Monday, October 29, 2012

"A Bit of a Blow"

Good luck to all in the path of the oncoming storm. Stevenson has cancelled classes for Monday and Tuesday so Nicky and I are just hunkering down, hoping for the best but expecting the worst.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


This is going to be a very rough weekend for me, work-wise, so I'm going to have to postpone my next DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE entry (on "Merit-Time Adventure") until the first weekend of November.

Don't look at me like that, boys...

Sunday, October 21, 2012

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 15, "Sir Gyro de Gearloose"

If "Hero for Hire" has a rival as the best stand-alone DuckTales episode, then it's surely "Sir Gyro de Gearloose," which swept to the top of the popularity charts immediately upon its initial broadcast and has maintained that lofty status ever since.  Which of these eps is your fave probably depends upon which you think is the greater feat:  crystallizing a new, made-for-TV character's personality, or building upon the existing characterization of a well-loved Carl Barks character.  It's a tough call, but I'd vote for the former, if only because there are so many variations of the basic scenarios (both "Ducky-dependent" and otherwise) on display in "Sir Gyro" that have turned up in various contexts over the years.  What makes Mark Zaslove's mixing-up and dishing-out of these ingredients so delectable is the great sense of balance and timing in his writing.  I'm fully in agreement with Greg that "this is [an] episode I would show as a teaching tool for all new writers to see."

As Barks fans know, there are a number of classic "discontented Gyro" stories in existence, in which the normally amiable inventor sours on his lot and seeks to make a different sort of life for himself.  In "Man vs. Machine" (UNCLE $CROOGE #47, February 1964), for example, Gyro roars in rebellion against the unreliability of machines:

Ironically, the legion of customers that besiege Gyro's lab at the start of "Sir Gyro" -- and thereby cause the inventor to damn his societal status as a lowly "gadget man" -- also appear to be motivated (at least in part) by anger and frustration at the fallibility of Gyro's own gizmos.  Indeed, Vacation van Honk's ire at his fouled-up "automatic dressing machine" motivates the globetrotting goose to *gasp!* actually manifest a bit of personality.  One must wonder: if Gyro were a better inventor, then would that gaggle of gripers have felt it necessary to beat a path to his door?

One could fairly kvetch here that Zaslove seems to be operating under a misconception of what Gyro's main job in Duckburg is.  Gyro has repaired things in the past, but never before have we seen him so overwhelmed with what he would normally regard as mundane busywork.  Given the fact that most of the rest of the episode will see Gyro slip back into his standard role of inventor, the setup for the ep seems just a touch artificial, like the sudden "press of business" on the normally isolated Scrooge that causes the latter to snap at the start of "Tralla La."  This is not necessarily a criticism, more of an observation. 

I'm torn regarding Gyro's Time Tub: it's such a neat device that I'm glad it was eventually reused (in "Time Teasers"), but I'm glad it wasn't OVERused.  I can see some of the show's less talented writers falling back on the thing as a convenient vehicle for time-traveling plots.  Not that there's anything wrong with such plots on occasion, but I think most Duck fans would prefer for their heroes to encounter manifestations of myth, legend, and adventure in the present day.  The business about the Tub creating "past[s] that might have been" was included, I think, to avoid having to deal with the same kinds of weird backstory scenarios that Darkwing Duck would later create in the episode "Quack of Ages" (in which we were forced to accept the existence of a medieval St. Canard with "King Herb" in charge) and that Barks would occasionally create in his later years (e.g. the "castle of the ancient Mad Duke of Duckburg" in "House of Haunts").  By lifting Gyro and HD&L's adventures in Quackalot completely onto another plane of existence (or dimension, as posited by GeoX), Zaslove ensured that ancient Duckburg would remain pristine (at least, until time-traveling Ducks and on-the-scene pirates appeared in 1687 Duckburg during "Time Teasers") and made plausible the ep-ending dodge in which Gyro manages to get HD&L back home with only one hour having elapsed in real time.  After all, when you're dimension-hopping, what's a little time-tinkering while you're at it? 

The transition of Gyro and the boys from Duckburg to Quackalot is handled pretty clumsily, especially given the quality of the episode as a whole.  The "conveniently falling junk" that knocks everyone into the Time Tub and starts the device on its temporal trek is followed by a sloppily staged sequence in which the Black Knight repeatedly charges down a path towards King Artie and his wizard Moorloon.  The business is animated well enough; the problem is that Artie and Moorloon just stand there like dummies while the Black Knight canters to the top of the alley and bears down on them.  FOUR times, no less.  Here's a hint, guys:  IT'S OKAY TO STEP OUT OF THE WAY, EVEN IF YOU HAVE TO STEP ON THE GRASS TO DO SO.  What would you have done had Gyro and HD&L not used their improvised lance to knock the Knight over? 

