself back to the Money Bin.  A good day's work under any circs, wouldn't you agree?

Of course you would, with Dewey pointing that ray gun at you.

I've always felt that the first act of this episode moved at an ungodly slow pace, seemingly taking forever to get the "plot" in motion.  Since this was the first episode to feature the Beagle Boys, perhaps the sludgy getaway was caused by the desire to give the Beagles a "proper," well-detailed introduction to the audience.  Seeing as how the Beagles' personalities are crystal-clear within seconds of their initial appearance in Duckburg Jail, I fail to see why this was necessary.  Add in the overly long chase sequences that take up most of the third act, and one must marvel at Schwartz' ability to mine 22 minutes' worth of screen time out of so little tangible content.  The lack of "meat on the bones" quite naturally causes the viewer's attention to focus on the "newbies," namely, the retrofitted, newly-individualized, "modern-desigh-a-nized" Beagle Boys.  Is that a good thing?

There are actually two questions to consider here: (1) Would DuckTales, even if it had wanted to, have been able to accurately reproduce the Barksian "clone" Beagle Boys?  (2)  How successful were the personalizations that we actually did get?  I'd argue that the jury is out on both questions (a pretty apropos metaphor to use where the Beagles are concerned).

As it happens, there IS an animated featurette that drew inspiration from Barks' original conception of the Beagle Boys: Sport Goofy in Soccermania.  This peculiar 1987 production, originally meant for theaters but ultimately "thrown away" as part of an NBC TV special, features the "clone" Beagles as the adversaries to Scrooge, HD&L, Sport Goofy, and their soccer team.  Only these Beagles aren't "clones," not exactly.  In the first "Beagle mass group shot" of the cartoon, one gruff-voiced Beagle immediately assumes the role of leader and holds it to the end:

Moreover, several of the lead Beagle's "brudders" are clearly different from him, in terms of being what Greg would call "bump machines" and/or being of a somewhat lower order of intelligence than the "Beagle norm":


We're not done yet.  During the climactic soccer match between the Beagle Boys and the "McDuck Greenbacks," several of the B-Boys are given names by announcer Chick Hearn.  Hearn drops names like McGruder, Switchblade, Shaw, Wheels, and The Weasel, among others.  I checked a Web site of some of Hearn's pet sayings and nicknames and found nary a mention of any of these Beagle descriptives.  Nor do any of the members of the production crew that worked on Soccermania appear to have been tributed here.  Perhaps Chick was simply going with the flow and saying what popped into his head, but the mere fact that he did so makes him a pioneer in the field of Beagle-personalization.



And all of this occurred during the span of a single 20-minute cartoon.  What do you think would have happened had these Beagles been given a full syndicated season's worth of work?  I think it's highly likely that some degree of personalization would have seeped its way into the Beagle clan, if for no other reason than to provide opportunities for visual and verbal sight gags.  The question now is, did DT use the right sorts of characterizations when it decided to "go all the way" and make the Beagles distinctly different in appearances, voices, and personalities?  Here, I think that GeoX has a somewhat stronger case, though "I can't f***ing stand these Beagle Boys" seems unduly harsh.

As fate would have it, the four Beagle Boys who debut in "Vanishes" -- Big Time, Bouncer, Burger, and Baggy -- would become the de facto Beagle Boys after the first season, as such alternate figures as Bankjob, Babyface, and Bugle/Bebop sank out of sight.  I think that this was a mistake, and not simply because the episodes in which the "B-Boy B-team" appeared had the annoying habit of being classics ("Hero for Hire," "Time Teasers").  Big Time and Bouncer, I would consider to be keepers; Big Time's cockiness and aggressiveness are fun to watch, and Bouncer (who apparently was a late creation, since he isn't mentioned in the writers' bible) is the closest of the quartet to a Barks Beagle Boy, though perhaps a little dimmer than the standard Barks Beagle.  Baggy, however, gets more irritating the more often he appears.  Arguably his two best lines of the series come in this very episode ("It's not easy bein' wanted when you're wanted!" and "That [mugshot] wasn't my best side!"); thereafter, it's "terminally moronic" gags out the wazoo.  As for Burger...  yes, he's got an amusing voice, he's reminiscent of the Barks Beagle who loved prunes, and he's as likable as any Beagle is ever likely to be, but, let's be honest here, using a bottomless appetite as the entire basis for a personality ultimately tends to cramp one's dramatic range.  Bankjob, Babyface, and Bugle/Bebop (and, yes, damn it all, I'm even willing to throw Megabyte Beagle in there, mortarboard hat and all) had their own limitations, but giving the "Core Four" a few extra episodes off in favor of the "B-team" would certainly have bred less contempt, at least among certain segments of the audience.


Truthfully, the Beagle Boys aren't the reason this episode stinks.  Gyro and Scrooge come off much, much worse, and the logical loopholes (How did the spray reach the money that wasn't on the top layers of Scrooge's money bin?  Did that pink cloud have a mind of its own, or something?  How can all of Scrooge's money fit inside the Beagles' dilapidated hideout?  Why can't the police see the shovel sticking out of the cake??) are ultimately too much to accept, even in a "comedic" episode.  After the relatively successful "Dinosaur Ducks," this second "original" DT episode is a BIG step backwards. 

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DuckBlurbs

(GeoX)  The Beagle Boys steal [the ray], in an intelligence-insulting sequence where they pretend to be doctors and discombobulate it out of Gyro (yes, Gyro's always kind of clueless, but are we really to believe he's that dumb?).

