Tuesday, November 27, 2012

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 19, "The Curse of Castle McDuck"

A real mixed bag (pipe), this.  Some aspects of the episode are delightful, while others are dreadful, and the effects tend to cancel one another out.  It's hard to disagree with GeoX and Greg, though, on the matter of the ep's excitement level.  Truly scary moments are relatively few and far between, and a good portion of the plot is taken up with fairly drab exposition -- not surprising, considering that the Ducks spend a good deal of time in simple data-gathering, but not something designed to grip the senses and twist them into a pretzel.  Ironically, throughout the episode, the Nephews and Webby are at their feistiest, most curious, and most inquisitive -- the sort of attitude that we would expect the Duck kids to have during a "journey of discovery."  It's rather a shame that the actual situation in which they found themselves turned out to be relatively mundane, even given the presence of a legendary "curse" and some interlopers from Scotland's dark and distant past.

Along with "Once Upon a Dime," "Curse" represents one of the very few times that DuckTales attempted to tell its audience anything about Scrooge's back story.  In this case, writer Anthony Adams' spare approach to the task is definitely a matter of "less is more."  I would defy anyone to argue that the ramshackle pile of frequently questionable incidents heaped up during the course of "Once Upon a Dime" proves more aesthetically successful than Adams' simple explanation that Scrooge's parents were "poor, simple [Scottish] farmers who just wanted to start over someplace else" and took wee "Scroogey" with them to America.  If you don't subscribe to Don Rosa's Revised Standard Version of Scrooge's life and just want bare facts, mon, I can't see anything egregiously wrong with Adams' ultra-simplified version of the story.  Some of the details presented on screen, however, tend to complicate matters.

Let's pause at the threshold of Cottage McDuck for a moment to compare two post-Barksian versions of the whippersnapper Scrooge:


The Rosa version of bootblack Scrooge is, of course, supposed to be somewhat older than the six-year-old cutie in the skirt, er, kilt.  Also, the DuckTales tyke is more heavily influenced by stereotypical images of Scottish garb.  (Notice the cent sign on Scrooge's belt buckle; isn't that somewhat premature?)    Still, I find much to like in both of these portraits.  I wish that they could be meshed together in a single biography in some manner.

It's actually quite peculiar that the portrait of six-year-old Scrooge should have been left behind in Cottage McDuck... along with a lot of other possessions.  One would think that "poor, simple farmers" would want to take everything that they could with them in order to facilitate the transition to a new life overseas.  Still, there are possible explanations for leaving so many goods behind.  What I can't buy is Scrooge leaving behind his first piggy bank, the very one with which he started his "life of saving."  You go to all the trouble of setting a booby trap to catch would-be thieves in the act, but then you don't even bring the bank with you when you depart?!  Perhaps Adams included this improbable scene to provide us with a sight gag in an episode that is almost totally humorless otherwise. 

  "And THAT's for leaving me to gather dust!"

The bank business is a mere annoyance; the slipshod manner in which the methods of operation of the "glowing ghost hound" that has "cursed" Castle McDuck for years are presented is a more serious problem.  Consider Scrooge's claim that, according to the legend told to him by his mother, "the hound won't cross the river."  That would presumably mean that the beastie would stay on the far bank of the body of water glimpsed in this shot of the castle:


But, in the episode's opening scene, we see the hound appear next to a different body of water, one that looks very much like a pond or loch, er, lake:

I suppose that it's possible that the river empties into the lake at some point, but I suspect that this appetizer was served up simply to establish the fact that the hound "terrorizes" the local peasants and shepherds (including William, the Pat McCormick-voiced fellow who is frightened away here).  Which, when you think about it, would be difficult to do if the hound were restricted to so snug a perimeter about the castle.  Why haven't the locals figured out that the hound only appears in certain locations and then tried to AVOID those locations?  

Give the animators (and the inevitable Frank Welker) credit: the hound, on the brief occasions when it appears, is genuinely menacing.  One can easily see how Scrooge's mother's verbal ability to make the hound seem real might have sunk deep roots in Scrooge's psyche.  Even so, Adams could have made this episode resonate a bit more by allowing Scrooge to be a little more conflicted on the matter of dealing with the hound.  The dramatic potential inherent in Scrooge's "facing of fears" directly linked to his heritage and roots surpasses anything seen in the later episode "Nothing to Fear."  Instead, after some initial quivering and shivering when pressed by the eager kids to explore the castle, and immediately after his first "close houndcounter," Scrooge suddenly turns on a dime (not Old #1 -- this is a different origin story) and turns into a determined detective as the Ducks investigate the nocturnal druid rite.  All honor to Scrooge for overcoming his ancestral willies, but perhaps this scene could have been shifted to a later point in the episode, displacing some less important material and allowing Scrooge more time to work out his personal demons.  There wasn't any compelling reason for Webby to get trapped behind a wall and explore a secret passage, after all...

The "trapping scene" is the best scene of the episode, though I'm in agreement with Greg that a lot of the logistics are screwy.  How could only one Druid have fallen out of the carpet after it had been lifted to the rafters and the hound had torn open a hole in it?  Even more to the point, how the heck did the Ducks manage to rig up that complicated system of pulleys and ropes?  Yes, I know, Junior Woodchuck Guidebook, yadda yadda.  But just answer me this: to what are the pulleys attached in the scene below?  It would have required someone(s) to literally hang from the ceiling in order to pull this off.  This reminds me of an episode of the old Spiderman TV series, in which Spidey swung through scenes while shooting web-ropes attached to... well... um...

Whoever came up with the idea of casting Brock Peters as the Druid chieftain should be applauded.  This role required rather more gravitas than a "typical cartoon voice actor" might have been able to provide.  Of course, after Scrooge and the Druids reach their understanding, a lot of the gravitas is undercut by...


Now, I'm not really offended, as GeoX was, by the idea of the Druids agreeing to let the castle become a tourist attraction.  The goal of the agreement, after all, was to have the best of both worlds, to allow Scrooge to (partially) reclaim his heritage and to let the Druids continue to hold their rites in their sacred spot.  The REAL problem is those damned T-shirts and balloons!  That, I have a hard time imagining the Druids countenancing.  Based on Adams' apparently healthy level of respect for the power of myth and legend, both in his own personal creations and his scripts for DuckTales, I frankly find it surprising that he would find this scene acceptable.  The scene could have simply shown the tourists viewing the castle and the Druids outside discussing their arrangement with Scrooge, and that would have been perfectly jake with me and, presumably, with anyone whose nose may have wrinkled at the rancid smell of a "capitalist sellout" here.  I certainly hope that this scene wasn't forced upon Adams' script by one of those infamous "executive decisions" that gummed up several other Disney series I could name.

So -- not as good as I originally remember it being, perhaps, but still quite watchable, albeit relatively prosaic.

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"DuckBlurbs"  

(Greg)  Webby backs up into a circular brick wall and then the brick wall consumes her. No really; I'm as shocked as you are...  Scrooge ties the rope to the candlesticks on the wall and tries to speak to Webby; but no response as he panics. Huey wonders where she went. Scrooge goes to the consuming brick wall and does notice her muffled voice as Webby is as confused about her location as I am. We do some dark promos and pushing around for a secret passage button; but no dice from the nephews as Webby is getting frightened by the dark by the second. Scrooge and company decide to go to the fireplace since that passageway they know about. We then cut to inside the dark passageway (which is so lit that it breaks logic on being so dark to Webby) as Webby calls for Scrooge and gets no response.

