Thursday, July 11, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 44, "Raiders of the Lost Harp"

"Raiders of the Lost Harp" was one of only two DuckTales episodes released in VHS format to be granted the honor of titling and illustrating a two-episode collection.  The choice, along with that of "Duck to the Future," no doubt relates to the fact that the title parodies that of a wildly successful movie, so "Duck newbies" deciding upon a video purchase would be more likely to gravitate to it on the store shelves.  There is a difference, though: "Raiders" deserved to be showcased.  Not that "Duck to the Future" was terrible, but everyone -- and I mean EVERYONE -- familiar with DuckTales and the wonderful "comics culture" that birthed it seems to adore the "decidedly Barksian feel" (cf. GeoX) of Scrooge and HD&L's Trojan trek.  "Home Sweet Homer" may have probed more deeply into the world of Greek mythology, but for the object of the quest in "Raiders" to be a lost treasure -- now, that's something all Duck fans can readily sink their bills into.

Remarkably, "Raiders" manages to maintain a Barksian flavor throughout, even though the structure of Cherie Dee Wilkerson's story is rather different from that of a "typical" Barks treasure hunt -- and that very much includes the Trojan-themed "Horsing Around with History" (UNCLE $CROOGE ADVENTURES #33, July 1995, art by William Van Horn), the then-nonagenarian Barks' last original Duck script.  Scrooge's snaffling of the headlined singing harp is described with crisp dispatch in the first half of Act One; for the rest of the episode, we are treated to character interactions, Magica De Spell's machinations, and, most memorably, the stone Minotaur guardian's relentless quest to recover the purloined object of its ages-long vigilance.  (In that last respect, the use of "Raiders" in the ep's title acquires an extra level of irony; the Ducks really are "raiding" the treasure here, which makes the fearsome Minotaur something of a good guy.)  Admittedly, this authorial feat isn't as groundbreaking as the development of Launchpad's character seen in "Hero for Hire," "Top Duck," and "Where No Duck Has Gone Before," the exploration of Gyro's psyche in "Sir Gyro de Gearloose," or such off-the-reservation late-first-season offerings as "The Uncrashable Hindentanic" and "Double-O-Duck."  But, when it comes to a race between the best DT eps, "Raiders" is hot on the heels of this peerless peloton, pursuing it with the dogged determination of... well, a Minotaur scorned.

"Raiders" is one DT ep for which I would dearly like to know the specific contributions of story editors Tedd Anasti and Patsy Cameron.  Not that I don't think that Cherie Wilkerson was capable of creating this gem all by herself; her list of animation credits includes the "G1" My Little Pony, the original Transformers, and Batman: The Animated Series, among others.  It's just that her other work for Disney, most of which appeared in DISNEY ADVENTURES DIGEST in the early 90s, could best be described as... erratic.  Her two DuckTales efforts, "The Disappearin' Bullion Blues" and "The Power of the Pyramids," aren't bad, on balance, but the frantic pacing seen in these stories is a very far cry from the smooth development on display in "Raiders."  Magica co-stars in "Pyramids" but speaks standard English dialogue, in contrast to the extremely broken English she uses in "Raiders."  Wilkerson's Tale Spin stories are even more problematic.  We know that Wildcat is meant to be a loopy "Reverend Jim" type, but, in "Congratulations, You Have Just Won...," he talks like an actual hippie, calling Rebecca Cunningham a "capitalist business pig."  Don Karnage is similarly out of character in "Mission Maybe Sort of a Little Impossible," the first TS comic story published in America, probably best known for artist Giorgio Cavazzano's mistaken use of *gulp* human supporting players.  "Shine a Little Light," the "This-Is-A-Hanukkah-Story-But-We're-Not-About-to-Admit-It" offering in Disney Comics HOLIDAY PARADE (1990), completes a dubious sort of trifecta by sanding away Colonel Spigot's notorious Thembrian lisp and making him a more-or-less-standard ranting blowhard.  Tack on the presence of "time-share condos" in putatively-1930s Usland, and you'll understand why I'm so curious about the true genesis of the "practically perfect" "Raiders."  Perhaps Wilkerson was simply more motivated when writing the episode script than she was when hacking out the comic-book stories, but that explanation seems overly pat to me.

