Friday, May 17, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 34, "Robot Robbers"

You know, I never really appreciated just how many times a DuckTales episode title card featured McDuck Mansion...

With "Robot Robbers," we get our first adaptation of a Barks story since "Lost Crown of Genghis Khan."  By this time, the stiffness and sludginess that plagued many of the early Barks adaptations have been leached out of the series, and the freer approach is on clear display here.  Michael Keyes takes the essence of Barks' tale of giant, Beagle Boy-controlled rob... er, "person-shaped vehicles" (side glance at GeoX) on the loose and gussies it up with a somewhat more believable backstory and a subtle, and clever, moral (Scrooge worrying that he's no longer as "hep" to new business opportunities as he used to be).  The multiple references to the events of "Armstrong" (not to mention the physical references -- note the e-x-t-r-e-m-e similarities in the basic designs of Armstrong and the quartet of colossal constructors) create a natural bond between the two episodes, but the quality of Keyes' script for "Robbers" is unquestionably better, particularly in the area of humor. Intriguingly, however, Barks' original story and the TV adaptation wind up having almost exactly the same strengths and weaknesses.  (BTW, if you're interested in reading a relatively inexpensive version of Barks' story, you can find it in the second volume of Gemstone's CARL BARKS' GREATEST DUCKTALES STORIES collection.  Check out the preface for a couple of familiar names.)

Keyes' decision to make Glomgold the ultimate source of the robots (unlike GeoX, I'm going to dispense with the quotation marks; after all, what else could one possibly call these gizmos?) is such a natural one that I'm surprised Barks didn't think of it first.  It would even have made sense in terms of Barks' development of Flinty from an antagonistic, yet basically honest, rival in "The Second Richest Duck" to a ruthless baddie in "So Far and No Safari."  The Glomgold of "Robbers" hovers somewhere between these two poles; he breaks no laws by outhustling Scrooge and hiring Gyro to build the robots, yet he bullies disguised apple-saleslady Ma Beagle and brags about taking candy from babies.  Can one imagine this Glomgold chiseling to win the money-piling contest in "The Money Champ"?  Certainly -- but he's not yet a lost cause, as is later demonstrated by his decision to work (albeit reluctantly) with Scrooge to stop the robot rampage.

I also find it easier to buy Keyes' conception that a private enterprise (Glomgold Construction) commissioned the robots for a very specific purpose.  In Barks' story, the fact that the Mayor of Duckburg was so obsessed with keeping the robots from harm even after the Beagle Boys had stolen them never seemed to fully jibe with the notion that the robots had been created with the exceptionally vague mission of "easing man's burdens."  If the government is going to lay out that much money for such a project, then wouldn't it stand to reason (at least, in the comparatively idealistic world in which Duckburg resides) that it should have a much clearer notion of what the robots were intended to do in the first place? 

Gyro and Launchpad's willingness to work for Flinty isn't all that surprising when you consider that, in the context of the series' production order, this is the first time that they have ever been seen interacting with Glomgold in any way.  Unless Scrooge had explicitly warned them about Flinty's nature -- which, as noted above, is not yet completely fallen -- their cooperation with Glomgold would seem to be a perfectly respectable method of trying to scratch out a living, especially when you consider the wages that Scrooge normally pays.

Just as Glomgold is not yet a deep-dyed villain, Ma Beagle is not yet the slightly buffoonish figure that she became in certain second-season eps.  GeoX's description of her as "a very entertaining mastermind type" seems spot-on, arguably even more so than it was during her first appearance in "Hero for Hire."  Here, after all, she has to trigger the entire scheme by herself, using both mental and physical resources to secure the use of a robot and break her boys out of the slammer.  Given that Gyro was apparently able to control the behavior of the other three robots by pulling the requisite levers in his own robot, I'm actually surprised that Ma didn't try to pull off this caper all by herself.  As we see at episode's end (not to mention the end of "Hero for Hire"), Ma's "family ties" aren't that strong, and her decision to waste time (and the robots' power) by window-shopping before attacking the Money Bin bespeaks a rather high level of self-centeredness, so she would certainly seen capable of performing a solo act.   