With King Artie's blessing of "Sir Gyro de Gearloose"'s unorthodox knightery, we enter familiar territory, creative ground that has been trodden for 125 years, at least: that of the introduction of modern technology and attitudes into the medieval past.  Mark Twain gave us the Ur-version of this story in A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT (1889), Ford Madox Ford followed with LADIES WHOSE BRIGHT EYES (1911), and the subgenre was well and truly launched.  Disney itself churned out two live-action versions of the story, The Unidentified Flying Oddball (1979) and A Kid in King Arthur's Court (1995).  In lesser hands, "Sir Gyro" might have wound up as superficial and forgettable as were those latter gobs of Gothic gauze.  But Zaslove refuses to let it happen, for several reasons.  The most important of these is his broad-minded attitude towards both the representative of modern technology (Gyro) and the denizens of the medieval realm (King Artie and company).  Most of the serious attempts at this subgenre were created with clear satirical intent.  For example, in A CONNECTICUT YANKEE, Mark Twain wanted to ridicule outdated notions of chivalry, which he claimed had helped bring on the Civil War by influencing the development of the hierarchical, battle-loving Southern culture.  LADIES WHOSE BRIGHT EYES took the opposite approach, with the modern interloper growing to appreciate the charms of medieval culture to the extent that he "went native" and tried, much like Gyro, to become a knight.  Zaslove builds his story around Gyro's desire to find his true destiny in the past, but he also provides the all-important counterweight in the form of Moorloon, who is just as unappreciated in Quackalot as Gyro is in Duckburg, and is every bit as sympathetic a character as is Gyro, despite his attempt to enlist the would-be usurper Lesdred in a kidnapping scheme.  In helping the betrayed and imprisoned Moorloon to realize that he IS, essentially, Gyro in a different time and garb, HD&L perform their one absolutely vital duty of the episode. Tempting as it may be to think that this episode might have worked as a Gyro solo, I don't think that it would have; Gyro was simply too focused on his desire to become a knight, and Moorloon was too obsessed with jealousy over Gyro, to come to the realizations of their parallel roles without assistance.  As Gyro's sympathetic friends and as "outside observers" of Moorloon's plight, HD&L were perfectly positioned to be "moral guidance facilitators."  (Also, unlike Gyro's Helper, they have the power of speech!)

Giving a particular urgency to HD&L's efforts to help Gyro and Moorloon is the easily overlooked, yet undeniably creepy, fact that Gyro actually appears to be winning the battle against his "true nature" as the episode moves along.  When King Artie and Moorloon are attacked by the Black Knight, Gyro's first instinct is to whip up an invention "in a jif" (as Gadget would say) and save the day.  When the dragon arrives to attack Quackalot, however, Gyro's helping instinct seems on the bum, as he only reluctantly agrees to build the cider pump to douse the dragon's flames.  Artie's ill-received suggestion that Gyro build him a gadget to make "crown-shaped party hats" serves as a tipping point of sorts.  After that, Gyro is completely focused on becoming a worthy knight, even if he has to momentarily surrender to his atavistic instinct for mechanical creation and build a training wheel to help him guide his lance.  He even begins to dream of knightly deeds, indicating that his subconscious is also undergoing a basic transformation.  Given how close Gyro appears to being completely captured by his dream of knighthood, HD&L's decision to spy on Moorloon, and their discovery of Moorloon's plotting with Lesdred, couldn't have come at a better time.

The "magnetic" climax, of course, provides one of the series' most memorable scenes, and it remains so despite Dewey's horrible pun about "magnetic personalities."  (I remember when a DARKWING DUCK story in the unfortunate Disney-Marvel DISNEY AFTERNOON title used that same gag; oh, the catcalls it got.  Perhaps it was because Drake Mallard's "magnetic personality" was presented as the literal reason why he got magnetically stuck to a garbage can.)  I would also love to know how Gyro BUILT the Duck-gone thing.  Even granted that there would be a lot of chain mail lying around Quackalot, how would one "unchain" it to create that giant metallic sphere...  and without tools, yet?  This makes the use of golden planks, ropes, nails, and sails in "Wrongway in Ronguay" seem positively...  believable, don't you think?  Well, however Gyro got the thing put together, the depiction of its influence on Lesdred's legions is exceptionally memorable... and, of course, extra credit goes to Zaslove for foreshadowing this climax by introducing and employing the (much smaller) magnet earlier in the episode.  That there's good writing, folks.

"Hey, Usurper!  I got yer Purple Reign right here!"

When "Sir Gyro" appeared, I immediately dubbed it the best Gyro story ever done... but, in the intervening years, one worthy challenger has appeared: Pat McGreal and Santiago Scalabroni's "Little Gyro in Quarkland" (UNCLE $CROOGE #314, October 1998).  This is yet another entry in the "rebellious Gyro" sweepstakes, and it's a particularly dark-complected one.  The inDucks English summary of the plot claims that it is motivated by Gyro's despair at all the pollution in Duckburg, but the inventor's despondency appears to go much deeper than that:

No rushing off into "Utopia Elsewhere" is possible here: Gyro realizes that every other country on Earth has "its own share of problems."  He decides to shrink himself down to microscopic size and escape "in into space," but he discovers that the universe is essentially one great big circle; after shrinking through "Quarkland," he emerges into the Milky Way Galaxy and lands right back on Earth.

This is a profoundly conservative message, I think, in that small-scale change serves to combat large-scale despair.  I think that "Sir Gyro" carries a similar message.  Thanks to his journey to Quackalot, Gyro learns that his talents are needed in Duckburg every bit as much as Moorloon's are needed in his own time.  The whole idea is to take advantage of your time, location, and unique talents to make your "little corner" of the world a better place.  "Little Gyro in Quarkland" now stands as my favorite Gyro story in the medium of comics... and I don't think it's an insult to claim that it's every bit as good an effort in its medium as "Sir Gyro" is in its medium.  Yes, it's true, you recalcitrant "old sourdoughs":  DuckTales produced an episode that was SO good that it could be used as a measuring stick against which to judge a high-quality Duck comic-book story of a similar type.