For a "dark passageway," that cul-de-sac into which Webby stumbled was fairly well lit!  Also remember that the "nocturnal" hound's initial appearance at Silas McDuck's castle-warming party took place at sunset, rather than after dark.  Light and darkness shouldn't be that hard to keep straight, right?

 

Next:  Episode 20, "Send in the Clones."

Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanks for Giving... but Did You Have to Give Us So MUCH?

This may sound a bit heretical, but Nicky and I typically go out of our way to AVOID big-league cooking for Thanksgiving.  When friends and relatives are with us, we order meals from such local grocery stores as Giant and Wegmans.  When we're by ourselves and we don't feel like braving the traffic to drive up to my Mom's in Delaware, we... wait for it... go to restaurants for Thanksgiving dinner.  What?  How about maintaining authenticity, for God's sake?

This year, we managed to achieve the daily double of going to a restaurant for the holiday and still enjoying that most time-honored of Thanksgiving traditions... that of eating to excess.  Nicky searched for a good, hitherto-untried local place online and found Bud's at Silver Run, a converted farmhouse located about 30 minutes away on the road to Gettysburg, PA.  Bud's serves a prix fixe Thanksgiving Day menu ($37.95 per person) and advertises all the trimmings.  Not until we got to the place did we realize how extensive said trimmings were.

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Possibly due to the floor plan of the original house, the physical layout of Bud's is a little awkward.  The main door opens onto the short end of a long, rectangular front room with several tables more or less jammed into it.  There's also a larger dining area with more room to spread out... and restrooms literally located in the middle of the room and jutting out into it.  Like I said, awkward.  We had to wait in the small bar until a larger party had cleared out and the tables had been cleaned and rearranged.  Thankfully, we were placed at the other short end of the front room, so the occasional drafts of cold air from patrons entering the establishment weren't quite as bone-chilling as they otherwise might have been.

Thanks to our wait at the bar, we had plenty of time to peruse the disturbingly lengthy Thanksgiving menu.  What was particularly disturbing about it was the fact that we were apparently slated to get most of what was on it!  No picking "one from column A and one from column B" here.  We did decide to pass on the pumpkin and crab soup opener, but, when the "relish tray" was brought out, it was found to contain several different kinds of olives, red peppers stuffed with feta cheese, a healthy supply of crackers and cheese, sliced meats (kielbasa, pheasant (!) and wild boar (!!)), and a dish full of that peculiar mixture of cauliflower, peppers, and crinkly-cut carrots that you see displayed in glass jars at delis.  Had we eaten all of this, it would almost have made a meal in itself.  Then came the basket of bread and rolls and the house salads.  The phrase "biting off more than we could chew" began to occur to me at this point.

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Main dining area of Bud's: the restrooms are blessedly invisible in this shot!

The main meal offered a choice of turkey, ham, and prime rib... and, yep, you could get all three if you wanted to.  I opted out of the beef and stuck with the turkey and ham, which arrived at the table atop a goodly pile of mashed potatoes and stuffing.  Then five (!) side dish bowls were brought out: green bean casserole (one of the better examples of its kind), sweet potatoes, seasoned carrots, brussels sprouts, and sauerkraut and kielbasa (huh?).  We ended up bringing home three Styrofoam containers of various and sundry leftovers, plus some extra turkey and ham that was generously provided by our host.  Dessert consisted of a choice of apple cobbler, pumpkin pie, two kinds of cheesecake, and chocolate cake.  I'd say we got our money's worth and then some.

The food at Bud's is excellent and we definitely plan on going there again, albeit for something a bit less ambitious.  (The restaurant offers regular dinner dishes and lunch/pub food in addition to occasional "special nights" that include "seafood spectaculars" and wild game feasts.)  The prices are comparable to those of Woodberry Kitchen, but the rural ambiance is decidedly different from that of Woodberry, so it will be a nice change of pace when we want to enjoy some fine dining. If we go to Bud's for Thanksgiving in the future, however, we will probably want to bring several additional diners with us, for purposes of digestive self-preservation. 

Movie Review: WRECK-IT RALPH (Disney, 2012)

Thirty years ago, at a time when it seemed that the sensibilities of a struggling Walt Disney Productions had slipped badly out of alignment with the cultural surroundings, a movie about video games suggested that some semblance of creativity still inhabited the somewhat-down-at-the-heels "House of Mouse."  Granted, Tron didn't exactly clean up at the box office, but it has developed a cult following over the years and is now generally respected as a clever effort to exploit a then-hot fad in an ingenious way.  Now, with Wreck-it Ralph, Disney Animation is coming at the same fad from a different temporal direction.  The home-video consoles from the salad days of the 80s have long since been consigned to rummage sales or to the dump, and the "friendly neighborhood arcade" isn't nearly as common a sight these days, but many middle-aged folks now regard the classic video games of yore with great affection, even as the technology of the video world has moved on.  I was certainly never a huge video-game fan back in the day, but even I appreciated and enjoyed this feature-length homage to the vid-industry.  Part of the reason why is that -- perhaps due to the assistance of executive producer John Lasseter -- the Disney studio's 3-D department has come through here with its most "Pixar-like" production to date.  Indeed, given Pixar's comparatively uneven track record of late, Wreck-it Ralph may be said to have "out-Pixared Pixar" by going back to some of the root principles of some of Pixar's best-loved movies.

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In the tradition of such Pixar films as the Toy Story trilogy, Cars, and Monsters Inc., Wreck-it Ralph carefully lays the "ground rules" and parameters for an imaginative fantasy universe -- in this case, the world that literally lurks "behind the scenes" of an arcade -- and then starts exploring the consequences of those axioms.  The idea of game-worlds as three-dimensional quasi-dioramas behind the console's glass screen reminded me of Disney TV Animation episodes both irritating and legendary; thankfully, the screenwriters resisted the temptation to allow for communication between the game characters and the human users.  The bustling "behind-the-scenes" community of game-characters presented some logical difficulties (wouldn't such a community exist behind the walls of EVERY SINGLE arcade in the world?), but the small details of this virtual village -- the "unplugged" characters who live on the margins, the taboos about "jumping games" or "going turbo" -- were painted in so deftly that their ultimate emergence as key plot points at various moments during the film seemed quite natural.  Best of all, rather than simply relying heavily on bought-and-paid-for video-game-celebrity cameos, the writers wisely decided to spend the requisite amount of time developing their original main characters and fleshing out their back stories, motivations, and demons.  I loved Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but for Wreck-it Ralph to have mimicked that movie's cloudbursts of Toon tributes would have been a mistake.  For one thing, animated characters are simply better known to the general public -- especially the kids who form a major chunk of the audience for this movie -- than classic video-game characters from three decades ago.  Far better, it seems to me, to create a relatively small number of brand-new characters and explore what it might mean for them to play specific roles in their respective fictional (yet canonically "recognizable") game-worlds.