As in "Hero for Hire," Ma teams up with Bankjob and Babyface here, suggesting that such an alliance might become a regular occurrence.  It didn't, quite, though Bankjob came pretty close; he appeared in Western guise with "Grandma Beagle" in "Once Upon a Dime" and was one of the Beagles robbing the bank with Ma at the conclusion of "Till Nephews Do Us Part."  "Time Teasers" was the only episode in which Bankjob played a meaningful role without Ma.  Even Babyface was more detached from Ma's symbolic umbilical cord, thanks to his extra role in "Send in the Clones."  Needless to say, I would have vastly preferred that Keyes stuck to the complete "Hero for Hire" template and used Bebop/Bugle as opposed to the bizarre... um... conflation of Burger and Bouncer that we were presented with here.  I have no earthly idea how such an obvious goof managed to slip under the radar at this late date.  I mean, wouldn't Chuck McCann, who voiced both characters, have pointed out that something was wrong during the recording session?  I suppose it's possible that the voice track was recorded far enough in advance of the animation process that the voices weren't completely settled yet, but SOMEONE should have caught this error and asked for dialogue relooping somewhere along the line.

The similarities between Armstrong and Gyro's robots become even more apparent when we see the monstrous mayhem-makers in animated action. The stiff-legged loping, flapping arms, and constricted movements are almost identical; only the scale is different.  Granted, it would have been fun had the animators really let themselves go and given the robots the freedom of movement to engage in the fisticuffs and wild action that we saw in Barks' story...

... but what the behemoths lack in pizzazz, they make up for with clever bits of characterization.  The infamous "giant robot hockey game" (with Glomgold as the unwilling puck) is the sequence that everyone remembers...

... but we shouldn't forget the scene in which the police have surrounded the robots and the Beagles reflexively raise their arms in surrender before suddenly remembering that they now possess a size advantage (Bankjob: "The bigger we are, the smaller they are!").  The sheer familiarity (thanks to the opening credits) of the "high-five" slap (followed by the mildly risque comment about the Beagles being "tired of being Number 2") should not obscure the appeal of yet another cute gag. 

The limited nature of the animated robots' physical activities does become a debit during the attack on the Money Bin.  In place of Barks' robots' enthusiastic use of custom-built sledgehammers and memorable "slam-dunk" of the Bin (which reveals that Barks' Bin, like the DT Money Bin, doesn't have a basement)...

... the DT robots do little more than paw at the Bin to reveal its hidden infrastructure (which, BTW, the animators seem to have a little trouble drawing consistently).  Effective, and probably more realistic (if such a word can even be applied to such a situation as this), but certainly not as artistically gripping.

Just as the robots are running out of juice, however, the ep starts its finishing kick, and a good finish it is for the most part.  First, we get the expected bitching between the newly allied Scrooge and Glomgold, with Flinty's expressed desire to bill Scrooge for "ruining" his robots in the reservoir providing the scantiest sort of "fig leaf" to justify Glomgold's ultimately getting stuck with the bill for repairing the city.  This may not satisfy a lot of viewers, but at least Keyes tried to foreshadow the ending; Barks, by contrast, showed the Mayor billing Scrooge simply because he was the only citizen with enough money to pay for the damages. 

Gyro's use of diverted power to zap the 'bots is also carried off well.  Between this, the smashing of half the city, and the breaking of the reservoir dam, Duckburg suffered a fate here not unlike that endured by St. Canard in any number of Darkwing Duck episodes.  Duckburg being a slightly "realer" place, a good deal of the damage occurred off-camera.  I wonder how everyone in Duckburg felt about having their power disrupted in such a dramatic manner.

