Sunday, October 7, 2012

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 13, "Hero for Hire"

Here's one instance where you really should believe the hype.  Joe's and my original verdict on "Hero for Hire" as "utterly brilliant" and arguably the single best 22-minute episode of DuckTales certainly does not seem like standard-issue "fanboy efflatus" a quarter-century after the fact.  Indeed, seeing "Hero" in proper production order only reinforces the notion that this IS the definitive moment at which DuckTales graduated from good to great.  Sure, there are quite a few clinkers to come, but the alien robots and "single-trait-character gangs" that populated most contemporary animated series of the 1980s would have killed to have starred in an episode that packed the thematic punch and possessed the philosophical depth of Ken Koonce and David Weimers' deceptively simple, exquisitely fashioned gem.


Such early DT episodes as "Dinosaur Ducks," "Pearl of Wisdom, "Master of the Djinni," and "Maid of the Myth" hint at the series' true potential, but, in all honesty, DT's first dozen eps include just as many misses as hits.  More importantly, relatively little progress was made in these early efforts when it came to establishing the series' original characters as truly worthy of inclusion in the pantheon of Barksian supporting players.  Up until this point, for example, Launchpad has basically been a goofy pilot with a few endearing character quirks, some of which haven't even been consistently present (e.g., his ladies' man routine in "Lost Crown of Genghis Khan" vs. his awkwardness around Swanwhite in "Maid of the Myth").  With "Hero for Hire," Launchpad finally starts to become a personality, in much the same manner that Carl Barks turned the quarrelsome Donald Duck of the Disney shorts into a four-color "Everyman."  We begin to understand what makes Launchpad tick, and, as he struggles to make a new career for himself in the wake of being fired by Scrooge, we also begin to sense both his immense capacity for self-deception and his ability to bounce back from adversity.  We also see him struggle to reconcile his image of what a "professional hero" should act like with the realities of life in a society that either doesn't appreciate heroic impulses or seeks to exploit them.

"Hero for Hire" could be described as a "Donald Duck mastery story" turned inside out.  Unlike Donald the "Master Glasser," "Master Cleaner," or "Master Whatever," Launchpad starts "Hero" at rock bottom, having destroyed Scrooge's bank and having been fired by Scrooge.  (Since this is actually the first time that LP has caused anything like this much damage to McDuck property, perhaps Scrooge is overreacting just a wee bit here?  It's not as if a sea monster ate Scrooge's ice cream, or anything.)  The existence of Launchpad's public airplane service hasn't been established yet -- though it will be in our next episode -- and so it's not hard to understand why the crushed LP equates losing Scrooge's favor with the loss of his entire "career."  Enter Doofus, with his idea of turning Launchpad's heroics into a marketable commodity.  At this point in a "mastery story," of course, Donald has long since gone into business for himself and is starting to blow that fateful bubble of overconfidence.  Launchpad's early exploits as a "hero for hire" are rather less successful: the "Buzz off, buddy!" reaction of the window washer who's supposedly "gonna jump" is by far the mildest insult that LP must endure.


No sooner does LP dust himself off from these misadventures than Ma Beagle and her boys decide to take advantage of the credulous pilot and "star" him in a "superhero movie" that's actually a cover for a series of bank robberies.  At this point, the unusual casting used in this episode -- specifically, the absence of Scrooge's Nephews and the use of the "new" Beagle Boy trio of Bankjob, Babyface, and the "beatnik" Bebop/Bugle -- begins to serve it well.  Using HD&L, rather than the star-struck Doofus, as Launchpad's Sancho Panza(s) would have short-circuited the Beagles' plan before it got started, as the Nephews surely would have seen through the scam very quickly.  (I'm assuming that this wouldn't have been one of the occasional episodes in which they are a bit slower on the uptake than is their normal wont.)  As for the "newbeags," suffice it to say that their personalities aren't strong enough to "get in the way" in the manner that the "core four" Beagles would have.  This is somewhat ironic, in that Bankjob, despite the obvious physical differences, is arguably closer to a classic Barksian Beagle Boy than any other DuckTales Beagle.  Peter Cullen's voice for the character would have been perfectly acceptable as the voice of a "generic" Beagle Boy had the series chosen to go that route... and it would have been absolutely perfect as the voice of Neighbor Jones in the Quack Pack series that WDTVA SHOULD have made. 

Though (as GeoX notes) it is a little odd that we don't actually get to see how "Webbed Wonder" Launchpad robs the first bank, the series of "money rescues" proceeds in an entirely believable manner, with Launchpad, convinced that a "great actor" is being born, progressing from rehearsing his "lines" in a semi-straight fashion at the start to turning his third "rescue" into a true "production," complete with dramatic 'copter drop (how did LP's 'copter just happen to be on top of that building in the first place, anyway?), wall-wallop, and corny couplet recital.  (Interestingly, in the Italian dub of this episode, the actor playing Launchpad comically overplays LP's initial "rehearsal" of his lines.  That tends to undercut the later "Away I whisk!" routine.)  Launchpad's gradual "mastery" (at least in his easily swayable mind) of the role of an heroic actor occurs at the same point in a "mastery story" where Donald commits the one foolish mistake that will ultimately lay him low.  The difference, of course, is that LP will actually recover from his inevitable plunge into disfavor... ironically, by plunging his 'copter into Duckburg Bay and symbolically destroying his imagined heroic self, leaving only the fallible-yet-determined "bumbling pilot" behind.


