Tuesday, May 7, 2013


Duck-fanciers of all stripes have regarded "Top Duck" with particular affection for quite some time, and no wonder.  This is at once writer Richard Merwin's finest effort for the series (by far) and, along with "Hero for Hire" and the immediately upcoming "Where No Duck Has Gone Before," one of the three components of a trilogy of episodes that did for Launchpad McQuack what John Ford's cavalry trilogy did for the Western-movie genre.  "Top Duck" was arguably the hardest episode of the three to pull off, since LP had to share a good deal of screen time with his air-daredevil family, was faced with the challenge of stopping a Beagle Boy raid on Scrooge's Money Bin (as opposed to the "mere" bank robberies he unknowingly aided and abetted during "Hero for Hire"), and was obligated to display a sense of vulnerability and self-doubt that he rarely evinced in any other episode.

It actually took me a while to fully appreciate this episode's excellence, but that was the fault of neither my critical antennae nor the ep's level of quality.  Early broadcasts of "Top Duck" suffered from an unfortunate production glitch in that the sound effects and music tracks were much too loud, making it extremely difficult to hear the dialogue at times.  This was a particular issue during the climactic air battle.  Someone must have informed WDTVA about the problem; the DVD version of the ep balances the tracks out a bit better.

Merwin's creative effort in "Top Duck" is stunning in light of the less-than-inspired Scooby-Doo riffs on which he doted elsewhere.  Apart from the mere fact that there's no hint of any Scooby-Doo influence anywhere in sight, "Top Duck" has a far brisker pace than any of Merwin's other eps.  "Hotel Strangeduck" was a particularly annoying example of Merwin's occasional tendency to stop his narrative and, for lack of a better term, simply piddle around for a while.  (Just recall those conversations between Benzino Gasolini and the Duchess of Swansylvania about the location of that elusive ice machine.)  By contrast, every scene in this episode either moves the plot along or contains a meaningful and/or entertaining character bit.  Well, I suppose that some viewers, especially those who dislike Benzino, would argue that the opening of act three, in which Benzino (newly identified as an "air ace" here, as opposed to a race-car driver -- same difference, I suppose) demo's his pizza-making proficiency in mid-air, qualifies as something of a waste of time.  Even then, the pizza that Benzino crafts with such exacting apparent pointlessness ultimately serves as bait to lock the HD&L-guarding Burger Beagle behind bars, thereby allowing the boys to go and warn Scrooge and The Flying McQuacks about the Beagle raid. (I'd still like to know how Benzino became aware that the Nephews were being held captive in the first place, though.)

The episode also contains some surprisingly intense action sequences, though many of them are presented with something of a comedic edge.  Right out of the gate, Launchpad's attempt to do "the triple-decker treetop bebop tuck 'n roll" stunt elicits a near-hysterical reaction (to wit: Russi Taylor nearly screeching herself into a hernia) from "air-traffic controller" Huey.  Fittingly, the ultimate (should I say inevitable?) crash is no laughing matter, with LP getting his Joyrider tangled up in power lines and literally being flung out of his seat like an automobile passenger without a seat belt being tossed through the windshield.  This fantastic failure certainly qualifies as one of Launchpad's most physically perilous plummets.

LP's sabotage-fueled crash of the McX during the air show has its scary moments, most notably Scrooge and the air-show announcer falling to the ground after the experimental plane destroys their tower, but, as McQuack mishaps go, it's a little more on the conventional side.  By contrast, the big battle in the Money Bin's air space is anything but conventional, at least insofar as DuckTales is concerned.  Given the major role that Launchpad played in the series, DT didn't have nearly as many air-based climaxes as it probably ought to have had.  "Three Ducks of the Condor" probably still deserves the palm insofar as sheer thrills and visual orchestration are concerned, but "Top Duck" isn't far behind, with characters falling out of planes right and left (hopefully, Donald won't be too offended if I note that Scrooge's demise would have been FAR more harmful to the series than Donald's in "Condor"!) and all of the good-guy characters, including unexpected-but-welcome ally Benzino and the tagalong Nephews, doing their part to foil Bomber and Bouncer's raid.