Greg raised a question regarding the staging of the climactic "entrapment" scene inside the loading bay.  I think that I can see why he was confused on the issue of where the Ducks' platform is relative to the robot.  At first, it briefly looks as if the Ducks are at breast height, but, in all subsequent shots, they are the same height as the robot's head, which would mean that they would not be covered by the cement if the cement buried the robot up to its neck.  A more serious question, at least to my mind, is the following: Is this facility the same as the robots' storage shed, which (1) looks completely different and (2) was partially destroyed when the Beagles busted out?  I don't think the "G-Barn" is the promised "second largest money vault in the world"; the robots had barely started to build the bank complex before they knocked off for the day.  So what could it be?  Can you imagine the parsimonious Glomgold building two such massive structures when only one might do?

The ending scene is slightly unsatisfying for the reason given by GeoX, but, as noted above, Barks didn't wrap his story up much better.

I think it's safe to say that, if you like one version of the "Robot Robbers" story, then you will like them both -- and I do.  The only reason that "Robbers" ran during the first week of syndication was probably because it was a follow-up to the visually splashy "Armstrong," but the episode does manage to hold its own in some fairly distinguished company.





(Greg)  Flint then shows Scrooge towards another area as it is the cement pouring procedure. So we see in the far shot as the robots grab four cement mixers and rips them from the trucks (!!!) and squeezes the cement into the foundation like piping a cake. One of the mixers drops on the ground and is stepped on by a robot as Scrooge is about to blow Flint off; and then he eats cement as he gets buried in a cement statue. HAHA! I am so loving this as Flint can only smile on that one. He knocks on five second drying cement (of course) as he goes to Gyro and orders him to break the old stiff out. Gyro agrees and invokes the finger jackhammer and jackhammers the statue breaking the cement to break the stiff free.

This sequence is a weird mixture of the inspired and the inappropriate.  Thanks to his decision to specifically make the robots machines designed for construction, Keyes has the freedom to improvise on that basic idea and show "themed" gags, as opposed to the more or less scattershot "mankind's-burden-easing" gags depicted by Barks.  However, I really don't think that the "Scrooge in cement" gag is a DuckTales sort of gag; it seems more appropriate for Darkwing Duck or some other more comedic WDTVA series.  (I'm sure that many of us can think of characters from such series that probably deserved to get buried in cement, if not subsequently deposited in the nearest river.)

(Greg)  Bankjob then invokes the finger drill on the green door (good thinking there guys!); but it stops as he wonders if he is losing his touch. HAHA! Baggy [or whoever] tries some biting; but no dice there either. We cut to Ma Beagle looking in the book of doom and finds out that the batteries are low. How did she deduce that when she couldn't [originally] comprehend the book to save her life?

Maybe she located the "Quick Start User's Guide" in the interim?




I'm feeling a touch nostalgic today, so I'll close with a trio of late-80s DuckTales-themed tidbits for you to savor.

Here's an early illo for the first season of The Disney Afternoon, circa 1988.  They were still getting the particulars of TaleSpin sorted out at this time.

Vintage DuckTales commercial bumpers and commercials from 1989.  Advertising a comic-book convention during a DT broadcast?!  If only Disney had taken the hint during the Disney Comics era.

...And you just knew that I was going to post this one sooner or later.  The most fondly remembered DuckTales commercial, perchance?  It would certainly be my choice, though the "Quiet on the set!" commercial with HD&L and the Beagle Boys and the "original million-dollar duck" (a reference that people probably had a hard time getting even then) featuring Scrooge, and the one with Webby that I posted a while ago are also particular favorites.

Next:  Episode 35, "Magica's Shadow War."


Mike Russo said...

This is one of my all-time favorite episodes. It also doesn't hurt that TMS put their A-unit on it, as there's a really strong, rubbery look to the animation that I love.

Pan MiluĊ› said...

I like this one a lot as well... But I so hate the voice goof they had with Burger.

Then agian I did work on one animated show when we had two supporting bear characters who where father and son. Their desing was almost the same exept son character had a difrent color shirt and father had glasses... and yet, we got ad least two episode when the director just didn't care and swich their desings making the glasses-whearing one the son. I pointed out the obvious goof but it was to late since it was already animated with roles reverse...

So yhe, such goofs are sometimes hard to avoid.