Sunday, July 20, 2014

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 90, "The Unbreakable Bin"

For obvious reasons, I'm not sure when I'll be able to do the next one of these. Take some solace from the fact that this final pre-surgery post is a honkin' huge one.
The last DuckTales adaptation of a Carl Barks story ("The Unsafe Safe," UNCLE $CROOGE #38, June 1962)... and I don't care whether you're an "old sourdough" who has every Barks re-re-re-reprint in your collection or a relative young'un who came to the comics through DT, but you REALLY have to be impressed with the job that Alan Burnett turns in here.  No sludginess as was seen in some of the earliest adaptations, no unwanted and unnecessary injections of "morals" as in "Down and Out in Duckburg," not even the introduction of made-for-TV characters into roles more or less unobtrusive, as in "Scrooge's Pet" and "The Land of Trala La."  Yes, yes, I know that Fenton/Gizmoduck appeared in this episode.  The point is that Burnett simply includes the trials and tribulations of Gizmo -- chucked into abrupt unemployment as the result of Scrooge's adaptation of Protectoglass as a new, and presumably the ultimate, bin-defense -- as an additional subplot.  At the same time, Barks' narrative -- leavened with what I believe to be judicious borrowings from a couple of other Barks stories -- is presented with only minor alterations.  That's a lot of material to pack into 22 minutes, and yet, Burnett's script never seems rushed or incoherent.

After reading through "The Unsafe Safe" and observing the story's relatively modest quotient of action, Burnett evidently felt that something needed to be added.  The Beagle Boys, in their brief appearance in Act One, do get the chance to directly imitate their Barksian counterparts, assaulting Scrooge's glass safe with sledgehammers and high explosives.  (Since the DT Beagles only try the explosive approach once, while the Barks Beagles repeatedly fail to use "the right amount" of TNT to blow up the safe, this sequence might be counted as one of the few times when the former could legitimately be said to have outperformed the latter.)

For Magica's mission, however, Burnett hauls out the big guns -- or celestial cannons, if you will -- and borrows from Magica's attack on the Bin in Barks' "For Old Dime's Sake" (UNCLE $CROOGE #43, July 1963).  Seeing as how the Magica of "The Unsafe Safe" tries to crack the vault with the dulcet tones of a series of musical instruments -- a gambit that one would expect a character like Pinkie Pie to be more apt to use -- one can understand Burnett wanting to permit Magica, in her only appearance of the Fenton-Bubba era, to display the full extent of her magical powers.

Magica only gets to hit the "Unbreakable Bin" with one comet, as opposed to the series of celestial objects that Barks' Magica uses, but the balance is redressed by the fact that we're getting to see the attack "live."  The visuals of the comet approaching the bin and the immediate aftermath of the impact are impressive, and I'm glad that the animators eschewed the cliched "dollar sign cloud" effect that we got at the end of "Money to Burn" in favor of what one might term a cleaner and more "classical" approach.  There's something just slightly comical about the manner in which Barks' comet and meteor strike the bin -- the pronounced sound effects may have something to do with it -- and letting the visuals and natural sounds speak for themselves was probably the correct choice for the TV version of the assault.

In case you're wondering... I don't regard this lifting of an aspect of another Barks story for use in an unrelated episode in quite the same manner that I did the use of material from, say, "Only a Poor Old Man" in "Liquid Assets."  "For Old Dime's Sake," created at a time when Barks wasn't doing Magica stories so much as gushing them out, is itself little more than a "string of incidents," so picking one incident to use somewhere else doesn't seem like such a big deal.  Like the added subplot involving Gizmoduck, I regard the "Dime's Sake" detour as an enhancement of the original story, as opposed to the plugging of important matter from another source into a completely different narrative.

Apart from "The Unsafe Safe," Barks' other significant tale of "material Money Bin encasement" is the ten-pager "Too Safe Safe"/"The Money Preserver"/"Imperviwax-ing the Money Bin" (WALT DISNEY'S COMICS AND STORIES #171, December 1954), and I think that's there's a case to be made that Burnett consulted this story as well.  Not so much because DT, like Barks, portrayed its protected Bin as having no easily definable means of reentry into the structure...

