Friday, May 31, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 37, "Catch as Cash Can, Part Two: A Whale of a Bad Time"

Before we start, let's pause for a momentary look back.  I got quite a number of challenges to my assessment of "A Drain on the Economy," mostly concerning the believability of Scrooge's mental meltdown.  I'm happy to concede the point that there were several other significant instances in which Scrooge showed similar vulnerability, including one that DuckTales would later mold into one of the series' better Barks adaptations.  Dan Neyer fingered "The Menehune Mystery" as another example of Scrooge going "nutsoid," but Scrooge's panic attacks there, IMHO, don't quite rise to the level of the "round-the-bendedness" he displays in "Drain" and "Tralla La."  My reaction to Scrooge's behavior in "Drain" was probably partly due to the amount of exposure that I had had to Barks' UNCLE $CROOGE stories at the time I first watched the episode.  I simply hadn't SEEN that many $CROOGE stories at that point.  Moreover, I still feel that something a bit more than a Beagle Boy raid, however massive, would be required in order to tip Scrooge completely over the edge.  The deluge of panhandlers, tax collectors, etc. in "Tralla La" -- which seemed even more overwhelming when depicted in animated form -- I could buy as a believable trigger, but not an occurrence that Scrooge should more or less be used to by now.

There seems to be little debate about the high quality of "A Whale of a Bad Time."  The episode overcomes a bit of a stuttering start to deliver a highly effective mix of comedy and suspense.  Donald gets one of his few chances to feature in an episode in which he is not being victimized or manipulated by outside forces, and, by and large, he makes the most of it.  In his first substantial series role, Admiral Grimitz manages the tricky feat of seeming funny while eschewing the somewhat forced "kablooey!"-centered humor that would be overstressed in future Navy-focused eps.  More impressively, he actually comes across as at least a semi-competent commander; in no other episode will the cry "The Navy to the rescue!" engender such a feeling of reassurance.  One-shot villain Dr. Horatio Bluebottle encapsulates the virtues of the ep in miniature, being both a giggling jokester and a legitimate threat to the well-being of our heroes and half of Scrooge's fortune; in that respect, he's an interesting dogface precursor of Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers' Professor Norton Nimnul.  Then, of course, there's that little spot of bother involving a "sea monster" and "ice cream."

The "shipping money disguised as ice cream" business that dominates the opening minutes really does require a substantial suspension of disbelief (which includes a suspension of the idea that HD&L really should have gotten extremely suspicious of the entire setup from the start).  Between the expenses he incurred during the course of "A Drain on the Economy" and the amount of money required to build the fake factory, hire grouchy guards, and outfit robot-driven trucks, Scrooge must have employed the "Bill Me Later" gambit to the absolute hilt in order to avoid fatally falling behind Glomgold in the money-weighing contest. 

Perhaps it was the sultry weather, but the Nephews seem awfully cranky early on; even their voices seem a bit higher-pitched than normal.  The air conditioning must not have been repaired by the time the boys returned home, as Mrs. Beakly harshly tells the boys not to bother Scrooge and Webby suddenly turns into a whiny little greedy-guts.  The latter may be the single most pointless one-off character quirk of the series; it is never referenced again outside of the dining-table and breakfast-nook scenes in this episode and doesn't seem to serve any larger purpose.  Anthony Adams, who wrote this episode's teleplay, wrote a number of other eps involving Webby ("Lost Crown of Genghis Khan," "The Curse of Castle McDuck," "Maid of the Myth") and didn't refer to this character trait in any of them.  Why did he feel the need to toss it in here?  And why didn't Magon, Zaslove, and Talkington call him on it and ask him to cycle Webby back to something resembling her normal personality in these scenes?

Unlike Webby, HD&L get a quick opportunity to atone for their earlier splenetic spasms when the "ice cream" trucks decide to take a night detour right past the McDuck Mansion.  (If I were Scrooge, I'd probably have chosen a more landmark-shy route.)  The boys perform their subsequent detective duties quite admirably, though their method of entry into one of the trucks would probably not pass BS&P muster today.  This is as close as the lads will ever get to sky-surfing a la Kit Cloudkicker.  The "reveal" of Scrooge as the money-moving mastermind is also well done, though Louie appears to have lost his neck somewhere along the way.  The "Transparent-Necked" Scrooge in kaboom! DUCKTALES #3 at least had something connecting his noggin to his shoulders!

"Keep your heads up, lads... those of you who can, that is."

The kitchen breakfast nook makes its first appearance in... well, in THAT scene, and will become a familiar gathering place over time, in such episodes as "Till Nephews Do Us Part" and "Scrooge's Last Adventure."  Along with the front gate and Scrooge's home office (the one with the rolltop desk), the nook will become one of the signature features of McDuck Mansion, one that I actually wish could have been carried over into future comic-book stories.  Aside from being cozier than the dining-room setting, the nook makes sense in context, as it probably cost much less than the table, chairs, and other paraphernalia in the dining room.  Scrooge would probably want me to add that, since it is closer to the kitchen, the nook allows the McDuck household to save on gas and electricity used in preparing food, since the food comes to the table hotter to begin with.

