Friday, July 5, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 43, "Back Out in the Outback"


At long last, we've reached the edge of "Vanderquack Valley."  "Back Out in the Outback" is arguably the first DuckTales episode the acceptance of which depends primarily on one's opinion of the show's most controversial first-season creation.  Two main reasons why:

1.  Webby gives her first extended "solo performance" during her lengthy sojourn out back of... er, the front of... (yeah, it was a pretty lame attempt at humor even when Launchpad used it).  In all of Webby's previous appearances, including those like "Cold Ducks" and "Merit-Time Adventure" in which she was a focal character, she participated in the adventure as part of a larger group.  Here, we are fed several stiff doses of 100-proof Vanderquack... and if you don't have a taste for the character in general, then you are REALLY going to have a tough time swallowing these.

2.  The character trait of Webby's that is most emphasized here -- her famed "way with animals" -- is exactly the kind that tends to drive those who dislike Webby completely nutsoid.  Even GeoX, who claims to have less of a problem with Webby's cuteness than some, used words and phrases like "sugar shock" and "vomitous" when describing Webby's bonding with the "shy" Australian critters.

Now, I'm a Webby fan from way back, so I have less of a problem with "Outback" than most folks... and Webby's performance is hardly the only reason why.  It's yet another attempt by Richard Merwin to capture that old Scooby-Doo magic within the DT framework, and it's the most successful, primarily because Merwin dispenses with the whole idea of a "phony ghost" and makes the mysterious "willywisp" menace a technology-based one.  He also makes a legitimate attempt, however transparent it might seem in retrospect, to chuck a "red herring" in our path at the end of Act Two.  The supporting players are decently characterized, the animation is generally excellent, and, true to Scrooge's constant requests for "teamwork," everyone gets something to do -- though it takes certain individuals (I'm looking at you, HD&L and Launchpad) longer to get their duck-billed platypi in a row than others.  The fact that the ultimate villain turned to the dark side because he resented Scrooge's exploitation -- a storyline that seems more appropriate for a first-season episode of Batman: The Animated Series -- gives the ep an extra dash of seriousness and is very much in line with Merwin's generally more negative characterization of Scrooge.  Finally, Webby's activities are far from all being cutesy-wootsey; she does face some legitimate perils, with her reactions to them being sold well by Russi Taylor... and how many times does one get to see "The Wrath of Vanderquack" in all its infrequent glory, as we do when Webby directs the four-footed troops to pen up the villains?


Greg's credits for "Outback" identified the wrong James A. Markovich as the source of the story, but he was correct in one sense -- this was, indeed, "The Other J.A.M."'s first writing assignment for animation.  Markovich has only one other writing credit to his name, so you'll forgive me if I continue to analyze this as a Richard Merwin episode, even though Merwin "only" did the teleplay. 

"Outback" is actually the third Duck story of which I am aware in which the Ducks visited a besieged Aussie sheep station (or farm, or range, or ranch -- take your pick).  Barks took two bonzer wallops at the task, one in the 40s and the other (with Scrooge added) in the 60s.  As GeoX noted, "Outback" has relatively little in common with either of these.  "Adventure Down Under" (DONALD DUCK FOUR COLOR #159, August 1947) finds Donald and the boys, who've been sent to Australia in a rather contrived manner, trying to help a rancher fight off a nasty "kangaroo queen," only to ultimately bond with the animal.  Donald plays the Webby role in this story, though it's more out of sheer necessity/desperation than anything else.

"Queen of the Wild Dog Pack" (UNCLE $CROOGE #62, March 1966) edges a little closer to the spirit of "Outback," with the titular barbaric babe leading a pack of dingoes in raids on the sheep at Scrooge's station... and Scrooge spending most of the story stuck on "rant" mode.  In this case, rather than harping on "teamwork," Scrooge is obsessed with showing his would-be heirs "where and how" he makes his money and how hard he has to work to keep up the inflow.  Since Donald and HD&L have had ample opportunities to observe such things first-hand in previous Barks stories, this suddenly prevalent character trait seems a bit contrived... as, in all honesty, does Scrooge's sudden fixation on cooperation in "Outback."

