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CHILDHOOD REVISITED – Quack Pack

In an unexpected move, Quack Pack smartly undercuts it’s marketing – that is, Disney’s attempts at courting the youth demo masks the show’s commitment to classic wackiness and absurdity.

As mentioned in The Mighty Ducks write-up, Disney Animation was really spreading itself thin at this point. Between Gargoyles, Goof Troop, Bonkers, Aladdin, and others, TV animation was going through the last phases of the Golden Age before falling apart. Disney must have seen the writing on the wall, which meant executives doubling down on appealing to the youth demo, which, according to some metrics which will never see the light of day, meant emphasizing young, cool male kids doing cool things like skateboarding, surfing, rollerblading, and anything else that the X-Games and the Winter Olympics made obsolete. So retooling Donald’s nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, as hip, Y-Gen teenagers seemed like Disney’s sad, embarrassing attempt at Poochie-fication. (By the by, I love that Poochie-fication is now a thing.)

Here’s the thing: the problem with Poochie-fication isn’t that characters are just developed solely to appeal to “extreme” young boys. The problem, as Milhouse complained in the infamous Simpsons episode, is that they never get to the fireworks factory. In other words, it’s one thing to make “cool” characters. It’s a whole ‘nother thing to make them so cool as to never put them through the wringer. Youth-oriented characters ought to explode and be crushed, squished, and popped as often as the lame squares that surround them; just because a character is designed to be cool doesn’t mean they’re absolved of flaws and comedic physicality. Poochie would have made a nice addition to Itchy & Scratchy if the sunglasses-and-backwards-cap wearing canine had a rocket shoved up his ass.

So for all the ads and gimmicks of the beanie-wearing fowl triplets of yesteryear rocking out on surfboards, quads, rafting, and skateboards, Quack Pack is not afraid to show that these extreme youngin’s are, well, stupid as shit. A lot of their ideas are portrayed as problematic and terrible, and they have real, unfavorable consequences. Quack Pack shows these youthful spirits engaging in whatever old, white producers deem is “happening,” and I’m sure it made a good reel to satisfy their desire for market branding, but the truth is a lot more intuitive. Quack Pack is more interested in crazy, absurd ridiculousness, setting up such seemingly “radical” moments that lead ultimately to crazy, typical, classic cartoon shenanigans (and in some ways, they herald in the new approach to cartooning).

This is by design. Producers Kevin Hopps and Todd Shelton were more focused on developing the show much more similar to Disney’s classic Donald Duck shorts, and the more you watch it, the more obvious it is that Quack Pack is more interested in Donald Duck than his nephews. It’s through Donald Duck that Quack Pack truly thrives, presenting an opportunity to not only engage in an homage to the classic Donald Duck filmography, but to also create something different, something so absurd and wacky that all that “extreme” content becomes moot. The “cool” stuff is window dressing. The comedic meat of Quack Pack is in how crazy and ridiculous things truly get.

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One of my favorite moments in Who Framed Roger Rabbit is the dueling pianos scene between Daffy and Donald. It’s a great showcase for Disney’s and Warner Brothers’ most audacious, craziest, and careless ducks, but as it serves as a good example of Daffy’s daffiness, it also reminds us that Donald Duck is a dick. I don’t mean that in a personal way; this, too, is by design. Donald is a self-centered, greedy (and, by some classic cartoon standards, a misogynistic) jerk, since the comic angle is in watching Donald be a dick, get his comeuppance, get irrationally angry, and get his comeuppance again. It’s formulaic, but animated shorts are defined by formula, and the only thing changes are the various insane circumstances upon which the formula is placed.

Over the years the image of Donald has softened, not necessarily on purpose (Donald’s classic shorts are easily accessible), but mainly due to various, random forces – the lack of popularity of the Carl Banks/Don Rosa comics, Disney’s tight grip of exposing its classics in the pre-Youtube days, the emphasis of Mickey. Donald has become more of a physical comic presence, comically abused in things like Kingdom Hearts, or his few appearances in Ducktales (his softer side also developed since he’s taking care of his nephews), or that one cameo in Bonkers. Yet Quack Pack is attempting to return Donald to his monstrous side, showing him as arrogant, vengeful, psychopath. It’s somewhat of a jarring experience, but it’s arguably truer to the character than we expect.

