Monday, February 25, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 27, "Treasure of the Golden Suns, Part Four: Cold Duck"

Hmm, ever get that creepy "deja viewed" feeling...?  (Actually, the Mansions look somewhat different in these two title cards.  Perhaps I should offer one of those contests in which readers can win prizes for figuring out what all the differences are.)

My heart is warring with my head as I start this review.  Emotionally, this has always been my favorite part of the "Golden Suns" serial, even though it's certainly stuffed full of what GeoX termed "forced flights of fancy."  (Or should that be "forced waddles of whimsy"?  After all, penguins can't fly.)  The sillier aspects of the ep didn't bother me much when I first watched it as part of the two-hour "Golden Suns" special.  At the time, it simply seemed like a really cool (pun intended), action-filled run-up to the big, golden-hued payoff in the Valley of the Golden Suns.  Several decades' worth of perspective and some cogent comments by others, however, have made it harder to sponge away the "suspiciously convenient" events, irrationalities, and general weirdness of the Antarctic adventure.  If you're looking for glib answers to the questions of why a tuning fork suddenly turned into the Ultimate Weapon, why walruses are attracted to bright colors like bulls, and where the Ducks' clothes disappeared to (or came back from), then I'm afraid you're going to be sorely disappointed.  I DO, however, still love this episode for numerous reasons, including one that has only become clear to me during my most recent re-viewings.

So why does "Cold Duck" still bubble like a vintage champagne for me?  Here are a quintet of whys 'n wherefores.

(1)  The gang's all here.  Well, that's not entirely accurate -- Duckworth is still in Duckburg -- but this counts as the first "official" adventure in which Scrooge, Launchpad, HD&L, Webby, and (bonus!) Mrs. Beakley all get to participate.  More to the point, the "established" characters, Scrooge and HD&L, actually contribute the least to the proceedings; the boys' primary accomplishment is having a change of heart about Mrs. Beakley, and Scrooge spends most of the episode in "cold storage" and later gets more or less swept up in the busy melee that dominates the ep's last third.  As a result, we really get to see the newcomers strut their stuff en masse for the first time -- though several contribute more "massively" than others, as we'll see below.

(2)  The episode's Barksian use of what Ed Norton might term "the smalll details" has always been a very big point in its favor.  There's an amusing contrast between the leaps of logic that the ep occasionally obliges us to take and the neat, clean manner in which it turns the boys' tuning fork, Mrs. Beakley's scarf, and Webby's crayons -- all of which are introduced in the first few minutes of screen time -- into vital links in the "chain" that our heroes must piece together in order to leave Penguin City safe and sound and with the map to the Valley of the Golden Suns in their mitts.  Mark Zaslove did the teleplay, which might explain the tidy-mindedness, but the jury's still out on whoever inserted all the zaniness.  Perhaps we can invoke the spirit of Mad Men and speculate that Zaslove, Jymn Magon, and Bruce Talkington hashed out one portion of the script in sober, logical fashion and the other portion after one or two of those notorious "three-martini Hollywood lunches."

Hey, Webby's already a leg up on whoever drew those pages in DUCKTALES #3!

(3)  Mrs. Beakley really does "earn her over wings" (thanks, Greg) with her performance here.  She'll have a major role to play in "Too Much of a Gold Thing," of course, but I actually prefer the manner in which she is used here, precisely because she gets to DO things, as opposed to simply warning Scrooge about the onset of "gold fever."  Granted, one of her finer feats -- namely, the infamous "recovery of the clothes" -- is never actually shown on-screen, but we do get full coverage (and, with Mrs. B., it truly is full) of her matador act before the giant prehistoric walrus, and she seems to have very little trouble in keeping up with the rest of the fleeing Ducks during the climactic dash out of the ice caves to freedom, which suggests that she may not be as much of a physical creampuff as we've been led to believe.  The resourceful Beakley who tutored Prince Greydrake and (presumably) had many other exotic adventures shines through here for a couple of memorable moments; would that she had been given more opportunities like these.