I've never watched The Exorcist (I have precious little stomach for horror movies of any stripe), so naturally I was unaware that the opening scene of "Raiders" was parodying that film's "archaeological dig" sequence.  The weird little song sung by Scrooge's workers is so distinctive that I can't help but feel that it's a parody of something, as well.  As opening gambits go, this is definitely one of DuckTales' best.

Right at the start, we get an intriguing indication as to the level of care taken with this episode.  As the Ducks break into the "lost city of Troy," note how Huey is consistently depicted as being somewhat nervous about what lies ahead.  He lets his brothers go in front of him when the Ducks climb up the stairs to the wall...

... hesitates just a bit before following Scrooge, Dewey, and Louie down the tunnel...

... and, of course, is the first duckling to go all "Frenchified" on us and offer to "give up" when the helmeted and sword-swinging HD&L encounter the Minotaur statue.  Perhaps Huey was simply having a bad day, or perhaps he had some strange early inkling that the discovery of the lie-detecting harp was going to cause problems for all concerned.

It has always struck me as rather "conveeeeeenient" that all of the treasures of ancient Troy just happen to be located in one place, and in near-pristine, well-organized fashion, to boot.  In "Horsing Around with History," Barks followed a more conventional approach and spent the majority of the adventure detailing the Ducks' maritime investigation, culminating in their discovery of ruins (including the well-preserved Trojan Horse) in caves on a sunken island.  The reason for "Raiders"' relative short-shrifting of the treasure find is, of course, that the real point of the story is the manner in which the characters tangle over the episode's magical McGuffin, the singing harp.  All else is basically window dressing, albeit very classy window dressing.  The treasures of Troy might just as well have been lined up like tenpins through some sort of magical intervention... which, come to think of it, may serve to explain why the torch in the tunnel spontaneously ignited just as the Ducks happened by.

Speaking of magic, another nice serving of subtlety is baked into Scrooge's comments regarding his feelings about the validity of magic and superstition.  Scrooge's claim that "mindless superstition" has no place in exploration and treasure-hunting seems to be contradicted by his later declaration that he's seen many things that "only magic" could explain.  In fact, Greg seemed surprised that the harp didn't call him out for speaking a falsehood in that latter comment.  However, it doesn't take a lot of thought to recognize that there's no conflict here.  In the former case, Scrooge is trying to say that superstition will not dissuade him from seeking out treasures, while in the latter, he is affirming that he realizes that magical powers do exist (how could it be otherwise when one of his most persistent foes is a witch?) and that he does respect them.  Ironically, Scrooge gets into trouble in this ep by overlooking the possibility that some magical force may be guarding the carefully hidden harp.  One would think that this might affect his attitude in the future.  Not hardly; in the very next episode, "Luck O' the Ducks," he's once again mucking around with a "magic-tinged" treasure without giving it a second thought.

This is arguably the closest that Magica De Spell has ever come to being depicted as something of a supervillain.  We know from way back, of course, that she's capable of changing her appearance, and she adopts several memorable guises here, including what seems to be a tribute to an old Carol Burnett sketch character...
... but she also augments her arsenal with goons (only one, true, but that's a necessary step towards having a whole gang of them, Batman-TV-series style) and a "themed" mode of transportation that even outdoes the "Satan 666 Jet of Death" seen in "Send in the Clones." 
Of course, she's not averse to old-school methods of villainy, such as applying indiscriminate force and hiding out in more-or-less-likely places.

This diversity of approaches and accouterments seems apropos in view of the fact that Magica's scheme here goes well beyond her standard pursuit of Scrooge's Old #1 Dime.  We never learn anything about what specific plans Magica has for the harp, apart from her egotistical claim that, if the "inferior" Helen of Troy achieved greatness with its help, then there's no limit to what Magica can accomplish.  But, in a sense, it doesn't really matter.  Supervillains, after all, tend to be interested in acquiring sources of boundless power simply because, well, that's what they DO.  The details can be ironed out later.

