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"Count Duckula" Opens a Humorous Vein

Here’s a paradox for you: the more famous and popular a classic TV cartoon is, the less likely you are to see it quickly released on DVD. Look at Warner Bros., which has hustled The Perils of Penelope Pitstop out long before, say, Pinky and the Brain.

Conversely, marginal shows, especially those produced by small or independent producers, seem to land on DVD with relative frequency. Such is the case, for instance, with Cosgrove-Hall’s Count Duckula, now hitting DVD thanks to Capital Entertainment.

There’s a good chance you’ve not heard of Count Duckula. (A quick Google search turns up only a small of fan sites devoted to it.) A product of the late 1980s, it aired for a few seasons on Nickelodeon before quietly disappearing.

Which is a shame. Count Duckula is not a classic series, but it’s definitely the sort to deserve a cult following.

The premise is easy enough to describe. The foppish title character, the scion of a dynasty of Transylvanian vampire ducks, was revived with ketchup instead of blood and so was reincarnated as a mild-mannered vegetarian. Instead of nipping around to the local village for a quick bite when he’s feeling peckish, then, Count Duckula spends most of his time pining for broccoli sandwiches when not indulging in zany get-rich-and-famous schemes or taking disaster-prone trips to exotic locales. In these misadventures he is invariably accompanied by his sepulcher-voiced manservant Igor and sweet-but-stupid Nanny.

The show’s style might best be described as “high-budget Rocky and Bullwinkle.” As with the American series, the plots are mostly notional: In “Town Hall Terrors” the Count has to navigate the local bureaucracy in order to get a grant to refurbish his decaying castle; in “Dr. Goosewing and Mr. Duck” an accidentally ingested carpet cleaner switches everyone’s personalities; “Jungle Duck” sends the characters searching for a long-lost African temple. These aren’t so much stories as loose frameworks supporting a bunch of jokes, puns and pratfalls. But a few of the episodes are more complex: “Rent a Butler” and “Hardluck Hotel,” for instance, take their inspiration from the “slamming door” genre of farce comedy, in which the plot is kept hopping with disguises, mistaken identities, and people popping unexpectedly in and out of their rooms. (“Hardluck Hotel” includes a pretty good take-off on John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers.) The episode highlights usually come in the occasional patches of elaborate cross-talk. In “No Sax Please — We’re Egyptian,” for instance, Duckula falls into an extended Abbott-and-Costello routine with two Egyptian priests, Hoo-mite and Yu-be:

Yu-be: I am Yu-be. Right?
Duckula: No, wrong. “I am. You are.”
Yu-be: Ah. There, master. He is Yu-ar.
Hoo-mite: So you are Yu-ar.
Duckula: I am not, I am not!
Hoo-mite: Ah, you are Not. He is not Yu-ar. He is Not.
Yu-be: You are Yu-ar!
Duckula: I am not Yu-ar!
Yu-be: Don’t call me Not, Yu-ar! I am not Yu-ar! I am not Not! I am Yu-be!

… and so on for longer than you might think possible, until it climaxes in a rousing chorus of “Who? Ra! And Upshe rises!”

handfulIt’s a British-produced series, which means it mixes the usual cartoon hijinks with a dry and sometimes donnish sense of humor. In personality, Duckula and Igor form a Wodehousian Wooster-and-Jeeves pairing of silly-ass English aristocrat and longsuffering manservant. Americans may find that a little of this goes a very long way. And some of its more eccentric conceits are funny mostly because they are so baffling: Duckula’s nemesis, the vampire-hunting Professor von Goosewing, putters around while muzzily muttering to his never-seen (and maybe nonexistent) assistant, Heinrich.

In its worst moments–and there are more of them than is welcome–Count Duckula lazily surrenders to the hoariest cartoon clichés. Characters wander about in mid-air before looking down and falling. They stand exactly where large pieces of masonry are about to land. They do glacially slow double-takes. But it’s smarter more often than it’s stupid, and in Igor, Professor von Goosewing, and a crew of larcenous crows it has a fine and funny supporting cast.

The animation quality varies alarmingly — some episodes are animated with supple subtlety while others are almost Hanna-Barbera stiff. The acting quality, both in the character animation and on the vocal tracks, is also inconsistent, but it’s mostly pretty good. Count Duckula himself is the most American sounding of the lot, which makes it funnier when purportedly American characters show up–they all sound like bad John Wayne impersonators.

The three-disc Season One set is light on extras. There are two short interviews, one with producer Brian Cosgrove and one with producer/director John Doyle. Both interview subjects are quietly avuncular, and if neither sheds a great deal of light on the series, they do come across as pleasant enough fellows. There is also a short “How to Draw Count Duckula” feature, an image gallery, and a short before-and-after film clip showing the results of a restoration project.

It is irritating that we don’t get big-ticket releases as often as we’d like. Still, it’s one of the real pleasures of the DVD revolution that it gives us the release of a minor classic like Count Duckula. I’m happy enough to take my pleasures where I can.

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