The nook has one additional advantage in the context of this episode: it provides a more informal, and hence more appropriate, setting for you-know-what than the formal dining area would have.  Rave on, McDuck!  And don't fret about breaking any of the good china.

And there's your most famous scene of the series right there.  I don't know which is more improbable: Scrooge's head-bouncing or his ability to pull a tablecloth out from under Huey and Louie's legs without knocking them over.  

Oddly enough, Scrooge's fit proves to be the turning point of "Whale" in terms of quality.  Everything hereafter is first-rate, though one or two logical hiccups still intrude.  GeoX points out a clear contradiction in that Scrooge denies the existence of sea monsters after having encountered the "seaweed monster" in "Bermuda Triangle Tangle" (I'm willing to give Scrooge a pass on "Home Sweet Homer" because Scrooge may have rationalized away the reality of that time-trip in some manner by now).  The gaffe is actually worse than GeoX described, as the Nephews also appear to have forgotten about their previous monster-meeting moments.  I suspect a lack of communication between Adams and the other writers on this matter.  As for the slightly phony appearance of Bluebottle's "S.S. Moby," I rather doubt that the Ducks had the luxury of examining it thoroughly during that initial encounter, seeing as how they were being shaken nearly to death and all.  Still, it would have been nice had the rivets, seams, and doors been a tad more inconspicuous.  My guess is that it was feared that an overly realistic Orca attacking the Ducks at the commercial break would have seemed too frightening, and thus the visual evidence of fakery was added.  If the intent was to make the scene more reassuring, then the gambit failed; this remains one of the more intense action sequences of the series, intervening commercial break notwithstanding.  As Scrooge might put it, there are additional such fireworks a-comin'.

Before the first pseduo-Orca encounter, we get a couple of equally fine sequences: Scrooge and HD&L's underwater exploration (in which they fittingly wear diving gear that may very well have been lifted from one of Barks' best seafaring stories) and the introduction of Donald and Admiral Grimitz.  The Ducks' use of a giant turtle to sneak up on the wrecked ship is one of those clever throwaway bits of Junior Woodchuck lore that the show honestly should have used more often (as opposed to showing us how fallible the Guidebook could sometimes be).  The encounters with the Navy guards pack more punch than all of the series' "Scrooge in jail" scenes combined.  Grimitz keeps the semi-serious beat going when he calmly refuses to rise to the bait of Scrooge's insults and threats.  This was the ideal situation in which to introduce what would become Grimitz' permanent voice, namely, Peter Cullen's riff on John Wayne (Cullen had used a more generic "authority figure" voice for the Admiral in "Home Sweet Homer").  I don't think that even Optimus Prime could have provided a better template for Grimitz' voice, mainly because Cullen was able to leaven the impression with a healthy hint of humor.  Unfortunately, later appearances by Grimitz failed to maintain the same balance of humor and seriousness in the character, opting for the "lunkheaded jingo" characterization.

This episode affords us our only real chance of the series to see Scrooge and Donald operating as a team, with no other characters present.  Happily, Adams seems to recognize the basic differences between the two while downplaying the "clumsiness" gags that clutter up many of Don's other DuckTales appearances.  The mere fact that Grimitz decides to entrust Donald with the task of keeping an eye on Scrooge (with surreptitious electronic assistance, of course) gives Don's role here a certain basic level of gravitas that the bumbling deckhand of other episodes simply can't conjure up.  Appropriately, Scrooge's attitude towards Donald is refreshingly free from extreme condescension; at worst, he seems mildly bemused by his nephew's actions and words.  The one glaring exception, of course, is the hoary "use your head" routine in which Donald smashes the sub's control panel.  I really think that Adams could have come up with a cleverer way than this to show Donald's... well, Donaldishness.  Also, I have to agree with Greg that Scrooge's reaction to Donald's threat to use what both Ducks believe to be the "self-destruct lever" seems too casual. (By contrast, Scrooge's reaction after he learns that the lever controls the dumping of his money is entirely in character.)  One must admit, however, that this is a pretty badass moment for Donald, and he's not even under the spell of an evil king at the time.

Concerning the not-so-good Dr. Bluebottle, I'll agree with GeoX on one point: Horatio does seem more like a Mickey Mouse villain than a Duck dastard, and not simply because he's the same size as Scrooge and Donald.  Along with Professor Nimnul, he reminds me a bit of Emil Eagle, Gyro Gearloose's evil rival, who later became a quasi-regular foe of Mickey and others in the comics. Both Bluebottle and Emil have permanent mad-ons because they feel unfairly put-upon by fate: Emil because he is jealous of Gyro (in addition to desiring the usual "power and money"), Bluebottle because his Navy work makes him ineligible for the "No-Bill Prize."  (The specific prize for which Horatio would be eligible is unclear; perhaps it's for "Research with a Sense of Hyyyumor.")  The implied conflict between "research for its own sake" and "research related to warfare" is intriguing, though Adams does nothing of substance with it, preferring instead to display such improbable features of the sub as a hose, a giant umbrella, and a missile-deflecting tennis racket.