One way in which I wish "Outback" could have borrowed from "Dog Pack" is for HD&L's neglect of Webby to have been the result of their sudden infatuation with pop singer Tweedy Teentwirp.  The boys actually are treated rather harshly in the episode; Webby literally gives them NO CHANCE to begin looking after her before plunging into the forest after the joey.  Having the boys be distracted by the music would have put something of an onus on them to match the arguments among Scrooge, Launchpad, Sundowner, and Dashing Duke Duggan.

And GeoX thought WEBBY's dialogue was "vomitous"...

I can certainly appreciate Greg's approval of "Sundowner" as the name of the Rob Paulsen-voiced heart-of-gold bloke with the malodorous clothes that could probably stand up all by themselves, but the use of this term could be considered misleading.  According to Wikipedia, "sundowner" is one of the names given in Australia to a transient worker who drifts from ranch to ranch looking for employment.  The movie The Sundowners (1960) centered around a conflict between characters who wanted to maintain the on-the-go lifestyle and characters who wanted to settle down.  The irony of "Outback," of course, is that Sundowner is, in Scrooge's words, a "loyal, trustworthy, low-paid employee" who seems perfectly content with his stationary lot.  Even the burly Duke Duggan (Peter Cullen) wants to stay at the ranch -- provided that he can run it and exploit the nearby opal mines, of course.

So, what was the source of those stains on Sundowner's pants?
As Greg might put it, "I smell a fanfic coming" -- and, boy, do I ever

Greg, with tongue somewhat in cheek, compared Duke Duggan to the equally "D-riffic" Daring Dan Dawson from the Tale Spin episode "Stormy Weather."  One way in which these "neat and tidy" nogoodniks are alike, of course, is that it's pretty clear early on that they are not to be trusted, even before they actually do anything underhanded.  Dan Dawson sows seeds of conflict between Kit and Baloo, while Duke wrestles a pissed-off Launchpad for control of the "aeroplane" (much to Scrooge's ineffectual "teamwork"-touting dismay) and bullies Sundowner on a couple of occasions.  I'd argue that Merwin is a little more successful at keeping us guessing than is "Stormy Weather"'s writer Jan Strnad, but that's mostly because Sundowner is on site to serve as a potential distractor.  The "red herring" approach seems to have worked to a certain extent, as Greg goes from claiming "it's clear now that Sundowner is the boss of this heel operation" to later avowing that he easily saw through the "REALLY STUPID" ruse at the end of Act Two.  C'mon, Greg, you can't have it both ways.  Let's give Merwin some credit for his effort here.

As one might expect, there's an abundance of cute stuff on display when Webby first meets the creatures who will ultimately become her antipodeal allies.  All too quickly, however, things take a turn for the worse when the "grownup wartyhogs" show up, and the ensuing adventure really does cause Webby to ruin her dress...

... at least in theory.  I think that the intensity level of this scene could have been raised by the simple act of giving Webby a couple of substantial tears in her roseate raiment.  Nothing egregious, mind you, just a little more physical evidence that she had to put some real physical effort into this escape.  Even her losing her bow, as she did during "Rightful Owners," would have been acceptable.  As things turned out, the Quacky Patch doll took more real abuse than Webby did during this sequence.

 

As for those other menaces, the "willywisps," their animation is one of the true highlights of the episode; it really does leave you wondering what these mysterious gizmos could possibly be.  Much like the level of punishment doled out to Webby, the "fear factor" of the "willywisps" could probably have been amplified a tad, in this case by including a few additional scenes in which the glowing disks imperil our friends in the "real" Outback.  As seen on TV, the landscape around Scrooge's ranch is rather more lush than the barren region we might expect (and which Barks depicted in both of his Australian stories).  The climactic attack on Scrooge and Sundowner, which takes place in a rocky area that wouldn't have been out of place in "Dinosaur Ducks," could have served as the template for similar action... though it must be admitted that the night assaults (including the one that opens the episode) are pretty cool, as well.