So when we see Donald go to extremes in “The Really Mighty Ducks,” it takes a moment to accept that yes, Donald has become a supervillain hellbent on attacking his superpowered nephews when they refuse to clean their room. There is no reasoning or “coming to an understanding” between a surrogate father and his progeny – he literally threatens the entire existence of the galaxy to win an idealistic battle over a chore. It’s the nephews that have to quell the fight and learn their lesson. Granted, it’s their fault, but there’s no inherent lesson about responsibility, and Donald certainly isn’t here to impart it. He wants a thing done, and will eradicate all life to see it through, not because he’s an overbearing parent, but because he’s Donald, and he’s crazy.

That’s what gives Quack Pack a surprising edge over its “rastification.” It’s pushes past its image and into absurd, overtly wacky territory, with some of the craziest storylines ever conceived – they’re technically storylines out of superhero and/or serial comics, re-purposed for suburbia. They come across disturbed military reprobates, pathetic alien menaces, typical shady businessmen, and a host of mad scientists, among others, and the cast more or less stumbles into the events, pushing through the insane plot with an almost-reckless abandon. And while all the characters contribute to the events in their own unique ways, it’s Donald who truly has the metaphorical floor.

That’s all not to say the other characters don’t have a role. There’s Daisy Duck primarily, Donald’s girlfriend and a reporter for “What in the World” news. Daisy doesn’t really do much plot-wise (except in “Gator Aid,” a particularly interesting episode where everyone is at their most chaotic, reaching an Arrested Development-like crescendo), but she’s a great character just to watch, going toe-to-toe with Kent Powers (a wildly conceited reporter and ostensibly the show’s antagonist), figuring out mysteries, keeping Donald in (relative) check, and just doing things on her own terms (say what you will about the Disney Afternoon, but they create fantastic female characters). And then there are the triplets.

Huey, Dewey, and Louie are clearly the icons in which Disney hoped to build the show upon. They were given everything a desperate executive would give a “teenager” – sports jerseys, backward caps, dated slang, a “love” for all things cool, extreme, and radical. You can’t deny it, and when you see them run off skateboarding, snowboarding, quading, or surfing, one can’t help but eyeroll. Yet, even through all that crap, the writers do bother to give them individual personalities (even if they’re a bit inconsistent). Huey is the “cool” one, most concerned with image and success; Dewey is the smarter one, who usually comes up with the plans; Louie is the jock and meathead of the group. And for all of their focus-grouped-designed ‘tudes, the show does portray them as characters who fuck up, who (more or less) care about Donald and Daisy, who have their own individual desires, and who, when push comes to shove, work together quite well. Louie in particular became a favorite if only because of how some of his stupid ideas/observations matched many of the meatheads I knew in high school. Dewey instantly regrets his “oh so cool” idea of shoving hot-flavored food into the gas-tank instead of enjoying their high-speed ride. And Huey “oh so slick” dating moves only lands him in trouble when he finds out his crush is planning world domination.

Even despite those ‘tudes, one can’t help but admit that, well, they kinda do act like teenage brothers. Louie loves his comics and obsesses over the “radicalism” of vigilantism (“None Like it Hot,” “Shrunken Heroes”). Dewey is caught up in his emo desire to be alone and obsesses over practical jokes (“Ducklaration of Independence,” “The Boy Who Cried Ghost”). Huey is caught up in his self-image and obsesses over TV personalities (“Heavy Dental,” “Huey Duck, P.I.”) And they all learn that it’s all bullshit in the end, which is good in terms of the characters and its audience growing up. The three shoot the shit and often gets into fights – “Pardon My Molecules” is a particularly good one, where the escalating conflict between Huey and Dewey reaches ridiculous heights, involving cannons and mortars – but when they work together, it works the best, reminding those of us who knew them when they wore beanies that they are a team. I quite like their wacky “get one over on the bad guy” schemes, where one of them will call out a plan that they seemingly rehearsed, and execute it flawlessly in cartoon fashion.

Make no mistake though, Quack Pack always comes back to Donald, and Quack Pack makes it it clear that Donald is the star. He’s the “protagonist” in a majority of the episodes, and the writers are a hell of a lot more interested in knocking him down so he can, despite all likelihood, save the day, like in “All Hands on Duck,” in which he returns to his Navy days and tries to be impress Daisy but screws up more and more. In “Snow Place to Hide,” Daisy knowingly uses her appeal to nab an interview (another example of Daisy being awesome), but Donald gets so jealous that it manifests itself into a green-suited wolf goading the duck on a rage (and that this wold has its own personality is icing on the cake; a hilarious moment where the wolf casually munches on croutons had me in stitches). And in “Ready, Aim… Duck” and “Long Arm of the Claw,” Donald actively lies and fucks up, drawing the ire of “The Claw,” yet in every moment that he finds himself in a safe place, Donald gloats and ridicules his pursuer with a sadistic glee that would be terrifying if it wasn’t so funny.

