Walks like a Duck, Quacks like a Duck

So, yeah. DuckTales 2017 is, as many predicted, almost more of a re-adaptation of the Duck comics than of the 1987 show. It has the optics: Donald is present as a key team member, Scrooge is in his Comic colors, there are Ben Day dots all over the place. Whatever. But, Jesus.

I mean, seriously, this goes straight back to the comics. And not just Carl Barks. I mean Don Rosa. The first episode combs through Life & Times, with portraits of Scrooge’s parents, a lineage chart for the nephews that includes Hortense and Quackmore, and just generally way more awareness of and investment in the comic mythology, as focused and enhanced by Rosa.

Scrooge and Donald carry something more like their comic personas. Donald is about 60/40 Comic Don versus Cartoon Don here — still recognizably the guy who you can depend on to throw walnuts at Chip & Dale out of spite, but also a more layered character. The Comic Donald is a simple, lazy, fairly unlucky guy way out of his depth in every part of his life. Part of his laziness seems to be a zoned-out avoidance because he can’t handle the life he’s been dealt. But, importantly, when he’s really needed he always steps up and is willing to get, you know, shot in the face if need be to live up to his obligations or protect the people he cares about. He’s a sympathetic character in the way that Cartoon Donald could never be. He also speaks like a normal person, with his own curious idioms and speech patterns, as opposed to an incomprehensible squawkbox. That cartoon element is still present in 2017 Don, because people would flip out if they changed it, but it seems to be played as one more of a million things that makes the poor guy’s life hell. He can’t even get a sentence out, and his lack of an ability to communicate only fuels his bad temper.

Scrooge, meanwhile, is back to being the largely self-centered, irresponsible figure he is in the comics. The first episode goes to great lengths to contrast the two uncles’ parenting styles; whereas Donald is paranoid and overprotective because of his own experiences with life, always on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop, always sleepy from his against-his-nature vigilance against the horrors of life that may at any moment pounce on his nephews, Scrooge just doesn’t give a damn. He has no regard for danger, and often stirs more trouble than he expects or immediately knows how to handle. But he’s sure he’ll think of something. Which totally Freaks Donald Out.

Long ago he used to assist Scrooge on his adventures, but by the time we catch up here he’d long since distanced himself from Scrooge, to the extent that the nephews barely seem aware that Scrooge was a relative.

Since this is 2017, there also seem to be some ongoing story threads. The very final shot of the pilot ought to be interesting, as it dives right into the biggest unexplained mystery in all iterations of the Duck universe. This is like “why exactly did the Doctor leave Gallifrey?” business. A thing that even Don Rosa steered way clear of touching, except in a passing manner in a late chapter of Life & Times.

It also is consciously DuckTales, in that it borrows from the earlier show’s iconography enough to call itself DuckTales. And then borrows from Darkwing Duck, and TaleSpin, and Goof Troop. More than just DuckTales, the show seems to be quietly setting up a new Disney Duck Animated Universe.

You’ve got most of the original DuckTales characters who aren’t useless or annoying (no Doofus or Bubba, I so hope — have yet to hear anything), but they’re remixed and employed in functional roles here. Duckworth is pretty much gone (though I’ve read he’ll appear in some form, later?), while the more-vital Launchpad and Ms. Beakley step into that void and split his duties. Beakley is more vital because she comes with Webby — who now, instead of being, uh, plot luggage, has been upgraded to an audience surrogate — so she’s been made a more general and much more capable personal assistant. Launchpad is just a general hired hand/chauffeur, no matter the vehicle or task. He’s incompetent at everything, but he’s game and presumably he’s inexpensive.

Then you’ve got the odd changes brought about by the 1987 series, which the 2017 one just runs with. Glomgold is not just Scottish (instead of South African, as in the comics); he’s so Scottish that he constantly talks about how Scottish he is. Which… come to think of it may be overcompensation. Is he genuinely Scottish? The way this is set up, I’d be unsurprised to see a long game in here.