... as because Scrooge takes advantage of the situation in both cases to divest himself of what he now regards as superfluous help (Donald in Barks' case, Gizmoduck in DT's).  It's not difficult to imagine Burnett drawing inspiration from Donald's post-Impervi-wax fate and reasoning that Gizmoduck was a logical candidate for a layoff.  In both cases, of course, Scrooge lives to know better... though Donald, unlike Gizmoduck, doesn't get a chance for satisfying redemption.

While Burnett may have gathered the material for his adaptation from several sources, the opening of "The Unbreakable Bin" is wholly original, a dazzling departure from the series' past visual practice.  In what looks for all the world like a dry run for the Frank Miller-inflected visual stylings of "The Masked Mallard" -- but one with even more of an abstract flair -- Scrooge's nightmare is a charcoal-tinted farrago of weird angles, exaggerated dimensions, curving corridors, and menacingly omnipresent Beagle Boys (who, significantly, are drawn in Barks "clone" mode, the better to emphasize Scrooge's subconscious paranoia).  Even the normally chipper DT background music becomes tense and ominous.  The looser drawing style of the later episodes helps here, as the various distortions don't seem quite as "detached from reality" as they would have been had this been a first-season effort.  Even so, the potency of the "nightmare fuel" is readily apparent.

GeoX draws a parallel between this opening and that of Marco Rota's Italian classic "The Money Ocean" (ALMANACCO TOPOLINO #215, November 1, 1974), and it's easy to see why.  In both cases, a sleeping Scrooge is unconsciously undermined by hordes of invading Beagle Boys.  The Scrooge of "The Money Ocean," however, keeps his fortune in a series of numbered Bins, so, even though the Beagles' imaginary raid climaxes with the "main" (#1) Bin, their string of sieges doesn't really have the impact of a single attack on the "One True Bin."  To his credit, Rota does slightly modify his normally elegant art style here in favor of a somewhat sketchier approach, especially when drawing background details such as a crumbled Money Bin, but the results simply don't compare to "The Unbreakable Bin" insofar as visceral imaginative impact is concerned.  There's nothing in "The Money Ocean," for example, as creepy as the scene in which Scrooge, having retreated to the "safety" of his vault, finds Beagles popping out of his money and, even worse, grabbing him by the webs and trying to drag him under.  Not even the Rota Beagles reenacting the famed attack of the Zulus as they lay siege to Bin #1 can match this.

Once the resistant properties of Protectoglass are displayed to Scrooge -- with Gyro Gearloose and Gizmoduck using tests very similar to the ones Scrooge employed at the start of "The Unsafe Safe" in the process -- the old miser is immediately eager to put the substance to the ultimate test, even going so far as to challenge the Beagle Boys to see if they can crack it.  In this respect, he is quicker off the mark than Barks' Scrooge, who didn't see the light shining through the glass, so to speak, until yet another Beagle assault on his Bin.  The glass of "The Unsafe Safe" is attributed to unnamed "scientists" in Scrooge's employ, since, thanks to an obscure postal regulation that was then applied to periodicals with second-class mailing privileges, Gyro, who starred in the backup story in UNCLE $CROOGE at the time, wasn't permitted to appear in both "his" story and the main story.  "The Unbreakable Bin" gives Gyro back some of his inventive dignity by letting him be the one who creates Protectoglass spectacles for Scrooge in the first place, just as he created Impervi-wax in WDC&S #171.

After trying and failing to best Protectoglass, the Beagles, as they did in "The Unsafe Safe," quietly retreat from center stage, allowing Magica to assume the role of antagonist.  Scrooge, meanwhile, takes HD&L on a celebratory trip around the world, on which he "splurges" -- but only up to a point.  To me, at least, this behavior makes far more sense than the equivalent jaunt in Barks' story, in which the cost of the trip is never mentioned.  Scrooge's line, "Now that I've stopped worrying about my money, I don't mind spending it!" may not sound right, but his actions here speak far louder than his words.  It's reasonable to think that it would take a while for Scrooge to really loosen the old purse strings -- if he ever will.

