Thursday, February 29, 2024

Walt Disney, part XLVI: Bad and good luck tales


Directed by Bob Hathcock
Written by Alan Burnett

Spoilers: moderate

So now, on this forty-sixth exploration of the history of Disney animation, we're obliged to go back in time a few years, and however it may appear, that's certainly not because I forgot a theatrically-released DuckTales movie existed in the first place, but then many months later realized that, to do what I wanted to do with Disney in 1995, my need to be complete and correct would compel me to look back at it whether I wanted to or not.  That would be incredibly lame.  No, I definitely want to write about it.  I'd always planned to backtrack.  I just didn't want to interrupt the story of the Disney Renaissance with an unprofitable curiosity produced by a completely different studio under the Disney banner, and on different continent altogether.  Yeah, that's the ticket.*

Yes, fine.  I'm being overly contemptuous of a film that's almost okay.  Rather more relevantly, though, it did in fact turn out to be an important part of Disney history.  The awkwardly and inauspiciously titled DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost LampChrist, pick a lane, or at least add a second "the"arrived in theaters in 1990, coming between The Little Mermaid's rejuvenation of Disney animation's fortunes the previous November and that subsequent November's The Rescuers Down Under, which unfortunately rejuvenated nothing about Disney animation despite being one of Disney's masterpieces, though it did better than the DuckTales film, which didn't even gross its relatively slim, yet surprisingly high, $20 million budget back.  This did not mean that this DuckTales film was not, in its way, a successbut for that, we need to go back further.

Following the regime change at the Disney company in 1984, one of the initiatives Michael Eisner forwarded was Disney's entry into television animation.  Now, Walt Disney himself had made some efforts in that direction; some of my favorite Disney animation of the 1950s was on television (namely, the Ward Kimball-led modernist limited animation on a trilogy of Space Race-related episodes of Disneyland, involving the added wooziness of a Nazi war criminal, Wernher von Braun, talking to American children about dumbshit moon base ideas he'd first forwarded to Adolf Hitler).  But Eisner's plan was more ambitious.  In the 1970s and 1980s, television animation had brought the medium to perhaps its most abject status in historyit wasn't without its nostalgic successes, of course, but when you go back, sometimes you can be floored at how bad it can beand Disney sought to not only address this but exploit this, basically by meeting children somewhere in the middle, offering something less than Disney's theatrical animation but more than what was passing for animation from the other cartoon factories.  Indeed, even if "Disney's theatrical animation" in this same period was itself a somewhat-fallen angel, this still meant some of the best-looking cartoons on TV.

After a few not-very-well-remembered ventures (The Adventures of the Gummi Bears, based on the candy Eisner's children enjoyed; The Wuzzles; something called Fluppy Dogs) Walt Disney Television Animation, led by Gary Krisel, produced a palpable hit.  This was DuckTales, starring Carl Barks's beloved and influential 1947 creation, Scrooge McDuck, uncle to Disney animation mainstay Donald Duck, and great-uncle to Donald's shitty triplet nephews, Huey, Dewy, and Louie; the show would send the great-uncle and grand-nephews on many Indiana Jones-like treasure-hunting and grave-robbing adventures, and a brief refamiliarization with it has led to me to believe that it was, by-and-large, fine.  Well, I'll certainly give it this: gauzily or not, I actually remember DuckTales.

As for where this fits into Disney's feature animation, following the show's success, director and producer Bob Hathcock wanted to do a more lushly-budgeted five-episode epic, and, ambitiously, pitched this as a big-screen adaptation.  I don't know if he was surprised or not, but it got greenlit, and sent to France.  And that's where this fits in: in 1989, Disney had purchased Brizzi Films, a French animation studio run by two brothers, best known for Babar-related material.  It eventually took on the name Walt Disney Feature Animation France (even sprawling out into two physical studios, one in Paris and a satellite in Strasbourg), so you can see where this will go; it was a major plank in Disney's program to create a worldwide animation production network that could fuel what seemed like, at the time, WDFA's endless need for fast-yet-high-quality hand-drawn animation.  Hence it kind of didn't matter whether Treasure of the Lost Lamp made money, though that would've been a bonus.  It was probably a calculated thing that none of these people (or at least, as I understand it, very few) had worked on the actual DuckTales show, because their goal was to get them to draw all sorts of shit that, by definition, they'd never worked on before.  This experimentunder the horrible off-brand sounding name, "Disney MovieToons"was undertaken to see if Disney could whip a bunch of European animators into shape to serve as an adjunct to WDFA (though Europe was by no means the only continent Disney had expanded into, nor would they be confined to just WDFA handmaidens).  On that count, it worked.

