Thursday, October 17, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 60, "Nothing to Fear"

Somewhat surprisingly, the "Face Your Fears" plot doesn't seem to be as common a trope in animated series as one might think.  Perhaps that might explain the unevenness with which DuckTales handled "Nothing to Fear."  There's nothing egregiously wrong with most of the episode -- at least up to a point -- but writers Richard Merwin, Tedd Anasti, and Patsy Cameron commit a couple of unforced errors that could easily have been avoided had the plot been edited more crisply.  Perhaps Anasti and Cameron should have concentrated on their standard editorial duties and left Merwin to handle the bulk of the writing chores himself.  In the end, the gaffes don't ruin the ep, but they certainly do compromise it a great deal.

"Fear" does get one major thing right, as Greg noted in his episode summary.  The various "fears" with which our "magic fear cloud"-beset friends (in this case, Scrooge, HD&L, Doofus, and Duckworth) are confronted begin in a relatively minor key, with relatively comical or semi-comical visions, and then ramp up in the latter part of the episode to more challenging apparitions that begin to tear at the characters' psyches.  Duckworth is the only character who gets off relatively easy, but that's only because, after he is spooked by the limo-turned-panther and the vacuum-turned-snake-like... er... thing...

... he completely disappears from the narrative in Act Three, save for a brief bow after the entr'acte in which he declares that he's "pulling out" and runs off to -- well, you tell me.  It's hard for me to fathom how Merwin, Anasti, and Cameron could have allowed this particular "story thread" to snap.  Perhaps they had trouble figuring out a worthy psychological challenge for Duckworth (Getting fired?  Been there and done that.  Losing his ability to perform mundane household tasks?  Wouldn't exactly make for riveting television.) and simply hoped that folks wouldn't notice Duckworth's departure.  It might have been simpler to have written Duckworth out of the story altogether and concentrated on Scrooge and the boys.  Duckworth does have something substantial to contribute to the ep (apart from fear of tasks that he professed to love in "Duckworth's Revolt"), but strictly on a humorous level, as we'll see.

Doofus fares a little better than Duckworth, but not much.  The threat of the "big banana" that grows from his would-be banana snack is too absurd to be taken entirely seriously, try though the animators, designers, and the inevitable Frank Welker might to render the thing a "fruitful" menace...

... but then, the McDucks' "favorite neighbor" (GeoX would probably interpret this as meaning that Doofus lives in a nearby dumpster) faces a much more serious, and horribly credible, peril in the pompadoured, leather-jacketed person of Bully Beagle.  (I wonder why Bully doesn't wear a Beagle Boy-style number plate.  He probably thought it would be uncool, or something.)

Uhmmmm... no comment.

Obviously, giving Doofus the chance to face down a threat who always "picks on him" would be the perfect way for HD&L's pal to break the fear-spell... except that it never happens.  Beginning with the scene in which the "anti-Scrooge" bursts into HD&L's room, Doofus never appears again.  Greg specifically mentioned this flaw in his review, and it is easy to see why he did so while omitting any mention of Duckworth.  Doofus' torment had progressed to the point at which we really NEEDED to see him join the others in beating back their fears.

Scrooge and HD&L, of course, get fear-blasted with both bete noire-bearing barrels, and it's a credit to Merwin, Anasti, and Cameron that, on balance, the supposedly "protected" Nephews receive the rougher treatment.  The boys' spooking starts slowly, with video-game villain Commander Gander.  It is admittedly something of a stretch to imagine a late-1980s video-game character -- even one in a game that amazingly predicts the future by including a voice track -- frightening HD&L to such an extent.  Aside from the fact that they've only previously glimpsed Gander as a crudely pixilated, clumsily animated image on a small TV screen, the boys have been on enough adventures by now that dealing with a large, bellowing adversary should not be that intimidating.  Gander does give it a good try, though, shooting up the lads' room and channeling the famous closing scene of The Great Train Robbery (1903) by firing his ray gun straight at the "fourth wall" at one point.

