07 September 2012

DISNEY MOVIETOONS: DUCKS AMUCK

In the wake of the management crisis at the Walt Disney Company in the early and mid 1980s - a story of some detail and great interest to those with a love of Hollywood dealmaking and animated entertainment alike, that has been told fully elsewhere - one of the many new ventures the company's new overseers started pursuing was television animation. This was a far more radical proposition at the time than is even imaginable all these years later, when some of the most important and respected animation in the world is being produced for TV; back in those days, "television animation" was as much as anything a euphemism for the cheapest, most technically ungainly kind of half-assed scribbling suited only for the slack-jawed, undemanding children who made up the entirety of the medium's target audience. Not a place for the company that, even in its decline, prided itself on the most expensive, detailed animation being produced in America.

But onward the plan went anyway, in the hopes that Disney would be able to raise the quality of American television animation simply by refusing to sink to that level. A new division of the company was created, in part to distance the rehabilitating Walt Disney Feature Animation from its cheap and possibly failure-bound sibling, and on 14 September, 1985, the first two products of this exciting new direction premiered on two different networks: The Wuzzles and Adventures of the Gummi Bears. They both flopped: the first flickering out after a feeble 13 episodes, the latter managing to patch together enough Saturday mornings to hit the 65-episode threshold that's the standard length for an American cartoon to survive in syndication.

Undaunted, the company backed away from awkward original ideas involving fantasy animals, and returned to the stable of classic Disney characters to create a third series, DuckTales. Conceptually based on the Uncle Scrooge comics created by the legendary Carl Barks, the show was the hit that the television animation needed to justify and perpetuate itself, and some 30 or 40 series later, the rest is history; though I do not think it's mere nostalgia if I claim for DuckTales the honor that it is the best of all these many series.

Towards the end of the series' run, the decision came down to produced a theatrical feature, and thus we finally come to the point: DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp, released in the summer of 1990, the first animated film ever released by Walt Disney Pictures that was not a production of the feature animation department. Instead, it was credited to something called "Disney Movietoons", which is exactly what it sounds like: the ad hoc name given to protect the "real" films from the unmistakably cheaper production animated in its entirety at Disney's newly acquired animation studios in France. What plans, if any, existed for the Movietoons brand are lost to history; whether a whole string of features based on Disney cartoon shows were hoped for, or if it was going to be the temporary solution it proved to be. In the end, only two features were ever released under that banner.

So! let us consider the first of these peculiar little orphans in the Disney animation universe. The plot, in its broad form, is familiar from many episodes of the TV series: the wealthiest duck in the world, Scrooge McDuck (Alan Young) is on a treasure hunt with his nephews Huey, Dewie, and Louie (Russi Taylor in all three cases); he crosses paths with a colorful antagonist; his fortune is jeopardised as a result. It was a formula that had worked like gangbusters since the character's four color debut, and changing it would have pointless as well as angering to the series' fans; all that Treasure of the Lost Lamp does in increase the scale of the conflict a bit by emphasising a pronounced layer of fantasy that was present in the show, but not to such an excessive degree.

This is, in fact, a sort of adaptation of the "Aladdin" story from the Arabian Nights, two and a half years before Disney's "actual" Aladdin: the treasure Scrooge is hunting for this particular trip is the legendary lost hoard of the thief Collie Baba, lost in a Middle Eastern desert; unbeknownst to the ducks, tha hoard includes a magic oil lamp. Unfortunately for them, someone who does know this is the lamp's previous owner, an immortal shape-changing sorcerer named Merlock (Christopher Lloyd), content to let Scrooge and company do all the hard work of finding the lamp for him, whereupon he intends to... take over the world? It's not even a bit clear, actually, what motivates Merlock beyond having a spectacularly bad mood. Anyway, the ducks find the lamp and accidentally release the genie (Rip Taylor) inside; wishing-time shenanigans ensue, followed by a pitched battle against Merlock on his floating death palace.

First things first: "Merlock" is a stupid name. Second things: for all its charms, most of them bundled up into the first third of the short feature, Treasure of the Lost Lamp is not really a top-tier DuckTales story. A lot of this has to do with the villain: he's far too intense and grim and "big", a visually dramatic character performed without a lick of ironic detachment by Lloyd, who'd be a much better fit for one of Disney's fairy tale adaptations than a comic adventure romp, the primary mode of DuckTales as a series and of this movie itself. And a lot more has to do with the genie, a rather irritating character whose function as a comic character falls into two camps: 1) it is funny when Rip Taylor is shouty; 2) a character who has been buried underground for several hundred years is good for all sorts of wacky fish-out-of-water misunderstandings about the 20th Century. Both of these contentions are wrong.