The intensity ratchets up again when the Navy starts dropping the depth charges, and yet again when it seems to those on the surface that one of those charges has met its mark.  Thankfully, the overplayed bawling (which, in all honesty, is still much better than a number of the crying jags we had to endure in Kimba the White Lion) is kept to a relative minimum in the latter scene, with HD&L seeming to be more in shock than anything else.  Check out Dewey's facial expression, in particular; it's as if he's still processing the reality of what he believes the situation to be.

Scrooge's decision to jettison the money into the Marinara Trench doesn't bother me as much as it did GeoX.  It may not strike one as a typical "tougher than the toughies" moment, but for Scrooge to show that kind of faith in Gyro (or in his ability to compel Gyro to come up with a method of salvaging the money) required jumbo-sized cojones.  Even so, this sequence could probably have been written more artfully.  Bluebottle's comment that "a normal sub can't dive this deep" seems to have little to do with his subsequent claim that only he can raise the Orca; after all, he had little to do with the sub falling into the trench in the first place.  Adams might have been better advised to have set things up so that Bluebottle's claims were actually in the nature of a bluff and that Horatio was trying to preserve the status quo so as to fulfill his deal with Glomgold and get his reward.  The final showdown between Scrooge and Horatio would then have become a TRUE battle of wills.

"Whale" ends with a nice verbal lead-in into part three of the serial, and Donald even gets a medal that wasn't manufactured by the Nephews.  (I guess that Don had to give it back before the events of "All Ducks on Deck.")   Flawless it certainly isn't, but this whale-tale gets the job done: it is entertaining in and of itself, gives everyone involved something to do (even if it's somewhat out of character!), and, of course, gives us the one single DuckTales moment that will "live in infamy," techno-mixed or otherwise.





(Greg)  Apparently; there are 131 flavors of ice cream [at Scrooge's factory] which is BS since most ice cream factories churn out about half that in real life. 

Tell that to the folks in Merida, Venezuela.  This shop makes Scrooge, not to mention Baskin-Robbins, look like an unambitious piker.

(Greg)  We see various ice cream trucks in the background and one being driven as the nephews follow it out back. And then we see a pig security guard (voiced by Hal Smith) telling them to scram as the nephews try to introduce themselves as friends of Scrooge McDuck...  No dice as he blows them off and pushes them out because he doesn't care if they are Frosty's sister and that Scrooge left instructions for no one to be let in. Which includes nobodies like them.

Adams is more likely than most DuckTales writers to throw real-world references into his scripts, but, beginning with the shout-out to "Frosty the Snowman's sister," we get a positive torrent of them here: Jonah, Martina Navratilova, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi (or, as Bluebottle calls him, "Foimie"), Charlie Tuna, and any number of well-known magazines.  I guess he was trying to make the point that "Quackeria" (which appears to be Greg's own term for the Ducks' version of America) really and truly is just like our own world, apart from those annoying duckbills, pig snouts, and dog ears and noses.   

(Greg)  Grimtiz thanks [Donald] for his heroism and he'll award Donald with the silver star (which Disney Caption calls a silver tar. Seriously; what are these guys thinking?!) as Donald just blushes.

I think that you may have to blush next, Greg... Grimitz clearly says "silver tar" here.  I imagine that this was a simple play on words, referring to an actual military decoration and the fact that Donald is literally a "tar" (seaman).  Given Adams' predilections in the episode, I'm somewhat surprised that he didn't refer to the real Silver Star.  Then again, the real Navy may not have been amused.

Next: Episode 38, "Catch as Cash Can, Part Three:  Aqua Ducks."

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

National Champs! Stevenson 16, RIT 14

From near Ground Zero to the pinnacle in nine years.  When I joined the faculty at Stevenson, the lacrosse team, along with most other teams, played on the "front field" on the original Greenspring campus before standing-only "crowds" that could typically be counted in the teens.  Even for a Division III school, the program was small-time.  This past Sunday in Philadelphia, Nicky and I watched the Mustangs win a wild 16-14 game against RIT and claim the school's first national title in any sport.

We were up in the club level at Lincoln Financial Field, rather at a distance from the main clutch of SU supporters.  This was because we'd purchased our tickets early, right after Stevenson beat Salisbury in the semifinals.  It took the school a while to get up to speed and organize mass bus transportation for the 400-odd additional people who came up from Baltimore.  Happily, we were able to mingle with the others at a local watering hole before the game.  We also really liked the club level, which featured padded seats and separate facilities for food and drink and provided an excellent view of the action.

You can watch highlights of the game below.  The full video is available at the NCAA Web site.