The screws tighten on the boys when their teacher, Mrs. Quackenbush, shows up in what can only be described as a semi-psychotic mood.  A considerably toned-down Mrs. Q. will reappear on several occasions during the second season.  Perhaps "Fear" was anticipating the raft of "demonic and/or sadistic teachers and principals" that would infest such WDTVA series of the late 90s as Pepper Ann and Recess.

Then, of course, we get the spirit-killing blow, as "anti-Scrooge" shows up to give the tearful boys a verbal lashing and tell them "the truth" of how he really feels about their presence in his home.  Since Scrooge truly was initially reluctant to take in HD&L at the start of "Treasure of the Golden Suns," one can easily imagine the thought of Scrooge changing his mind being buried in the boys' subconscious for some time, awaiting only the right stimulus to bring it to the surface.  The only thing that could have made this scene more disturbing was to have had "no-good" Donald appear and tell the reeling HD&L that HE didn't want them anymore, either, and that they would have to go back and live with their mother Della.  Considering how certain fanfic writers have chosen to deal with such a scenario, perhaps it's all for the best that the ep didn't go there.
As for Scrooge, he gets the hectoring bill collectors, followed by the equally squirm-inducing "anti-Nephews."  Actually, the creditors' assault comes in two distinct phases: the initial "We own you, McDuck!" scene at the Mansion, and the scene at the (supposedly empty) Money Bin in which they threaten to take HD&L away from Scrooge "forever." We've seen the first scenario before in the comics, often couched in semi-comical terms. The second obviously ups the ante where the psychological stakes are concerned.

I'd argue that the "Nega-HD&L" are even scarier than "anti-Scrooge," for several reasons: (1) Russi Taylor really does make them sound like brats, a nontrivial accomplishment given their standard voices; (2) their greedy desire to get their hands on Scrooge's "dough" is a painful inversion of Scrooge's original stinginess when the boys came to live with him; and, of course, (3) they literally shake an old man down for a few coins and bills.  A little "mature lighting" might have made this scene even nastier, but it's plenty distasteful just the way it is.

Of course, by the time all of this goes down, we already know full well that Magica De Spell is behind the appearance of the "fear cloud."  Not that we probably wouldn't have been able to dope it out ourselves had she not appeared until the ep's end -- if the sudden appearance of the cloud at the start hadn't convinced us, then the "unnatural" fact that the cloud follows Scrooge's limo during the trip to the Money Bin would have been the giveaway that a magical force was behind the whole thing -- but I really wish that Merwin, Anasti, and Cameron had at least tried to prolong the suspense until the last minute.  One of the advantages of this approach, as Greg noted, is that eliminating the unnecessary "cackling Magica" scenes would have freed up the air time to allow Doofus, and perhaps even Duckworth, to conquer their demons alongside Scrooge and HD&L.  Perhaps Merwin should have indulged his inner "Scooby-Doo fanboy" and insisted that the symbolic "lifting of the mask" be deferred until the end.

After Magica finally DOES arrive on the scene, we get the reasonably satisfying, if rather truncated and formulaic, "facedown" sequence.  Magica may have made a mistake by bringing the various fears back to the fore in such an unimaginative fashion, lining them all up like targets in a shooting gallery.  She seems to have forgotten that the effectiveness of the fears was a combination of both character and setting (think of "anti-Scrooge" flinging HD&L's bedroom door open and literally penning the boys in their room).  Setting 'em up and allowing Scrooge and HD&L to knock 'em down makes things almost too easy for our heroes -- plus, of course, not all of the heroes (or victims) are present to begin with.  Still, it's fitting that Magica's own worst fear leads to her ultimate downfall.

Despite its many flaws, I do enjoy "Fear" quite a bit.  The production values are generally impressive, with lighting and sound effects used to ramp up the tension as the effects of the "fear cloud" grow "worse, and worse, and WORSE."  The forbidding scene in which the cloud arrives on top of the Mansion is neatly bookended by the fadeout long shot, lending a nice sense of closure to the drama as a whole.