Anyway. This is really well-done. The pilot at least is very smart and well-written. They seem to have thought this project through in insane modern showrunner sort of detail, with hints and seeds of future adventures and character development and revelations strewn all over. And nearly everything the characters do, every plot that they embark on, has its roots in character, and in the show’s basic themes (which are themselves rooted in character). You know how Buffy‘s monsters are all projections of the characters’ anxieties and the emotional things they’re going through that week? This is kind of like that, except with Barks/Rosa style adventures that illuminate family tensions and anxieties.

Like, in the pilot, Donald reluctantly leaves the nephews with Scrooge, whom again they’d never met and it seems like Donald has rarely if ever mentioned around them, issuing him (not them) a stern warning to behave while he’s off, because he needs someone to watch them while he goes off on a job interview. That interview happens to be with Glomgold, who Donald is dense or self-absorbed enough not to clock as Scrooge’s arch-nemesis. So while Scrooge gets carried away and winds up on an adventure with the nephews and Webby, Donald ends up becoming Glomgold’s own personal Launchpad. All of which is structurally really cool and which serves as a perfect canvas for exploring what’s going on within and between all the characters, and why it is that Donald is so pissed off with his uncle.

Which… may or may not have something to do with that final shot, again, and that unspoken mystery at the heart of Duckdom.

The Reign of Terror

So the first season of classic Doctor Who is now complete on DVD — or as complete as it will get. The seven-part story Marco Polo is missing, and is represented on DVD by a half-hour cut-down photo reconstruction set to the surviving audio track. And then there is the case of the season finale, the six-part The Reign of Terror. As with Marco Polo it’s one of those early-era historicals, this time set during the French Revolution. For years the serial was missing, but in the 1980s four of its six parts were recovered from a film archive in Cyprus. Cypress should also have held copies of episodes four and five, but they were destroyed during a Turkish invasion in 1974. Such is the way of things.

As with the Patrick Troughton serial The Invasion, the serials two missing episodes have been animated for DVD release. New pictures are set to the existing audio, and bingo; we have a completed episode. Whereas The Invasion was animated by famed British studio Cosgrove Hall (responsible for Danger Mouse and Count Duckula, among other series), The Reign of Terror was primarily animated by a guy off of the Internet who calls himself Otaking.

The results are, shall we say, mixed. The discussion that I have seen has focused on the rapid cutting in episode four, which goes against the directorial style of the existing episodes (and indeed most 1960s TV). People have also singled out lots of weird touches like candles that cast shadows of themselves on the wall, or an odd cutaway to a character’s crotch as he rose from a chair. The animation definitely has its problems, but I wouldn’t consider any of that a major issue.

The biggest thing that stands out to me, to the extent that I find the animation hard to watch, is a drastic difference in character models from one shot to the next. In one scene it took me a while before I realized that two separate shots depicted the same character, as the geometry and shading looked so completely different. I just thought there was another unspecified character in the room.

The other problem, which ties into the above confusion, has to do with dialogue. Due to various decisions it often takes some concentration on my part to work out who is talking, and to whom. Although I understand the impulse to avoid as much lipsync as possible, as it is very time-consuming and tedious work, there seems to be little attention here to the flow of the script. Halfway through a sentence we will cut to a shot of the character standing up with his mouth closed. Sometimes a character barely opens his mouth before we switch to an extended reaction shot. This is particularly evident in conversations involving Hartnell; it seems whenever another character is talking all we see is close-ups of Hartnell’s face. A couple of times — and this is almost cute — the moment a character begins to talk, the top of another character’s head passes in front of his mouth.

To make it stranger all of this is contrasted with sudden jump cuts to an extreme blow-up of a character’s mouth. That… still doesn’t help me follow the discussion. It just makes me feel like I’m being jerked around.