Monday, May 27, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 36, "Catch as Cash Can, Part One: A Drain on the Economy"

OK, about this "Catch as Cash Can" business... Not until very recently did I know that the four-part serial that Joe Torcivia and I had originally called "The Firefly Fruit Contest" (catchy, eh?) even had an "official" name.  And to what purpose, might I ask?  The phrase "Catch as Cash Can" doesn't seem to have any relevance whatsoever to the overarching plot of Scrooge and Glomgold having a money-weighing contest.  By contrast, when Carl Barks wrote "The Money Champ," it was plain as day from the get-go what was at stake.  However, I will admit that "Catch as Cash Can" does fit this story in a technical sense.  The MERRIAM-WEBSTER DICTIONARY's list of synonyms for the phrase "catch as catch can" includes such terms as "erratic," "slapdash," and "hit-or-miss," and the firefly-fruit serial definitely qualifies as any or all of these.  Parts one and three are arguably weaker than parts two and four, but all four segments have both "up" and "down" moments, making for a real toboggan ride of a story.

A lot of elements in "Catch" -- character reactions, character conflicts, gags -- seem to be pitched an octave or so higher than they normally should be for a DuckTales epic.  The infamous juxtaposition of Scrooge, a "sea monster," and "ice cream" in "A Whale of a Bad Time" is only the most noteworthy example of this tendency.  Right out of the gate, in "A Drain on the Economy," we get more exaggerated, cartoony gags and situations in 22 minutes than we did in ALL of "Treasure of the Golden Suns."  It almost seems as if writers Jymn Magon, Bruce Talkington, and Mark Zaslove wanted to unburden themselves of all the expected cartoon tropes that they had purposely suppressed in the action-dominated pilot story.  When they tapped Len Uhley, late of "Where No Duck Has Gone Before," to do the teleplay of "Drain," they must have known what they were getting themselves into, but Len really went over the top here, giving us a Scrooge who suffers not one but two near-nervous breakdowns, a veritable plague of Beagle Boys attacking the Money Bin, HD&L sustaining a physical battering in the sewers of Duckburg, and enough leaps of logic to sustain an entire Triple Jump competition.  It's enough to tucker out even the most dedicated of elderly multiquadzillionaires.

It's certainly possible that the creative team consciously borrowed the plot of "The Money Champ" to serve as the serial's throughline.  If they did so, then they missed a golden opportunity to shore up some of the Barks tale's questionable logistics.  In fact, as GeoX correctly pointed out in his reply to a comment on his review of the episode, "Drain"'s money-matching match actually makes LESS sense than did Barks' version of the same scenario.  Barks, after all, had Glomgold propose that Flinty and Scrooge convert all their holdings to silver dollars in order for there to be a "like vs. like" comparison:

Needless to say, with Scrooge and Flinty both in charge of global business empires, neither could ever pin down exactly how much he was worth at any given time.  But even Barks' modest attempt at applying some logic to the situation is missing in the DuckTales version.  Instead, the Grand Kishki of Macaroon simply asks the Ducks to "weigh [their] money" -- no conditions whatsoever.  What if Scrooge brought coins and bills to the weigh-in, while Glomgold brought gold bars?  Scrooge might still have more actual wealth, but Flinty might win the contest anyway.  (As it happens, Flinty ultimately does try to use metal bars of a different sort to cheat his way to victory.)

Early in "Drain," we are constantly reminded of the importance of Scrooge bringing "every penny" of the money in his Bin to Macaroon.  HD&L, in particular, seem to be tasked with verbally hammering this point home to the audience.  Oddly, this doesn't seem to be an issue in "The Money Champ"; the boys' sole concern during the money-transport process is that the trucks carrying Flinty's wealth are larger, roll faster, and have louder horns.  "Drain" is slightly more realistic, I suppose, in showing just how difficult it actually would BE to move all of one's wealth to a remote location, especially if one of the competitors is trying to actively sabotage the other (as opposed to getting an early jump, as a "thinly disguised" Glomgold did when he messed up some of Scrooge's business ventures in Barks' story).  Given Scrooge's headlined need to keep his fortune "all present and accounted for" (and with no Fenton Crackshell around to help!), it's hard not to notice just how damn near impossible it would be for Scrooge to do so as his money drains out of the Bin, goes into the sewers, is strewn hither and thither, etc.  With the Bin's floor having been cracked by the explosion of "Bertha," I even found myself wondering where Scrooge stored his money after he got it out of the penthouse and before he unleashed his "ice cream gambit" at the start of "A Whale of a Bad Time."  That's what happens when you leave too many holes in your plot and give the viewers the freedom to fill them in as they see fit.

The alliance between Glomgold and the Beagle Boys (which will be resumed in "Working for Scales") is a precursor of a number of similar cooperative ventures to come, especially in the second and third seasons.  Interestingly, Big Time doesn't show the same initial hostility to the idea here that he did when Magica asked for the B-Boys' help in "Send in the Clones." Once the ice is broken, however, the Beagles become "thugs for hire" to an extent they rarely were in the comics.