Still and all, the core of DuckTales is itself sturdy enough to withstand a lot of narrative missteps, particularly with Alan Young's commanding and authoritative performance of Scrooge leading the way. The opening sequence of the film, where it feels the most like the best of the show and, in a refracted way, like the best of the comics, is pretty great matinee-style adventure filmmaking, riffing on Raiders of the Lost Ark in much the same way that Raiders was admittedly a deliberate riff on Barks's Scrooge comics. The bulk of the increased budget that came with being an expanded theatrical project was plainly spent on the first 20 minutes, which probably can be explained in terms of the old animation trick that the most time and energy is spent animating the "biggest" sequences: the setpieces, or in this case, the opening that needs to justify the viewer's spending time and money watching something that has to be obviously better than what they can get at home.

Indeed, ignoring completely any matters of complexity, the opening sequence just plain looks better: the colors are deeper, and the shading is more detailed-

-than later on in the movie, when it returns to the settings (i.e. pre-established background plates) of the original show, and the palette and draftsmanship drop down to the level of the TV cartoon.

Let us not for a moment forget that by the standards of late-'80s/early-'90s TV animation, DuckTales was at the very top of the heap; so to accuse the movie of dropping down to that level, I'm not implying that it's some out-of-control horror show. It's certainly not as good as what Walt Disney Feature Animation was producing at that time (for a little bit of sobering context: Treasure of the Lost Lamp came in between The Little Mermaid and The Rescuers Down Under), but for a movie released the same summer as Jetsons: The Movie, it holds its own. This is not, of course, the standard to which we'd prefer to hold anything with the word "Disney" attached; and there are certainly places in Treasure of the Lost Lamp where it becomes unbearably chintzy, mostly involving characters talking - too many times in the film, we hear dialogue that does not apparently come from the mouths of any onscreen characters, and there is one particular instance (a character coming to after having passed out, screaming, and passing out again, where the sounds she makes lead her movements by at least a whole second) that bothered me on a deep and abiding level even when I was eight years old.

The film also suffers from the affliction common to new animators - which the staff certain was, for it is a matter of record that Treasure of the Lost Lamp, as the first vaguely "prestigious" project attempted at any of Disney's satellite studios, represents the first big project for a lot of important future animators who had not previously gotten a chance to show off - of overly-exaggerated movements, a certain tendency to flailing, or to emphatically gesturing when a small movement would suffice. Characters either fidget endlessly, or aren't animated at all; nobody stands still, and it's this element as much as anything that makes it hard for me to take the film as a serious work of animation for all ages, but reluctantly files it into the children's animation ghetto where, i'faith, DuckTales itself resides.

Though at least, and this is not a trivial thing, for ghettoised animation, it's still a fun movie: plagued by a story that doesn't really go anywhere, anchored by new characters who aren't remotely as appealing as the stock company of heroes and sidekicks that don't even get a mention. But it's not the worst kiddie flick out there by any margin, and unlike many of the projects Disney Television Animation, in one guise or another, would put its name to in the next two decades, it doesn't seriously besmirch the good name of the House that Walt Built.

14 comments:

franklinshepard said...

Looks like I spoke too soon. And I'm guessing now the second one will be A Goofy Movie.

I only saw this once when I was a kid, and so it was nice to get it on DVD when it finally came out a couple years ago. But yeah, I really liked the opening sequence, and then the movie basically went nowhere. Still, I'd rather watch this than Dinosaur or Chicken Little!

Tim said...

I'd definitely put it comfortably in the third quartile compared to Disney's actual features. Even a loosey-goosey DuckTales plot is still a DuckTales plot, and I was married to that show as a child.

You're dead right on the other title, of course; just a little amuse bouche to warm up my animation-discussing palette before I dive into the heady esoterica of "This does what to Beauty and the Beast's chronology, exactly?" and "I beg your pardon, their child wants to be a mermaid?"

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Time for a li'l blog-whoring? As a huge fan of Disney comics, I decided a while ago that I needed to actually watch the Ducktales canon, which I'd largely missed out on as a child due to coming from a family without a TV. So I watched every episode and also the movie, and reviewed them here (the Darkwing Duck reviews are stalled for now, but will continue someday! Probably!). My reaction was decidedly mixed, but there are certainly some great episodes.

As for the movie, though...well, I agree with you that it has its moments, but on the whole, I probably like it a bit less than you do. I was really looking forward to it because it seemed to offer the chance to present a real, sustained Ducktales narrative--as opposed to those TV "movies" that were really just four or five episodes strung together, neatly segmented for syndication. That didn't work out too well, though. The story's on the aimless side, Gene's pretty annoying, and the less said about Merlock's comedy-racism sidekick Dijon, the better.