Though he's supposed to be a bad guy, Wreck-it Ralph (John C. Reilly, in a tailor-made "lovable schlub" role) is a sympathetic character from the off.  His journey from discontent to self-acceptance has a number of familiar twists and turns -- false moments of triumph that prove hollow, periods of self-deception, alliances with similarly alienated characters (in his case, the cutesy "glitch" Vanellope [Sarah Silverman] from the sticky-sweet kart-racing game "Sugar Rush") that touch both peaks and valleys before the climax -- but we are with him all the way.  It's something of a shame that, given the premise of Ralph trying to become a good guy and earn a medal, he wasn't allowed to visit more of the self-contained video worlds during his quest, including worlds with which gamers would be intimately familiar.  Instead, we only get a relatively quick glimpse of the violent, bug-infested world of the war game "Heroes' Duty" and then settle in for a very long stay in the candy-coated world of "Sugar Rush."  Again, though, perhaps the "less is more" approach was the wise choice; we really get to know the stories behind these games' characters (the "tragic past" of ass-kicking, bug-snuffing Officer Calhoun of "Heroes' Duty" [Jane Lynch] and Vanellope's "true identity" are particular highlights), and so we become much more bound up with their fates than if they had been constantly bouncing from one bizarre world to the next.  

The visual look of Ralph maintains a certain level of consistency with such previous Disney 3-D efforts as Bolt and Tangled -- a considerable feat, given that so many of its characters are so heavily stylized.  Cleverly, many of the more abstractly-rendered characters -- such as the pudgy denizens of the condominium of Niceland, whose homes are repaired by Fix-it Felix Jr. after Ralph has wrecked them -- are animated in a staccato, hummingbird-nervous style that parallels their physical actions in their respective games.  The humor is decidedly Pixar-like and generally winning, despite the occasional unpleasant detour into thoroughly unnecessary potty jokes, and the voice performances are excellent, with Reilly and Alan Tudyk, who plays King Candy of "Sugar Rush" in a dead-on imitation of Ed Wynn as The Mad Hatter in Disney's animated Alice in Wonderland, meriting particular praise.

Wreck-it Ralph is preceded by Paperman, an animated short rendered in a black-and-white, somewhat sketchy style that reminded me of a cross between the 101 Dalmatians theatrical feature and a NEW YORKER cartoon.  The effects are lovely; the content is not nearly as memorable.  Here is one area in which Disney (ironically, given its history) still has some catching-up to do when it comes to matching Pixar.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

For the First Time in 19 Years...


... Notre Dame is ranked #1 going into its final regular-season game at Southern Cal.  Get by that fairly sizable roadblock and the Irish will play in the BCS title game.

The last time ND was at the top of the heap, in November 1993, was during what one might call "the Fall of my discontent."  I had washed out of Randolph-Macon College's math department the previous Spring and was trying to make ends meet while holding down two part-time teaching positions.  I was going through a serious crisis of self-doubt without a very strong support system and was very much uncertain as to what the future held.  ND's success on the football field was a welcome distraction.  It culminated with an epic 31-24 upset win over #1 Florida State that pushed the (relatively) lightly regarded Irish into the catbird seat.


I had already experienced a fan's high of sorts earlier in the Fall, as the surprising Phillies stunned the heavily favored Atlanta Braves in the NLCS and went on to face the defending World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays in the Fall Classic. You may remember this as a team of lovable slobs and oddballs, with the likes of John Kruk, Lenny Dykstra, and Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams playing major roles.  No one gave the Phils a tobacco plug of a chance against the lordly Jays, but they overcame a painful 15-14 Game Four loss and staved off elimination with a Game Five victory that took the series back to Toronto.  There, manager Jim Fregosi's stubborn insistence on using an obviously shot Williams as his closer backfired in the worst possible way, with Joe Carter hitting his famous ninth-inning home run to win Game Six and the series.
As hard as the Phillies' loss was for me to take, I had to admit that the Blue Jays were the better team.  Notre Dame didn't appear to have that problem as it played its last regular-season game against Top-20 Boston College.  But, suffering the (non-blessed) mother of all letdowns, ND was completely outplayed and fell behind 38-17 before a desperation comeback...


... and, while I was able to get off the deck and secure a full-time job at Virginia State a few months after this, it's taken the ND football program almost two decades to recover.  Hopefully, a loss to USC this Saturday won't morph into another 20-year sojourn in the wilderness.

Friday, November 16, 2012

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 18, "Horse Scents"


It's one thing for a DuckTales episode to be inspired by tropes from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Richard Merwin certainly was when he constructed the plots of episodes like "Ducks of the West" and "Back Out in the Outback" as homages to Scooby-Doo.  It's entirely another for a DT ep to respire BECAUSE of an actual Hanna-Barbera EPISODE PLOT.  Such is the case with "Horse Scents," in which the late Earl Kress, an H-B authority of long standing, boldly swiped in a manner that no other DT writer had, or ever would, "swope" before.  His inspiration: an episode of Top Cat entitled "The $1,000,000 Derby," first broadcast in the Fall of 1961.  (Of course, I wasn't around to see this ep during its original run, nor did I watch Top Cat enough in syndication to ever run across it.  Joe Torcivia originally drew my attention to it.)

Kress correctly recognized that the plot of the Top Cat episode couldn't be translated directly into a DuckTales context; TC and his gang, after all, merely use the racehorse Arabelle as part of one of their standard con jobs.  The original material that Kress erects on this framework, however, runs the gamut of quality from passable to putrid.  Webby sustains a refreshing amount of attitude throughout (as opposed to her one brief moment of asperity during "Take Me Out of the Ballgame"), and her relationship with the hammy, weather-beaten "photo horse" Milady makes for plenty of cute, and sometimes even touching, moments.  The roles played by the rest of the Ducks, however, don't amount to much, and the ep's various conflicts, both established (Scrooge and Flintheart Glomgold's tussle to see whose horse can win the Kenducky Derby) and newly created (the bloviating evil oat salesman [thanks, GeoX!] Bull Weevil and his weasel henchmen vs. Milady's elderly owner Mr. Merrywether, Webby, HD&L, Milady, and, well, just about anyone else who gets in their way), generally fall flat despite numerous loud and raucous efforts to make us care about them.  Overly exaggerated gags, logical difficulties, and a "big race" finish that actually underperforms the same scene in "The $1,000,000 Derby" help make for an episode that does have its share of decent moments -- most of which involve Webby and Milady -- but ultimately falters in the stretch.


This is one of the more conventionally cartoony episodes of DuckTales' first season.  To start with the obvious, we're presented with a heavily anthropomorphized animal character in Milady, to whom voice actress Susan Blu manages to give quite a bit of personality despite the handicap of not being able to use a "real" voice.  (Hal Smith, by contrast, was permitted to do occasional "true" vocalizations for Arabelle during the course of "The $1,000,000 Derby".) 

Webby's "way with animals," one of her best-remembered character traits, is stretched to the utmost in this episode by a creature that doesn't serve as a mere passive receptor for Webby's attentions, but instead actively responds to Webby's efforts to sympathize with and bond with her.  To her credit, Webby rises to the occasion, turning in one of her best and most spirited performances of the series.  It takes a lot to convince Webby to physically fight back against bad guys who are bothering her friends, but, by childishly tormenting Milady and the sympathetic Mr. Merrywether, Glomgold's weasel henchmen let loose the seldom-seen Wrath of Vanderquack:

After Milady has shown her paces for the first time in escaping Bull Weevil, Webby atypically boasts to Mr. Merrywether that she "knew [all] the time" that Milady had the potential for speed.  Webby then turns to a somewhat more familiar approach and turns on the charm offensive when she convinces Scrooge to allow Milady in the Derby.  (I wonder whether Alan Young was flashing back to those bygone days on the set of Mr. Ed when he performed this scene.)