Given the Beagles' later success in commandeering/stealing the Money Bin in the "Time is Money" and "Super DuckTales" serials, the "ultimate Beagle Boy raid" that dominates the latter part of Act One might be considered a case of severe overkill.  Of course, the Beagles used a frontal assault here, rather than chicanery, and any Barks fan will tell you that those seemingly silly signs posted on Killmotor Hill are there for a reason.  The armor-suited Big Time's appeal to standard Toon operating procedure -- producing an oversized can opener from OUT OF NOWHERE to carve open the vault door -- isn't nearly enough to counteract the hailstorm of Warners-style pratfalls that rain upon the heads of his brothers, cousins, and such.  Though some of the gags push the bounds of believability (for the quasi-realistic realm of DuckTales, that is), this is one instance in which the somewhat more exaggerated approach of "Catch as Cash Can" actually matches what we might expect (hope?) to "really" happen if the Beagles were to train all their forces on Scrooge's property.

Greg questioned the presence of a tank in the Money Bin.  Frankly, I'd have been surprised if Scrooge hadn't had some kind of last-ditch defensive device stashed away in a corner somewhere, just as he had a Boer War cannon primed to fire in the 1951 Barks story that introduced the Beagle Boys.  The later presence of "Bertha" is more problematic, given that HD&L, at the very least, would have had to have seen the giant gun brought from Scrooge's "warehouse" and assembled on the premises, and thus their "surprise" at its sudden presence rang false.  The only reason that I can think of for the ordnance overkill is to make the ensuing "shell mishap" that cracks open the Bin a bit more "visually dramatic."  Not that Barks' original depiction of the exact same scene was anything to scoff at, but it's easier to imagine a huge gun like "Bertha" causing such massive damage.  (BTW, I don't recall this scene being cut in the aftermath of 9/11.  Given that it would have been near-impossible to have explained the explosion of "Bertha" without showing the shell's progress, WDTVA would probably have had to deep-six the entire episode, an unlikely occurrence in a multi-part story.)

The "Bertha blast" is one of the first examples of a "grafting" of an incident or a device from a Barks story into an unrelated TV story line.  "Time and Money" and "Super DuckTales" would later take this notion and run (if not sprint headlong) with it.  Seeing as how the essential backstories of the two scenes are basically the same, the selective swiping works quite well here.  Scrooge's comparative demeanor during the two scenes, on the other hand...

I have to say, I have always found Scrooge's quick descent into a crazed state in "Drain" to be highly questionable.  Of course, I'm looking at matters from the perspective of a Duck comics reader; a viewer who had had little exposure to Scrooge outside of the TV series wouldn't have been as likely to have picked up on the oddity of this transformation.  But even in 1987, at a time when I hadn't read most of Barks' stories, something about Scrooge's "nutsoid" fit rubbed me the wrong way.  It just didn't seem a likely thing for the Scrooge I knew at that time to do.  I had somewhat less of a problem with Scrooge's penthouse panic attack near the end of the episode, because at that point, Scrooge really had been through the wringer (an apt metaphor, given the importance of water in the sewer scenes), and he was probably far more tired and stressed out than he had been when he was drooling over "Bertha."  The "sea monster"/"ice cream" fit likewise didn't bother me as much because it was so ridiculously over the top that it possessed more "camp" than shock value.  But if just one big Beagle threat was enough to tip Scrooge over the mental edge, then why hadn't it ever happened before?  Scrooge's reactions here aren't even internally consistent when it comes to DuckTales itself; just look at the passive manner in which Scrooge reacted to the Beagles zapping his fortune away in "The Money Vanishes."  

The "A Christmas for Shacktown" scenario of Scrooge's money caving in the Bin floor and falling "down, down" into a pit over a swamp of quicksand was positively... well, believable compared to what happens to the money after "Bertha"'s big blowup creates the floor fissure.  Due to the nature of the disaster caused by Scrooge's addition of that "one coin too many" to the Bin in "Shacktown," it was easy to keep track of where "every penny" of Scrooge's fortune was ; the fortune's physical form (coins vs. bills vs. gold bars, etc.) made no difference.  When Scrooge's money falls into the sewers, logic would seem to dictate that the bags full of greenbacks would float away, while the coins and similar heavy objects would sink to the bottom.  (Indeed, the latter is exactly what Scrooge, Flinty, and HD&L assumed was the fate of the ship's treasure in "Wrongway in Ronguay.")  Instead, the physical rule followed by the laundered loot here seems to be, "whatever makes for a good visual."  Thus, for instance, there's no logical contradiction between money bags and piles of golden coins being piled up in various locations, despite the fact that it's easier to imagine the bags (if they're filled with banknotes, anyway) amassing in a pile.  It's a short step from here to the risible scene of ice makers and ovens spitting out cash in the penthouse.

For Scrooge's sake, I hope that the utility companies in Duckburg are as forgiving as they presumably must be in St. Canard.  After playing havoc with electricity in "Robot Robbers" and "Magica's Shadow War," Scrooge (with the assistance of the Beagle Boys) causes a water pumping station to blow up here, inadvertently mauling HD&L in the process.  (Lucky for the boys that their trip through the pipes was taken in accompaniment with only a dozen or so moneybags; otherwise the weight of Scrooge's fortune would have crushed and/or asphyxiated them.)  Add payment for the damages to the station and the penthouse to the bills for buying the penthouse and fixing the Money Bin's floor, and it's a wonder that Scrooge didn't quit the contest by episode's end.