OK, so how did Ripcord fit into that cockpit?
"What a squeeze!  WHAT a squeeze!"

It goes without saying (although GeoX said it anyway) that The Flying McQuacks deserved another major series appearance.  I would argue that Bomber Beagle also deserved another chance.  "Specialist Beagle Boys" are not in particular favor right now -- partially due to Vic Lockman's overuse of same during his comics-scripting heyday, partially due to the mixed reaction to the DuckTales Beagles -- but Bomber isn't just another member of this particular Beagle subspecies; he also would have served as a good foil for Launchpad in any number of future Scrooge vs. Beagles episodes in which flying played a major role.  Before GeoX begins to growl some epithets about the "charmlessness" of the DT Beagles, let me add that Bomber, with his craftiness and sardonic attitude, is arguably closer to what one might call the "Barksian template" for a Beagle Boy than any other Beagle in the series, though one might also argue for Bouncer (at least in a physical sense).  In that respect, the Bomber-Bouncer teamup here is as close to a Barksian Beagle "casting" as we ever got in the series.  Even the clone-Beagles in "Sport Goofy in Soccermania" didn't provide as good a match as this, since their scheme had nothing to do with stealing Scrooge's fortune.

Bomber also possesses something not normally associated with the Beagle Boys -- a certain "coolness factor."  He comes thisclose to being the first Beagle to go through an entire (American) story without wearing a mask; in the scene in which he busts Bouncer and Burger out of the slammer (rather mystifyingly leaving brain-boss Big Time behind -- hey, it's not as if DT hadn't already broken the unwritten "three Beagles" rule), you can just barely see the mask on his face.  Thereafter, he opts for the green-tinted shades.  Granted, Bomber gives similar sunglasses to Bouncer and Burger to wear as "disguises" (*chuckle*), but one gets the impression that he wears the shades more often than not.  They just seem to fit his personality.

"Looookkk into my magic hypnotic glasses, Scroogie, and you won't notice the glaringly obvious number plate on my chest." 

Launchpad's personality is, of course, a major focus here, and one only has to compare his trepidation at facing his family here to the cockiness and egotism he displayed in episodes like "Three Ducks of the Condor" and "Lost Crown of Genghis Khan" to realize that some very powerful psychological forces are at work.  Even in "Hero for Hire," after Launchpad had been fired by Scrooge and was attempting to market himself as a derring-doer-of-all-trades, LP managed to hang onto a certain amount of self-confidence (at least, after Doofus gave him that initial pep talk) and blamed his early lack of success on changing times and the fact that "nobody needs a hero nowadays."  Here, convinced that he'll never be able to live up to what he thinks that his family expects of him, he alternates between brief moments of bluster and rapid descents into his own personal slough of despond.  His sense of fatalism about his propensity to crash acquires a newly sorrowful cast, best expressed in the classic line, "The ground and I are like two irresistible forces -- destined to keep meetin' again and again!"  (It's not surprising, I suppose, that Launchpad comes up short in the "physical science analogy" department here; a reference to magnetic attraction would probably have been more appropriate.)  The "begging sequence" in which Scrooge agrees to give LP the chance to pilot the McX (wonder who that "other pilot" that Scrooge "had in mind" was?  The world may never know...) shows Launchpad switching from utter desperation to utter glee with positively disturbing rapidity.  He stays on similar edge throughout.  This is characterization on a par with some of Barks' best treatments of Donald and Scrooge, particularly the all-too-fallible former.

Scrooge plays a fairly minor role here, but he does enjoy "one shining moment" when he haggles Bomber up to paying $550 for the privilege of piloting the McX.  To give Richard Merwin his due, this is fairly consistent with the characterizations of Scrooge in Merwin's other episodes, which tend to emphasize some of the more negative elements of Scrooge's personality: his glee at procuring "cheap labor" and hiring "trustworthy, low-paid employees," his stubbornness (insisting on staying at Hotel Strangeduck, harping on "teamwork" during "Back Out in the Outback"), and his occasional spasms of unanchored egotism (the notorious "cowboy contest" in "Ducks of the West").