By the time of the big race, Webby has clearly established a bond with Milady that goes well beyond the standard "making friends with an animal" trope.  In a surprisingly affecting scene, Milady cries when Webby gives her a bouquet of flowers before post time, and then the horse wordlessly helps Webby "gear up" and mount her.  That's a moment of "true friendship" that would not be out of place in a classic live-action horse movie.  Milady's "joyful heel-click" before entering the starting gate is also a nice touch; it's meant to get laughs (from both the Derby crowd and the viewer) and does so, but it also deftly shows how delighted Milady is to get this once-in-an-equine's-life opportunity to strut her stuff with a new pal in tow.


The Webby-Milady scenes are so good that they almost make you forget a painfully obvious logical loophole: Who the heck signed off on Webby serving as Milady's jockey in the first place?!  Kress' authorial inconsistency on this non-trivial matter is maddening: Mrs. Beakley faints dead away the first time that Webby rides Milady, but then seems to have no problem whatsoever with Webby riding Milady in training runs or in the race; Scrooge evinces no reaction (apart from disgust over the snail-slow performance) during Milady's trial run, nor during the rest of training, yet is suddenly SHOCKED AND APPALLED when he sees Webby preparing to ride Milady in the Derby.

I think that Kress' familiarity with Hanna-Barbera-style approaches to storytelling may have tripped him up here.  Webby's improbable assumption of the jockey role here is not unlike the appearance of a protean H-B character like Huckleberry Hound in whatever role suited him for a particular episode.  Why, even the more "realistic" Fred Flintstone got to drive in the Indianrockolis 500 (wearing his usual clothes, no less) simply because of his ability to survive driving on the freeway.  I think it is fair to say, however, that DuckTales characters like Webby are not as adaptable to the "fit 'em into a plot slot" approach as the classic H-B stars.

Speaking of channeling the spirit of Hanna-Barbera...


When I watch this bit nowadays, I immediately flash back to this bizarrely out-of-place gag from Carl Barks' "The Golden Christmas Tree":

Improbable routines like this wouldn't become commonplace in a Duck-context until Quack Pack, and we all know how well that turned out.

Other logical issues abrade one's enjoyment of "Horse Scents," both small (Mrs. Beakley conveniently bringing a bugle with her to Louisville, Kenducky in the first place) and great (the handling of the "photo finish" climax).  The latter is particularly irritating because the animators clearly messed up what should have been an easily executed scene.  In "The $1,000,000 Derby," Arabelle truly is neck and neck with other horses in the home stretch, so it makes sense for the gravelly-voiced track announcer (Hal Smith again -- did he get "that creepy deja vu feeling" in the recording booth, I wonder?) to declare that a "photo finish" is imminent.  In "Scents," by contrast, Milady is clearly ahead of both Cash Register and Make-a-Buck near the finish line, so why would the announcer call a "photo finish" in that context?  Wait, it gets worse.  The other horses have passed the finish line by the time Milady gets into her photo-pose...

... but that's certainly not the impression that we get when the judge displays the photograph:

Yeah, Greg, the "tie decision" is annoying -- I'd much rather have seen Scrooge and Cash Register make Flinty pay for his chicanery -- but I'd say that the animators blowing their big moment of the ep counts as more of a debit.

There are other elements to dislike here -- an annoyingly over-the-top villain in Bull Weevil, some bickering between Scrooge and Glomgold that is pretty juvenile even for them -- but I'm certainly not willing to say that "Scents" is among the worst DuckTales episodes.  Instead, I think, it illustrates some of the dangers involved in lifting an entire plot from another source.  If you're going to handle the "big picture" in such a mercenary fashion, then you'd better make very sure that you pay attention to the surrounding detail work.

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DuckBlurbs

(GeoX) In the end, Milady doesn't win, because HD&L realize that if she did, the evil oat-salesman would get the money, so they get her to stop by making her think her picture's going to be taken. This makes the evil oat-salesman (I won't deny it: I do enjoy writing out "evil oat-salesman") angry, and so he doesn't want her anymore. Which makes no sense, because he never wanted her as a racing horse in the first place; she was just meant to do farm work.   

I'd be willing to give Bull some of the benefit of the doubt here.  There's no indication that he would want to race Milady after the Derby; he simply can't stand the sight of her after she costs him the grand prize.  That being said, Bull may have missed a real opportunity to strut his sinister stuff here. If he really were the nasty piece of work that his girth, Snidely Whiplash-like appearance, and bellowing voice proclaim him to be, then I should think that he'd jump at the chance to work Milady to death.


(GeoX)  I am always amused by the idea of one's domestic animals being "good" or "evil" to match their owners, as Scrooge's and Flintheart's horses are here. Like Battle Cat and Panthor from He-Man.   

Well, Make-a-Buck certainly gives the impression of being an "evil" horse, but you can't honestly say that Cash Register matches Scrooge's personality.  Note how passively CR accepts being kidnapped by Flinty's weasel henchmen and how his ultimate escape is entirely due to luck (the broken hitch on the truck).  One would expect a horse "matched" with Scrooge, that famed "toughest of the toughies," to go to much more trouble to fight for his freedom.

(Greg)  Flint has entered his horse called Make A Buck (of course) and he'll win the big bucks so he can become the richest duck in the world. How is winning a horse race going to make Flintheart that much MONEY, MONEY, YEAH, YEAH to become the richest duck in the world? At least wait until Cash As Catch Can [sic] when you can REALLY make the big bucks. Otherwise; this is merely a bragging rights plot line in who can be the biggest dick in the world. And I think Flint would win it hands down.

No doubt he would, but remember that it's long been established that Scrooge and Flinty are thisclose when it comes to the comparative sizes of their fortunes.  Even the proceeds from a single horse race might in fact be enough to push Flinty in front.

(Greg)  By the way; Shifty is voiced by the late Johnny Haymer (who passed away in 1989)...

At least in part.  Shifty's voice, well, shifts on several occasions during the episode.  When he and his sniveling pal mock Mr. Merrywether, he sounds a lot like Hal Smith.  During the kidnapping sequence, his voice suddenly drops a bit.  Perhaps Haymer was only available for a portion of the recording session?

 
(Greg) Webby notices a drum banging and she notices a horse walking around as the nephews turn around and Dewey swears in DUBBED ANIME STYLE (swell) because he hasn't seen one all day. Umm; check your internal logic there Dewey: You saw two horses in a parade earlier. That is logic break #2 for the episode. 

Dewey was being sarcastic here, I think.  No, check that.  I KNOW.

(Greg)  So Bull checks the stables as Huey and Dewey are cleaning up Cash Register and Bull demands them to tell him where the horse is. The nephews goldbrick on him just to show Kit how it's done. Dewey reflects on a horse joke he heard as we cut to Louie, Milady and Webby on top of the wooden beam of the roof of the stable. Okay; that breaks all logic and reason right there folks... Bull heads inside and looks around. Considering the line of sight he's using, he should clearly SEE them and he does as the roof beam starts to break. Good; it's about damn time logic is being used around here. 

And then logic flees the scene once again as our Hayloft Gang apparently fall far enough FORWARD to fall directly onto Bull, who's standing at a fair horizontal distance away from them.  Check the geometry of the scene:

Since Bull doesn't move forward in the next scene before getting clobbered, Louie, Milady, and Webby would literally have had to fall AT AN ACUTE ANGLE in order to nail him.  To add insult to Bull's injury, we then get the cartoonified "hole in the floor" bit... and the log-cabin sequence follows soon thereafter.  Ugh.