"Drain" hasn't aged that well.  The Beagle raid, for all its goofiness, is admittedly amusing, but the balance of the rest of the episode is either overexaggerated to little purpose or reflective of various misunderstandings of what makes the main characters drip, er, tick.  Happily, the framework on which the "silly skin" will be stretched in part two will be much stronger, and the firefly-fruit narrative will get back on track.  Only for a while, though.  In this serial, momentary impressions typically prove to be as ephemeral as water flowing off a duck's back.   





(GeoX) The central plot is painfully contrived: there's an India-ish country called "Macaroon" that has a magic kind of fruit that can provide illumination to replace lightbulbs and whatnot. But, according to the country's risibly accented ruler, "the only person qualified to market our fruit is the richest man in the world," which is about as flawed as premises get. But alas, it turns out that Scrooge and Glomgold are, as far as anyone can tell, equally rich, so the only way to tell which of them is "the only person qualified" is to lug all that cash down and weigh it. 'Cause it stands to reason that the one who has .001 milligrams more money is going to be qualified, whereas the other one would fatally botch the operation, right? Of course.

Actually, the charming naivete reflected in the Grand Kishki's assumption here matches up quite well with the attitude he'll display at greater length in "Working for Scales."  Risible it may be, but at least it's consistent

(GeoX)  In the sewers, the kids are easily scared away by Beagle Boys in a really fake-looking alligator suit. Just an example of poor characterization; the Junior Woodchucks I know would never be fooled so easily.

Agreed.  At least they balance out the moment of weakness by building a raft on short notice using a penknife and the Guidebook.

(GeoX) "Boy, the Department of Water and Power's gonna hear from me!" "Yeah! First fluoridation, now alligators!" Um…what? I know it's at least meant to be joke-y, but I feel about the same about this as I would if the show just casually stuck in a reference to the fakeness of the moon landings. 

Strangely enough, this joke is arguably less dated NOW than it was in 1987, given the current anti-vaccination movement.  I wonder why HD&L would be so concerned about fluoridation in the first place, given that they don't have teeth.  (At least, most of the time.  I remember the German "Donaldist" who crafted an elaborate theory as to where the Ducks' occasionally-seen teeth were "stored" when not in use.  Among his arguments was the contention that the Ducks could only develop tooth decay if they ate sweets while they were "angry or stressed," since that was the only time that their teeth would be visible.)

(Greg)  So we logically go to a look out tower in a prison as three dogsperson guards in brown security uniforms are guarding with billy clubs and the binoculars. We pan south east as Bouncer Beagle (Chuck McCann) is telling Bigtime that they need to get out of jail again as we see the Beagle Boys...  walking around in a circle as Bigtime blows Bouncer off because they are watching them like buzzards. Geez; I wonder why.

Stop the presses!  The Duckburg police department finally shows some intelligence by keeping a special eye on the B-Boys.  The extra vigilance doesn't prevent the Beagles from escaping, but, hey, you have to start somewhere.

(Greg)  So we head to a red fox (!!!) wearing a red suit with a pencil in his blue cap throwing a ball and jacks on the desk. Then he hears a weird bong and in through the door runs Scrooge demanding to know if this is the department of water. The fox blows him off as this is an oak counter top and asks how he might serve him. Scrooge wants the blueprints to the water systems or he's ruined. You know; telling someone they might be ruined isn't a good way to get something Scrooge McDuck. You sound like your panicking as the fox asks if he's kidding and Scrooge blows him off because he never kids about MONEY, MONEY, YEAH, YEAH. The fox gets upset over Scrooge's treatment of him as he has another set of blueprints as Scrooge demands answers on that while holding the fox's ears. The fox (Frank Welker) tells him some guys were in there asking for the same thing. Scrooge asks if they look weird and the fox answers that he did notice that they were wearing black masks which brings out the LIGHTBULB OF BLOODY CLARITY from Scrooge. Scrooge takes the blueprints and storms out as the fox drops on his ass with a wussy bump welcoming him despite getting no thank you from Scrooge. How nice of him....

This scene works rather well, starting with the Barksian bit of the bored fox playing jacks (wouldn't YOU find your work tedious if YOU worked for the Department of Water and Power?).  It could just as easily have been a throwaway bit to help Scrooge get from Point A to Point B, but I appreciated the attempt to inject humor into the situation.  The use of a fox as a one-shot character is also intriguing, and rare for the Duck "universe"; in the later "Down and Out in Duckburg," of course, Fritter O'Way (nee Chisel McSue) will simply be carried over from the Barks original.

Next: Episode 37, "Catch as Cash Can, Part Two: A Whale of a Bad Time."