Fittingly, given the episode's depiction of Magica, the conflict between Scrooge and the notorious necromancess has something of the flavor of a hero vs. villain battle that you'd see in a superhero comic, complete with multiple action scenes.  In the process, Scrooge's work rate comes close to matching that seen in "Merit-Time Adventure."  Right at the start, Scrooge gave a hint that he was "up" for the tussle to come by climbing the Minotaur statue and moving the stone lid to reveal the harp without any outside aid whatsoever.  He subsequently performs a "car-to-car transfer" that is all the more impressive in view of his, er, somewhat advanced chronological state...

... rides the harp-holding desk through the streets of Duckburg, performing several vaults and an X-Games-fashion "flip stunt" along the way...

... and finishes with a flourish by hitching a ride on the escaping Magica's claw-copter, grabbing the harp, and free-falling into the bubble-gum-covered street.  OK, the plunge isn't on the order of Kit Cloudkicker's various "dives to doom," or even the semi-comical free fall in "Working for Scales," but it shouldn't be lightly dismissed.  Scrooge deserves some additional bonus points for enduring chokeholds, airplane spins, and the like while being Duck-handled by "wrestler Magica."  Heck, he even evinces a high level of testosterone when he invites "Magica-Helen" into his office without a second thought!  How can one fail to be impressed by all of this?

Of course, the Scrooge/Magica faceoff is far from being the only harp-centric conflict that manifests itself once Scrooge and HD&L get back to Duckburg.  The dialogues between Scrooge and Duckworth are brief but take full advantage of such established character tropes as Duckworth's polished bemusement and Scrooge's cheapness.  Duckworth doesn't make as big a deal of the matter as do HD&L, but the viewer gets the definite impression that he views a future in which the harp interferes with life in McDuck Mansion as something less than ideal.

The Nephews, of course, have the most to "lose" from Scrooge's possession of a "little golden tattletale"... which, by the bye, strikes me as a slightly ungenerous bit of characterization on Wilkerson's part.  Are the boys in the habit of lying to Scrooge?  I hardly think so, and the only "fiblet" they tell here doesn't mean anything at all in the "big picture" scheme of things.  They've cleaned up their room as they were asked, and there's no indication that Scrooge explicitly told them NOT to put their junk in the closet.  Where else could they be expected to put it, anyway?

I think that Wilkerson's peculiar treatment of HD&L here was a manifestation of something that occasionally pops up in both printed and animated depictions of the boys; namely, the desire to present them as "regular guys."  It isn't "cool," after all, for HD&L to excel in school, which Wilkerson clearly hints that they are not doing here.  However, it is "cool" to skate on down to a video arcade (or whatever has taken its place in the ensuing quarter-century) or make incongruously sly remarks while decked out in tuxes.  Taken to an extreme, this sort of approach results in Quack Pack.  Even in its mildest form, I do find it slightly annoying.  I think the Nephews are plenty "cool" just as they are.

The character that looms over all else in "Raiders" is, of course, the Minotaur, and the stone statue's slow-motion invasion of Duckburg is one of the show's great set pieces.  The only negative aspect of the Minotaur's performance is the "gleeful gurgling" that Frank Welker performs when Scrooge finally yields to the inevitable and returns the harp.  A simple "snort of recognition" would have been more in character than this momentary slide back into Scooby-Doo territory.

I would argue that one additional character needs to be considered in this mix -- namely, the harp itself.  The "bitchy, bitchy, bitchy" voice used by Russi Taylor may drive Greg and other people up the wall, but, in a sense, its irritating inflections are fitting.  Most people, after all, don't WANT their lies to be called out, and so it makes perfect sense for "the voice of the truth" to grate on one's nerves.  Note that, in the scene with Scrooge and "Magica-Helen," the voice becomes more annoying the more whoppers "M-H" tells.  If consciences used Taylor's voice here as a template, then a more honest world would almost inevitably result.

