DuckTales returns the weekend with the long-delayed “The Impossible Summit of Mt. Neverrest!”–an episode that focuses on the nature of determination-turned-obsession, in Scrooge’s relentless desire to scale Mt. Neverrest, and Huey’s desire to map it and earn a new Junior Woodchuck merit badge. It’s a episode that has a clear-eyed approach to its main characters in Scrooge and Huey, but it seems to also go out of its way to make the trek less dangerous. Pretty much every sense of death and danger is given a comic twist. Dewey and Webby cheer for “Certain Death!” while searching for the most opportune time to sled (and/or die trying), and Scrooge doesn’t see much difference between quitting and dying, which is played as a weird joke than the red flag it clearly is. This does two things: it overplays its hand with the dark humor; if every “we may die” moment is played for a joke, then the jokes become predictable. It also just lowers the stakes considerably. I mean, we know no one isn’t going to get killed by the very nature of the animated kids show, but rarely will we feel the characters in raw danger, which diminishes any chance we could see the raw cleverness or strokes of luck that propels them out of that danger.
This becomes clearer when the big reveal occurs, in which a series of random wormholes “prevent” people from reaching the peak. The show does a nice job early on showing the bizarre, topsy-turvy, disoriented nature of their travels, with how they keep running into Bunny Rock, and how Webby walks in one direction off screen and appears on the other side. It’s nice and trippy, but the wormhole reveal only adds so, so many questions that no one seems to ask. Sure, the question “where the hell did these wormholes come from” springs to mind (I don’t think the episode winks hard enough to acknowledge the ridiculousness of this), but no one thinks to try and test and/or map the function or placements of the wormholes. Also the act of climbing Mt. Neverrest seems pretty simple and straight-forward, so things like hypothermia, avalanches, weather, or even an inadvertent wormholes are never threats. They climb it until the dramatic moment, then just sled on down (which, to be fair, is a tight, amazingly-well animated sequence). I guess I’m still struggling to accept the adventurous spirit of the show as excuses for comedy over juicy, tense action; that approach has already been claimed by Phineas and Ferb and Milo Murphy’s Law.
Yet the dramatic moment feels earned, even if it gets there a bit clumsily. “The Impossible Summit of Mt. Neverrest” does a good job with Scrooge and Huey, setting up their specific goals, and contextualizing them in a way that feels true to their characters. Scrooge’s obsession is tied to his natural gumption, his new-found desire to win at all costs, and his embarrassment of being ridiculed and betrayed by George Mallardy and referred to as the “Neverrest Ninny.” (The backstory here is a little odd, which I’ll get into below). Huey’s desire for that cartography merit badge is strong, too, but his grounded sensibility recognizes the weirdnesses of the mountain and the absurd lengths Scrooge is going. Contrast Huey with what we know of Dewey, who seems a bit more accepting of the insanity, comfortably coaching Webby for the optimal moment for sledding. Huey is more willing to protest Scrooge’s more crazed ideas, which provides great character beats for them both. It’s just that due to lowered stakes, those beats never quite connect to the overall story being told. It never occurs to Scrooge, or the show really, that his crazed obsession is putting the family in real danger, something that Scrooge isn’t ready for. He barely saves Dewey from a rock slide, but instead of using that moment to showcase his commitment to protecting them (and contrasting it with how untrue it is), it’s nudged as a joke in the sense that Scrooge will “from now on”protect them. I love the idea that Scrooge still forges on ahead with little consideration of the wards he now has in his care–and even encourages them–but “Neverrest” never hones in on the personal reality: loved ones’ lives are at stake here. Even Huey’s speech is about accepting their current progress over a full win, not the threat of death. (Even before the speech, he and Scrooge witness Dewey and Webby almost falling to their deaths, but Huey doesn’t mention this when ranting to his uncle.)
Elsewhere, Launchpad gets involved in a side story in which he thinks he’s afflicted with cold fever, and clumsily falls into a series of cartoonish situations that mimic various made-up symptoms. This is more of an animator’s showcase, letting the artists draw up and board some rather funny, goofy visuals, having fun with tossing Lauchpad through a sauna and letting the chaos fly. A nice tracking shot of Launchpad stumbling into a hot spring filled with people is the episode’s funniest bit, but beyond that it’s pretty one-note. Still, DuckTales sense of characters are strong to carry the show so far. If the intensity of that final sequences was spread across the episode as a whole, “Neverrest” would be all the more stronger.
- Random aside: is anyone watching Tangled: The Series? At first it was a charming series with great, charismatic characters that seemed stuck in with some weak, rushed stories outside the pilot, but “Queen For A Day” was absolutely fantastic, a personal contender for best episode of television in general, not just animated. It’s a turning point for the series I think; the subsequent episode, “Painter’s Block,” was very good, too.
- The story about a young, over-prepared Scrooge literally being cut off from the experienced Mallardy is interesting, both as a biographical moment for Scrooge, and a weirdly dark story in its own way. As mentioned though, the need to lower the stakes never really gives the story its due. We never see how Scrooge survived on his own, and not enough is established between Scrooge and Mallardy to understand any personal issues between them, which is why Mallardy scribbling “CURSE YOU, MCDUCK” on a wall before dying makes little sense. Scrooge’s dismissal of his skeletal remains was morbidly amusing though.
- Speaking of which, how did people know he made it the farthest up the mountain if he died and never returned? Also, his skeleton had a mustache.
- Watching Webby and Dewey jump randomly through wormholes and on rock walls was frustrating (after all just seeing one of those rock walls collapse!) and also another clear example of the the episode failing to grasp the stakes.
- Of course Webby would find sledding down from a massive avalanche a mediocre experience.