(Greg) Bull has arrived and apparently quickly recovered from his injuries. How about that?! The nephews have to bail so [he doesn't] see them. Why? Bull is AFTER Milady; not the nephews. Why hide from him? It's not like Beakley and Merriweather aren't blowing the cover anyway. 

Well, how else was Bull going to be manipulated into yelling into that microphone?  More contrivance.  At least it gave HD&L something semi-useful to do in the ep.  (And if you think that Bull recovered quickly, Greg, note that his truck also got fixed with astonishing speed after it was wrecked.)

Next:  Episode 19, "The Curse of Castle McDuck."

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Book Review: DRINKING COFFEE WITH A FORK by Steve Bucci and Dave Brown (Camino Books, 2011)

I attended my first two live Phillies games as a nine-year-old in 1972, but, sad to say, neither of them featured Steve Carlton on the mound.  This was not exactly a guarantee that I would go home unhappy, but it was close enough.  In '72, Carlton, in his first season in Philadelphia after being traded from St. Louis, turned in one of the best seasons by a starting pitcher in the 20th century, going 27-10... for a team that failed to win 60 games.  This extraordinary juxtaposition of such an historic season in such a shabby context -- the horsehide equivalent of hanging a masterwork painting in a cheap plastic frame -- is a natural for book treatment, and Bucci and Brown's survey of the season and its context is thorough, well-written, and refreshingly free of egregious errors.

While running through Carlton's 41 starts and 346 1/3 innings pitched, the authors bring back memories of Veterans Stadium when it was fresh and new (yes, there really was such a time), the era of the giant scoreboards in left and right field, Bill Giles' notorious promotions (including Kiteman's ill-fated opening-day flight and Karl Wallenda's famous wire-walk between games of an August doubleheader), and the home run-celebrating animatronic antics of Philadelphia Phil and Phyllis.  Unfortunately, the ball club on the field, despite the presence of youngsters Larry Bowa and Greg Luzinski, was usually not worthy of its shiny surroundings.  The exception to the status quo came every fourth day, when Carlton pitched.  Inspired by their new ace, the rest of the Phillies raised their game and became competitive with the best teams in the National League.  The building process would take a while longer, but the franchise had taken its first steps towards the contending and championship eras of the late 70s and early 80s.  Carlton himself proved popular with the fans and, more intriguingly, with the media; his disillusionment with and stonewalling of the press lay in the future.

Bucci and Brown write with a refreshing sense of humor, but they're deadly serious in the last chapter, "The Case for Carlton," in which they suddenly go all "seamhead" on us and use various sabermetric methods to compare Carlton's '72 campaign to some other outstanding one-year pitching performances of more recent vintage.  This is one of those "argue into the night" topics and can never be definitively resolved, but Carlton, ironically, can use the ineptitude of his supporting cast as strong evidence in his favor.  

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Latest in Pigskin

In Stevenson's second football season, the Mustangs duplicated the 2-8 record of their inaugural campaign, posting wins over Misericordia (itself a first-year program) and FDU-Florham (in the season's final home game).  That second home win in SU history, in all honesty, was something of a dud spirit-wise.  It had to be rescheduled several times and was finally turned into a Saturday night game, but the band, for some reason, failed to make an appearance, and the night grew cold enough that Nicky and I decided to leave at halftime.  We followed the rest of the action online.

The record may not look like much, but the Mustangs were considerably more competitive this season.  The defense was better, and the team put up gallant fights against superior opponents on several occasions.  Aside from the near miss against Lebanon Valley, the Mustangs showed their best form against Wilkes in the homecoming game.  The "jernt" was packed to the rafters and SU responded by staying ahead of or tied with Wilkes until literally the last few seconds of the game, losing 38-35 on a gun-beating field goal.  Now the team just has to learn how to close the deal.


Needless to say, I've been delighted by how well Notre Dame has done this year.  No, make that stunned.  Despite a spotty offense and occasional recourse to strange-looking gear (see picture above), the Irish continue to grind out wins and now stand just two victories away from a 12-0 record and a possible berth in the BCS Championship Game.  At the moment, the latter is contingent upon either Kansas State or Oregon dropping a game, which has some folks (including a few without any particular pro- or anti-ND axe to grind) upset.  If the Irish wind up #3 and on the outside looking in at the title game, however, I won't be too upset.  They have massively overachieved in 2012.

As for the Eagles?  Leaning on a broken Reid at the moment.  The regime is finished and it's time to clean house.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 17, "Bermuda Triangle Tangle"

It's easy to miss -- perhaps because the half-hour episode format provides inadequate room for full development of the idea -- but "Bermuda Triangle Tangle" arguably represents DuckTales' most successful exploitation of a classic Carl Barks gambit, that of a "lost race" or "hidden civilization."  You could probably also make strong cases for the hidden Viking land of Valhalla in "Maid of the Myth," the quasi-Egyptian bunch that shanghais Donald in "Sphinx for the Memories," or even the disillusioned old Union soldiers of "Launchpad's Civil War."  All of these micro-cultures possess, to one extent or another, the distinct codes of conduct and levels of audience intrigue that distinguish Barks' best examples of self-contained societies.  What the band of castaways on the island of seaweed in the Bermuda Triangle have that those other folks don't is a strong-willed, memorable leader in the person of the multifaceted Captain Bounty.  Indeed, I'd argue that a Barks fan would be hard put to find a single individual figure in any of "The Duck Man"'s best lost-race tales that leaves a bigger impression than Bounty does here.  Not bad for an episode with a title that seems a bit more suited to a decline-phase Hanna-Barbera cartoon... Oh, wait...

Writer Frank Ridgeway is best known for his long-running comic strip MR. ABERNATHY, but he also found the time to write some original scripts for DUCKTALES comic-book stories in the late 80s, under the aegis of the Disney Studio program.  A few of these were used as lead stories in the early issues of Gladstone's DUCKTALES title.  Suffice it to say that Ridgeway wasn't burning up his best story ideas on those babies.  His "The Fountain of Laughs" (Gladstone DUCKTALES #5, April 1989) came to be known to both Joe and myself as "The Trickle of Weak Chuckles."  "The Crown Jewels Affair" (Gladstone DUCKTALES #4, February 1989) is probably the best of the lot, despite Webby's annoyingly referring to her Grammy as "Mrs. Beakley" throughout.  Still, these tales are so timid and tapioca-bland that one would hardly have expected Ridgeway to have uncorked such a high-quality animated script -- one with memorable supporting players, no less. 

I can't be sure, of course, but there is some reason to believe that "Tangle" may have started out as a comic-book script itself.  The start of the episode, with Scrooge in his Money Bin "counting the ways that he loves money," definitely has the feel of an opening splash-panel gag, and there's quite a lot of expository dialogue on tap when Scrooge and HD&L are on Scrooge's flagship, when the Ducks first explore the seaweed island, and when our heroes have their first encounter with Captain Bounty and his band.  The occasional action scene (e.g., Scrooge running from the Seaweed Monster, the island's scourge) tends to obscure the essential talkiness of the ep, but the latter pretty clearly predominates, at least once you're made aware of it.