The best episodes blend Donald’s incredible behavior with the nephews teenage repertoire; while the show doesn’t exactly engage in the importance of family and relationships, the implication is there underlying the over-the-top breakdowns when such family relationships are in disarray. Donald is borderline evil in “Need 4 Speed,” where he fears his nephews being behind the wheel, but tricks them into building a car just so HE can drive it. “Tasty Paste” is the opposite, where Huey, Dewey, and Louie ignore Donald while they set off on their own, selling a gross-but-tasty goo. “Phoniest Home Videos” have the boys realizing they gone too far when they record their uncle performing stunts for money, especially when the producer tries to cut them out of the deal. “Ducky Dearest” has Donald becoming too upset over his parenting when he sees his nephews sneaking around; he thinks they’re up to no good when they’re just planning his birthday party, which has him going through more and more ludicrous crap to keep them in line. Quack Pack uses the insanity of its stories to show that the four of them work best as a family unit; if that breaks down, then there’s nothing left but chaos.

Which leads me to “Can’t Take a Yolk.”

Quack Pack isn’t afraid to play into insane cartoon tropes to prove a point, or to just have fun with some of its more crazier episodes. “Can’t Take a Yolk,” however, explodes beyond even the most over-the-top episodes into something else entirely, as it plays into the whole “retro” idea with a “before its time” deft hand that propels it to another level. It tackles the various ideas of practical jokes, punishment, and responsibility, where the nephews, after being punished for a silly gag, shirk their work detail via a random salesman. This salesman is not a thematic devil, a Faustian figment like Donald’s jealous wolf; he is simply a catalyst, a reason to introduce an de-aging concoction that Donald applies to himself by accident. And as the teenagers do their cliche teenager things – hit on a cute girl while a nearby bully intimidates him – in walks a younger Donald Duck. But he isn’t simply younger; his physical design and animation has been redrawn to his rubbery, stretchy 1930s designs, complete with sailor suit. The way the episode plays this is brilliant. It seems like a random, almost-another Donald Duck; it’s only as the teens realize its the real Donald do the viewers as well. Young-Donald is jerky, metaphorically and physically – abusing his antagonists and being egregiously mischievous like his old school self, and it’s a remarkable, self-aware, glaringly different moment that makes it a standout way beyond any other episode. Younger-Donald soon transforms into a baby, returning to the show’s current design and resulting in a Mindy-and-Buttons-esque escapade of the triplets keeping baby-Donald safe (and the episode has a weird, Invader Zim-type non-ending), but the middle of the episode is worth noting, suggesting a Quack Pack much more in-tuned with its premise and execution than one may believe.

Quack Pack is a smarter, funnier show than its reputation, but it’s not necessarily a better show than its reputation. That statement may seem at odds with itself, but it’s good descriptor. Not to say its a show filled with brilliant, subversive ideas within every cel, but it’s self-aware enough to understand what, exactly, it’s up against when it comes to its three “too cool for school” teens. It presents Huey, Dewey, and Louie as Poochie-fied as they come, only to poke and prod at all those “cool” elements, searching for ways to make them look like the immature fools they are (or, at the very least, attempting to give their behaviors some kind of base of humanity to build from, although that doesn’t always succeed). But it’s Donald’s show, and Quack Pack makes sure viewers know it: he wouldn’t have it any other way.

[PS: There are two elements I wanted to note. First, Quack Pack seems to be the second Disney Afternoon show that utilized title cards (the first being Timon & Pumbaa), which goes to emphasize Disney’s desire to go more cartoony and broad with its output. The second element is a bit more subjective, but Quack Pack seems to be the first Disney Afternoon show to have distinctive A and B-stories. Most of the shows I’ve watched had one main conflict that all the characters more or less had to deal with; here, there’s a distinctive line between the main conflict of an episode and whatever secondary conflict that another character would be involved with. I just thought that was interesting.]