Greg pointed out one possible minor flaw in the episode, which I'll address below, but here's another one to consider in the interim: Isn't the Beagles' plan to vacuum Scrooge's money out of the Money Bin and into the McX just a tad, well, physically problematic?  How much money could Bouncer suck out of there before the McX overloaded and crashed to the ground -- and how could the Beagles escape with those EXTREMELY HEAVY bags of loot after the inevitable occurred?  The Beagles, of course, are not necessarily averse to "smash and grab" raids on the Bin, as opposed to wholesale takeover/occupation operations, but they seem to have gone to a lot of trouble here to set up a scheme in which the potential profit has a fairly low "ceiling" that has been set by the very tools used to do the job.

The aforementioned problems are mere "bags of shells," though.  This is a classic by any definition and another major milestone in the development of Launchpad as a fully-formed character.  It's just a shame that we never got to see a newly-confident LP star in a full-length teamup adventure with The Flying McQuacks.  I'd gladly have endured one or two more Scooby-Doo references from Merwin in order to have had the privilege of seeing that.





(GeoX)  Although they don't get a great deal of screen time, the family is quite appealing, and it's a doggone shame that (as far as I can tell from the all-knowing internet) this is their only appearance.

Well, Ripcord and Loopy did have cameos during the wedding scene at the end of "Till Nephews Do Us Part."  But then, everyone in the known (DuckTales) universe did.

Joe and I argued in our DUCKTALES INDEX that patterning Ripcord after John Wayne was an inspired idea, since a John Wayne type is probably one of the very few personalities that could intimidate a Harrison Ford-esque character like Launchpad.  Robert Ridgely, who gave such fine voice to Bomber, was exactly the right choice for Ripcord, in light of his long history of impersonating the "Duke."  This sub-career spanned both the sublime and the ridiculous.  Ridgely's seagull-collared, leisure-suited turn as "Steve Exhaustion, The $6.95 Man" on the notoriously horrible 1970s Saturday morning show Uncle Croc's Block definitely qualifies as the latter...

... while Ridgely's R-shading-to-X take on Red River could be taken as either, depending upon the point of view.  I'll maintain a judicious cordon sanitaire between this resolutely "family-friendly" blog and Ridgely's stand-up comedy routine on the subject.  If you're thinking of a follow-up post, Joe, well, be my guest, pilgrim... just be warned.

Birdy has worn pretty well over time, mostly because of the motherly pride she shows when displaying pictures of Launchpad's first crashes (waitasec, I thought the series would later provide canon on that issue?) at the drop of Scrooge's top hat.  This is both a funny bit in and of itself and leaches some of the seriousness out of Launchpad's mournful contention that his family is "ashamed and embarrassed" by his fallibility.  As for Loopy... OK, the whole "Valley Girl" routine has LONG since passed its sell-by date, leaving the nasty residue of all-too-frequent "like" tics in modern-day conversation in its wake.  This particular "Val Gal," however, is extremely easy to like.  Ironically, one of the main reasons why is the fact that Launchpad disses Loopy for no reason after his sister performs a quick fix on the Joyrider.  She may have used an unorthodox way of getting the job done, but LP's "How humiliatin'!" was uncalled for.  For all of her 1980s-style garb and airhead-speak, Loopy proves to be as efficient a pilot as her parents, which makes LP's jibe seem all the more groundless.

(GeoX) "A special sonic digger which will revolutionize the entire mining industry?" How is a digging implement on a plane remotely practical for mining? Or for anything?

I would imagine that it might come in quite handy for exploring potential mining sites at otherwise inaccessible high altitudes.  The development of GPS technology, however, may have stolen some of the McX's thunder.

(Greg)  And Huey then points to one of the aces in the skies and then a white bi-plane (with the colors of the Italian flag) and the announcer on the PA (Terry McGovern) welcomes....oh lord...Benzino Gasolini in a green coat and yellow scarf with goggles on! The plane slides to the left; but stops as Benzino does his usual Italian accent speaking to the crowd. He's a here and I wish he wasn't a here.