(4)  Gripe and grouse The Nostalgia Critic might about how this episode "went all girl show on us" with the introduction of Skittles and the development of her friendship with Webby, but I think that the penguin-ette is adorable.  In truth, I am probably giving the episode itself too much credit for its true level of "success" in making Skittles a good character.  Patty Parris' attempt to give the character something of an Australian accent (which would make more geographical sense than GeoX's description of the denizens of Penguin City as "British penguins") remains little more than... well, an attempt, and no one seems to have considered it worthwhile to explain WHY, exactly, this amiable little creature has had so much trouble making friends in the past.  Is the problem something that repeated uses of Dentyne might have cured?  I honestly think that the whole theme of Skittles "finally making some friends" could have been dropped without any real damage to the episode whatsoever.  Skittles could still have gotten the crayons, scarf, and parachute at the end because the Ducks were grateful for her help, rather than because the Ducks wanted to help her appeal to the locals' obsession, er, I mean, make it easier for her to become popular by giving her various sources of "color."  I fail to see how the injection of pathos makes the episode any more enjoyable.  If anything, it represented a bit of backsliding, a nervous shout-out to the "collectivist" mentality of so many animated series of the post-Smurfs early-to-mid-80s.  You might say that, just when DTVA thought it had escaped the "Get-Along Gang," the "Gang" pulled it back in... at least for a moment.   

(5)  And here's the one that snuck up on me over time on little webbed feet...  This was Webby's breakout episode, ONLY NO ONE ACKNOWLEDGED IT.  

Consider this:  Had it not been for Webby's quick thinking in sketching a crayon copy of Scrooge's map, there would never have BEEN a "Too Much of a Gold Thing."  (Thank goodness -- not to mention the vagaries of plot contrivance -- that Webby had brought her crayons with her from home, had kept them on her person during the trip to Antarctica and the trudge through the ice caves, and had thought to stash them in Skittles' "winter coat" while she was disguised as a penguin.)  You would think that a MUCH bigger deal would have been made of this action during the (otherwise superb) final scene in the transport plane.  For some reason, however, Webby doesn't rate the same praise that Mrs. Beakley gets from the no-longer-so-noisily-misogynistic HD&L.  In fact, she doesn't get any personal praise AT ALL.  Scrooge's exclamation "It's a copy of the map!" should, by all rights, have been followed by the boys duplicating their encomium of Mrs. Beakley and hailing Webby for her smarts, not to mention her daring in donning a disguise and sneaking into the "color museum" with Skittles.  Instead... nothing.  

The more I think about it, the more I realize what a lost opportunity this was.  Here was a chance to establish Webby's adventurous credentials for good and all.  Even with the "relentless sweetness," the squeaky voice, the pink dress, and all the rest, this might have ultimately made a real difference in how the DT audience came to view the character.  Webby's masquerade act and the defiance of Mrs. Beakley's request that the girls stay put in Skittles' room were a particularly pointed indication that Webby, had she been handled in a similar fashion in other episodes, really could have been a fully equal distaff partner for the Nephews.  There's really not so much difference between this...

and this...

... except that we've come to accept occasional mischievousness and rule-bending as part of HD&L's character in both comics and animation, whereas Webby has only shown such initiative on occasion, e.g., in "The Arcadian Urn" in print and "The Good Muddahs" (the "mini-gun-moll" act) in DuckTales' second season.  Even in "Cold Duck," we are only told about Webby's previous attempts to "tag along" with the Nephews; we don't get to see them.  (We can't count "Dinosaur Ducks," of course, because that episode technically occurs after the events of "Golden Suns.")

One might argue at this point that Webby's character had already been "established" in the episodes of the series that were earliest in production order.  There was no real reason to stick faithfully to that template, however.  The DT crew was feeling its way in more ways than one in those early efforts, and I certainly wouldn't have objected to the series' taking inspiration from the more interesting role that Webby played in this adventure and giving her more of substance to do in the future.  Alas, as late as "Attack of the Fifty-Foot Webby," DT writers were still mucking around with the theme of Webby as easily-overlooked fourth wheel.  Warren Spector's characterization of the Webby of "Rightful Owners" as "the smug smartass with all the answers" could be considered the other side of the coin, an almost violent reaction against the character's wasted potential in numerous media... which, of course, erred just as badly in the opposite direction.

I suppose that one of the main reasons why I have always liked this episode is that, on some level, I was "picking up on" the effort that was being made to make Webby seem and act like a character who could contribute something new and different to the classic Scrooge-HD&L partnership.  The two-hour version of "Golden Suns" gave me hope that Webby might be something more than a stickily cute character who had simply been "cut and pasted" into the cast to appease female viewers.  Then came the half-hours, and... well, the promise of that "technically initial" appearance didn't exactly disappear, but it was frequently obscured.  It's a pity, honestly.