The episode also benefits from having a certain intriguing "rhythm" to it.  Carl Barks once said of one of his best "ten-pagers" in WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES that it could "almost have been set to music," and "Fear" packs its own passel of internal vibrations.  The repetitions of "Commander Gander... big banana... limo monster" and "Figured it out, did you?" have almost a mantra-like effect at times, and the serious business of the characters being assaulted by their fears is delightfully punctuated by the "closet routine" between Scrooge and Duckworth, which I've compared to a Senor Wences routine in the past.  (I'm also tempted to compare it to the well-worn "Scooby-Doo Door Routine," but there's only one door involved.)  At one point during the closet capers, Scrooge, as if to comment on the strangeness of the situation, appears to break the "fourth wall," just as he did in "The Uncrashable Hindentanic."

Finally, of course, there's the touching scene in which the crushed Scrooge and HD&L reconcile with one another and then decide to face their fears.  Sure, this scene might have been even better had the Nephews been voiced by a real child, but let's give all due props to Russi Taylor and Alan Young for their sincere efforts here.  Could Brian Cummings have pulled off the same feat had Doofus been present?  Er, we're still waiting for the jury to finish its deliberations on that one.

Overall, "Fear" is a decent episode that could have been so much MORE with just a little extra editorial TLC.  As I noted above, the major change that I would have made would have been to have reduced the number of affected characters -- certainly not to one, as was done in the excellent My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic episode "Sleepless in Ponyville," but to Scrooge and HD&L, with Doofus possibly along for the ride (provided that the unnecessary Magica teasers were tossed).  But even the compromised version of the episode has its undeniable charms.





(Greg) The nephews use the Frisbees as a shield and run back inside. They decide to try to do their homework (I thought the Frisbees WERE part of homework?)...

Only as long as the weather was decent enough to use them as an excuse to perform outside "experimentation," I guess.

(Greg) So Scrooge leaves the room as we cut to the hallway with Doofus and Bully Beagle fighting each other and Doofus managing to hang in there. I wonder if Toon Disney would cut that one out; knowing the [Virginia Tech] school shootings in 1999. 

No guns were involved in the making of that rasslin' match, so I would imagine not.  The more intriguing question is: How would the current anti-bullying movement interpret the Doofus/Bully interactions here?

Next: Episode 61, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. McDuck."


Pan Miluś said...

Funny. I seen episode a couple of time beafore I noticed that the bully was ment to be a Beagle Boy.

A good episode but propably the weakest use of Magica since she's bearly in it...

I to wish Doofus would confront his bully as well... Maybe I should write a fan fiction when Doofus brings a knife to school or something?

Chris Barat said...


I'd much rather read about Doofus using his native wiles to TRICK Bully Beagle somehow.


Pan Miluś said...

Chris :
"I'd much rather read about Doofus using his native wiles to TRICK Bully Beagle somehow"

DAMN! I wish I would read this post sooner... :(

Ow well, back to the drawing board...


Gregory Weagle said...

Actually; I was referencing Columbine since that was in 1999. The Virgina Tech Shooting were much later and I reference them in Water Way To Go in 2007 when I wasn't in a good mood hearing about murders and such. To be honest; it probably didn't matter which school shooting to reference since it is usually bullying that is the X-factor in those moments.

@Pan: Now I need brain bleach to get that moment out of my head. If Kit Cloudkicker did this; than it would have been believable. Not so much with Doofus.

Anyhow; I did like this episode and I do agree with Chris Barat that Russi Taylor and Alan Young did their damnest to make the pathos not sound fake; so I'm not going to knock them for it. Again; when I was editorizing this; I never said that the acting sucks. It was just that when I discover that the voice is not done by a child; I felt like I was conned. I realize that this is an irrational reaction; but it happens with me.

Anonymous said...

Duckworth probably saw "The Brave Little Toaster" before filming the show and got scared by it. :P