(GeoX)  Anyway, in The Past, the waterfowl fall in with "King Artie" and Gyro impresses him with the power of Science. The local wizard, Moorloon, gets jealous, however, especially when Gyro's able to stop a dragon and he isn't (though looking back, it's hard to say why not, given that Moorloon is indeed shown to have totally sweet magical abilities later on).

I think that Moorloon claimed that he "[didn't] do dragons," not because he couldn't handle the situation, but because he wouldn't.  Already, we can see here that Moorloon is more concerned with making "that upstart Gearloose" look bad than in performing his supposedly sacred duty of protecting King Artie.  And he hasn't hit bottom yet, of course.  

(GeoX) It's sometimes a little hard to tell who's talking, but it's pretty clear that, when HDL are climbing down a drainpipe and getting captured one by one, the names get mixed up.

Yeah, I think you're right.  It sounds as if Louie says "Louie?" right before he gets grabbed by the Black Knight.

(GeoX)  The exaggeratedly-breathy crane-woman who in the beginning snaps at Gyro when he can't immediately fix her toaster and then at the end hits on him is kind of amusing. Make her a recurring character! Gyro needs a love interest!  

Admittedly, it would be nice for him to have one, but this girl is rather... flighty, don't you think?  (And I'm not saying that just because she's a bird.)  Her overreaction to the failure of Gyro's toaster fix bespeaks a rather high-maintenance personality.  She does come back in the end, which is a credit to her, but how will she react when she and Gyro go on that all-important first date and Gyro suddenly gets an inventor's brainstorm?  Will she be able to go with the flow, or will we see the hauteur and the stamping feet once again?  Too bad we'll never get to find out.

Come up and singe me sometime!

(Greg)  The black knight blocks with all his might and his armor and shield melts...and then we cut to King Artie's castle before he burns to ashes. Which indicates that the black knight inside is dead. Cinema 101 people! When will we learn that?! 

Cinema 101?  How about Physiology 101?  There was a very abrupt cut following the "red-hot armor" scene, so something may have been trimmed here.  Still, unless Lesdred has two or more of those ostrich fellows hanging around, the end product of this scene should have been "Scratch One Black Knight."

(Greg)  I betcha the red dragon comes in through the open window and burns Dewey wieners (both ways) to ashes. I check the DVD....Damn; I'm good. And HOLY CRAP; that flame actually made contact with their heads and they come out with minor injuries which looks like small cuts that are trying to bleed; but cannot. Okay that's it! I'm officially declaring the nephews NUTS! I thought Kit Cloudkicker's one inch bullet away from the head in Plunder andLighting Part Two was nasty?! If this doesn't get cut by Toon Disney; then Disney ought to be ashamed of themselves.

To my knowledge, this scene has never been cut from any print of "Sir Gyro."  A little of the edge is taken off of the scene by the fact that, while HD&L have soot on their faces, their caps are not burnt.

Interesting Moment #1: So we head to Moorloon's room as he is in agreement with Gyro for a change. HAHA! Moorloon tries to bang the magnet on the table; but no dice because it is not metal see. HAHA! However; the real funny part (which for moralists it was heinous) was when Moorloon bangs it on the table he yells: “WORK! WORK! WORK!”. On the DVD version; this is what Moorloon said. In the first run syndication; this is what he said as well; however, the Teutonic/ German accent of Moorloon had him sounding more like “F***! F***! F***!”. And yes; it rhymes with duck. Donald Duck seemed to have the same problem in his shorts in the past. This was the infamous F-Bomb episode of Ducktales (and probably started the Donald Duck F bomb scare later on since no one but Peggy [Charron] watches DTVA allegedly.). And since it was clear as day that the accent was trouble; in the second run syndication it was re-voiced without the accent to make it sound like what Moorloon was going to say in the script. 

Thankfully, the "F-Bomb" version can still be found on YouTube.  I don't know if Barry Dennen did the re-voicing, but the "cleaned-up" Moorloon sounds very little like the original voice of the character.  An unfortunate price to pay, I'd say!

Next: Episode 16, "Merit-Time Adventure."

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Stopping by Goofs on an October Evening

Greg Weagle mentioned during his recent reviews of the episodes on the Goof Troop DVD that WDTVA veteran Mike Peraza, in addition to providing readers with entertaining behind-the-scenes information on the development of DuckTales and Darkwing Duck, also did a couple of blog posts about the prehistory of that series.  The early days of what was originally called Goofy Troopers weren't quite as chaotic as the scrum that would ultimately engulf Bonkers, but the rather shapeless series that did emerge certainly speaks to the existence of some growing pains.

Greg noted that he found the three DVD eps of Goof Troop rather tedious to get through.  Not because they were BAD, per se, but because they were... well, unmemorable.  Unlike the best WDTVA series, Goof Troop didn't seem to develop a true identity of any sort; the attitude of the writers seemed to gradually morph into "whatever works," which explains why so many of the later episodes slipped into the confining (yet comfortable) rut of "How Pete's Scam of the Day Will Unravel," or why the series took so many unexpected and bizarre detours into Fantasyland (dinosaur eggs on riverbanks, magical musical instruments).  Goof Troop's lack of a solid narrative "spine" certainly helps to explain why, had it not been for the extra frisson of interest provided by the unexpectedly enjoyable 1995 theatrical feature A Goofy Movie, the series would be completely forgotten today.  Bonkers may have been an unholy mess, but at least it was memorable, in the manner of a particularly spectacular car wreck.  Goof Troop doesn't even have that to fall back on (or stumble over, given that Goofy is involved).