Unfortunately, I'm in agreement with GeoX that the Nephews' plan to smash the "willywisps" with real boomerangs is probably the ep's weakest point.  It's not the "slingshot enough boomerangs into the air and hope that some will hit the target" business that bothers me so much as the fact that all of the 'rangs return to the Ducks' plane in perfect order, as if they'd originally been thrown in an orderly fashion.  Not bloody likely, as any Australians watching this would no doubt put it.

Luckily, Webby compensates for the wobbliness of the older Ducks' designs by turning in a superb third act, belatedly fulfilling Scrooge's insistence on "teamwork" by getting the koala and kangaroo to help her rescue the stranded "wartyhog"...

... and then leading her "animal legion" to victory.  You can't say that Merwin didn't pay off the "Webby's way with animals" theme in full here.

If you can tolerate the presence of Webby at center stage, "Outback" is an enjoyable enough episode, a pleasant reminder of America's infatuation with all things Australian in the mid- to late 1980s.

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"DuckBlurbs"

(GeoX) Is it just me, or does Alan Young play up Scrooge's Scottish accent more than usual here? Most peculiar.

I didn't notice it.  I wonder whether you were listening to Scrooge's line "That was a terrible landing, Launchpad!" and hearing an unusually lengthy rolling of the "R"'s.  I think that that could be attributed to the fact that the plane was shaking violently when Scrooge spoke.

(GeoX) It was pretty obvious from the moment he appeared that the manager of the ranch, Duke, would turn out to be a bad guy; I hoped briefly that they'd surprise us by not having this come to pass, but no such luck. I wonder if there's an intentional critique here: sure, Duke's bad and all, but, as he explains it, "Scrooge has gotten rich off the sweat of my brow long enough" (or something like that; I didn't write it down), and Scrooge at one point remarks "you and Duke aren't just my friends--you're my trustworthy, low-paid employees." It's a funny line, but maybe if Scrooge weren't so exploit[at]ive, he wouldn't have problems like this. Then again, the other employee, Sundowner, gets rewarded for accepting his lot, so I dunno. Highly questionable, is what I find this.

Since Scrooge is supposed to be the "hero" in both DuckTales and the UNCLE $CROOGE comics, it's not surprising that the "alienated employee" plot line doesn't turn up all that often.  I think it's a reasonable hook on which to hang a story, at least if you're interested in characterizing Scrooge "warts and all."  Scrooge does seem to have a lot of employees who tolerate low pay without complaint.  They must feel that they have a high level of job security (and, given the longstanding ubiquity of Miss Quackfaster/Mrs. Featherby and Mr. Clerkly, perhaps they have reason to do so).  Now, if Scrooge were to suddenly emulate Magica in "Duck to the Future" and institute a "Privilege of Working for Scrooge McDuck" tax, then I imagine you'd see a few more Duke Duggans.

(GeoX) Webby DOES ride (well, sleep, anyway, but close enough) in a kangaroo's pouch, thus following the local, state, and federal laws that require this for any cartoon set in Australia. 

To his credit, Barks avoided this trope in "Queen of the Wild Dog Pack."  However, he did have Scrooge and Donald dress up like sheep in that story.  That ought to satisfy the law in spirit, if nothing else.

(Greg) So we cut to the ranch as Scrooge's plane arrives and it looks like it is recycled from Ducks [of] The West; only cheaper.

The two layouts aren't identical, but they're reasonably close.

(Greg) ...[W]e go to the tree shot as the binoculars beckons as we cut to the bushes as Digger (weasel wearing an orange shirt with a green vest and black pants) is watching on as they realize that it is McDuck. I'm SHOCKED Chris Barat missed the fact that one of the weasel's names is Digger.

The problem that I had here was that Ratbag (I'll call him that, too; it certainly seems apropos) says "Digger" just as Digger is noisily being choked by the binocular strap.  

(Greg) Duke blows off Dingo's finding of the trail as he thinks it's a wabbit..ERR...I mean rabbit. Sundowner blows him off for mocking Dingo's brains and mocks Duke instead. Oh man; if that is all Sundowner can do; then he is absolutely useless. More useless than [Monterey Jack] and that's a rarity. Duke calls him a ratbag and Scrooge steps in reminding them of teamwork. If we are doing the teamwork angle; shouldn't Scrooge be doing SOME work other than shouting like a dick?

