(Rest in peace to Russi Taylor, the actress who voiced Huey, Dewey, and Louie. She passed away last Friday.)
Please know that this is mostly tongue in cheek. I loved Ducktales and I think the remake is also excellent. I do believe that there’s some value in pointing out that many of the plot lines of Ducktales episodes focus on how awesome it is that Scrooge McDuck is insanely wealthy, and how much fun it is that he’s fighting to maintain his status as richest duck in the world over Flintheart Glomgold. I also think that this is was obviously a very 1980s mindset, reflected in shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (which I watched a ton of) and a certain president of the United States. So dig in, and let’s look at some wonderful episodes of this cartoon with only limited references to the class struggle.
Wrongway to Ronguay
The second ever episode of Ducktales introduced the rivalry between Ebenezer Scrooge and Flintheart Glomgold, second richest duck in the world, who wants nothing more than to become the richest. This particular episode isn’t about much more than competition and greed. Huey, Dewey, and Louie discover that the model ship in Scrooge’s study (formerly in his chocolate factory) is actually a map to find lost sunken treasure, setting them off on a quest to find it. Glomgold also wants the treasure, and he buys the destroyed candy factory from Scrooge for $2 million in order to procure the outline of the ship, and unbeknownst to Scrooge and his nephews, Glomgold sets off to find it as well, along with a mysterious Spanish dog. Prior to the hunt, Scrooge and Flintheart make a bet: the duck that can make the most money from scratch in two weeks wins, and the losing duck has to eat Glomgold’s hat. The nephews figure out that the treasure is in Ronguay, South America, there’s a wrong way to Ronguay joke (hence the episode title), Scrooge and the boys find the treasure ship, fix it up, and sail it out of Ronguay. Flintheart and the dog, rob them and send them off on a dinghy, and Glomgold tosses a single doubloon to Scrooge as a parting gift. Of course, we find out that the ship was in fact the Spanish dog’s to begin with, he tries to double-cross Glomgold instead of splitting the loot, a cannon goes off, and the ship sinks. Scrooge and his nephews save Flintheart, and because of the doubloon, Flintheart has to eat his hat.
Apart from the theme that it’s not good enough to be one of the two richest ducks in the world, you need to be the richest, the episode is a showcase for all of the adventuring you can do when you have unlimited funds. Most of Ducktales is essentially Indiana Jones, and that’s what makes the show fun to watch. Without adventures there’d be no point. Another interesting thing older viewers pick up on that younger ones might not is that Scrooge spends as little money as possible on the tools to get him to the places where he adventures. They fly to Ronguay on Ronguay Airlines, which is essentially a flying Chinatown Bus (I assume that’s a reference most of you will understand). In a later episode we see Scrooge and the boys using camels on an adventure, whereas Glomgold takes a private plane. Scrooge is named Scrooge for a reason, of course, and this reinforces the idea that he didn’t become the richest duck in the world by being loose with his funds.
Lesson learned: Don’t be greedy or the ship will sink and somebody will have to eat a hat
Obsession with wealth level despite the lesson (out of 10): 10
Where No Duck Has Gone Before
Money is completely ancillary to this episode, in which Scrooge becomes the owner of Duckburg Studios as payment for a debt. In fact, in an effort to increase the quality of the television show shot at the studio, Courage of the Cosmos, Scrooge has Gyro Gearloose build a new spaceship set. It’s not made explicit but the spaceship building materials, Gyro’s labor, and the cameras installed all over the ship must have been extremely expensive, and I would assume that Scrooge is footing that bill.
As for the main plot of the episode, the nephews and their friend Doofus Drake are obsessed with Courage of the Cosmos, a Star Trek ripoff starring Major Courage (doing a William Shatner impression). In order to butter up Scrooge, Major Courage does a special episode for the kids, taking place in the new spaceship. Launchpad tags along. The spaceship built by Gyro turns out to be an actual ship, and unbeknownst to everybody but Launchpad they actually fly into space. Also Launchpad spends time outside the ship in space, and we find out that he can breathe and talk in space for some reason. This seems like it should have been a much bigger deal than it was. Their ship gets captured by aliens, eventually the kids and Courage figure out it’s not a TV show and it’s actually happening, Major Courage displays somewhat less than and bolts away alone in the spaceship (and suddenly knows how to fly it?) Launchpad takes out a robot and the aliens and gets the boys to safety by piloting the alien ship and catching up with their ship. Launchpad’s stupidity also saves the day. The aliens use the information in Launchpad’s brain to try to navigate to Earth, and it goes about as well for them as you would expect. The boys learn that true heroes aren’t the characters you see on TV, but instead ducks like Launchpad who do what needs to be done.