In hindsight, having the climactic point of the episode be Launchpad's fake suicide took a lot of guts on Koonce and Weimers' part.  I'm inclined to argue contra Greg that, in playing Scrooge's reaction to the 'copter crash, Alan Young struck just the right tone, a mixture of sadness and shock.  Knowing what he knows about LP at this point in the series, Scrooge could perhaps be excused for evincing complete disbelief at the pilot's decision to turn his comical propensity for crashing into the deadly serious means of his apparent demise.  We in the audience, however, now have a better idea as to Launchpad's level of determination and his devotion to his "chubby little friend" Doofus, who's been kidnapped by the Beagles.  We're therefore willing to give LP the benefit of the doubt that he knows what he's doing.  The fact that we wouldn't have granted him that favor at the start of the episode illustrates just how pivotal a tale "Hero for Hire" is in LP's development as a "whole" character.


Even as the Donald of a "mastery story" is crashing to Earth a la the unfortunate Icarus, Launchpad is coming through in the clutch, so determined to do what's necessary to make things right that he breaks into Scrooge's bank to "borrow" Gyro's Anti-Beagle Burglar Alarm.  Of course, as GeoX correctly points out, Launchpad is the beneficiary of a tremendous slice of luck at Ma Beagle's country cabin when the "huckleberry hand grenade cake" slips out of Bankjob's grasp... but give LP credit, he takes quick advantage of the situation to steal away with Doofus in tow and commandeer the Beagles' armored car.  (Chalk up the handy-dandy presence of the ignition key in the car as yet another trip to the "Convenience Zone.")  The ensuing car chase isn't as flashy as some of the chases that will be seen later on in the series, but you've got to love the attention to detail: the presence of other cars in the streets (you know, the ones that we almost NEVER saw in St. Canard during similar situations), the clever exploitation of the "Always buckle your seat belt" meme, even the jazzy accompanying score that Bebop/Bugle would fully appreciate (if he weren't actively involved in the chase, at least).  Even the concluding "salary negotiation" harkens back to similar situations in Barks stories, or, if you prefer, those animated cartoons in which one character engages in an argument with another and verbally arm-twists his opponent into arguing the opposite of what the latter was originally arguing.  Of course, in this case, LP arm-twists himself.  The difference now is that we know that this character is capable of bouncing back from such a gaffe.  Indeed, LP's immediate suspicion of Major Courage in "Where No Duck Has Gone Before," which preceded "Hero" in air date yet was produced much later in the first season, might be considered a by-product of the pilot's experience here.  Not that LP won't fall victim to self-deception in other episodes to come -- but, then, Donald has never quit trying to "master" professions, either.

So, who's the "fool" now?

There are numerous other points of interest in this episode -- the contrast between image and reality symbolized by the near-constant use of disguises of one sort or another, the imaginative use of Doofus in what is certainly one of his very best supporting roles.  Indeed, this ep is studded with so many such facets that one can easily imagine it being used as a source of discussion in a college honors course on "The Meaning of Heroism," or something similar.  "Hero for Hire" doesn't merely "hold up" today; its storytelling stands comparison with the very best offerings of today's leading animated series.

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DuckBlurbs

(GeoX) So are we to assume that Doofus has parents or guardians or something? Or is he just some insane vagrant who dug a coonskin cap out of a dumpster somewhere and managed to convince everyone he's a Junior Woodchuck? 

Well, we do learn later on (in "Aqua Ducks") that Doofus has a mother, at least.  Still, it does often seem as if Doofus is a modern version of HD&L's old pal Herbert from the 1940s -- a kid character who just seems to BE THERE, with no apparent independent existence of his own outside of his interactions with other characters.  Actually, given Herbert's usual appearance, I think that he would be more likely to have a dumpster for an address.

(GeoX)  "Unsafe Safe" reference!

Where?   Details, please!  

(Greg)  Scrooge explains that the alarm is so sensitive, it can hear, smell and see a glimpse of a Beagle Boy. He of course shows Bouncer's face to force the point. 

Umm, that would be Bankjob.  A curious choice, actually, given that he hadn't been formally introduced to us yet.



(Greg)  And then the branch breaks and they free fall down and land into the dumpster with a MAN-SIZED bump. HAHA! LP gets scratched by the cats in the dumpster as they leave off-screen and then gets up and looks like he wasn't scratched at all. BS&P RULEZ! 


To be fair, we didn't see Launchpad's entire body in this shot.  Who knows what was scratched "down under."


(Greg)  So we go up the stairs as Launchpad pants get heavier and heavier by the floor and he is tired out completely when Doofus comes out of the elevator and opens the left side door on the 47th floor. Despite looking like it only had 25 floors tops?!

25?  It didn't even look like it had 10.  Maybe they were measuring in "duck floors," or something. 