Is this Gyro's single worst moment of the series?  It's certainly one of the finalists, and that's saying something when no fewer than three future episodes involve Gearloose-built robots going haywire for various reasons.  At least Hal Smith's Gyro voice is pretty well pinned down by now.  Speaking (as we were just a moment ago) of logical lapses, when did joggin' Gyro have time to change into his running outfit and join the Duckburg Marathon?  Given how gullible he seemed while being bamboozled by the Beagle Boys, you expected him to literally follow the Beagles' orders and run a few hundred miles without changing his clothes.

(GeoX)  Scrooge forgets that he owns jillions of businesses: "Now that I'm broke, I'd better start checking the want ads for a job!" To be fair, he's been known to do this in Barks stories as well. 

And I would have given Scrooge a pass for this very reason... except that I was so pissed that Scrooge had thrown in the towel so completely.

(Greg)  Man; the TaleSpin police are REASONABLE compared to the Ducktales ones. I mean; there is a FREAKING SHOVEL in the cake and somehow [Officer Parolski] DOESN'T NOTICE?! 

According to the DT writer's bible, this brain-boggling notion of the Beagles getting badly disguised escape tools in baked goods was apparently meant to be a running gag throughout the series.  No matter that it made the Duckburg police and penal system look dumber than dirt...  The gag would appear several times in the future, but it appears to have been abandoned after a certain point.  For one thing, the Beagles began to make their initial appearances in episodes while outside of jail.

(Greg)  Big Time orders them to get the ray gun as the nephews stands their ground as Dewey cuts the lamest Clint Eastwood [promo] in history. You wish you were Flint [Shrubwood] Dewey. The Beagle Boys realize that they are screwed and they bail stage left as we get the SCOOBY DOO CHASE SEQUENCE THE MANHOOD EDITION~! A rare sight when the babyfaces are chasing the heel with a gun; even if it's not a killing gun. More so when it's kids.

A very good point!  Would this scene have passed muster today? 

Next:  Episode 8, "Lost Crown of Genghis Khan." 

10 comments:

Joe Torcivia said...

Chris:

Merits or results aside, I’ve always LIKED the fact that, beyond the (unfortunately uneven) acknowledgements of the foundation work by Carl Barks, there was a “Vic Lockman Episode” (“The Money Vanishes”) and a “Carl Fallberg and Paul Murry Episode” (“Pearl of Wisdom”)!

…And, too far toward the end for a DVD release (alas), even a “Frank Miller Episode”!

I’ll also declare that my appreciation for “The Money Vanishes” has GROWN over time, when that for certain other eps has moved in the opposite direction. Perhaps due to a greater appreciation for the “uniqueness” of Vic Lockman and a harsher overall view of DTVA and its later post-Darkwing products.

Joe.

Chris Barat said...

Joe,

I'd be interested to know the eps that have fallen out of favor with you. Or perhaps you'd want to wait to reveal that when the time comes and I review the eps in question.

I'll admit that "Vanishes" does look SOMEWHAT better when compared to some of the slapstick eps we got in later series (you can probably guess which ones), but it's still a mile or two away from being a truly GOOD episode. That darned pink cloud keeps gettin' in the way...

Chris

Gregory Weagle said...

RE: Chick Hearn.

Well; he really had no choice but to wing it because this was a soccer game and many of his catchphrases have to do with basketball which is a completely different type of sport altogether so the basketball lingo wouldn't work all that well (not all the catchphrase; but most of them) with soccer.

As for the question on if this passed muster:

BWHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Ummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm... no.

Although I partially blame that on Honker Muddlefoot who got to shoot a bullet shooting gun in That Sinking Feeling.

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Heck, I may not be too keen on the Boys; but I like the Beagle Babes--that has to count for something, right?

I make no apologies for my feelings re the Beagles, but I will concede that it's very difficult to envision a situation in which animated Beagles remain undifferentiated. I suppose there's probably an extent to which the way it's done bothers me more than the thing itself, but I'd need to see it being done WELL to verify that.

As I've said in a number of contexts, it comes down to this: the way the animated Beagles are portrayed just comes across to me as pandering and childish--not unlike some of those aforementioned seventies comics. This childishness pervades a number of aspects of Ducktales; at its best, it's able to rise above it, but not in terms of Beagles, alas.

Ryan Wynns said...

Chris, et al:

Wow, going by production order, the series' first several episodes cumulatively give a very "blahhhh!" impression ... if someone was watching the series for the first time in this fashion, I wouldn't blame them for, by the time they've seen "The Money Vanishes", being on the verge of writing off the series as completely inept and worthy of, say, `80's DIC. IMHO, there's a world of a difference between that and the "first impression" given by watching the series in their original broadcast order, assuming that one starts with "Treasure of the Golden Suns". (And even if they didn't, the first couple weeks' worth of "regular" daily episodes are front-loaded with stronger episodes...)

I'm interested to, as your reviews continue, see the evolution of the series and follow the production team "finding their groove"...

(BTW, this post inspired me to watch Sport Goofy in Soccermania on YouTube. As an aside, an observation: certain "shots" look almost as though they were animated by John K.!)

-- Ryan

Chris Barat said...

Ryan,

The more I progress, the more I think that going by production order was the right call. It really does give you a great new perspective on the development of the series!

Chris

Chris Barat said...

Geo,

I'd be interested to know -- if you had it in your power to "personalize" the Beagles for animated purposes (assuming that you HAD to give them personalities, of course), how would you go about it?

Chris

Pan MiluĊ› said...

I always enjoy this episode for some reasone - I can't put my finger on it why...

Chris Barat said...

Pan,

It's true that even the worst DT episodes seem better today than they did back in the day. But still...

Chris

Anne Johnson said...

Did Scrooge know it was the Beagle Boys who made his money vanish, though? I could be wrong, but from what I can remember he thought the moths ate all his money.