Of course, there are some legitimately outstanding Goof Troop episodes, but they just seemed to "happen" by sheer good fortune, kind of like finding the Baby Jesus in the King Cake.  No surprise, then, that while we celebrate DuckTales' 25th anniversary with such pomp and fervor, the 20th anniversary of this series is slipping past us on little Goof feet.

DuckTales Indices: Another Country (Literally) Heard From

The publisher of an online German fanzine called BE has just released a 184-page DuckTales tribute issue, and it's a real sight to behold.  In the Teutonic tradition, it's nothing if not thorough.  Besides the expected episode summaries, character descriptions, references to Carl Barks stories that were adapted for animation, and so forth, the tome features a number of essays on specific aspects of the series (e.g., the role of female characters and the ways in which the Junior Woodchucks are portrayed); reviews of DT comics (including the kaboom! era), video games, and merchandising; and a colorful picture gallery showing all the different vehicles that Launchpad piloted (and crashed) during the course of the series.  Even if you don't read German, it's well worth paging through.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 14, "Armstrong"

Caught up to you, Pete!  In one sense, at least...

I agree with GeoX and Greg -- if you're rating "Golden Age" WDTVA episodes with the theme of "robots and the humans who build/exploit/are almost conquered by them," "Armstrong" does operate on a relatively simplistic level, certainly more so than does TaleSpin's "From Here to Machinery".  Hey, there was a good reason why TaleSpin led off its first syndicated season (not to mention backstopped the first full day of programming of The Disney Afternoon) with that particular gem.  But "Armstrong" also deserved ITS prime spot in DuckTales' opening week of syndication, and not simply because "Robot Robbers" followed it so closely in broadcast order.  Apart from being a fine episode in and of itself, "Armstrong" is a delectable showcase for some of the most stylish animation that the series had to offer during its first season.  The animation in "Armstrong" isn't as lively or bouncy as the animation in such Terence Harrison-directed episodes as "Double-O-Duck," but it fills up the deficit with slickness and subtlety that can only truly be appreciated in multiple close viewings.  If the intention of the folks at WDTVA was to immediately hammer home the point that DuckTales represented a step up to the "next level" in terms of production quality for syndication, then "Armstrong" was as good a choice as any as one of the instruments picked to help drive home the nail.

"Armstrong" had a somewhat longer "shelf life" than your average DuckTales ep. It was featured in one of the Mallard Press hardcovers...

... and the Disney Studios comics adaptation of the episode, written by Larry Gotterer and drawn by the Jaime Diaz Studios, was featured in the first issue of Gladstone's DUCKTALES title (October 1988).  Daan Jippes' dramatic cover promised even MORE excitement and danger than was actually delivered in the TV episode...

... but the adaptation itself could best be described as "relentlessly bland," incorporating a lot of the dialogue but without much imagination.  I suppose it is symbolic of the sheer drabness of the adaptation that Armstrong is colored gunmetal gray in the interior of DT #1.  (At least Jippes' version of the character looks pretty stylish.)  The changes that were made were problematic, to say the least: the "great hot chocolate efficiency debate" was removed completely...

"No marshmallows for you, lads... and no COCOA, either!"

... and, more troublingly, Launchpad consciously crashes his "Joyrider" on top of Gyro's barn (thereby destroying the battery of satellites dishes that Armstrong has erected) and consciously short-circuits the atrocious automaton with water.  LP also doesn't appear to be on the verge of "going away to think" when the desperate Nephews come to ask him for help in thwarting Armstrong.  Instead, LP's "crisis of confidence" consists of the single line, "Oh, my!  Beaten by a robot!"  (Somehow, I can't imagine LP saying "Oh, my!" in any context.  Winnie-the-Pooh, yes, but not LP.)

Back on the small screen, writer Michael Keyes does an excellent job of exploiting small details in his script -- for example, foreshadowing Launchpad's later, fateful use of the water pump in the early fire-fighting scene and having HD&L realize that the tanks and planes chasing them are only toys.  (The latter is made even more effective by its visual presentation, as I'll argue below.)  Some of Keyes' "bigger-picture" decisions, however, can be called into question, especially those having to do with characterization.  I'm willing to accept the idea of Armstrong turning evil for no apparent reason, simply because such a trope is well-established and has been used in the past. But why would Armstrong's final "heel turn" be triggered by a desire for Scrooge's money?  Wouldn't Armstrong be more likely to show its true colors by commandeering electronic equipment from McDuck Industries and using the materials to make its "compound" at Gyro's barn even stronger?  I suspect that the idea of showing dramatically-lit histrionics inside the Money Bin was simply too much to resist.

In making Scrooge the eyewitness to/victim of Armstrong's fall from grace, Keyes may have been commenting on Scrooge's own highly questionable ethical decisions in this episode.  The callousness displayed by Scrooge when he blows off Launchpad after LP has lost the big air race with Armstrong, and later when he banishes his Money Bin employees and installs Armstrong in their place, should not be ignored simply because they are presented with such relative casualness.  The "vanishing staff" business, in fact, seems all the colder because we don't get to see the employees' reactions to being replaced by a robot.  (Since Mrs. Featherby got the unexpected honor of a place on the dais at the air race, I hope that SHE, at the very least, managed to survive the personnel purge.)