This episode puts me in mind of the original versions of "Three Ducks of the Condor" and "Too Much of a Gold Thing," in which Scrooge's abrasiveness and bossiness were played up big time.  Here, it seems as though Merwin refused to go the same route and decided to keep the repetition of the "teamwork" line, which I think was a mistake.  Scrooge hammers on the "teamwork" theme to the extent that it becomes rather annoying.

(Greg) Duke is PISSED off as he decides to finish off Scrooge and Sundowner with the..wait for it...the WIDOWMAKER OF DEATH. Now you know he's serious when he has to employ the skills to kill husbands with a bread maker. Oh come on! Why do you think they call it a _widow-maker_?! I have NOTHING...AND THE ROCK SEZS NOTHING to work with here. 

I'm not sure what "bread maker" has to do with "widow maker," unless you're referring to the fact that there's a sandwich called the "widow maker."  The entry at allrecipes.com describes it as "a BLT on steroids."  I suppose that it could be considered as lethal, in its own way, as Duke's fearsome black boomerang... but only in a long-term sense.

Next: Episode 44, "Raiders of the Lost Harp."

13 comments:

Joe Torcivia said...

Today, would Tweedy Teentwirp have evolved (devolved?) into “Justin Beaver”?

I actually did resurrect Tweedy for a throwaway gag line in “Moldfinger – or The Spy Who Ducked-Out on Me”! Proving that some teen heartthrobs never truly die.

Webby Rules - Can't say the same for Merwin!

Joe Torcivia said...

Seeing Webby with all those animals, just gave me an awful thought…

Could ELMYRA, of TINY TOON ADVENTURES (…and who later ended the careers of Pinky and The Brain), have been created as an extreme satirical response to Webby?

Consider that, unlike Buster Bunny, Plucky Duck, Dizzy Devil, etc., Elmyra was not directly… um, “inspired” by Elmer Fudd. That bizarre, obnoxious cuteness and obsession with animals to the point of unintentional endangerment and cruelty had to come from somewhere. It sure wasn’t derived from the mere “hunting of wabbits”.

Also, the timeline: Webby – 1987. Elmyra – 1990. And WB was never known to be above (often rightfully – though not in this case) skewering Disney, particularly in view of Disney’s great new success in television animation!

Oh, the horror of it all! The horror! The horror! What hath Webby wrought!

Just curious, has anyone ever postulated this before?

Chris Barat said...

Joe,

I think you may be on to something here. Elmyra was sort of the OPPOSITE of Elmer Fudd in that she loved animals while Elmer was associated with hunting them. That goes against the standard TINY TOONS template of the Acme Loo characters primarily being literal junior versions of their elders.

So does this mean that, had Webby never been created, we would still be getting new PINKY AND THE BRAIN episodes??

Chris

Chris Barat said...

Joe,

Well, back in 1987, who was the reigning teen/tween heartthrob? "Animalize" that name, and you've got the object of HD&L's musical affections.

Chris

kenisu said...

"...the animation is generally excellent..."

I noticed that myself. There are a number of shots in this episode that feature more inbetweener frames than usual.

Gregory Weagle said...

This was for sure not one of my better written rants to be sure. Boy in hindsight; my "Widow Maker" joke is really, really sexist now. The joke was that the wife murdered his husband with a kitchen object; thus imply that she is a "widow maker". Yeah; how can anyone NOT consider this sexist? Thankfully; I have retired that one forever now.

@Joe: After all the Rescue Rangers and Bonkers cracks Warner Brothers delivered on the poor widdle DTVA fans ; making Elmyra into a response to Webby would be "child's play" at this point. Now what I would like to know is; did WB ever take cracks at TaleSpin in TT/AM? Because I would LOVE to see them and I can only think of one on the top of my head and that's Julie Bruin being a response to Miss Cunningham, but my memories are fuzzy on that character so, yeah.

Joe Torcivia said...

@Greg:
The Warner Bros. swipes at Disney are almost a tradition – and, I must admit, most (pretty much all) of them are usually well-deserved.