At least Messrs. Binney and Smith appreciated Webby's efforts in this episode!

That pretty much exhausts my quota of "deep thoughts" regarding what is, at its heart, an action-packed episode that, following a relatively sedate start, attacks you "bam-bam-bam" like a machine gun.  The gelid surroundings are suitably impressive throughout, even giving direct rise to a quick, but vividly realized, action sequence in which Launchpad and HD&L ride the "polar coaster" through the caves.  The sequence isn't as flashy as the same characters' dramatic toboggan ride in "Snowy"'s cave during "Lost Crown of Genghis Khan," but it's exciting enough. 

The final act is a veritable whirlwind of activity, lacking only James Bond driving through the ice caves in a car to make it complete.  (Say, wait a minute... isn't that 007's car parked on the street?)  The sequence starting with the tuning fork's disintegration of the Ducks' ice prison (and the giant walrus' as well... so why weren't any other buildings damaged by those vibrations?) and ending with Launchpad's mountainside "smash-and-grab" counts as the best action continuity of the serial outside the climax in the Valley.  Yep, it even beats the condor-copter battle in "Three Ducks of the Condor," simply because of the sheer variety of things that are happening.  The penguins' use of snowball-throwing tanks might be considered overkill -- are we to believe that the penguins need such devices because they have enemies with advanced technology?  If so, then who are those enemies? -- but the illogic is all but swept away in all the excitement. 

Remarkably, Scrooge performs his only meaningful action of the episode when he "says bye-bye to Mr. Blubber" by breaking the glass and causing the walrus to fall out of the transport plane.  It's not his fault, of course; there's only so much you can do while stripped to your skivvies and freezing to death.  (Since Scrooge, Launchpad, and the boys all were condemned to long periods of time in such a condition, it is only fair for us to wonder about the internal sources of heat that kept them from succumbing to hypothermia.  I mean, Scrooge hadn't even begun to suffer from "gold fever" yet.)

There follows the heartwarming (and, for the reasons I described above, frustrating) scene in which the Ducks bid goodbye to Skittles and head for untold riches.  So, "Cold Duck," in and of itself, is not quite the masterwork that I once thought it was... it's still loads of fun and does more than its part to make the whole of "Golden Suns" the timeless classic that it is.





(GeoX)  In the beginning, we have HDL behaving quite dickishly, and using the aforementioned tuning fork to fuck up Beakley's and Webby's room (one of the things they break is the glass over a picture of Scrooge and two other mysterious dudes--does this signify anything, or not?). 

It must not have, otherwise Don Rosa would probably have tried to fit these fellows into his Duck Family Tree at some point.  I think we're on much solider ground in speculating that some executive insisted upon the otherwise puzzling use of a Cinderella's Castle poster on HD&L's wall during the scene in which Launchpad lands the transport plane.  The camera is a bit shaky in the image below due to the combined effects of the plane and the tuning fork, but you can clearly see the castle to the right of the window.  Given how girl-phobic the boys are throughout most of this episode, I doubt that they'd put up that poster voluntarily.

(GeoX)  Then the action proper starts, and things get REALLY batty: it turns out Scrooge is stranded in Antarctica, where he went for the second half of the map to the treasure--how he knew that was where he had to go is unclear to me (did it have something to do with the other half? But that wouldn't really make sense, would it?). Why he went alone, on a raft, with no communications equipment is just as unclear. 

Actually, Scrooge did have a homing device, so he wasn't flying completely blind.  Why he decided to hitch a ride with a walrus once he got to Antarctica is beyond me, though.

(Greg)  Louie grabs the fork (glad to see the hoods are gone now; and so I can tell them apart) as Louie bangs the tuning fork against the ice wall. Umm; check your internal logic guys; they should be nailing the right side wall since Scrooge was there...AND there was a window to boot. Logic break #2 for the episode and the first one I don't accept. 

Looks like you nailed it: see below.  The height of the wall separating Scrooge from Launchpad and HD&L also seems to have changed.  It could be that we are looking at the wall from a slightly different vantage point in the second scene, but the details still don't match.

Next: Episode 28, "Treasure of the Golden Suns, Part Five: Too Much of a Gold Thing."

1 comment:

Mike Russo said...

Of course, it doesn't hurt that they picked an absolutely perfect piece of music to accompany most of that final act...