Even HD&L don't get off scot-free in this episode.  I'll give them the benefit of the doubt on saying that Armstrong is "the best friend a kid could ever have"; they had no idea that Launchpad or anyone else could be listening.  (Launchpad's reaction to overhearing this indicates that, even at this early stage of the series, he sees himself as being something of a role model to the Nephews -- not the object of hero worship, as is the case with Doofus, but the recipient of a certain level of respect for "derring-do" and "a sense of adventure."  The boys have also clearly learned to care for Launchpad, as can be seen when they have no idea what has happened to him during the air race.)  But, guys, allowing Armstrong to do your homework for you is CHEATING.  Blowing off assignments to play Frisbee, as you will later do in "Nothing to Fear," is one thing; THIS should force you to turn in at least a few bucketloads of Junior Woodchuck medals.     

"Plagiarism... it'll be our little secret."

As for Launchpad, the ep's ultimate hero...  so what happened to the need to pass out business cards?  In stark contrast to "Hero for Hire," the Launchpad of "Armstrong" is apparently very well-known, introduced by Scrooge at the air race as a "world-famous pilot, adventurer, and derring-doer."  The reaction of the chief fireman when Launchpad flies in to help fight the fire -- "Here he comes again!" -- suggests that LP's airplane service is well-established and well-respected.  Since "Hero for Hire" was originally broadcast several weeks after "Armstrong," viewers of the former episode could perhaps be forgiven for wondering where Launchpad had to go to get his reputation back.  In truth, it's hard to fault Keyes for this; it's probably simply a product of the DT story editors having to juggle scripts from a multiplicity of writers.
The other major issue that I have with this ep is the simple fact that Armstrong's "reign of terror"... well, doesn't seem all that terrible.  Sure, the dial-twisting and power line-zapping is visually impressive, but Armstrong's "army" consists of four aerial drones, some toys, and a couple of missile-launching military (I guess) aircraft.  You might say I'm not impressed, especially since Armstrong probably needed only a bit more firepower to take out LP's Joyrider.  A line of dialogue stating that the robot is "still building its powers" and has the potential to take over the world if it's not stopped would not have seemed out of place.  Even if we didn't get a chance to see the robot's entire scheme, or anything close to it, put into operation, the episode is reasonably effective in making you believe that the semi-comical, chore-performing Armstrong with the rubbery, flapping limbs...

... really could turn into a potential world-conquering automaton.  Oddly enough, the single scariest moment occurs when a frustrated Armstrong, its globe-girdling satellite system wrecked by Launchpad's fortuitous stall and crash onto Gyro's barn roof, comes within a hair of taking LP's head off with a single punch. "If I were human, I might find this amusing," cackles Armstrong earlier in the episode.  This memorable incident shows that Armstrong may, in fact, be all too human when it comes to the exacting of revenge.  Gyro's later creation Robotica ("Metal Attraction") will have an even harder time controlling its emotions.  Perhaps you should stick strictly to robots of the industrial kind, Mr. Gearloose... and make sure that they're secure against takeover by hostiles while you're at it.

Armstrong's assault is just one of the many excellent visuals in this episode.  The dramatic scene with Armstrong and Scrooge in the Money Bin and the "vanishing staff" moment are obvious members of the club, but, once again, as with Keyes' script, the small details are often the most charmingly realized.  For example, Scrooge has a barely noticeable, tiny loss of balance as he leans out the train window to warn the incoming Launchpad that there's "no place to land" the Joyrider in the area where the path of Scrooge's gold train has been blocked.  Similarly, when Armstrong lands Gyro's copter and Gyro pops his head out of the canopy, Gyro's hair ruffles for a moment (due to the downdraft caused by the decelerating rotors) before settling down (probably a bit more quickly than they should in real life, but what the hey).  These little frissons are completely unnecessary, which is what makes them so charming. 

Even better than these bits is the "LIGHT-BULB!" moment at which the desperate HD&L suddenly realize that they can fight back against the toy assault.  The sequence of shots in which the reality of the situation dawns on Huey...

... reminds me of nothing so much as one of the more famous pages from one of Carl Barks' best DONALD DUCK adventure stories.  Granted, I think it was much harder for Barks to pull off this "mood transition" in his particular medium -- he was dealing with discrete comic-book panels, rather than a continuous flow of animated images -- but the mere fact that I can make such a comparison and expect it to be taken reasonably seriously is quite a compliment to the good folks at TMS, I think.

I'm more impressed with "Armstrong" now than I was when I first watched it.  As noted above, the story is fairly predictable, but one can hardly argue with the total package.  Nor can one argue with the incontrovertible fact that DuckTales has well and truly hit its stride by this point.  And the "next ep up" doesn't exactly represent a step back...

UPDATE (10/19/12):  Joe Torcivia reminded me of the non-trivial similarity between the appearance of Armstrong and that of "Robert, the Robot," the titular one-shot mechano of the lead story of DONALD DUCK #28 (March 1953).  In truth, as rendered on the cover by Carl Barks...

and in the story itself, by Dick Moores...

