Friday, June 28, 2013

DUCKTALES RETROSPECTIVE: Episode 41, "Sphinx for the Memories"

I don't recall being overwhelmed by "Sphinx for the Memories" when I first saw it during the initial week of DuckTales syndication.  It was nice to see that Donald would not be forsaken after the events of "Three Ducks of the Condor," but Michael Keyes' story struck me as more than a little childish in spots.  While I still don't think that "Sphinx" is as strong an animated mummy-and-pyramid caper as, say, TaleSpin's "In Search of Ancient Blunders," I've come to respect it as a very solid effort with a few legitimately spooky moments and a fairly serious underlying theme.  The fact that Donald manages to subvert his essentially passive role as the corporeal receptacle for the spirit of the evil "Garbled One of Garbabel" and inject a little bit of his own inimitable personality into the mix doesn't hurt the ep's cause, to be sure.

There's little doubt in my mind that "Sphinx," despite being produced relatively late in the game, was chosen for airing during the first week of syndication for the reason given by Pete Fernbaugh:  "It's almost as if Disney was trying to reassure the Barks and Disney purists (two separate groups, in most cases) among the audience (at least those who hadn't already tuned out) that after Monday's game-changing, canon-bending menagerie ["Send in the Clones"], the series would still be evoking classic Barks and classic Disney [by guest-starring Donald and sticking to the main Duck cast]."  If the idea was to throw doubting fans a bone, then it would seem that a portion of the audience tossed the offering back, heedless of how off target the return throw was.  In the course of his notorious diatribe against the show, the L.A. TIMES' Charles Solomon complained that "Sphinx" resembled a Scooby-Doo knockoff, full of "familiar "scary" monsters moaning in familiar voices [and] the same chases with the villains falling into barrels."  As we've seen, Solomon had a legitimate complaint but was invoking it in the wrong place.  (He seems not to have had his barrels in a row, either.)

The "villainous" Donald being captured by two law-abiding representatives of Garbabel

There's no real evidence that Carl Barks' "The Mummy's Ring" (FOUR COLOR #29, September 1943) directly influenced "Sphinx," but the two stories do contain more noteworthy points of similarity than one might expect.  Perhaps surprisingly, despite its slightly more "cartoony" surface trappings, "Sphinx" compares quite favorably with Barks' first "solo" Duck adventure:

(1)  In both (mummy?) cases, the antagonists are "sore at modern life" (though, unlike Barks' Bey of El Dagga, it is unclear whether the Garbabel cultists are even fully aware as to what "modern life" entails) and plan to stage an elaborate ceremony to restore "harmony" to their "universes."  The Ducks' ultimate goal is to stop and/or reverse the effects of the ceremony.  One would think that it would be hard to top Donald, Dewey, and Louie's "last-second barge-in" in "Ring" insofar as drama is concerned, but the "transformation scene" in "Sphinx" fully matches it.  The dissolve from the moment Donald is possessed to the scene in which the moonbeams produce the "force field" and Don literally becomes "The Garbled One" (complete with what Pete called a "beak extension" and I call a tiger-stripe beard) gives me the creeps to this day.

(2)  The Ducks get involved in both stories when one of their own is caught up in the drama (Huey by accident in "Ring," Donald on purpose in "Sphinx"), and they are subsequently placed in some degree of peril as well.  The fact that a child is in danger of being buried alive gives the scenario in "Ring" an extra dollop of seriousness, but against this must be weighed the greater variety of perils -- some of which are quite serious indeed -- that Scrooge and HD&L must face before they can save Donald.  You might argue the latter point, but, given a choice between shipboard kitchen duties, a few bullets in an Egyptian street, and a handful of arrows on the Nile on one hand and two death traps, a maze, and a rampaging mummy on the other, I think I know which gauntlet I would be more willing to brave.