Personally, I don't mind Benzino being a-here, but I do find it intriguing that his voice seems to have a-changed.  Throughout the episode, it's at a noticeably higher pitch than it was during "Hotel Strangeduck."  Gino Conforti still gets a voice credit, but perhaps Frank Welker was called in to redub some or all of Conforti's lines at the last minute.  Perhaps that's also why Big Time made those peculiar cameos at the beginning and the end of the episode -- to accommodate Welker's presence and give him a bit more to do.

(Greg)  LP manages to get the [McX] down onto the ground and bounces with some sick bumps along the way and destroys an ice cream stand. Who in their right mind would put an ice cream stand in the middle of a landing strip; even during an air show?! Even more so with Launchpad around?

Yes, the stand is sort of out in no man's land, and nowhere near the grandstand, where one might expect it to be.  The decision to soft-pedal the sabotage (with the Beagles gumming up the McX's works with "marshmallow goo," as opposed to cutting some wires or planting a bomb) was no doubt the reason for this somewhat contrived setup.  Otherwise, the alert HD&L might have absolved Launchpad of all blame before the episode was half over.

Next:  Episode 33, "Where No Duck Has Gone Before."


Joe Torcivia said...

Er, um… I think I’ll let my original review of “Red River” stand, Chris!

After all, as Scrooge said (or, MIGHT HAVE SAID – if it hadn’t been edited out of my script for “Synthezoid from the Deepest Void”): “Cannon balls and stale custard pies! Nothing beats the CLASSICS!”

…And, nothing beats the John Wayne classics, either! Nice link on John Ford, BTW!

Glad you included our John Wayne vs. Harrison Ford observation from all those years ago! And great analysis of the Beagles’ role in this story, that was so superior I can hardly believe it was by Richard (“Ducks of the West”) Merwin!

Joe Torcivia said...

Chris writes:
“"Looookkk into my magic hypnotic glasses, Scroogie, and you won't notice the glaringly obvious number plate on my chest." ”

Maybe he passed it off as his “pilot’s license”!

I know I would have shoehorned that gag in there, if I were writing dialogue.

kenisu said...

"'Three Ducks of the Condor' probably still deserves the palm insofar as sheer thrills and visual orchestration are concerned..."

Let's not forget audio orchestration as well! The music as Scrooge and the gang are escaping through the air from the Andes natives is my absolute favorite cue in the entire series.

Ron Jones sure knows how to handle a chase/action scene!

Daniel J. Neyer said...

A great episode; like Joe, I find it really startling that Merwin was able to turn out a story like this, a story so effectively based on personalities and not on Scooby-Doo cloning; that wonderful bargaining bit with Scrooge and Bomber shows attention to characterization on a small scale as well as on a big one (cf. Launchpad and his family).

I even admit to enjoying the character of Benzino here; while I wouldn't mind if his dialect was toned down (a lot), I like his combination of comical slickness, cocky competence, and apparently boundless good-humor; if he was developed just a little more, I can see him functioning as a friendly rival for Launchpad in other aeronautically-based episodes. I have to wonder, though, given Benzino's "international playboy" image, whether he participated in the final round-up of the Beagles largely in hopes of impressing Loopy McQuack.

Joe Torcivia said...

“Ron Jones sure knows how to handle a chase/action scene!”

And he still does, whenever there’s a comically exaggerated chase, fight, or other action scene in FAMILY GUY!

Chris Barat said...


"I even admit to enjoying the character of Benzino here; while I wouldn't mind if his dialect was toned down (a lot), I like his combination of comical slickness, cocky competence, and apparently boundless good-humor; if he was developed just a little more, I can see him functioning as a friendly rival for Launchpad in other aeronautically-based episodes. I have to wonder, though, given Benzino's "international playboy" image, whether he participated in the final round-up of the Beagles largely in hopes of impressing Loopy McQuack."

I can certainly imagine the Benzino who tried to charm the Duchess in "Hotel Strangeduck" trying to influence Loopy in this manner. The Benzino of "Top Duck," by contrast, did not display any particularly "playboyish" behavior.

I really like your idea of Benzino coming back as a good-guy co-star. I think that they would have had to tone down the stereotyping, however.