"Raiders" is one of those DuckTales eps that no one gets tired of watching... and, more to the point, that no one should get tired of watching.  In no other made-for-TV episode is the "feel of Barks" more palpable, or more authentically sustained -- albeit with a few clever twists.

And convincing HD&L to wear formal gear isn't the least of them.





(GeoX)  This is a pretty classy episode, I've gotta tell you. It's packed full of incident--maybe slightly too much so; I can easily see this working as a two-part episode...

There are a couple of indications that the episode had to be trimmed in order to meet the 22-minute running-time limit.  The jump from Scrooge finding the harp to the Ducks carting their Trojan treasures away seems a bit abrupt, likewise the quick cut from the contents of the boys' closet burying the Ducks to Scrooge cackling with the harp in his hands.  I noted above that Wilkerson's comic-book scripts have a "frantic" pace, and one of the reasons is that she literally tries to cram too much action and dialogue into each panel.  Here, however, the "overbooking" seems to have been kept reasonably under control. 

(GeoX) There is one thing that doesn't make sense: Scrooge locks the harp in his desk and tosses the key in his vault for safekeeping, but…for some reason he can open it just as easily with HDL's "skate key?" Wuh? We're supposed to believe that Scrooge is so cavalier about security that he'd have a desk that any key fits?
(Greg) After the commercial break [at the end of Act Two]; we get a shot of the bay as the desk floats up (HA!) and Scrooge pops up coughing and gasping for air. Scrooge gets on the desk and tries to open it because he wants the harp. Umm; check your internal logic there guys. The harp is in the right drawer; not the central drawer. Then again; Scrooge might be going insane after the salt water has infected him; so I'm going to not call it a logic break. The nephews call it a solution to their harp problems. The nephews then recoil because they don't want to suffer the insanity of Scrooge McDuck as Huey throws the skate key over to Scrooge and he almost lets it drop into the ocean. Scrooge takes the key and opens the central drawer and takes out the harp. It's the top right one you idiot! Logic break #1 for the episode 17 and a half minutes in which is a new record for Ducktales thus far. And as he cheers for victory; the desk sinks into the ocean again. HAHA! See; I'm always right about these certain things in the end. 

I figured I'd tackle both of these at once for obvious reasons.  HD&L's "skate key" is probably a Junior Woodchucks-sanctioned key, which means that it has drawer-opening powers far beyond those granted to standard skeletons... and, since JWs wouldn't think of breaking into other people's property without permission, that takes care of the security issue right there.  As for which drawer Scrooge used to hide the harp... well, it's pretty clearly the center drawer, since that's the only one with a keyhole.  While it looks as though Scrooge pulled the upper-right drawer in the shot immediately following the one below, that's simply because he happens to be standing on the right side of the desk to begin with.  That's more of an "inaccurate positioning" than an outright logic break.

(Greg) We get a shot of the city [of Troy] which looks like a golden stone lost city as the nephews aren't too keen about this discovery.

And they suddenly revert to their old habit of "completing a sentence together": "Yeah, Unca Scrooge... sure is... exciting!"  This was probably Wilkerson's doing, since the boys did this on several occasions in her comics scripts.  Unfortunately, it comes off as a bit awkward on screen, mainly because there are noticeable pauses between the phrases.  When Clarence "Ducky" Nash did it in the old cartoon shorts, HD&L typically fired off the sentence in machine-gun fashion. 

(Greg) Magica grabs the scroll from her stone safe (I guess considering how it crumbles) and we see some information on the magic harp in Greek symbols (delta, pi, omega. I don't know what it means and I don't think the writers do either) along with a picture of the harp.

There's actually a Delta Pi Omega sorority, but it appears to be a local organization, as opposed to a national one. 

(Greg) The nephews still haven't decided on getting rid of that tattletale bitchy harp yet. Dewey suggests talking to Scrooge about his side of the story and speaking of the rich devil himself; Scrooge rides down the street on his desk which makes the nephews panic. They race down to help which the [Quack Pack] nephews would never do for their uncle. Because they would blow off Scrooge as an old fuddy duddy and then go home and fling forks in the ceiling whining about having nothing to do. Now THERE'S a good home for that annoying harp: In Quack Pack; inside the new nephews room; just to piss them off.