"The Unbreakable Bin" also takes the logical step of asking what might happen to the rest of Duckburg if it were to find out about the wonders of Protectoglass.  (It'd be hard not to notice how well the Bin withstood that Beagle assault; even "the little old lady across the street" who repeatedly complained about the noisy attacks in Barks' story might have stopped kvetching long enough to take notice.)  Since there is no indication that Gyro invented Protectoglass for Scrooge's exclusive use -- he does have many other customers, as even DuckTales recognized in "Sir Gyro de Gearloose" -- this is one instance in which all of society reasonably stands to benefit from one of Gyro's McDuck-inspired creations.  The consequence, of course, is that Gizmoduck isn't the only security guard thrown out of work.

So the cops from "The Good Muddahs" washed out ALREADY?  You might say I'm not surprised.

Having learned of Scrooge's absence (as she will later learn of Protectoglass' fatal flaw) thanks to her crystal ball -- if Scrooge ever gets wind of this method of omnipresent surveillance, then he'll REALLY have a reason to be paranoid! -- Magica blows into Duckburg, there to have a funny exchange with Gizmoduck the reluctant traffic cop.  The fact that Magica flies in on a broom is noteworthy in and of itself; she rarely did that in the comics, preferring instead to travel in comparative comfort on Vesuvius Airlines.  The use of the broom also complicates matters a bit later in that Magica, just as she did in "The Unsafe Safe," reaches Tanganyika/Quackanyeeka via canoe, leading one to wonder why she didn't just hop on the ol' stick and cut down on travel time.

Back in Tanganyika/Quackanyeeka, Burnett lightens the mood a bit by inserting the bad-comedy guide (did Chuck McCann suggest some of those jokes?) before returning to Barks "book" as Scrooge and HD&L encounter the Yeeker bird and learn of the damage it can do to Protectoglass.  The fateful moment of "initial breakage" is pretty much identical in both cases, right down to the close-up shot of Scrooge's specs being blasted to smithereens.

Scrooge's subsequent drafting of the natives to help him round up "all the Yeekers" (which, as in Barks, turns out to be surprisingly easy) is similarly kept intact, though Scrooge only agrees to pay $1 per Yeeker, as opposed to the $10 and $20 he offered in "The Unsafe Safe."  Nice consistency there from Burnett regarding Scrooge's maintenance of a thrifty attitude.  The DT Quackanyeekans, unlike their Tanganyikan brethren, don't speak, or, in fact, possess much of anything in the way of personality.  Not that Barks' natives said anything particular dicey, but, judging by DT's last attempt to depict an indigenous culture, perhaps it's all for the best that Burnett chose not to go there.

After "blowing into town" in perhaps the silliest and most pointless moment of the episode -- really, what did Magica channeling Launchpad's ability to crash accomplish that a simple fidelity to Barks' original would have? -- Magica uses her "stun ray" to immobilize Scrooge and the boys (not exactly a "foof bomb," but I'll take what I can get) and takes off for Duckburg with her Yeekers in tow, or, rather, towing her.  Again, Burnett sticks firmly to the Barks template here, auditory rip-off of a scene in "Frozen Assets" aside.