Loony "TempCap" Captain Farley Foghorn is FAR more annoying here than at any point during his second appearance in "The Uncrashable Hindentanic."  As a mere cog in the machinery of that ep's character-studded cast, he's tolerable enough.  Here, however, we have to spend so doggone much TIME with him during the cruise to the Bermuda Triangle.  I rather wish that some of this material had been trimmed in favor of some additional development of the seaweed civilization.  Even so, during the cruise phase, Foghorn is already a more interesting character than any original creation that I'd seen in any Ridgeway comic-book script.  Too bad that Captain Bounty happened along immediately thereafter to blow Foghorn's performance completely out of the water.


The episode doesn't truly "hoist anchor" until Scrooge's flagship gets mired in the seaweed patch and Scrooge and the boys start exploring.  Even then, we get quite a lot of palaver (including an in-joke reference to The Love Boat, a show on which Alan Young was one of the many, many guest stars) before the Ducks bump into the local "zombies."  Actually, Louie's original moniker for the seaweed people may not have been so far off the mark.  The anachronistic dress and mannerisms of the castaways, and the growths of seaweed festooning their bodies (except, oddly enough, for the guys who are tasked with catching rainwater), lend them a distinctly "un-dead" feel.  If the "zombie" theory is true, then, considering that there are relatively few castaways about and that certain "newcomers" (namely, the crew of Scrooge's recently lost cargo ship The Queen of the South) are nowhere to be seen, perhaps Captain Bounty, for all his talk about a seaweed diet, has supplemented all those "seaweed pancakes" and "sea dogs" with alternate nourishment inspired by the crew of the Essex.  If you can't stomach that explanation (and who CAN?),  then, like El Capitan of "Treasure of the Golden Suns" and the elderly Union soldiers of "Launchpad's Civil War," perhaps these folks have simply discovered a way to extend their life spans.  Can a constant diet of seaweed make THAT much of a difference?

The Junior Woodchucks even have a chapter HERE?!
(Note the guy at the far left)

The late Allan Melvin had a very long and very successful career in voice acting, but I would venture to say that Captain Bounty may be his single greatest role ever.  Interestingly, the nature of Bounty as a character rather gives the lie to imdB's claim that Melvin "found work playing... voices for gentle, simple-minded cartoon characters" in cartoons after having specialized in playing overbearing tough guys and rough-hewn "regular fellers" in live action.  This is correct insofar as Melvin's best-known animated role goes, but he did other sorts of animated characters as well, such as the calm-and-collected, Dean Martin-influenced Bristol Hound in Cattanooga Cats' "It's the Wolf!" segment:

With Captain Bounty, Melvin returned to "first principles" of a sort and gave us a blowhard, bully, and control freak, but one who is a nurturing, caring soul for all that.  Bounty's disagreements with Scrooge are rather more meaningful than a simple mash-up of wills and egos sprinkled with Bounty's corny jokes.  If you want to put a sociopolitical spin on the episode, then you might regard Scrooge, with his "new approach" and "plans for escape," as a representative of the principle of entrepreneurship and Bounty, whose first principle is to provide security for "his people" even if it means taking no risks, as a representative of the socialistic worldview.  (Notice how Bounty's provision of "bounty" to his underlings includes "dividing [Scrooge's flagship's] supplies equally."  No wonder his skin is tinted blue.)  I have to disagree with GeoX regarding the back-and-forth's between Scrooge and Bounty on the issue of the proper way to run this little civilization; I found them quite fascinating and only wish that the ep had had more time to explore them.  Nor do we end with a clear-cut victory for either side: Scrooge gets the castaways to safety, but also signs off on Bounty's decision to return to the Triangle to help future unfortunates (albeit with the barbed comment "I can't say I agree with you... but then again, I never DID!").  I would assume, although Ridgeway sadly doesn't make the point clear, that Scrooge and Bounty have concluded an agreement whereby Scrooge will come at regular intervals and pick up people that Bounty has rescued.  Now that's a "mixed economy" I can live with.



Captain Bounty's use of the harpsichord to "soothe" the enraged Seaweed Monster certainly suggests that Ridgeway may have had Jules Verne's Captain Nemo in mind when he cooked up this episode.  The initial encounter (bridging the second commercial break) between Scrooge and the tentacled beast -- who, in all honesty, would not have been out of place in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon -- is imaginatively staged, with a great POV shot of Scrooge watching the bubbling pool into which the bedazzled Monster has sunk.  Take #2 is a bit too repetitive, however, and the Monster's hitching a ride back to Duckburg, as Greg notes, merely provides some "action filler" with which to close out the episode, though the quality is somewhat better than Greg suggests.  Scrooge's painful attempts to find some other source of musical mitigation for the comically demanding Monster are a particular highlight:

I also like the scene in which Scrooge is besieged by the Duckburg media while the slightly embarrassed Bounty ducks out of sight, foreshadowing his decision to leave the bright lights of fame behind in favor of sticking to his weedy last.

Buoyed by a bravissimo performance by Bounty -- and perfectly fine ones by Scrooge and HD&L -- "Tangle" has a distinctly "Barksian" feel and still looks quite good after a quarter of a century.


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"DuckBlurbs"
(GeoX)  When I saw the expanses of seaweed, I flashed back to the old Gregory/Strobl story "Secret of the Sargasso Sea." It has nothing whatsoever to do with this episode's plot. But I did anyway! Aren't you grateful for such penetrating insights?

Now there's a Duck tale that's even more talky (and technical, to boot) than this one!  It also has a far more conventional plot than "Tangle" (a new McDuck entrepreneurial scheme that is threatened by the Beagle Boys). 

(GeoX)  "The Bermuda Triangle? Gosh, that's the scariest triangle in the world!"

I was half expecting an anti-geometry joke to be thrown in here to highlight the boys' dislike of mathematics and thereby burnish their "regular kid" credentials.  (You're not fooling me, boys, especially when it comes to practical applications of geometric forms.)  BTW, how convenient is it that Scrooge just happens to have a labeled map of the Bermuda Triangle in his desk when his clerk comes to tell him about The Queen of the South?  The better to explain plot points with, my dear Ducklings.


(Greg)  Scrooge tells Sparks to stand by as he sighs since he has never seen anything like this. Louie calls this a reminder of the worst dream he ever had. Dewey calls it Louie in Spinachland as the nephews now all have their caps like Kit Cloudkicker. I know you guys do not suck by a long shot; but you are no Kit Cloudkicker. Funny how Louie in Disney Captions is the one saying it and yet it was Huey who answers the question. Must be Disney Captions screwing up again. 

Either that, or the animators messing up the Nephews' colorsI like the expressions on Dewey and Huey's faces here.  We saw that "weary, worldly-wise" look on the faces of the Quack Pack Nephews quite a bit, but here, it seems so... innocent!

(Greg)  [The Ducks] run towards the Queen of The South and the ship has been seaweed[ed] to death and the cargo is spread out. Scrooge declares it a total loss. Dewey deduces that it wasn't the wreck that caused it; it was someone cutting open the hull to get the cargo. Even though I cannot see the hole in the far shot of the ship.

Oh, there's a hole there, all right:  you can faintly see the ship's internal ribbing near the stern.


(Greg)  So we head to the docks as the crowd cheers on the docks as the Flagship docks at the docks. The banana yellow balloons animate away as everyone on board waves to the popping crowd. We then cut down to dock level as Mrs. Beakly and Webby have even shown up for the finish. We see the band playing in the stands [and] we cut back to the ship as the seaweed monster is roaring because he hates that music. Or something. And then Duckworth magically appears OUT OF NOWHERE on the second crowd shot. 