As for the movie itself, though only a byproduct of an enormous, impersonal industrial process, it's still a fascinating artifact of the last days of the obsolescent technology that would be used to make it.  But as I've been prefacing way too much for a slip of a TV cartoon adaptation, let's get to the actual story (which, for the record, was written by a DuckTales veteran, Alan Burnett).  So: somewhere in probably-Egypt, our Scottish caricature of a late-middle-aged adventure hero, quazillionaire Scrooge McDuck (the indispensable Alan Young), has been funding, lo these many years, a search for the lost treasure of the legendary thief, Collie Baba.  (I think that's funny, but it's unfortunate that the only funny or even marginally-thoughtful joke name in the whole film belongs to a figure who died a thousand years before it started.)  Presently, Scrooge, his pilot Launchpad McQuack (Terrence McGovern), his nephews (all Russi Taylor, talking to herself), and well-treated servant-relative Webigail (still Russi Taylor) arrive to check out Scrooge's team's new find, and Launchpad lives down to his reputation by destroying a significant archaeological site during his awful landing, which, unaccountably, because this is a cartoon and it's just a joke about how at least it wasn't a new building, kind of bugs me the most out of anything in a movie that you have already guessed will veer from time to time into insensitivity.

So: Scrooge's Egyptian dogs (what? that's what they are**) haven't actually discovered all that much; but they have found a map.  Thus Scrooge's quest across (and, ultimately, beneath) the desert begins, though what he doesn't know is that one of his hired Egyptians, Dijon (Richard Libertini), is really working for the immortal sorcerer Merlock (Christopher Lloyd); nor does Scrooge know that Collie Baba's treasure isn't just gold and jewels, but also a magic lamp and the Genie inside it (Rip Taylor).  In a double-cross, Merlock and Dijon reveal their hand, but Webigail has already plucked the lamp out of the big pile of treasure, to add to her tea set, so the way it shakes out is that the kids have the lamp, and Merlock and Dijon must follow them back to Duckburg.  Meanwhile, the kids discover who's in their lamp, and it turns out all the Genienicknamed "Gene," as part of their subterfuge against their unclereally wants is to just be a regular kid like them, though anything would be better than being a thrall to evil.

I think it would be possible to figure out, just from reading that, where this runs into its big structural problem: it's pretty much exactly the transition from Egypt to Duckburg.  Treasure of the Lost Lamp came during a fair run of embiggened TV animation propertiesa Transformers movie, a G.I. Joe movie, and it even shares a release year with a Jetsons movieand DuckTales the Movie might be the one that feels the absolute least like they had a story that was actually asking for a movie.  What essentially occurs is that Treasure of the Lost Lamp begins with about twenty minutes of barely-a-movie version of DuckTales, and ends with about fifteen minutes of an-actual-movie version of DuckTales, while in the middle, going on thirty-five minutes, it's just an episode of DuckTales, and I say an episode of DuckTales, a show with a standardized runtime of twenty-four minutes, deliberately.  (Though even in the opening twenty minutes of DuckTales, A Movie, it finds the shamelessness to verbatim copy an action-scene quip from one of the episodes of DuckTales I watched to refamiliarize myself with the show, regarding a subterranean river's precipitously narrowing dimensions, and I didn't even watch very many episodes, so for all I know the entire damn screenplay here is a collage of dialogue sourced from the series.)