As the opposing forces make their way back to Duckburg, Gizmoduck is enduring the final indignity, serving as lunch wagon to a crew of hardhats with decidedly plebeian tastes.  (I suppose that Gizmo must simply have quit the traffic job; he certainly didn't do anything to justify being fired from that gig, at least not that we could see.)  As they have throughout the episode, Gizmo's travails provide a healthy number of laughs, but they also provide an additional comment on the utility of a hero, sort of a comedic counterpoint to Fenton's dilemma in "A Case of Mistaken Secret Identity," or even the fate of Mr. Incredible and the other "supers" in The Incredibles (2004).  When a superhero is laid low by the vagaries, hassles, and petty annoyances of everyday life, how does he or she cope?  The solution to Fenton's problem would seem to be to cut loose from conventional duty and set himself up as, well, a "Hero for Hire."  But Fenton's imagination doesn't, or can't, stretch that far; he sticks with more mundane employment opportunities.  At least Mr. Incredible tried to keep his heroic hand in, even as he was forced to hide his deeds from the public eye.

The two main narratives, which have been tracking one another like hounds on a scent up until now, finally diverge just a bit when Magica brings the Yeekers to the Money Bin and tries to break in.  (Technically, in Barks' story, she gets into the Bin easily enough but is balked by the safe, whereas she can't even get through the door in "The Unbreakable Bin.")  For my money, the windup of "The Unbreakable Bin" is far superior.  In both cases, a sleepy Yeeker puts a crimp in Magica's plans...

... but Barks' Magica then succeeds in breaking through and stealing the Old #1 Dime, only to be foiled when the other Ducks arrive and she literally runs out of juice to fight them.  (As with her use of air travel, Magica's use of a mechanical aid here is part and parcel of her original portrayal as what might be called a "practical" sorceress.)  This makes for an ending that is frankly underwhelming, as the Ducks grab Old #1 and the foiled Magica is reduced to a spasm of ineffective rage.  Burnett's approach is a little more cliched, using as it does the classic tropes of "the last-minute rescue" (the rehired Gizmoduck flying in at the last minute to spirit Magica away before the Yeeker can sing) and "the evil attack that backfires" (Magica's Wind Powder "turning against her" after the Yeeker busts the beaker), but I'm not complaining.  Gizmoduck needed to save the day in order to fully justify his renewed employment, and there is something satisfying about seeing Magica being "hoisted by her own pet bird," as it were.

Barks' story simply stops after the end of Magica's final attack, leaving behind one big, whomping plot hole -- what's to become of Protectoglass after this?  It's easy to imagine the security-obsessed Scrooge swearing off the stuff, reasoning that, even if all the Yeekers can be captured and caged, there's always the chance that they might be freed.  The baby Yeeker's inadvertent destruction of all of the Protectoglass in Duckburg, however, would seem to provide a more visceral motivation for Scrooge to abandon the idea.  It's not made clear who will be responsible for paying for all the damage, but it's easy to imagine Scrooge feeling a certain obligation to help Gyro out of any legal difficulties that might ensue.  The resulting payout would probably be sufficiently stiff to scare Scrooge away from using Protectoglass permanently.

Greg disliked the ending because it made Scrooge and the boys look "dumb."  This strikes me as unfairly harsh.  The boys' plea that they be allowed to keep the Yeeker "for a little while" reflects (1) their understanding that they won't be able to keep it when it's able to sing in all its "gory" and (2) their perfectly reasonable belief that a baby Yeeker may not be as dangerous as an adult.  Far from asking "what harm could it do?" -- Dewey gets that line -- Scrooge simply stops and briefly weighs his options before the degringolade strikes.  Nothing wrong here that I can see.

Burnett's feat here is probably a bit less impressive than the one Doug Hutchinson pulled off in "The Land of Trala La." The story being adapted there was a much more challenging one, and a new, more visually appealing "adventurous ending" had to be created.  "The Unsafe Safe," by contrast, is a relatively simple story and could be absorbed pretty much "as is."  It's safe (heh) to say, however, that "The Unbreakable Bin" ranks with "Scrooge's Pet," "The Status Seekers," and "Robot Robbers" on the link just below "Trala La"'s on the "Great Chain of Barks Stories Brought into Animated Being."  It might even be granted some extra points on the grounds that it appeared so late in the series' run, with the show's metaphorical shirt collar having long since been loosened and any lingering sense of reverence towards the characters and the concept having been shunted to the side.  In any event, it's a pleasant note on which to conclude this subgenre of DT offerings.