Here's the first crowd shot; you can see that Duckworth is there as well.  I have to say that the crowd scenes in the latter part of the episode were pretty sloppily handled.  As Scrooge's flagship leaves the Triangle, the castaways are packed in blob-like masses on the deck, and the far shots of the waiting crowd on the docks use the same shortcut approach.  I'm certainly not expecting Cecil B. deMille levels of crowd manipulation in such scenes, but still...


 Next:  Episode 18, "Horse Scents."

Sunday, November 4, 2012

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 16, "Merit-Time Adventure"

Much as the recent Presidential tracking polls have seemed to range all over the map, the verdict on "Merit-Time Adventure" seems to be quite mixed.  Joe, Greg, and I enjoyed it, albeit with some qualifications; GeoX, not so much.  The ep's main point, that of helping Webby to (in Greg's words) "earn her over wings," is driven home with little subtlety, and Sharman Divono's plot bears many of the dreaded stigmata of a Scooby Doo episode, which one would like to think that the WDTVA folks, dedicated as they were to making their own distinctive mark in the TV-cartoon world, would have consciously gone out of their way to avoid.  Still, when compared to OTHER attempts to tackle the same themes and use the same approaches -- some of which took place during the series itself, some of which arose much later -- "Merit-Time" winds up looking surprisingly good.  It certainly didn't deserve the unfortunate fate of being the easily overlooked "fifth wheel" during the week of syndication dominated by the four-part "firefly fruit" serial "Catch as Cash Can."

 

After reading (or should that be "enduring"?) kaboom!'s "Rightful Owners" serial, I have a much greater appreciation for how well Divono handled the ticklish issue of making Webby a stronger character.  Whereas Warren Spector took the precedent-dissing, politically correct approach, abruptly turning Webby into something of a hectoring know-it-all, Divono portrayed young Miss Vanderquack in the far more believable role of a dutiful neophyte Junior Woodchuck trying to learn some new skills.  The "lessons" that Webby teaches the initially complacent HD&L and Doofus about "sticking to one's last" and putting in the time to achieve one's goals are demonstrated by actions, not by words.  The same feminist message gets across, but it slides much more smoothly down the gullet. 


The only moment where Webby can be said to have slipped into something akin to "Wise Webbina"(tm) mode during "Merit-Time" occurs when she implores the grieving boys to "never give up hope" for the missing Scrooge.  As she did in part one of "Rightful Owners," Webby appeals to Junior Woodchuck principles in this speech, but the appeal is more in the nature of a reminder than a lecture -- and, since the boys are so terribly broken up and despairing at that moment, that was precisely the right tone to use.

Another particularly neat (and easily ignored) aspect of "Merit-Time" is Scrooge's immense work rate.  By this, I refer to Scrooge's willingness to take direct, "hands-on" action in his efforts to uncover the mystery of the ship-chomping sea serpent terrorizing Duckinsack Island and laying waste to his shipping business.  Carl Barks' Scrooge was a pretty active cuss, to be sure, searching out long-lost treasures, going on globe-girdling trips to inspect his business empire, and all, but it'd be a challenge to find a Barks story in which Scrooge is forced to assume so MANY different roles in such a brief period of time.  From dealing with authority (in a manner of speaking), angry locals, and truculent antagonists in traditional "big operator" style...


... to donning a disguise (a somewhat cheesy one, but what the hey) and infiltrating Dogface Pete's warehouse in an effort to discover a link between Pete and the sea serpent...

... to escaping from bondage in villain Archibald Quackerbill's hideout and scuba-ing to the aid of Launchpad and the kids in a manner that would make Kimba proud (and perhaps a bit jealous)...

... to staging a one-duck invasion of the sea serpent's control room, wielding a harpoon with deadly intent in the process...

... Scrooge arguably makes an even stronger impression than Webby here, and that's quite a feat.  I'm not even sure if Divono was conscious of the fact that she was allowing Scrooge to upstage Webby a bit.

"Merit-Time" isn't quite as obvious an homage to Scooby-Doo as some of the later DT episodes written or co-written by Richard Merwin -- largely because of the absence of any "phony ghosts" or "pseudo-supernatural elements" -- but the basic tropes are present.  Their success rate, however, can be charitably described as mixed.  Things get off to a good start; the foggy, moody opening sequence is extremely effective, with "victim" Quackerbill doing a good (almost too good, in all honesty) job of selling his fate at the hands of the serpent.  This one scene is far scarier than anything seen in Barks' "Terror of the River," which has been cited as a potential influence on this plotline... and we still have a few good frights to go.  This is somewhat ironic, given that the operator of the phony serpent in "Terror" had the explicit goal of scaring people silly, whereas Quackerbill and his one-eyed compadre simply wanted to use their "pet" to establish a monopoly on the salvage business.  You would think that "The Scarer," of all people, would have wanted to create a serpent like this, one with a truly scary demeanor.  Perhaps folks were more easily scared in 1946.  Somehow, given the events of World War II, I doubt it. 

Next, we get an attempt at a classic Scooby-Doo "feint job," with Dogface Pete and Captain Mallard (called Captain Scrimshaw in the Italian dub -- a better choice, IMHO) palling around, mumbling about secret meetings and such.  The problem is that, between the first and second scenes involving conversations between Pete and Mallard, we have already seen the serpent invade Pete's warehouse (presumably this is part of Quackerbill's effort to "eliminate of the competition," though the serpent appears to be engaging in more or less random destruction, as opposed to targeted destruction of Pete's salvaged cargo) and heard Pete evince concern for the captured Scrooge, so we already suspect that this second conference does not mean what we are led to believe it means.  This is true even though Mallard's earlier use of the word "unfortunate" to describe Pete's claim on Scrooge's cargo suggests that Pete knows how to manipulate the law.  I suspect that Mallard was speaking in this case as Scrooge's employee, the one tasked with getting the lost cargo to Duckburg, and that he really does feel that it is "unfortunate" that Pete profited from Scrooge's loss.  (By the way, GeoX, this is why "the 'stolen cargo' angle didn't go anywhere" -- there WAS no "stolen cargo" in the first place.)  The cooperation between Pete and Mallard then becomes your classic "temporarily unite to stop a common threat" scenario.  Somewhat clumsily staged, but acceptable.

 
The one Scooby-influenced bit that I didn't think worked here was the Little Wave's first direct encounter with the sea serpent (the equivalent of the Mystery Inc. gang's first encounter with the fake-ghost-or-whatever, the one that precedes the final encounter and the grand unmasking).  The gang's plan to sneak out of the harbor at night and trap the serpent with... A NET (and I don't mean Funicello!)... is, quite frankly, idiotic.  The non-swimming Launchpad is knocked into the ocean and doesn't call for help, undercutting Webby's later life-saving effort, which is supposed to be her big action climax.  And above all... why doesn't Quackerbill attack the Little Wave right then and there? He's even got the advantage of the cover of darkness.  Instead, after freeing itself from the net (hardly a daunting task, given the net's size), the serpent once again descends to the depths.  When next we see Quackerbill and his confrere, they're resupplying the serpent and complaining about having to get rid of Launchpad and (say it with me!) "those meddling kids."  A little bit late for that, fellas.