(3)  Both stories end with the unraveling of the main mummy menace.  Here, I don't think that there's any question that "Sphinx" handles the matter in a much more memorable way.  Of course, this is largely because the mummy in question is a REAL "restless spirit," as opposed to a petty crook in disguise, but "Sphinx" deserves credit for playing this scene entirely straight.  For all of "The Garbled One"'s supposed evil, you find yourself feeling happy for him as he frees his friend Khufu and finally achieves his eternal rest.  (I do have to wonder, though, why "Garb" didn't try to locate Khufu when he was originally freed from the jar in the "Donald's transformation" scene.  Perhaps he was compelled to inhabit Donald's body due to the alignment of the moon and stars, or something similar, and only got free of the influence after Scrooge and HD&L reversed the spell.)

Most of the other classic Disney Afternoon series, of course, took their own individual whacks at the mummy plotline.  While "Sphinx" is unquestionably superior to Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers' "Throw Mummy from the Train" -- which seems to have been written entirely around the sight gag that comprises its title -- "In Search of Ancient Blunders" trumps it for several reasons: the presence of a great supporting character in the "furson" of the peppy archaeologist Myra, the participation of Don Karnage and his Air Pirates, the clever use of the original idea of an upside-down pyramid.  Interestingly, "Blunders" was famously censored during Toon Disney rebroadcasts to remove scenes in the "Chamber of Eternal Night" involving the characters striking matches, while the blue-pencilers appeared to have little problem with Scrooge repeatedly "flaming" the audience after he and HD&L have been dumped into the first death trap.  Sure, Scrooge is older than either Baloo or Myra, but should that make so much of a difference?  By the same logic, older drivers should always be portrayed as being safer than middle-aged drivers, and we all know that such is not the case.

"Sphinx"'s stature among DAft's ensemble of Egyptian epics is boosted by Keyes' deft use of Donald and the menace of the mummy.  As Pete points out, giving Donald the chance to play all-powerful King allows Keyes to exploit various character traits that have long been a part of Don's animated and comic-book personalities:

The very construct of the script plays to Donald's Everyman desires. Donald went off to the Navy, yearning to be more than a small-town dud. Yet, in the Navy, he's just as stifled by the authoritarian figures around him as he was in Duckburg.  Arriving in Garbabel, he's enticed and seduced with the opportunity to be "more." Being possessed with the spirit of the Garbled One doesn't supplant the true Donald, since he yearns for all that the Garbled One can give him--power, adulation, respect. Being possessed plays to the true Donald's dreams of being special, superior, and marked with success like those around him. He is the Garbled One in (ahem) spirit.  Having the Garbled One's essence also plays into Donald's weakness for the seven deadly vices. He can't be trusted with success or superiority because his natural reaction to newfound power and responsibility is usually abuse.

I think it is telling that the possessed Donald's "abuse" of his subjects doesn't involve standard-issue oppressions such as indiscriminate torture, excessive taxation and/or regulation, or the establishment of corvees.  Instead, Don insists upon symbolic respect by demanding that his subjects salute him, as opposed to bowing and scraping.  Like the cockeyed plan to demonstrate his rule over North America as possessor of "The Golden Helmet" by charging people money for each breath they take, this sign of symbolic submission is both believably silly and entirely in character for someone who yearns to be "Numero Uno" but would rather enjoy the mere fact that he's in that position than do or represent anything truly meaningful as a consequence.  The only approach that might have worked even better would have been for the plot to have followed the outline of a Barks "mastery story," with Donald proving to be super-effective as a ruthless monarch before falling victim to hubris and convincing the Garbabelians to ditch their social system and embrace the "modern world" as a corrective.  With Scrooge already established as the star of the show, of course, this latter approach would not have been viable, but think how good of a Quack Pack episode it might have made.  (Or not, given the state of WDTVA by 1996.)

While Donald's real DuckTales personality -- that of the subservient, bumbling seaman who's itching to rise in the ranks -- struggles to come to the fore, Khufu, in the grand tradition of Barks' Bombie the Zombie, remains mindlessly focused on his monarch-mashing mission.  Khufu's ferocity is somewhat obscured by the character's slightly exaggerated appearance, but make no mistake, he/it means business; far from simply "moaning in a familiar voice," the mummy crushes a statue and punches out a pillar while trying to kill Donald and Scrooge.