... I'd be hard-pressed to argue that Robert is more intimidating than even the benevolent Armstrong who vacuumed the floors and poured coffee out of his finger.  But you must admit, the physical similarity is most intriguing.





(GeoX)  [There's] a problem with plots like this: they're philosophically incoherent. Say you're supposed to complete the following sentence: "Robots may sometimes seem more efficient than human beings, but they can never truly replace people, because_____________" You would probably fill in something like "they lack the intangible assets--creativity, tenacity, heart; the human spirit, in other words--that got us where we are today." If instead you put down "they'll take over our satellites and steal our money and try to kill us," you would probably get some odd looks. I mean, I approve of the humanistic impulse that leads writers to assert that mechanization cannot solve all our problems, but things like this present just the opposite message: I'm pretty sure there is no documented real-world case of a robot Turning Evil, so if that's the only potential problem, then I guess we're good to go! Right?

Well, not necessarily.  The difference between a human Turning Evil and a robot Turning Evil is that there's at least a chance that the human can be persuaded to turn aside from his or her evil ways and repent.  The robot, by contrast, can only be "reformed" by brute force: "reprogramming," "pulling the plug," or outright obliteration.  The "reprogramming" option seems to work well often enough when the mechanical adversary is a computer, as we've seen in numerous episodes of Star Trek and (Harvey "fanboy" alert!) in the 1969 RICHIE RICH story "Convac: The Ultimate Computer."  With robots, on the other hand, you're generally restricted to things like, well, dumping water on them and hoping that they short out.  So the "potential problem," provided that it ever turns up, might prove to be a most intractable one.

(Greg)  [Armstrong] goes to the rock tomb and grabs as many rocks as [it] can stand and throws them up the hill... It creates a makeshift ugly statue of Scrooge (the ugly top hat gives it away).

The comics adaptation in DT #1 tells a different story:

Though I agree with Greg that the statue in the animated version is supposed to be Scrooge, I think that the comics gag makes more sense.  Gyro, after all, created Armstrong, whereas the robot has just barely been introduced to Scrooge.

(Greg)  We then cut to the podium with Scrooge announcing the air race between LP and Armstrong.  Gyro is here along with the nephews, Webby and even Mrs. Featherby...

... and the question that obviously comes to mind is: Where is Mrs. Beakley?  Not just in this scene, but in the entire episode.  Surely, her job as nanny to the boys would have been put in every bit as much peril as were Duckworth's limo-cleaning and vacuuming tasks, so why wasn't that addressed?  Come to think of it, wasn't Webby deserving of some attention at "tuck-in time," too?  My guess is that Webby wasn't included in the original script and was put into this scene simply because someone wanted her to get her ten seconds' worth of "work" in.   

(Greg)  [Armstrong]'s laser of doom melts the bicycle tires on cue... Louie calls [Armstrong] out for MURDERING their bikes.  I speak for everyone in this one: [It] melted the front tire you jerk!  It'll be all right.

Um, as Launchpad said about the Golden Condor, those bikes will never play the violin again.  The entire wheel assembly has been melted down, not just the tires.  I can't really blame Louie for going off like this, even given that the boys were facing a malevolent robot at the time.

Next: Episode 15, "Sir Gyro de Gearloose."

Sunday, October 7, 2012

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 13, "Hero for Hire"

Here's one instance where you really should believe the hype.  Joe's and my original verdict on "Hero for Hire" as "utterly brilliant" and arguably the single best 22-minute episode of DuckTales certainly does not seem like standard-issue "fanboy efflatus" a quarter-century after the fact.  Indeed, seeing "Hero" in proper production order only reinforces the notion that this IS the definitive moment at which DuckTales graduated from good to great.  Sure, there are quite a few clinkers to come, but the alien robots and "single-trait-character gangs" that populated most contemporary animated series of the 1980s would have killed to have starred in an episode that packed the thematic punch and possessed the philosophical depth of Ken Koonce and David Weimers' deceptively simple, exquisitely fashioned gem.

Such early DT episodes as "Dinosaur Ducks," "Pearl of Wisdom, "Master of the Djinni," and "Maid of the Myth" hint at the series' true potential, but, in all honesty, DT's first dozen eps include just as many misses as hits.  More importantly, relatively little progress was made in these early efforts when it came to establishing the series' original characters as truly worthy of inclusion in the pantheon of Barksian supporting players.  Up until this point, for example, Launchpad has basically been a goofy pilot with a few endearing character quirks, some of which haven't even been consistently present (e.g., his ladies' man routine in "Lost Crown of Genghis Khan" vs. his awkwardness around Swanwhite in "Maid of the Myth").  With "Hero for Hire," Launchpad finally starts to become a personality, in much the same manner that Carl Barks turned the quarrelsome Donald Duck of the Disney shorts into a four-color "Everyman."  We begin to understand what makes Launchpad tick, and, as he struggles to make a new career for himself in the wake of being fired by Scrooge, we also begin to sense both his immense capacity for self-deception and his ability to bounce back from adversity.  We also see him struggle to reconcile his image of what a "professional hero" should act like with the realities of life in a society that either doesn't appreciate heroic impulses or seeks to exploit them.