This is entirely an adventure and lesson episode of Ducktales. The kids get to travel through space, and they learn to appreciate those around them who care about them and do heroic things out of goodness. It’s a very pure episode of the show. Also Scrooge figures out to make a buck off the studio by turning it into a space museum.
Lesson Learned: Real heroes are everyday people who do good for the sake of doing good.
Obsession with wealth level despite the lesson (out of 10): 0
The Money Vanishes
Ducktales plays around with Scrooge’s motivations in order to fit the needs of a particular episode, and in this particular one the other things that Scrooge values are put to the side, allowing his love for his money to take center stage. The plot of the episode is simple. The Beagle Boys dig out of jail, and the spot where they emerge happens to be directly outside of Gyro’s house. They witness Gyro testing his furniture moving spray and ray, which allows him to transport any item he hits with the spray anywhere he wants with the ray. The Beagle Boys trick Gyro, steal the spray and ray, and take it to their hideout. They want to steal Scrooge’s money but in order to zap and transfer it they need Scrooge to first spray his money. They accomplish this by making a television commercial for Money Moth spray, spray that protects your money from money moths eating it. Scrooge buys it, sprays his cash, and the Beagle Boys steal it. Huey, Dewey, and Louie are suspicious of the commercial, and once they see the stuff that was sprayed disappear, they spray themselves and are transported to the Beagle Boys’ hideout. There’s a big chase sequence in which many zoo animals are engulfed in a cloud of spray and sent elsewhere, the nephews get the money back to Scrooge, and the Beagle Boys are sprayed and sent back to jail. Everything works out, and Scrooge is still obscenely wealthy.
This episode has a lot of odd moments and questions that arise, and also a surprisingly varied and kickass soundtrack. First, the questions and weirdness. Why did the Beagle Boys need Scrooge to spray the money? Why didn’t they spray themselves, zap themselves into his vault, and spray the money themselves? They could have save the time it took to make a commercial that wasn’t assured to work. On the subject of the commercial, why did Scrooge fall for it? The money moths are seen eating paper money, and moths are of course known for eating fabrics. Most of Scrooge’s money made up of coins. The coins are in a well fortified vault. Scrooge hears about money moths and immediately buys the spray even though 1) if money moths exist, why would somebody so obsessed with money only just hear of them, 2) odds are that they don’t eat coins, and 3) it seems very unlikely that money moths would be able to get into his vault. Scrooge is known for his level headed-ness and cleverness. This is an out of character moment for him. Another oddity: why didn’t Gyro recognize the Beagle Boys when they came to his house? I also question the range of the ray, that it would reach all the way across town from the Beagle Boy hideout and penetrate the wall of the vault. Finally, the Beagle Boys zap all of the money to their hideout, immediately making it worthless as a hideout. A building bursting to the seams with gold coins is going to stick out like a sore thumb. It’s also awfully weird for a universe populated by anthropomorphic animals to have a separate class of zoo animals, but that’s come up for years with Pluto in Disney animation, so we can skip that one.
The soundtrack in this episode rules. It begins with a lot of saxophone when the Beagle Boys are breaking out of jail. It’s very sexy 80s movie scene sounding. There’s a sequence in the middle of the episode when the Beagle Boys are pursuing the nephews through the hideout that has a heavy Nintendo game level feel to it, and near the end there’s another music choice that would sound at home in a Schwarzenegger action sequence.
Lesson learned: I guess don’t take shortcuts while cleaning? This episode doesn’t really have a lesson.
Obsession with wealth level despite the lesson (out of 10): Oh this one is easily a 10.
Once Upon A Dime
This episode isn’t quite what it seems. Scrooge can’t find his lucky dime and it’s annual polishing day. The nephews reveal that they used it to play six games of Donkey Kong in a row, and then got it back. Scrooge retrieves the dime and sits them all down to tell them the story of his dime and how he made his fortune. Scrooge’s tale begins in his small town in Scotland where Scrooge tries to find a job after his dad discourages him from playing the electric bagpipes. He is turned down (forcefully) at the bank, is fired (forcefully) from the telegraph office, and ultimately gets hired to work for tips at the barber shop. He receives an American dime as a tip from a customer. Scrooge’s parents encourage him to make his fortune in America, where he takes his dime. He gets arrested in the States, and we find out that he and the Beagle Boys are the same age, which would make Ma Beagle at least 15 years older than Scrooge? Also I don’t get why everybody including his father, a bagpipes player, hates Scrooge’s bagpipes. They sound like bagpipes.