Keyes handles his fairly straightforward plot in an equally straightforward manner, but he does leave several bandage-ends dangling in places.  The reaction of the two Garbabelians in the Bugazzi market (were DT being shown regularly today, I can see that latter name being dubbed over) to their sighting of Donald suggests that he is the first candidate for the position of "The Garbled One" that they have ever seen ("For generations, our people have waited!"), yet the power-hungry high priest Sarkus mentions "other" contenders that have appeared in the past (and, presumably, were "gotten rid of" by Khufu at some point, which would also account for the Garbabelians' fear of mummies).  It would have been nice to have learned something more about how far these "chumps-who-would-have-been-King" progressed along the path to power before the Garbabelian equivalent of the trap door in Scrooge's office swallowed them up. 

The devious guide's trapping of Scrooge and HD&L in the ancient ruins has always struck me as somewhat contrived -- not the act itself so much as the mere fact that the ruins HAVE a death trap and maze associated with them.  Who the heck installed that stuff, and, if the purpose was to "get rid of" people snooping around or interested in exploring Garbabel, then how could the Garbabelians be sure that the interlopers would stumble upon the traps in the first place?  The convenient presence of a "Garbled One" headdress in the Bugazzi shop suggests that Bugazzi may have some sort of cottage industry related to the legend of Garbabel (think Colonel DuBarque's gift shop in "Launchpad's Civil War"), so I'm sure that local civilians have searched for Garbabel in the past, but would they always have done so in concert with an untrustworthy Garbabelian guide?  That seems highly unlikely.  The death trap and maze do provide an extra measure of suspense to the episode, but they could also be regarded as a sort of animated "busywork," giving Scrooge and HD&L something to do before they arrive in Garbabel and join the main current of the narrative.  (We never even see how Scrooge and the boys manage to escape the maze, so the peril can't have been that meaningful, right?)

For the most part, I agree with Pete's contention that the final dialogue between Scrooge and the chagrined, "de-mystified" Garbabelians was intended to be a comment on the potential dangers of following "magic and superstition"-dominated faiths.  I would, however, point out that, even within DuckTales, this sort of skepticism tended to wax and wane.  In "The Duck Who Would Be King," for example, the prophetess Sen-Sen is presented in a positive light vis-a-vis Toupay's conniving leader Mung Ho, who ridicules the entire idea of a coming "Great One" even as he keeps the populace in thrall thanks to his "gentleman's agreement" with the horde of bandits.  To be sure, Sen-Sen makes a joke along the way of not relying entirely on "destiny" to make her prophecies come true, but she certainly has more in common with the Garbabelians than she does with the hard-headed Scrooge.  Kimba the White Lion (to take just one example) was much more consistent in terms of portraying its main character as a skeptic in spiritual matters... and, even then, Kimba ultimately came to regard the mysterious Mammoth of Mt. Moon as an ally.

It is also interesting to note that our first glimpse of the priestess and the other Garbabelians (who, judging by the size of the crowd, can't number more than 50-100 or so) shows the priestess reminding her fellow believers of the prophecy that "The Garbled One" would return.  Assuming that those in attendance must represent the absolute hardiest of the Garbabelian die-hards, it sounds to me as if she might be trying to head off some amount of growing dissension in the ranks.  Evidently, the Garbabelians' faith was getting shaky even before Donald came on the scene.  Sen-Sen, by contrast, is trying to get her people to heed a counter-cultural prophecy, only to have the "power that is" attempt to squash her.  I'm not arguing against Pete's points here, just pointing out that the reality of the situation as portrayed on screen was somewhat more complex.

"Sphinx" doesn't represent the series' best use of Donald, but I come down firmly on the side of those who call this a very Barksian story, in the positive sense of the adjective.  The mere fact that it is executed so well gives the lie to the Charles Solomons of the world who claimed in 1987 -- and continue to avow to this day -- that DuckTales somehow "betrayed" the spirit of Barks.





(GeoX) "Sphinx for the Memories?" Mmm...sorry, but I'm afraid the committee's going to have to disallow that one. 