"Hero for Hire" could be described as a "Donald Duck mastery story" turned inside out.  Unlike Donald the "Master Glasser," "Master Cleaner," or "Master Whatever," Launchpad starts "Hero" at rock bottom, having destroyed Scrooge's bank and having been fired by Scrooge.  (Since this is actually the first time that LP has caused anything like this much damage to McDuck property, perhaps Scrooge is overreacting just a wee bit here?  It's not as if a sea monster ate Scrooge's ice cream, or anything.)  The existence of Launchpad's public airplane service hasn't been established yet -- though it will be in our next episode -- and so it's not hard to understand why the crushed LP equates losing Scrooge's favor with the loss of his entire "career."  Enter Doofus, with his idea of turning Launchpad's heroics into a marketable commodity.  At this point in a "mastery story," of course, Donald has long since gone into business for himself and is starting to blow that fateful bubble of overconfidence.  Launchpad's early exploits as a "hero for hire" are rather less successful: the "Buzz off, buddy!" reaction of the window washer who's supposedly "gonna jump" is by far the mildest insult that LP must endure.

No sooner does LP dust himself off from these misadventures than Ma Beagle and her boys decide to take advantage of the credulous pilot and "star" him in a "superhero movie" that's actually a cover for a series of bank robberies.  At this point, the unusual casting used in this episode -- specifically, the absence of Scrooge's Nephews and the use of the "new" Beagle Boy trio of Bankjob, Babyface, and the "beatnik" Bebop/Bugle -- begins to serve it well.  Using HD&L, rather than the star-struck Doofus, as Launchpad's Sancho Panza(s) would have short-circuited the Beagles' plan before it got started, as the Nephews surely would have seen through the scam very quickly.  (I'm assuming that this wouldn't have been one of the occasional episodes in which they are a bit slower on the uptake than is their normal wont.)  As for the "newbeags," suffice it to say that their personalities aren't strong enough to "get in the way" in the manner that the "core four" Beagles would have.  This is somewhat ironic, in that Bankjob, despite the obvious physical differences, is arguably closer to a classic Barksian Beagle Boy than any other DuckTales Beagle.  Peter Cullen's voice for the character would have been perfectly acceptable as the voice of a "generic" Beagle Boy had the series chosen to go that route... and it would have been absolutely perfect as the voice of Neighbor Jones in the Quack Pack series that WDTVA SHOULD have made. 

Though (as GeoX notes) it is a little odd that we don't actually get to see how "Webbed Wonder" Launchpad robs the first bank, the series of "money rescues" proceeds in an entirely believable manner, with Launchpad, convinced that a "great actor" is being born, progressing from rehearsing his "lines" in a semi-straight fashion at the start to turning his third "rescue" into a true "production," complete with dramatic 'copter drop (how did LP's 'copter just happen to be on top of that building in the first place, anyway?), wall-wallop, and corny couplet recital.  (Interestingly, in the Italian dub of this episode, the actor playing Launchpad comically overplays LP's initial "rehearsal" of his lines.  That tends to undercut the later "Away I whisk!" routine.)  Launchpad's gradual "mastery" (at least in his easily swayable mind) of the role of an heroic actor occurs at the same point in a "mastery story" where Donald commits the one foolish mistake that will ultimately lay him low.  The difference, of course, is that LP will actually recover from his inevitable plunge into disfavor... ironically, by plunging his 'copter into Duckburg Bay and symbolically destroying his imagined heroic self, leaving only the fallible-yet-determined "bumbling pilot" behind.

In hindsight, having the climactic point of the episode be Launchpad's fake suicide took a lot of guts on Koonce and Weimers' part.  I'm inclined to argue contra Greg that, in playing Scrooge's reaction to the 'copter crash, Alan Young struck just the right tone, a mixture of sadness and shock.  Knowing what he knows about LP at this point in the series, Scrooge could perhaps be excused for evincing complete disbelief at the pilot's decision to turn his comical propensity for crashing into the deadly serious means of his apparent demise.  We in the audience, however, now have a better idea as to Launchpad's level of determination and his devotion to his "chubby little friend" Doofus, who's been kidnapped by the Beagles.  We're therefore willing to give LP the benefit of the doubt that he knows what he's doing.  The fact that we wouldn't have granted him that favor at the start of the episode illustrates just how pivotal a tale "Hero for Hire" is in LP's development as a "whole" character.

Even as the Donald of a "mastery story" is crashing to Earth a la the unfortunate Icarus, Launchpad is coming through in the clutch, so determined to do what's necessary to make things right that he breaks into Scrooge's bank to "borrow" Gyro's Anti-Beagle Burglar Alarm.  Of course, as GeoX correctly points out, Launchpad is the beneficiary of a tremendous slice of luck at Ma Beagle's country cabin when the "huckleberry hand grenade cake" slips out of Bankjob's grasp... but give LP credit, he takes quick advantage of the situation to steal away with Doofus in tow and commandeer the Beagles' armored car.  (Chalk up the handy-dandy presence of the ignition key in the car as yet another trip to the "Convenience Zone.")  The ensuing car chase isn't as flashy as some of the chases that will be seen later on in the series, but you've got to love the attention to detail: the presence of other cars in the streets (you know, the ones that we almost NEVER saw in St. Canard during similar situations), the clever exploitation of the "Always buckle your seat belt" meme, even the jazzy accompanying score that Bebop/Bugle would fully appreciate (if he weren't actively involved in the chase, at least).  Even the concluding "salary negotiation" harkens back to similar situations in Barks stories, or, if you prefer, those animated cartoons in which one character engages in an argument with another and verbally arm-twists his opponent into arguing the opposite of what the latter was originally arguing.  Of course, in this case, LP arm-twists himself.  The difference now is that we know that this character is capable of bouncing back from such a gaffe.  Indeed, LP's immediate suspicion of Major Courage in "Where No Duck Has Gone Before," which preceded "Hero" in air date yet was produced much later in the first season, might be considered a by-product of the pilot's experience here.  Not that LP won't fall victim to self-deception in other episodes to come -- but, then, Donald has never quit trying to "master" professions, either.