But, per the timeline I put forth (Webby – 1987 and Elmyra – 1990), if the character of Elmyra WAS indeed a swipe at Webby – and I now believe she was – she would have been one of the VERY FIRST, as TTA was the first Warner TV animation effort of that 1990s – 2000s new-golden age.

Though I certainly don’t have all the TTA and ANIMANIACS episodes mentally-categorized, I feel that TALE SPIN faired rather well in the satire/swipe department – unlike more deserving targets such as BONKERS and GOOF TROOP.

That may be because TALE SPIN was as near-perfect as a Disney series was to get – not exhibiting the flaws of the other series, including even DUCKTALES. TALE SPIN was not unlike PERRY MASON, in that I defy you to name a “bad” TALE SPIN episode (“Feminine Air” excluded, perhaps) – or a bad PERRY MASON episode over NINE SEASONS of production!

By the same token, both TALE SPIN and PERRY MASON were SO consistently GOOD, that it’s also difficult to name a truly outstanding episode. One that stands out from all the other “good-to-great” ones.

So, even in the wacky world of Warners, TALE SPIN may have garnered a deserved degree of respect.

Chris Barat said...

Greg,

TTA took GENERAL cracks at DUCKTALES very early on. I recall that there was a Plucky Duck-centered episode in which the description of the ep's cartoons as "duck tales" was not very well received. Also, a newspaper headline once read "Rich Scottish Duck Gets Roasted." From there to "Elmyra as an exaggerated Webby" doesn't seem like too long a stride.

I don't recall any digs at RESCUE RANGERS or DARKWING DUCK, but definitely recall the "GOOF TROOP videos on sale at K-Mart" gag credit and, of course, the Animaniacs' references to the failures of BONKERS. Even GARGOYLES got jabbed in an episode that started "Previously on ANIMANIACS..."

I think that another possible reason for the lack of references to TALE SPIN was simply that it would be difficult to think of a situation in which TTA or ANIMANIACS could believably parody TALE SPIN. Wouldn't planes have to be involved somehow? How could you put the Acme Loo gang or the Warners in a situation where such gags would make sense in both a "local" AND a "global" context?

Chris

Joe Torcivia said...

Chris:

Wasn’t “Rich Scottish Duck Gets Roasted” one of the comic books in Montana Max’s collection, when Buster was his “Rent-a-Friend” (or something like that)? Now, THERE’S an “untold chapter” for Don Rosa to explore! FREAKAZOID! also once opened with an overly expository rooftop Gargoyle droning on-and-on about something of great portent only to itself – until an annoyed F! asks it to be quiet.

I think there wasn’t very much upon which to parody TALE SPIN (be it due to subject matter, or because it was so good), and it’s as simple as that.

kenisu said...

Let's not forget Pinky and the Brain breaking into Fort Knox (to be greeted by the sight of... was it a room full of gold bricks? Something like that), and Pinky commenting, "Egad, Brain! This is better than a DuckTales episode!"

Chris Barat said...

Kenisu,

Yes, you remembered the Fort Knox episode of P&tB ("Opportunity Knox," I believe, was the title) correctly. That was the one in which P&tB succeed in the elaborate plan to infiltrate the fort but find that they can't lift the gold to move it. I'd forgotten that a DUCKTALES reference was part of the fun.

Chris

Gregory Weagle said...

@Joe: I take Chris' side on this issue because it sounds a lot more believable that they simply couldn't find much material to parody. On the other hand; TaleSpin was basically a parody of the Jungle Book in my humble opinion; so trying to parody it on WB would be counter productive since there are much easier and softer targets anyway.

I just don't think it's out of respect though, we are talking about Disney's competition after all.

As for Feminine Air: Well; some thought Your Baloo's In The Mail was a great episode too (Hint: I gave it the lowest rating at ** 1/4). So I can see your point on how difficult it is to see all the really great episodes.

Comicbookrehab said...

One Direction should change their name to "Oso Loud and The Notones.

Talespin was spoofed one time in an episode of Aladdin, in an extended gag where Genie dresses up as Baloo and flies the Sea Duck around Agrabah.