Friday, May 24, 2013

Stevenson Plays for a Championship

On Sunday at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field, Stevenson's men's lacrosse team will play Rochester Institute of Technology for the Division III national title.  After falling at the semifinal stage three previous times, the Mustangs finally broke through to the title game last Sunday by beating arch-rival Salisbury 12-6.  Nicky and I were on hand. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 35, "Magica's Shadow War"

"Magica's Shadow War" reminds me a bit -- A BIT -- of those low-budget, black-and-white, late-50s-early-60s "horror shockers" that Mystery Science Theater 3000 parodied to such great comedic effect.  Those movies tended to be 5% "shock" and 95% verbal exposition, giving contemporary audiences plenty of time between "shocks" to get candy and popcorn, visit the restroom, or do... whatever.  "Shadow War" is also extremely talky; if you don't feel like rewatching the episode to confirm this observation, Randy Lofficier's original episode script is available online for you to peruse.  Even so, despite occasional dragginess and questionable leaps of logic, "Shadow War" succeeds in establishing a fairly legitimate mood of spooky ambiance, and the characters involved are, of course, much more interesting than the cardboard humans who "starred" in those low-budget cheapies, though Lofficier may have ultimately tried to shoehorn in too many cast members whose presence really wasn't needed.  The decision to broadcast "Shadow War" immediately after "Robot Robbers," with its similar theme of "Scrooge being forced to cooperate with lifelong adversaries," may have taken some of the edge off of the former's initial effectiveness.  On balance, however, the episode remains very entertaining, giving Magica one of her meatiest and most memorable roles in the series.

Reading the original version of "Shadow War" reveals that Lofficier and/or her story editors actually added to the planned dialogue in certain places in order to make character plots and motivations a bit clearer, while also trimming a few superfluous scenes and gags in order to bring the script in under the 22-minute time limit.  It's not hard to understand why the opening business with HD&L going gaga over Gyro's new camera was downplayed a bit; the gag with Mrs. Beakley was clever enough, but the "flashing" of Scrooge didn't really go anywhere and made little sense besides (why would an inventor, even one as... er... unpredictable as Gyro, create a flash camera that has the potential of bleaching colored objects?  Wouldn't that defeat the purpose of creating the camera in the first place?).  Still, it wouldn't have hurt for HD&L to have used the camera once during the middle of the episode, just to remind the audience that it still existed, before bringing it (or should I say, them) during the final scene in the Money Bin.  It's also too bad that no one thought to insert an "in-joke" reference linking HD&L's sudden camera-philia to their Unca Donald's newfound obsession with picture-taking (seen most memorably in "Three Ducks of the Condor").

The "shooting script" also eliminated a longish sequence in which the Ducks, having failed to stop the shadows at the baseball diamond, must elude them in a department store.  Instead, we cut from the "monster shadow" scaring the Ducks in the alley to the scene in the Money Bin where Scrooge has to "spit out" his apology to Magica for not taking her earlier advice on how to stop the shadow-scheme.  With the shadows already having been established as legitimate menaces, this excision made sense. 

Along with GeoX, I must confess to being underwhelmed at the ep's development of the shadows' relationship to the "real world" and the low level of plausibility of the evil shadow's "enslavement" scheme.  The idea that "shadows must grab the shadows" of things in order to steal them was quite clever, and the scene involving Magica and Vacation van Honk was staged in such a way that it was possible to accept that Magica's shadow was grabbing the shadow of VVH's wallet rather than the wallet itself, but I can't for the life of me understand why the shadow would want the wallet in the first place.  Was it planning to shadow-spend the penumbra of VVH's pelf at the local umbra-ella store?  To say the least, this was a clumsy way of foreshadowing (hyuck) the shadow's ultimate turn to the dark(er) side.

The shadow's transformation and announcement of its plans at the end of Act One was a similar case of an imaginative idea being undercut by some poorly-thought-out execution.  We are simply asked to believe that all shadows would be willing to follow the example of the evil shadow in wanting to "enslave" their masters.  I think that we can safely assume, however, that the shade of an evil sorceress would not be a good template to impose on the shadows of the rest of the world.  As it is, the evil shadow only acquires allies after Scrooge's stadium plan has backfired and produced an infestation of "little black Magicas."  Also, we never learn exactly what "enslavement" might mean, or why Scrooge's dime is needed in order for the "master spell" to work.  Lofficier's original script gave us even less of an explanation than did the filmed version, but neither version is really successful.  It's a tribute to June Foray's voice acting and some high-quality visuals that the evil shadow still comes across as a legitimate threat, as confused and confusing as its scheme might be.