Actually, it's not so far-fetched a choice as you might think, given that the Garbabelians' goal is to resurrect memories of their king and implant them in Donald's body.  Of course, TaleSpin featured a couple of eps in which the Hope-Crosby axis was explicitly revived in furry form... 

(GeoX) There's a lot of fun stuff with Donald as leader, first enjoying the life and then trying to escape. I was quite taken with this, so much so that when the perspective switched back to Scrooge and the kids I felt mildly disgruntled.

See my previous comment about the "filler-type" nature of the whole death-trap/maze business.  I think that you were picking up on the same vibe that I was.

(Greg)  So we go to the scene changer and head in town [Bugazzi] as Dewey is asking about Donald's timing along with Scrooge and the other nephews. Man; Dewey's voice sounds weird today...

All of the Nephews sounded more shrill than usual here.  (Maybe Russi Taylor was subconsciously trying to compete in "Duck-speak" with Tony Anselmo.  Good luck with that.)

(Greg)  So we head into the desert with heel #1 and heel #2 riding three camels with the middle camel holding the basket of the kidnapped Donald. They manage to make it to the palace (complete with Crescent Moon which would be painted out of anime dubs I might add).

Though I think that the crescent was meant to be a "generic Middle Eastern design," as opposed to a symbol of any particular religion, I doubt that it would have been used had the episode been made today.

(Greg)  The moon is right for midnight as heel #1 and heel #2 take Donald away stage left. They go into the Garbled One's private quarters as Donald struggles; but then notices about seven virgins inside. Oh boy! That is not going to go over well today. 

The initial "Hiya, toots!" scene would probably make the cut, given Donald's established personality (read: libido level) in many of the cartoon shorts.  The later "using a babe as a footstool" scene, however, almost certainly would not.  Besides, Toadie already has dibs on that whole routine.

(Greg)... the high priest name is Sarkus (Sacos according to Chris; I think Disney Captions got this one right) who is voiced by Larry Moss (Chris has it as Peter Cullen; but USIMDB has him as Larry Moss) 

I had all sorts of issues identifying voice actors and character names here.  I still prefer Khufu to the "official" Ka-hoo-fu because of the connection to a real-life Egyptian pharaohSarkus, however, is probably better than Sacos because of its link with "sarcophagus" (but in that case, shouldn't it be spelled "Sarcos"?).  I was pretty much flying blind on Larry Moss and Joe Ruskin, and, in the case of the former, I even had the wrong Larry Moss in mind; there is another Larry Moss who is well known as a dialogue coach.

(Greg)  We then cut to the area where the pyramid is going to be (with a helpful bill board just to make it worse for Scrooge and the nephews) as Scrooge proclaims that they have made some progress which is just about ten blocks tops. Dewey proclaims that it will only take them 28,611 years to finish.

The "Pyramid Coming Soon" billboard is a clever gag, though a little anachronistic given that the Garbebelians aren't supposed to know much about the outside world.  One has to wonder where the Garbabelians got the raw materials and tools to build that thing.

Next: Episode 42, "Time Teasers."


Pan Miluś said...

I found this episode incredible creepy when I was a kid.

When I was young had this episode tape on VHS along with "The Golden Flece", "Time Teasers", "Riders of the lost harp", "Working for Scales" and maybe one more along with few "Rescue Ranges" episodes and I use to watch them over and over and I always foun it very scary.
I was 5-6 years old but memories are still there...

Comicbookrehab said...

I learned how to light matches on my own after watching the number of times Scrooge uses them in the series. Maybe it's a good thing he didn't carry a lighter!

Did Solomon ever watch Ducktales again after seeing the show become a monster hit? His opinion reminds me of a lot of critics who would rather have just the material made during their time preserved and catalogued and rebroadcast.

Chris Barat said...


"Did Solomon ever watch Ducktales again after seeing the show become a monster hit?"

I don't know whether he did or not, but he did see DUCKTALES THE MOVIE... and, no surprise, lambasted it as a betrayal of Disney's animated-feature tradition. I'll give him credit for consistency: he hated RESCUE RANGERS and DARKWING DUCK as well. The mere thought of Disney "lowering itself" to doing TV animation seemed to be more than he could stand.