Despite the weak "first encounter" scene and the damage it does to the effectiveness of Webby's rescue of Launchpad, the final battle between the forces of good (well, semi-good, in Pete's case) and evil recaptures the high quality of the opening scene.  As unmaskings go, the "reveal" of the true nature of the serpent is first-rate.  Scrooge's discovery of the submerged control cabin is OK, but the real treat is the roped-and-tied serpent's sudden "skin-shedding" and the disclosure of what lies beneath:

I especially like the way in which the animators give the construction crane some all-too-realistic snapping movements during this sequence.  Again, Donald braining "The Scarer" with a wrench and climbing up the gullet of the fake monster to greet the Nephews in "Terror of the River," while fun to look at, doesn't pack quite the same dramatic punch. 

Along with "Superdoo!", "Merit-Time" represents one of the few times that DuckTales tried to do something truly substantial involving the Junior Woodchucks.  (Doofus, of course, serves as a perpetual reminder of the organization, since he's rarely seen without his Woodchuck cap; I'm talking here about episodes explicitly concerned with merit-badge competitions and similarly recognizable Woodchuck activities.)  I have no real objection to the Woodchucks' being turned into a coed organization, though Webby's pink Woodchuck uniform seems like rubbing it in...

... nor do I have any quarrel with the portrayal of HD&L as being a bit smug about earning their sailing merit badges during the trip to Duckinsack Island.  (Actually, I thought that they'd earned "seamanship" badges by helping Scrooge to sail the treasure ship out of Ronguay.  Perhaps "sailing" and "seamanship" count as separate disciplines according to Woodchuck protocol.)  Yes, I'm fully aware that the boys are traditionally presented in the comics as being deathly serious about bagging these baubles.  The difference here is that HD&L, in a DuckTales context, are every bit as new to the Woodchucks as Webby.  Remember that they join the organization during part one of "Golden Suns" and quickly earn a bushel of badges even before the adventure makes it out of Scrooge's candy factory.  One can easily imagine the boys REALLY getting into Woodchuckery after that, continuing to add to their medal haul (even as Webby struggles to keep up), and THEN indulging the feeling that earning the sailing badge will be a piece of cake.  No, the real problem here is that Doofus is presented as being just as successful a badge-winner as the Nephews, in flat contradiction to the later "Superdoo!".  There's no real explanation for this, apart from the standard "right hand, left hand" inconsistency that attends any animated series to which a multiplicity of writers contribute.  Or perhaps Divono duplicated Vic Lockman's mistake and figured that Doofus had to be a competent Woodchuck simply because he's bigger than HD&L.

I know that the temptation is there to regard HD&L and Doofus' behavior towards Webby here as being somewhat dickish.  In all honesty, their deportment isn't all that bad.  The worst it gets is when they respond to Webby's wish for a "second" merit badge with the claim that they'll soon own 200 badges and then yuck it up a bit.  Even this is blessedly free of Nelson Muntz-style "Hah-hah!" attitude towards Webby; the lads are simply chortling over their own prowess.

Once the kids get on board the Little Wave, the boys actually seem quite supportive of Webby's efforts to earn her sailing badge, even as they themselves goof off and play pirate.  "I think that Webby's sailing merit badge is in the bag," remarks HDorL (I can't tell which, since the boys are in Woodchuck and/or sailing gear throughout) as Webby takes the Wave out to sea.  Later, one Nephew shows another sort of support for Webby by stroking her shoulder in a soothing fashion as the kids grieve over Scrooge's apparent fate.  After it becomes obvious that Webby is the best sailor of the group, the boys (and I'm including Launchpad here) acknowledge the fact and let her pilot the boat during the climactic action.  I know that I'm comparing shiny red apples and rind-diseased oranges here, but imagine how the HD&L of Quack Pack would have behaved during these scenesNo, while this is not the boys' finest hour, it could have been far, FAR worse.

As for "Launchpad, the Junior Woodchuck troop leader"... well, at least Divono addresses the question of HOW such a shocking thing might have come to pass, which is more than Michael Keyes did during "Superdoo!".  Ironically, Launchpad may owe his unexpectedly lofty status to the Junior Woodchuck policy of handing out merit badges for everything under the sun.  In LP's case, he earned his badges for, in Doofus' words, "surviving catastrophes on land, sea, and air."  And given the sheer number of catastrophes in which LP has been involved, you can easily imagine how many trinkets he may have pocketed over the years.  In "Superdoo!", by contrast, LP is presented as "the all-time merit badge champion," with no explanation whatsoever being given (apart from the fact that LP needs to be bested and dissed as part of the super-powered Doofus' campaign to alienate all of his erstwhile friends).

"Merit-Time" isn't a front-rank DT episode, but it's entertaining, thrilling, and more than "Heart"-filled enough to rank as a fairly substantial success.


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DuckBlurbs

(GeoX)  [HD&L] have an awful, horrific, intolerable chant where they go "Wacka-Wacka-Woodchuck." Whoever came up with that one should certainly be thrown off a steep embankment.

I'm not all that crazy about the bit, either, and whoever did the Italian dub agreed with both of us, changing the chant to "Tutti per uno, uno per tutti!" ("One for all, and all for one!").  Not especially inspired -- not even original, in fact -- but at least it doesn't sound like it could have been dreamed up by Fozzie Bear.

(GeoX)  …and Doofus's crush on Launchpad is becoming somewhat creepily intense.

I would have preferred that Divono take the "Hero for Hire" approach and portray Doofus as more of a "naively supportive" pal than the "star-goofy groupie" he appears to be here.  At least Doofus is relatively competent (inedible biscuits aside) here.  

(Greg)  Mr. Quackerbill [falls] into the sea much to Captain Mallard's appalled sense. Captain Mallard calls for all the lifeboats as the boat is now at a 45 degree angle and the back explodes into flames. Huh?! That makes no sense at all since the serpent ate a section of boat and not the oil line which would have caused the fire. 

Yeah, the scene was already suspenseful enough without throwing a more-or-less gratuitous explosion into the mix.


(Greg)  [The boys] are all wearing matching paint splashing bathing suits (purple/orange splashes for the nephews; green/purple splashes for Doofus) and orange life jackets (so we can be safe according to the DORA LAW OF DOOM)... [Webby's] wearing a one piece bathing suit and pink trunks of course because she's supposed to be uncool see. Launchpad is manning the anchor (I think) wearing yellow/Red V trunks...

... and later, we'll see Scrooge wearing $-patterned boxers.  What was up with the weird 'n wild underwear in this episode?

(Greg)  Webby proclaims that the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook proclaims that they shouldn't give up. Umm; you don't need a book to say that Webagail. We got hundreds of cartoon episodes in history saying that same message. I think you're just showing off now.

Yes, but the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook makes the sentiment OFFICIAL.  At least, the Junior Woodchucks would claim so...


(Greg)  The nephews arrive with the big ass candy cane LIFE SAVER OF DOOM (HA!) and they throw it into the water blindly and Webby and Launchpad take some really good bumps off of it. Nice to see BS&P cut some slack on female kids taking bumps like that. Launchpad and Webby get onto the boat and then invoke the eye contact violence on the nephews; just to make the nephews blush. HEE HEE!

Actually, I'm not sure WHAT the Nephews are doing hereIs this a personal interpretation of the Three Wise Monkeys?  Whatever it is, it's cute. 

Next:  Episode 17, "Bermuda Triangle Tangle."