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"DuckBlurbs"

(GeoX) The idea -- as if you didn't know -- is that Gyro invents new, unbreakable glass for Scrooge's new glasses[;]he uses this to sheathe the bin (actually, he appears to not just sheathe it, but actually replace the metal with glass, given that you can see through it to the money -- cool effect; not necessarily that practical)...

In "The Unsafe Safe," Scrooge sheaths the bin in glass AND replaces the original safe with a glass one; the former action seems a bit extravagant, in view of the fact that the front door to the Bin is left unlocked anyway.  The "cover-up job" in "The Unbreakable Bin" handles things in a similar manner but does not make it clear how one would get into the Bin after it has been glassed-in.  There must be a way to do so, since Scrooge can let the Beagle Boys in after the fact, but we never see it demonstrated.

(Greg)  Anyhow; we hear noises and here come the "real" Beagle Boys. It's the usual idiots: Big Time, Baggy and Burger with digging objects. Here's the obvious problem with this: Dig underneath the domed glass and you get in easily. The only way this works is if the bottom has the Protecto glass. So I already see a scratch in the armor in this plan guys.

I'd like to think that Scrooge planned for that contingency, based on his unpleasant experience in "A Drain on the Economy."  The fact that he went to the trouble to plate the entire bin suggests that he did the same to the bin's bottom.

(Greg) Scrooge runs to the vault as he wants to take the vacation he has been planning for 40 years or so and the nephews will get to see the world as the nephews are happy. Okay; there is one problem with that: Whomever wrote this episode has NEVER watched Ducktales because the nephews have been around the world in almost 80% of these episodes anyway.

"Vacation" vs. "business" (read: treasure-finding) trip.  There IS a difference, no? 

(Greg) After the commercial break; we head into the jungle with Scrooge and the nephews wearing safari hats. The guide is a dogperson in complete safari gear with the Mickey Mouse gloves. The guide makes the worst jungle jokes ever in a cartoon and it's clearly intentional because Scrooge blows him off for it.

Funny thing about this "safari": The Ducks and the guide haven't brought any gear with them!  It's as if they are going on a tour of a zoo.  Scrooge's cheapness is all over this one like white on rice (because rice is cheap).

(Greg) So we see Magica fly to the Money Bin and apparently; we break logic again since the whole bin is now plated with glass. Okay; then how does Scrooge and everyone else get in?

There must be a way.  See "Scrooge/Beagles."

(Greg) Magica scratches the glass and proclaims that she'll find a way to break the glass if it's the last thing she ever does and she uses her elbow to pound on the glass; but then sells an injury by grabbing her foot. Huh? Explain THAT one kids! If that was BS&P again; that is one of the dumbest spots ever. 

It does look as if her elbow makes contact with the glass, but the main action here is unquestionably the foot-fault.  Note how Magica's shoe is "squished" in the image below.

(Greg) So we see Scrooge and the nephews in the streets with Gyro driving a NASA rocket car. Seriously. I'm sorry; but the VANILLA MANILLA UFO OF DEATH from Micro Ducks From Outer Space was much cooler (Gyro: Really Mr. Weagle? I thought you were breaking from the script there for a second.). 

It's somewhat difficult to get a detailed image of the hovercar here, but it does appear as though the Wang animators were at least TRYING to duplicate the look of the vehicle in "Micro Ducks."  TRYING, I said.  In its flexibility, the "new version" of the hovercar looks and acts more like a rubber raft than a rigid flying object.  The "racing stripe" and two front lights (or whatever they are) look the same, though the color of the interior has been changed from red to white.

Next: Episode 91, "Attack of the Fifty-Foot Webby."

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good luck with your surgery!

It's too bad this is Magica's only second/third season appearance. I only recently noticed that all Magica clips were excised from the DuckTales opening post Time is Money.

Pan MiluĊ› said...

I love Magica's line about her tornado "blowing Scrooges Tinman back to Oz". Very clever :)