*Applause for a brilliant idea*

(Greg) Huey jumps in off-screen and grabs Scrooge who nearly drowns...

... which is rather interesting, given that the Scrooge of "Merit-Time Adventure" demonstrated considerable proficiency at swimming and scuba-diving.

(Greg) So we go to a city roof top shot AFTER HAPPY HOUR as the helicopters are spotlighting the entire city. We then go to a ground shot of the police chief (in a green uniform; I guess he's part of the army of Duckb[u]rg) with the MEGAPHONE OF JIMMY HARTS (Chuck McCann) ordering everyone to leave and not panic. That face and white beard looks familiar to an early Ducktales episode where Scrooge was framed for stealing something.   

"Duckman of Aquatraz" -- the warden.  I guess that he pulled the duty when the Chief O'Hara clone (see "Robot Robbers") went on vacation. 

Next: Episode 45, "Luck O' the Ducks." 


Pan Miluś said...

A great episode! Great plot and use of Magica.

The story structure reminded me of the one in the movie :
- The story starts with a treasrue hunt
- The tresure turn out to have some sort of a magic power that Scrooge wants to exploid and it's creat some moral conflict
- There is a villian who's after the treasure

I know... Maybe it's streaching it but I just always felt there is something very simial betwen the two.

I always asume that the Minotaur statue was inspired by one in Barks Philosopehers Stone story.

Pan Miluś said...

The song Scrooge's worker sing sounded like if they where singing the words "Kobayashi Maru" ;)

As far the "Exorcist" homage go - and yes i'm streaching it - both stories starts with archeologists finding a statue that has some omenus mythological superstition behind it that freaks him/them out.

(Ow look and in both version the ominus mythological character is bird like : )
Obviously in "The Exorcist" it's much more realisitc trauma rather then "Aaaaaaah!" it's a gryphon! Let's run!" reaction but still there might be some inspiration there.

This lovley statue might be another inspiration taken from the movie as far the gryphon in the opening go :

...but propably not ;)

Maybe they could go all the way with the movie parody and have Webby get posses by satan and speak voices ("You're mother in hell Unca Scrooge") but I like they story they went with much more ;)

GeoX, who is here to stay, like it or not. said...

Mmm...I'd be able to buy the key explanation more readily if HDL didn't specifically refer to it as their "skate key." Even if their actual use of it were limited, I have very grave doubts that, were it really a skeleton key, they wouldn't still have a somewhat self-important "look, we have a key that opens anything!" attitude about the whole thing.

Ryan Wynns said...


Definitely count me as amongst those "familiar with [both] DuckTales and the wonderful 'comics culture' that birthed it" whom utterly cherishes this episode.

As you asserted, somehow, the episode maintains a "Barksian feel" despite its undeniable anti-Barksian structure. If anything, I would say that the harp *her*self is far too ludicrously realized to be Barksian ... but the moral values embedded in the story, and the harp's function in provoking said values' expression is Barksian in sprit and in craft.

And, along with "Treasure of the Golden Suns", this episode was crucial to my formative grasping of "epic".

-- Ryan

Ryan Wynns said...

Also...'s interesting that this episode and "Duck to the Future" were paired for a VHS release...seeing as how, during that September-November '87 stretch, they were *the* two episodes that so entralled me, in both cases, the next day during our kindergarten class' recess, I led a friend or two in reenacting the unforgettable harrowing odyssey of the previous day's afternoon.

-- Ryan

Comicbookrehab said...

You answered your own question about Tad & Patsi's contributiob to Wilkerson's script: they probably smoothed out the "rough edges" without dulling Wilkerson's strongest contribution: her generosity when it came to throwing out concepts - the one link in her work is that the characters are always busy and the world they inhabit can be manic - the protagonists are often left to their own devices to cope with bizarre twists & turns.
As for the Talespin stories you mentioned, I recall how they looked like they were written at an early stage before anyone knew who those characters were and before a writers "bible" could be offered for reference. And for what its worth, "Shine" was pretty clever!:).