With the "power-lighting" of Scrooge's house for the purposes of Dime-protection, we begin the accumulation of unnecessary characters -- and, in some cases, the questionable absence of characters who logically should be present.  Launchpad doesn't really contribute all that much to the proceedings; in fact, I'm shocked, shocked that Scrooge gave him the all-important job of hooking up the lights at the stadium.  Scrooge should certainly know by now that that way lies madness.  Mrs. Beakley shows up at the Money Bin during the final "entrapment" scene, along with Webby, whose presence comes completely out of nowhere.  Why would Scrooge even want to put Webby in danger like that?  (And things could have been worse; Lofficier originally wanted to throw Doofus into the mix as well.)  Meanwhile, Duckworth, who was present when Scrooge freed Magica from the closet, (rather ominously) disappears from the narrative after having been told by Scrooge to "keep an eye" on Magica, and Gyro, who presumably would have been needed to provide the Nephews with the three cameras used to "foof" the evil shadow out of existence, doesn't appear at all.  DuckTales was usually quite good about giving its major cast members something useful to do whenever they appeared, which makes the "wotthehell" use of the cast here seem all the more peculiar.

Making up for some of the slackness in the earlier part of the episode, acts two and three feature some neat set pieces -- the shadow's failed attempt to steal the Dime from Scrooge's mansion, the showdown at the stadium, and, of course, the Money Bin climax.  In keeping with the somewhat more mischievous, prank-loving side that they displayed at the start of the episode, HD&L use imaginative shadow-puppetry to foil the first raid.  Aside from being a good gag in and of itself, this nicely foreshadows (hyuck, again) how the Nephews will foil Magica's "heel turn" at the end.  The stadium scene follows in the footsteps of the earlier "shadow must steal the shadow" meme in showing that at least some thought was given to how the shadows should operate, with the boys deducing that the shadows are less powerful when the lights are off, an entirely plausible notion.  Unfortunately, this makes the lack of a coherent explanation for the evil shadow's scheme all the more frustrating.

The highlighted Scrooge-Magica alliance SHOULD have been even more memorable than the Scrooge-Glomgold teamup in "Robot Robbers," primarily because Scrooge possesses something specific that Magica wants (namely, the Old #1 Dime), and therefore, there was greater potential here for Scrooge to undergo a meaningful inner conflict.  Unfortunately, as GeoX pointed out, the execution falls a bit flat, because we never do learn why Old #1 is needed in order to bring the shadows to heel.

Despite all its flaws, "Shadow War" is still a fun watch, mostly because Magica is on stage most of the time.  Episodes like "Send in the Clones" and the later "Raiders of the Lost Harp" marry Magica's personality to far stronger plots and wind up as classics.  Here, by contrast, "the saucy sorceress" carries a less successful storyline across the finish line.





(GeoX) We learn that Ratface's new name is "Poe," which would be more apropos if we hadn't learned in "Send in the Clones" that he's not a raven by birth, but rather Magica's transformed brother. Unless the writers have forgotten about that detail. Who knows.

I think that Lofficier was aware of it, as suggested by this passage from the original script:

MAGICA (VO-CONT) Poe, vake up! Come here! 
Mr. Poe opens an eye, shakes himself, and flies next to the closet.
MR. POE Squawk? What? Squawk?
MAGICA (VO) Go und get help! Quack, er, Quick! Remember, you don't vant to spend your life es bird, no?
MR. POE (vigorously) Squawk! Nevermore!
MAGICA (VO) So, go! Find zomeone to get me out ov here!

The specific reference to the scenario of "Send in the Clones" was omitted in the final script.  Too bad.

(GeoX)  Customs officer to Magica: "Lizard tails, bat shrieks, pickled worms--no fruit! All seems to be in order!"

I can easily imagine Carl Barks using a gag like this in one of his Magica stories.  It has a certain satirical sting that he would appreciate.  Of course, 9/11 has probably rendered this gag somewhat less amusing.

(GregSo we head to the Money Bin as Scrooge talks about spring cleaning to start the day off right. I guess he had to rehire everyone after the Armstrong incident two rants ago; so it makes perfect sense. And he is doing more inside the vault as he has the magnifying glass looking for dust and debris. I only have one thing to say about this: Who in the hell gave him that apron he is wearing? That I think drops Scrooge McDuck down a notch on the dignity scale in my view. 

In Lofficier's original script, Scrooge was also supposed to wear an "Aunt Jemima" kerchief on his head.  How many "dignity notches" would that cost him?

(Greg)  Louie breathes a sigh of relief and the all clear as Scrooge decides to go to the Money Bin for safety since it's airtight. One problem: If it's airtight; then the ducks would die due to lack of oxygen. 

That would be a problem, wouldn't it?  It's also rather surprising that Scrooge didn't keep Old #1 in the Bin for safety's sake before he went out to do battle with the shadows.  Not until "Dime Enough for Luck" will we see Old #1 stored in the Bin (and with elaborate defenses, to boot).  Even that arrangement will prove temporary, as the dime will be right back in McDuck Mansion in "Once Upon a Dime."

(Greg)  [The evil shadow] gets blown out of existence and I just realized something: If Scrooge hasn't told the nephews to return the camera to Gyro; they could have poof[ed] her out of existence without Magica's help or the dime. So this was awfully contrived after all. 

This might still make sense if you accept that Old #1 wasn't strong enough to completely destroy the evil shadow, but was strong enough to weaken it to the point where the cameras could finish the job.

Next:  Episode 36, "Catch as Cash Can, Part One: A Drain on the Economy."