Scrooge heads south to meet his prosperous Uncle Catfish, who for the sake of clarity is a duck and not a catfish, and who turns out not to be so prosperous because his claim to land is being disputed by Old Man Ribbit Monsieur, the cajun frog. They have a steamboat race and not even interference from the Beaver Boys (I’m a little surprised they don’t just call Huey, Dewey, and Louie the Duck Boys. This show loves that shorthand for a group of the same animal) can stop Catfish from winning thanks to Scrooge’s innovative thinking. Catfish proceeds to screw over his nephew and leave him without a portion of the claim. The victory scene reinforces the lesson that Scrooge learned from his father to work smarter, not harder. Scrooge moves on and gets a small claim in the Klondike that he works until he strikes it rich. Scrooge takes the Klondike money and invests in Oklahoma timber land, which turns out to be a scam and he’s about to be murdered by his crew when thanks to his lucky dime he finds oil. In between the Beagle Boys steal his dime, but he gets it back right away and honestly it doesn’t do much for the overall plot of the episode. Scrooge takes his oil money and invests in an African coal field. He spreads peanuts over the field, and as everybody knows peanuts attract elephants. Elephants stampede and stomp the coal into diamonds, a real thing that can happen. By this point Scrooge has so much money he has to build his money bin.
Throughout the episode after each success the boys would ask Scrooge if that was the point he became rich, and each time he would tell them not quite. He ultimately reveals that it wasn’t until Donald went away to sea and the boys moved in with him, along with Mrs. Beakley, Webby, and Duckworth that Scrooge finally felt rich. The entire time he built his fortune he missed being away from his parents, and now he finally had family around him. After imparting this beautiful lesson on the boys, they all go swimming in the money bin, an entirely normal way to celebrate family.
Lesson learned: True wealth comes from surrounding yourself with the ones you love, and the Beagle Boys are way older than you thought. It’s a two-fer.
Obsession with wealth level despite the lesson (out of 10): A 2? While the plot of the episode involves watching Scrooge accumulate his wealth, it’s not really about that. But then they swim in money at the end, so it gets bumped up slightly.
The Status Seekers
I’m glad I’m ending with this episode, because an episode that is explicitly about the glorification of money, specifically the gaudy display of rare items (it’s not just wealth since Scrooge has 72 quajillion dollars and that alone isn’t enough to get him into the Association of Status Seekers). It’s quintessentially 1980s: flashy cars, gigantic diamonds, just the gaudiest displays of wealth possible, and Scrooge wants in. He finds out that the way into the club would be to possess the Mask of Couthoolulu, which he formerly had and now is on the Island of Rip’in’terro. Scrooge, Launchpad, Mrs. Beakley, and the boys go to retrieve it and are tailed by President of the Status Seekers Charles Upstuck III and the Beagle Boys. Both groups make their case to the chief of the tribe who possesses the mask, and he explains to them that on the island they don’t care about the usual status symbols. On Rip’in’terro a big belly is a sign of status. Mrs. Beakley offers the chief peanut butter in exchange for the mask, and he accepts.
Upstuck and the Beagle Boys try and fail to steal the mask after they leave the island, and are left stranded in the grips of an amorous jellyfish. Scrooge is named president of the status club on the condition that he cannot associate with his family and friends anymore. Upstuck and the Beagle Boys show up and try to steal the mask again. All of the hoity toity society types refuse to assist, and instead the boys, Mrs. Beakley, and Launchpad step up. Scrooge realizes that having real friends and doing and eating the types of things he actually enjoys are more important than status.
This episode makes a distinction between wealth and status, and advances the idea that merely being rich doesn’t give you status. It also ultimately rejects the idea that seeking status is an end unto itself. It also kind of alludes to collector culture, which is interesting given how huge that culture has become. It’s also clearly interesting to me because if you’re a regular reader of this website you’ve seen that I love collecting things.
Lesson learned: Spending time with people who care about you and doing things you enjoy are more important than collecting stuff to impress people.
Obsession with wealth level despite the lesson (out of 10): 4. While it’s much lower than you might think, there’s so much focus on wealth that even the lesson learned doesn’t bump it down entirely.
That’s a lot of words on Ducktales. It’s one of the best cartoons of the 1980s, and I can love it a lot and think it’s a good idea to look at it a bit more critically.
Are you a huge Ducktales fan? What are your favorite episodes and what are you doing to try to smash the state? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.