So, who's the "fool" now?

There are numerous other points of interest in this episode -- the contrast between image and reality symbolized by the near-constant use of disguises of one sort or another, the imaginative use of Doofus in what is certainly one of his very best supporting roles.  Indeed, this ep is studded with so many such facets that one can easily imagine it being used as a source of discussion in a college honors course on "The Meaning of Heroism," or something similar.  "Hero for Hire" doesn't merely "hold up" today; its storytelling stands comparison with the very best offerings of today's leading animated series.





(GeoX) So are we to assume that Doofus has parents or guardians or something? Or is he just some insane vagrant who dug a coonskin cap out of a dumpster somewhere and managed to convince everyone he's a Junior Woodchuck? 

Well, we do learn later on (in "Aqua Ducks") that Doofus has a mother, at least.  Still, it does often seem as if Doofus is a modern version of HD&L's old pal Herbert from the 1940s -- a kid character who just seems to BE THERE, with no apparent independent existence of his own outside of his interactions with other characters.  Actually, given Herbert's usual appearance, I think that he would be more likely to have a dumpster for an address.

(GeoX)  "Unsafe Safe" reference!

Where?   Details, please!  

(Greg)  Scrooge explains that the alarm is so sensitive, it can hear, smell and see a glimpse of a Beagle Boy. He of course shows Bouncer's face to force the point. 

Umm, that would be Bankjob.  A curious choice, actually, given that he hadn't been formally introduced to us yet.

(Greg)  And then the branch breaks and they free fall down and land into the dumpster with a MAN-SIZED bump. HAHA! LP gets scratched by the cats in the dumpster as they leave off-screen and then gets up and looks like he wasn't scratched at all. BS&P RULEZ! 

To be fair, we didn't see Launchpad's entire body in this shot.  Who knows what was scratched "down under."

(Greg)  So we go up the stairs as Launchpad pants get heavier and heavier by the floor and he is tired out completely when Doofus comes out of the elevator and opens the left side door on the 47th floor. Despite looking like it only had 25 floors tops?!

25?  It didn't even look like it had 10.  Maybe they were measuring in "duck floors," or something. 

(Greg)  So we get another scene changer as we see Launchpad (without the goggles and weird hairdo) in his dining room (using a wing as a table) reading the newspaper with his pink slippers and robe on. HAHA! Doofus is of course having all the pancakes with him just to be Doofus. No wonder Launchpad is so thin. Launchpad chuckles as the comics section because Andy Dandy cracks him up.

I WISH I knew what the "Andy Dandy" gag was supposed to be referencing.  (Presumably, "The Fur Side" and "Pignuts" were verboten for use here because of copyright issues.)  Note that Launchpad is dressed like an actor in this scene, complete with cravat and smoking jacket (and I love what he's done with his hair -- it's a lot more becoming than the topknots we see at other helmet-less times).  The presence of Doofus in LP's home so early in the morning may actually be the best evidence extant for Geo's theory that Doofus is some sort of weirdo drifter!

(Greg)  Launchpad realizes that his movie career is over and finished. Doofus then realizes that the movie producers are the real crooks. I guess Doofus doesn't realize the term “Aiding and Abetting.” And the fact that Doofus is PART of the conspiracy...and I doubt Doofus will get off easy as Bubba certainly didn't for vandalism in Time Is Money. Launchpad proclaims that he should have suspected something when his first paycheck bounced (alarm bell #6 for the episode). Doofus then suggests that he turn in the movie producer crooks and Launchpad thinks that it's a great idea. But Doofus will have to sit this one out since he doesn't want him involved in this. After all; Doofus is PART of the conspiracy to rob banks after all. Launchpad decides to go to the police to explain to them that he was getting the drop on them and just playing around. Doofus asks what if they don't believe them. Well; they didn't believe Baloo in Bullethead Baloo; so I doubt this will work too. Launchpad proclaims that it will work because he's an awesome actor see. He then walks away as Doofus isn't so sure about this one.

A great scene for Doofus; he finally picks up on the scam and makes the obvious point to Launchpad that the police will not believe his tale of being duped by the Beagle Boys.  Would Doofus truly be held liable for "aiding and abetting" the Beagles' actions?  Given the fallible nature of the Duckburg justice system (and, brother, you ain't seen nothing yet on that score), perhaps Doofus really should worry.

(Greg) [Launchpad] looks around for clues and sees something on the plate of Doofus. Doofus spelled something out of maple syrup and it spells Beagle Buys. HAHA! Doofus' spelling is on par with Kit's in Vowel Play as Launchpad finally gets the LIGHTBULB OF BLOODY CLAIRTY and realizes who is behind this and then we fade to black. Huh?! Shouldn't Doofus have spelled out where they were going [to]?

Hey, YOU try to work with those tools and that medium and see how far YOU get.  I think Doofus' artistic performance here was pretty darn impressive.

 Next: Episode 14, "Armstrong."