The thing that confuses me about the character models is that there are only limited drawings for each character. Then the animators apply a morphing effect to the portraits to add lipsync and generally make them less static. I can understand the model shifting if we’re talking about hundreds, or even dozens, of frames of animation. Here it’s just a few individual drawings. Seriously? You can’t draw six pictures of William Hartnell with the same general facial geometry? And then once you have the pictures you can’t be bothered to animate a complete sentence?

As I say, I don’t so much care about the specific editorial choices. So the editing jumps around more than it should from a historical perspective; okay, whatever. So long as the cutting doesn’t interfere with my moment-to-moment comprehension, I’ll accept the stylization. The visuals are a new product, and you have to give them some creative leeway to do what the animator feels they need to do. What bothers me about the above two issues is the extent to which they interfere with my comprehension, and generally make the viewing experience more work than it should be.

When I watch The Invasion, I almost feel a twinge of disappointment when the animation ends. I’ve shown it to a couple of people, and they were enthralled with episode one — and then totally lost interest when it hit episode two and switched to a live-action archive TV show. The animation was that good, on its own merits. Here, I was relieved when the animation ended and I could relax my attention. I don’t think I would show this to someone who wasn’t already invested in the era, as I don’t think it reflects well on the series. It’s better than recons or the narrated episodes, in that I do feel that I can follow the story now — but I still have to work at it.

Maybe I could accept that better in the middle of a more interesting story. As it is, this is a simple and rather uneventful tale — so all the while that I’m focusing, I can’t help but wonder if it’s worth the effort. By no means is this a poor story, and I’ll take even a slightly dull Hartnell over great swaths of the show’s history. What rankles me is the juxtaposition. If Reign were to swap animation teams with The Invasion, I think I could handle things a little better; a story as still and simple as The Reign of Terror demands the clarity of a Cosgrove Hall, while a story as jumbled as The Invasion could withstand a little more shaking.

To my understanding the animation team here underwent several changes in procedure as the project went along, and to be sure the end of episode five is much steadier than the start of episode four — but the above problems persist to the end. Previously, on the basis of the Invasion animations, I was eager to see their work on the remaining missing episodes. Now I approach the prospect with more caution.

All-Star Superman

Without actually checking the credits, the animation here reminds me strongly of the fellow who did Aeon Flux and that cartoon about Alexander the Great. It has that same lanky angularity, and the almost grotesque caricature of the human form. Granted, if it is his work then it’s a more refined and mainstream version of his style.

As with most of these direct-to-DVD DC movies, this appears to have been based on a well-known arc from the comics — a sort of a “what-if” tale that explored the last months of Superman’s life as he slowly died of a sort of super cancer brought on by over-exposure to the normally healing radiation of our sun.

It’s all well-done enough, and it passes the time. There’s something lacking in the pace. After the first act, the movie meanders with little hint as to where it wants to go or what exactly its narrative priorities are. My wife wandered away halfway through, and I was half inclined to follow. Perhaps it’s due to condensing the events of a lengthy serial into a single short narrative, as there’s a fair amount procedural storytelling: first this happened, then this happened, then this other thing…

The ending is a bit understated as well, which in itself wouldn’t be a problem. When one has spent half the movie waiting for something relevant to happen, though, one does expect the conclusion to repay that patience. I’m not sure if that happened here.

Ah well. It’s pretty good. I’ll still take Justice League Unlimited any day.

Toy Story

Two things now stand out to me about Toy Story. Although it comes from 1995 — just two years after Jurassic Park, four years after Terminator 2, and the same year that the original PlayStation and Sega Saturn hit the shelves, ushering in the first wave of mainstream 3D game hardware — the movie still looks and feels current.

The goal was never photo-realism; the animators set certain stylistic boundaries and worked within them. So with the exception of a few organic characters — the boys, the dogs — the animation holds up perfectly well. And since the movie isn’t so much about toys or contemporary culture as it is about self-awareness and change, its story only grows more effective as one ages and comes to appreciate all the levels of Buzz and Woody’s emotional problems.