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Gargoyles “Eye of the Storm/The New Olympians”

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After last week’s mediocre outing, Gargoyles takes a step back on course with “Eye of the Storm” and “The New Olympians,” although it’s a small one. I’ve mentioned earlier that unlike more fans, I prefer the one-off type episodes, where the gargoyles crew find themselves in an insular mystery and have to solve it via brain and brawn, usually with the help of a one-off character. Of course, the core mystery has to be sustainable; both these episodes function fine but lack the heft to make it intriguing throughout.

Gargoyles 2×36 – Eye Of The Storm

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“Eye of the Storm” in particular is as straight-forward as it comes, with a simple conflict and an obvious twist. The crew arrives in Norway, and they meet a guy in a wizard robe, who just wants the Eye of Odin. Well, the guy turns out to be Odin himself, but he doesn’t really reveal himself to be so until late in the episode, but by that time everyone’s just throwing fists at each other. There’s a bit of an “Idiot Plot” here, Elisa’s too damsel-in-distress-y, and the two Norway residents are fairly useless.

Also, Goliath punches a polar bear.

Granted, the polar bear isn’t a real polar bear, but Odin in disguise. And you don’t actually see Goliath punch the polar bear – the moment is framed so that Goliath punches the screen (the screen acting as the bear’s POV). But it is what it is, and “Goliath punching a polar bear” is the kind of thing the internet lives for, so it’s cool-funny to see, and I’m glad this was done in the pre-Internet days.

I digress, but in some ways the whole “Goliath punches a polar bear” represents the off-key nature of the episode, which moves through its beats harshly to get to the crux of the episode, which is when Goliath puts on the Eye of Odin and becomes corrupt and obsessed over his role as protector. Over the course of the show, Gargoyles has presented various angles to its theme of finding a purpose, and obsession over one’s purpose would make a fantastic direction to take the show. But the process to get there is flawed, it doesn’t tell us much about Goliath, and it doesn’t say much about the idea of taking one’s purpose in life too far, other than “don’t.”

Odin and the world tourists meeting for the first time and immediately coming to blows (without any attempt at a reasonable discussion) is way outside Gargoyles’ normal purview. The show tries to wave this off by declaring Odin being out of touch in how to deal with mortals, but it probably would’ve just worked better to portray Odin as being a giant dick. By ending the episode with Goliath and Odin coming to an understanding, it raises the question why Odin just didn’t come out and say, “Hi, I’m Odin. That’s my eye. Here’s some magic shit to prove I’m who I said I was. Can I have my eye now?”

Because we wouldn’t get all the fighting and battling, hence the Idiot Plot. We wouldn’t get to the crux of the episode either, where Goliath adorns the Eye of Odin and levels up, going way overboard with his inherent desire to protect, trapping Elisa, Angela, Bronx, Gunther and his father (who do nothing but warm Elisa up at the beginning of the episode) in a cave and instigates dangerous weather to pin on an angry Odin. Angela discovers this (Angela seems to be developing an uncanny ability to notice details when things are way off), and everyone tries to get Goliath to pull back from that kind of power, but it’s proven elusive. The only way is put Angela in harm’s way, harm devised by Goliath himself, who realizes how far he has gone, saving her and ripping the Eye of Odin off in the process.

It’s okay stuff, but the lack of discussion of any type between Goliath and Odin makes it hard to stand up for the episode, and Elisa just gets captured a lot, which is always a detriment to her as a character. The more questionable thing here is the Eye of Odin itself. They say the Eye brings out your basest instincts to its most viciously aggressive point, and they point to Fox and the Archmage as examples. But… that’s not exactly what happened with them, is it? It’s a stretch to say Fox, internally, metaphorically, whatever, is a raging man-beast. And the Archmage was so pumped full of magic drugs, it’s hard to say what the Eye specifically did to him. It’s a bit of a retcon, and an unnecessary one. The Eye is just a powerful piece of magic that does crazy shit. There’s no need to shoehorn-in a specific purpose. The Eye of Odin is just a thing – leave the “purpose” stuff to the characters. You may have had a stronger episode.

Gargoyles 2×37 – The New Olympians

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And now Gargoyles will tackle racism.