(Greg)  So we get another scene changer as we see Launchpad (without the goggles and weird hairdo) in his dining room (using a wing as a table) reading the newspaper with his pink slippers and robe on. HAHA! Doofus is of course having all the pancakes with him just to be Doofus. No wonder Launchpad is so thin. Launchpad chuckles as the comics section because Andy Dandy cracks him up.

I WISH I knew what the "Andy Dandy" gag was supposed to be referencing.  (Presumably, "The Fur Side" and "Pignuts" were verboten for use here because of copyright issues.)  Note that Launchpad is dressed like an actor in this scene, complete with cravat and smoking jacket (and I love what he's done with his hair -- it's a lot more becoming than the topknots we see at other helmet-less times).  The presence of Doofus in LP's home so early in the morning may actually be the best evidence extant for Geo's theory that Doofus is some sort of weirdo drifter!

(Greg)  Launchpad realizes that his movie career is over and finished. Doofus then realizes that the movie producers are the real crooks. I guess Doofus doesn't realize the term “Aiding and Abetting.” And the fact that Doofus is PART of the conspiracy...and I doubt Doofus will get off easy as Bubba certainly didn't for vandalism in Time Is Money. Launchpad proclaims that he should have suspected something when his first paycheck bounced (alarm bell #6 for the episode). Doofus then suggests that he turn in the movie producer crooks and Launchpad thinks that it's a great idea. But Doofus will have to sit this one out since he doesn't want him involved in this. After all; Doofus is PART of the conspiracy to rob banks after all. Launchpad decides to go to the police to explain to them that he was getting the drop on them and just playing around. Doofus asks what if they don't believe them. Well; they didn't believe Baloo in Bullethead Baloo; so I doubt this will work too. Launchpad proclaims that it will work because he's an awesome actor see. He then walks away as Doofus isn't so sure about this one.

A great scene for Doofus; he finally picks up on the scam and makes the obvious point to Launchpad that the police will not believe his tale of being duped by the Beagle Boys.  Would Doofus truly be held liable for "aiding and abetting" the Beagles' actions?  Given the fallible nature of the Duckburg justice system (and, brother, you ain't seen nothing yet on that score), perhaps Doofus really should worry.

(Greg) [Launchpad] looks around for clues and sees something on the plate of Doofus. Doofus spelled something out of maple syrup and it spells Beagle Buys. HAHA! Doofus' spelling is on par with Kit's in Vowel Play as Launchpad finally gets the LIGHTBULB OF BLOODY CLAIRTY and realizes who is behind this and then we fade to black. Huh?! Shouldn't Doofus have spelled out where they were going [to]?

Hey, YOU try to work with those tools and that medium and see how far YOU get.  I think Doofus' artistic performance here was pretty darn impressive.

 Next: Episode 14, "Armstrong."

6 comments:

Joe Torcivia said...

“(and I love what he's done with his hair -- it's a lot more becoming than the topknots we see at other helmet-less times).”

Like William Shatner (and Major Courage) he wore a toupee – and, apparently, a BETTER ONE, too!

Anonymous said...

I thought that 'Andy Dandy' was a ref to Andy Capp http://www.benzilla.com/uploads/2007/09/andy_capp.jpg, might be wrong though.

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

I cannot even begin to remember at this late date what reference I thought I was seeing. I'll have to revisit the episode and check back.

Comicbookrehab said...

Well, it did look a lot like a pilot for a potential sin-off - In fact, whenever Launchpad appears in solo comic stories overseas, it's with Doofus as his chief sidekick. Personally, "Double-O-Duck" overshadows this one, but it's great.

I love ANY car chase scenes with the Beagles jalopy. On average, those cars could only go up to 35 mph. in real life, whereas the Beagles must have hot rod-ed it to go up to a comfortable 90 in 30 seconds without falling apart.

Bankjob? Design-wise, I would say Bouncer looked more like Barks' Beagles, which I think were voiced by Will Ryan in "Soccermania". I think Bankjob's last appearance was in "SuperDucktales", as well as Doofus'.

I think Disney was also well aware of how good this episode was - it appeared with "Launchpad's Civil War" on the Dcuktales videocassette that featured Launchpad: "High Flying Hero".

Launchpad as a superhero? They were foreshadowing Darkwing Duck before they even had the idea.

Chris Barat said...

CBR,

"Bankjob? Design-wise, I would say Bouncer looked more like Barks' Beagles, which I think were voiced by Will Ryan in "Soccermania"."

My point wasn't so much about the characters' appearances so much as their ATTITUDES. Bankjob is definitely smarter than Bouncer and, IMHO, as smart as your typical Barks Beagle.

"I think Bankjob's last appearance was in "SuperDucktales", as well as Doofus'."

You're right.

Chris

Chris Barat said...

Anon,

"I thought that 'Andy Dandy' was a ref to Andy Capp"

That crossed my mind too, but LP said "LITTLE Andy Dandy." That doesn't sound like a Capp reference to me. Little Orphan Annie, perhaps? (though I can't imagine Annie cracking anyone up!)

Chris