The only other comment I’ve got right now is about Pixar’s weird form of social commentary. Time and again the writers play nonhuman characters against humanity. Pixar’s humans are callous as a rule, oblivious at best, and at worst a malevolent force. They take the form, I suppose, of your typical Greek gods. Familiar human characteristics are instead assigned to non-human characters — toys, animals, robots, creatures.

You see it in the Toy Story movies, where humans are revered as gods and devils. You see it in Finding Nemo, where they’re a natural force like the wind and rain. Wall-E is all about working against Man’s callous nature. Monsters, Inc comes from another angle and positions them as a natural resource.

So thematically, Toy Story is the template for nearly every Pixar movie to follow. Yet somehow, going back to it after all these years, it avoids feeling generic or overly familiar. I guess that’s the talent at show over there in Alameda. Pixar may have a standard formula, but they put in enough detail and nuance that each product stands as an original, genuine story. That’s some good craft, there.

The Car Door is Miyazaki

The Castle of Cagliostro is better than I expected, even knowing its reputation. What struck me after seeing it — aside from how reminded I was (and with good reason) of Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door — was how imperfect the movie was. How imperfect Lupin seemed, in comparison to how he might have been. After all his effort and his skill and lucky chances, he, indeed, in a move which must put a gleam in Robert McKee’s eye, fails his mission.

This is part of the standard screenplay arc; the hero must rise to a height, then fall so he might rise again. See any boxing movie ever made, and note the moronic misunderstandings every couple must face three-quarters of the way through a romantic comedy, just so the man can make it up to the woman and they can realize how stupid they were for acting like completely different people just long enough to create tension. The difference here is, although we have a pretty good idea that Lupin will succeed, somehow, in the end, it never is certain. When he does succeed, he does it not because the plot demands it (although again, it does) so much as because he has earned it: not because he must, but because he might.

This works because we see him fail. Lupin is a flambuoyant man. He swings for the ropes, and although he knows what he’s doing, there’s a certain element of risk built into this behavior. Sure, Lupin can control himself — but that’s different from being in control. And with as small a window of success as his stunts need, if it’s not one darned thing it’s another.

Take a look at the episode on the rooftop, where Lupin intends to cross the several hundred yards of empty space, to a tower. He has one plan; life has another. That he is rescued by a sight gag — should we always be so fortunate — does little to dampen the near-disaster he put himself into. By the time Lupin does so suddenly, and arbitrarily, fall, we are prepared for it. We aren’t prepared in that we expect it; just in that it comes from somewhere. Yes, these things happen — and oh damn, he almost made it. It feels unfair, and frustrating — because we know on another day he might have succeeded. Chances are, he would have. Those are just the odds. What is all the more upsetting is that it is not until then we fully realize all that had been riding on Lupin. Even his archantagonist, Zenigata, had been on his side; with Lupin’s failure comes that realization so many antagonists come to: that without the protagonist, they have no reason to be.

The solution, then, is to stack the odds. The rest of the movie plays out much as one might expect: all the characters play to their strengths; the world is set to its normal order, perhaps a little wiser, perhaps a little sadder. We get perspective on the unending battle of the TV series. We feel wistful. And the oddly-silent credits roll.

Still, what we got is better than it need be. Better than, maybe, it should be, for what it is. A movie based on a long-running cartoon: this ain’t the kind of place you expect to go looking for truth, much less of the standalone sort. The characters jump into play with no real introduction; if you don’t already know the cast, why would you be watching a movie like this? No introductions are really needed, though. Relationships are implied, and used to the extent that the movie implies them. No one needs announce himself, as the personality is evident. One look from Lupin, and you know who Fujiko is — even if you don’t, really. She isn’t in the movie enough for it to matter, anyway. If you’re still burning for information, she clarifies the matter towards the end, saying nothing that first look didn’t.

I don’t know if I need to see this a dozen times. Then, for what the movie is, maybe it would be a failure if I did. It is worth the time, however.

Oh, and Konami almost certainly borrowed from this when designing Castlevania.