I have yet to see a quality animated episode of a cartoon that focuses on the differences between “people,” tackling the social tension between groups defined by those differences and the antagonistic history behind it all. Part of it is sheer laziness, all coming down to “treat everyone the same!” type lessons, which tends to be muddled with the actual content of the episode. Part of it is the episode’s length – it’s hard to get into the nuances of such an issue with only 22 minutes. Part of it has to do with the crew being mostly comprised of middle-upper class WASPy men, who more or less understand prejudice and bigotry in terms of heresay, as armchair outsiders looking in. The one animated show that came very close to truly “getting it” was, surprisingly enough, Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, in the episode entitled “Serpent’s Tooth” (before they borked the ending). And while “The New Olympians” make an admirable effort, it still does the same generic, simplistic stuff that cartoons of this stripe do.  Considering that Elisa is both a woman and black, there’s a whole ‘nother angle on this that the show never bothers with.

Gargoyles isn’t above dealing with an episode that uses societal tension to build its stakes, but the introduction of a shapeshifter named Proteus (Oberon’s child, yadda yadda) is proof that the writers here are tip-toeing around the broader topic (apparently this was supposed to be a backdoor into a spin-off pilot, which never materialized, but that’s hardly an excuse for anything). Proteus is cool and all, and he’s definitely one of the smarter shapeshifting villains on television (and one of the coldest), but using him to pair Taurus and Elisa together – ie, to create a common enemy – is the simple writers’ way out of this quagmire.

I know full well Greg Weisman is committed to the portrayal of diverse faces in his work. I will always commend him for this, no matter what issues I may with his material otherwise. Yet when a cartoon attempts to engage into historicisms of diversity, historicisms, fabricated or otherwise, that contain systematic oppression, subjugation and violence, only to end on the ideology that these people should just forget all that and come together, I have to call foul. To be fair, this episode doesn’t exactly end on this note – there’s still a bit of simmering tension when the Olympians conclude that, soon, they’ll be meeting up with the humans, and that future meeting is going to be very, very awkward. Yet overall this episode, and episodes of its ilk, overall still tend to impart the same misguided social concepts.

Part of the problem is that Gargoyles, I think, is trying to be funny here. Not overtly funny, but sort of clever/ironic funny, with the portrayal of various Greek-deistic creations voicing their oppressive opinions against Elisa based on past human atrocities. Taurus even describe the tale of the Minotaur from his perspective, as an ancestor unfairly trapped by humans, thrown in a maze, then subsequently killed by a human. This is cute, but then you consider the Minotaur was a killer of men most of his life, and then he was killed by a half-human, half-god. In fact, none of the various god-descendents in the room are innocent here, and Gargoyles is making a point about how these years of misguided violence begat more misguided violence, and at some point someone needs to say stop.

Yet Gargoyles doesn’t really make this point clear. This clever observation, even within the show’s made-up history, is undermined by the lack of self-responsibility (kind of like the awkward realization Goliath had in “Outfoxed,” but across thousands of years). Elisa says that she shouldn’t be held responsible for the actions of the human race from years ago, and of course that is true, but it’s self-serving and not at all empathetic (as a black woman, she should know better, but I’m willing to chalk this up to being in a tense situation). Likewise, the behavior of the crowd that grows hostile just by the presence of Elisa in public casts them as just a wrong-headed group of thugs and not at all people tied close to a powerful, depressing history. No one speaks about how wrong this behavior is. No one works to try and understand the other side. This isn’t an episode about coming to terms and some kind of understanding about a messy, brutal era of (creatively concocted) history, but of just random spouts of violence mixed in vague allusions to real life, socially charged historicisms, then the villain comes in so everyone can band together.

Gargoyles isn’t above getting deep into its more socially charged topics, which makes me think that this could have been truly powerful and special, had they removed Proteus and truly focused on the pain and struggles of two groups of people in conflict and attempting to come to some sort of understanding (which I think they did fairly well way back in “Awakenings”). Perhaps that was going to the very point of the spinoff. Yet as it stands, “The New Olympians” is just part of the “take it easy” approach to society’s most painful past moments that harm most cartoon episodes of this type, and I know that this show, and creators as a whole, can do better.

[I do apologize for taking my particular frustrations out on Gargoyles here. It is, at its core, a decent episode, but the show can, and has, done better.]

“Eye of the Storm” B/”The New Olympians” B

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Tumblr Tuesday – 07/22/14

In surprising (lazy) news, today’s Tumblr Tuesday has been released on Wednesday! Did I just blow your mind? No? Well, maybe these Tumblrs will.

GEX is awesome and we need to see more of him again

The best depiction of Princess (Peach) Toadstool in the history of Super Mario Bros., ever

Spongebob Squarepants tackles sexism

 — More Cats Don’t Dance concept art (I will always post Cats Don’t Dance stuff)

And a hilarious short joke from Dark Place

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