So we do get some fairly-rich animated action-adventure to begin, starting with a terrific background painting that confuses the geology of the American Southwest with that of Egypt, but looks great and seems all serene and majestic, until the customary Launchpad-can't-fly gag sloppily splashes into it; and that leads to all sorts of fun stuff about buried pyramids and death traps and characters slipping down intersecting chutes (they must really love S1E4), not to mention some deadly giant scorpions (though I don't like the unfrightening, plush-like designs of said scorpions); it's even punctuated with some insensitive (but funny) Scrooge-the-peremptory-slavedriver jokes.  But even on the kid's cartoon level I'm happy to meet it at, it's merely fine, and then it's cut short: either the budget or the inspiration vanishes, replaced with low-impact antics in McDuck Mansion amidst what I understand are the background paintings reused from the show.  And sure, why not?  But regardless of their provenance, the detail and general shit-giving goes way down.  You can vaguely perceive that this is supposed to be the "heart" of Treasure of the Lost Lamp, inasmuch as this is where our guest star gets his characterization, reveals his personality, and expresses his yearnings, but a lot of it is just grinding presentation-like exposition about the extremely idiosyncratic rules this genie obeysthree wishes per user, unless using Merlock's talisman, then you get endless wishes, but you can't wish for the talisman to be destroyed, et cetera ad infinitumand the rest of it is unfunny nephew-and-Webby filler, and slightly-more-funny slapstick where Merlock attempts to infiltrate the mansion, in ways that unfortunately somewhat degrade him as a villain.  I will admit to finding it impossible to even pay attention during this long downtime, and while I wasn't keeping count, I earnestly have no idea how these four kids burned through most of fully twelve wishes on, effectively, nothing.

It probably doesn't help, either, that this middle stretch almost entirely fails to involve Scrooge, the protagonist and best character; as for Genie, Merlock, and Dijon, the new characters, I only have use for one of them, and not the one I'd have guessed from first principles.  The former pair evince some semi-charming old-school celebrity voice casting: Lloyd is a pretty obvious choice here, and he's playing it on a pretty obvious level, but it's Merlock's astoundingly generic "sorcerer" design that makes him actually boring, despite our villain having access, as a shapeshifter, to all sorts of notionally-diverse evil animal forms; I like Rip Taylor (I might just like the idea of Rip Taylor), but he's surprisingly anonymous.  (David Weimers, voice director on the film and creator and writer of 28 episodes of the show, has in later years revealed a tantalizing production anecdote: the guy he wanted to cast as his Genie was Robin Williams, and, given that level of celebrity, he naturally called upon Disney big wheel Jeffrey Katzenberg for help.  Katzenberg said this sounded like a great idea, mysteriously stopped taking Weimers's calls, and, two years later, Aladdin came out.)  So that leaves Dijon, the most salient way in which this movie I said "veers into insensitivity" does so, and I kind of enjoyed him, not really because of even one thing Libertini is doing, which is just a broken "yes, effendi!" mock-Arabic accent, but because out of any of the new characters, and arguably any of the characters, period, he's the one who gets the best comedy cartoon design and animation, this craven coward with a very flat, narrow head that has a tendency to flatten furthervirtually melt into a puddle resting on top of his spinewhen Merlock is screeching at him.  And this is, needless to say, most of their interactions together.

Dijon is all about really shaky lines, too, and so he benefits the most from what I called "fascinating" up top: it doesn't "count," but what we have is the very final Disney theatrically-released feature made before the switch to digital ink-and-paint with The Rescuers Down Under, and this doesn't even really do its aesthetic... "justice" is perhaps not the right word.  It's not an exciting end-days-of-xerography cartoon, the way that a few non-Disney films of the early 1990s would prove, notably how Amblimation's An American Tail: Fievel Goes West exceeded what I would have considered the limits of xerography's possibilities, or how the Kroyers' FernGully somehow came into existence looking like a Disney movie from an alternate reality where they made that instead of The Black Cauldron.  But it is fascinating: Treasure of the Lost Lamp can look like a Disney feature from the 1970s, before they bit the bullet and buckled under to the reality that they had to hire more clean-up artists, and depending on the scene Scrooge and company are either remarkably tidy, or just the scratchiest creations in a Disney film since The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, complete with still-visible construction lines and the like.  And yet it kind of doesn't look like any previous Disney feature, because the pre-established complexion of DuckTales means that instead of the subdued and moody color styling of actual Disney "famly animation" features in the 70s and 80s, it's poppy and flamboyant exactly like a children's TV show should be, with extraordinarily saturated colors designed to properly fry their little kiddie brains.  (So while it's actually not too similar to Aladdin beyond their shared basic descriptions, in this respect it really does prefigure that extremely-colorful film, though it doesn't go for that film's aggressive background coloration.)