I hath heard tell that there were initially plans to make multiple Ducktales movies, but this initial offering's lackluster reception put the kibosh on that. Too bad--I want to see Fenton on the big screen, dammit!

Hallvarður Jón Guðmundsson said...

It's only been three years and you're doing another Disneython? Way to relive your past glories!

Just kidding, this is going to be awesome. I've seen less than half of the planned movies and those I've seen, I haven't seen in ages.
I loved the Duck Tales movie when I was a kid, then I didn't see it for a long time and couldn't find it anywhere leading me to fear that I had just dreamed the movie and it didn't actually exist. But of course I later found physical proof that the movie was an actual thing and not just a figment of my imagination, so my fears were allayed.

Btw, why isn't 'A Goofy Movie' a part of this? It was produced by both Walt Disney Feature Animation and Walt Disney Television Animation, according to wikipedia. It should fit the bill, no?

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Btw, why isn't 'A Goofy Movie' a part of this? It was produced by both Walt Disney Feature Animation and Walt Disney Television Animation, according to wikipedia. It should fit the bill, no?

Reading is fundamental! :p

Trish said...

I happened to see this for the first time after "Aladdin", curiously enough. I found the parallels between the two movies pretty fascinating, almost like this was a test run of sorts.

And I guess I will be the one who stands up for Merlock as a cool villain. Who, sadly, has a pretty weird and stupid name. And oh, ye Gods, his sidekick...

K Wild said...

How was Gummi Bears a flop if it lasted five seasons? I remember being obsessed with that show when I was young.

Tim said...

GeoX- Blogwhore away! I'm actually really excited to read your take on the show, and started a little bit already.

Hallvarður Jón Guðmundsson- Ask and it is given.

Trish- Part of me believes it almost must have been a prototype Aladdin - there are design affinities - but that just seems so weird, y'know?

K Wild- The "five seasons" stat isn't nearly as impressive as it looks, given the weirdness of cartoon programming. Put it another way: it took five years to hit the episode count that DuckTales, Rescue Rangers, and TaleSpin hit in just one.

But Gummi Bears got a lot of airtime in my childhood, too, so I do not judge it for being an underperformer, merely observe.

KingKubrick said...

You blew the brain out of the back of my head when you dropped that tidbit about Raiders stealing from Ducktales. Raiders, Aladdin and Inception; the Duck Tales property is massively influential. I rewatched this movie last year. I felt I should revisit it as the show was a childhood staple. It was a pure nostalgia ride and my critical faculties failed me. Nothing but warm feelings for this one.

Douglas Evasick said...

I used to watch this movie all the time but I have not seen it in ages! I do remember the opening being the most fun though and loved their escape through the raft. I guess I loved this movie too because I was addicted to Disney in the Afternoon as a kid and never missed Ducktales, Talespin, Rescue Rangers, etc if I could help! Loved all their theme songs too!

Andrew Testerman said...

I'm actually a little bummed that Disneytoon never tried to make a TaleSpin feature. After Ducktales, it seems like the most natural property to turn into a feature-length narrative—it has the best set of regular supporting characters among Disney series not named "Gargoyles" and its '30s matinee tone already proved effective in carrying a feature with both Raiders and Ducktales. Maybe they didn't want to chance confusing audiences about why Baloo is suddenly a bush pilot? I didn't mind so much, but then again TaleSpin was my first introduction to Baloo, Louie, et al.

Hallvarður Jón Guðmundsson said...

GeoX -Ach, having now read the review a bit more carefully I see that Tim toatally dropped a hint that he would next review the Goofy Movie. Sorry 'bout that, folks.

javi75 said...

I used to love "Gummi bears", "Ducktales", "Talespin" and "Rescue rangers" as a kid.

Having re-watched them a few years ago on dvd, it seemed like I couldn't be entertained by "Rescue rangers" anymore. "Talespin" is very uneven but I could never disown it because of the Deco-ish production design.

I would agree with you that "Ducktales" is the best of the lot. I don't know the criteria used to divide the episodes in the three dvd sets, I guess it's production chronology. The first two sets have outstanding (for TV) draftmanship and animation, the episodes in the third set are clearly inferior in that regard (outsourced to a different house, I believe) but I found the scripts to be the best ever in the show.

Regarding this movie, I don't have a clear memory of how much of it I've managed to watched, which cannot be a good thing.

Pan Miluś said...

The movie is just ok but looking back on the show it feels generic and uncreative (the shows "gene in the lamp" episode had way more imagination and twists put into it). I like Dijon but that's about it...