As far as technique goes, meanwhile, Disney France is all over the place: the setpiece-laden beginning and end are generally more consistent, as you'd expect, since that's where all the energy went, and there are some real mistakes being made.  For one, a noticeable amount of dialogue doesn't match the mouth flaps; but I'm especially negatively impressed by a long medium close-up of Scrooge where his pupils have contracted into pinpoints, clearly out of a sense of shock, but they forgot to do the beginning of this transformation, so it feels instead like the person drawing Scrooge was way off-model, and the person drawing Nephewey Duck, whichever one it was, didn't have an opportunity to correct them.  There's also some genuine weirdness, that I'm not sure can be ascribed to the animatorsfor all I know, it's some mistake Disney+'s people made when getting an HD transfer onto the streaming service, since I feel like this would've been pounced on by the animation aficionados who've written about the filmbut there are about half a dozen moments where it looks like dissolves are being used between key frames, like Huey, Dewey, and Louie have just been dosed with a fast-acting hallucinogen.  Which I think would've made for a funnier movie, but whatever.

But then there is the finale, and Treasure of the Lost Lamp's finale has some strong cards left to play.  Hell, even conceptually: it's a pity that the third act kick-off (semi-spoiler for the DuckTales movie, but greedy ol' Dijon gets his hands on the lamp, and wishes for Scrooge's fortune) isn't moved up to, like halfway through, and allowed to be way more of this story, since for the five minutes or so that Dijon is a going concern, we actually get a movie-sized, potentially-satisfying character-driven narrative about our upper-crust hero rendered homeless and destitute, with only his wits and experience to fall back on.  It doesn't last, because we have a boring sorcerer to get back to, but this does allow for the coolest, showiest spectacle in the film, especially the transformation of Scrooge's money bin into an antediluvian magic floating fortress, including one strikingly tense, shockingly beautiful sequence on a collapsing flight of stairs with the nephews and Webby that uses alternating red and green, including on animated pieces of mobile "backdrop," to reach an almost full-on color-based abstraction (despite that piece of collapsing stairwell being very tangible).  It is, without any exaggeration, one of the most thrilling 45 seconds of Disney animation of the decade.  I'd say I'm surprised it's not talked about more; but it's a brief sequence in DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp, a film not even particularly beloved by DuckTales' own fans, for the sound reason it's just not very good and big chunks of it are, frankly, pretty dull.

Score: 5/10

*And if you're wondering when I started regretting numbering these Disney reviews, particularly using Roman numerals, it was "several years ago."
**Someone with more time and less personality than me should make a YouTube video about what the hell is going on with duck supremacy and general avian hierarchy in the universe of DuckTales.  Oh, I'm kidding, I'm sure there are at least five already.

ETA 3/24/2024: ohhh, now I get it, Dijon, like "djinn."  That is fucking awful.


  1. Back in the day this movie really, really hit the spot for me as a youngster who only demanded a bigger and badder big screen version of the saturday morning cartoon (that I could never get up early enough to watch too often, but I had some tapes that I'd worn out from being in my main rotation amongst Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Star Trek IV, Back to the Future Part II, Karate Kid Part II, The Monster Squad, Daffy Duck's Quackbusters, and the pilot episode of Dino-Riders (say, where the fuck is THAT revival anyway?). Christopher Lloyd and his transforming flying fortress were my jam.

    I see some parallels here with Pokemon the Movie 2000, what with the unwieldy full title, a spectacular flying fortress, and nailing a very particular cartoon kiddie flick ambition that isn't much appreciated otherwise.

    1. I have only the vaguest memories of watching this, but had remarkably clear memories of the first five episodes of DuckTales that I checked out (on this review's behalf) for the first time in decades, or at least episode 2 (with the ship in the desert) and episode 5 (with the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull self-destructing El Dorado).

      Kinda feel like Flintheart should've been in this somewhere, but maybe that would've been too many moving parts.

  2. I will concede that my fond memories of this movie do all come pretty exclusively from the beginning and end. And that scene where giant scoops of ice cream fall from the sky.