Saturday Morning Cartoon: The Punny Charms of ‘Count Duckula’

By  · Published on October 18th, 2014

Cosgrove Hall Films

Dracula Untold was out last weekend, starring burgeoning (maybe?) Hollywood talent Luke Evans as the title vampire. Or, rather, as the title historical figure with a particular fondness for bats. This is one of those Vlad the Impaler-focused stories, moving to the source material of this age-old Balkan legend. As usual, I won’t dive into the details of whether this particular new release is terrible. Instead, let’s look at some much more successfully entertaining Transylvanian fare. It may not involve Dominic Cooper but it does involve ducks.

I am talking, of course, about the evergreen ridiculousness of Count Duckula, scion of the line of Duckula. As the opening credits explain, he was resurrected by his scheming butler Igor and gregarious Nanny when the moon was in the eighth house of Aquarius. They accidentally used ketchup instead of blood in the ritual, so he’s the world’s first vegetarian vampire. He has a nemesis named Dr. Von Goosewing, who is of course ripped right from Dr. Van Helsing, except that he is a goose. It’s actually fairly straightforward.

Count Duckula was created by the BBC in the late 1980s as a spin-off from the tremendously popular Danger Mouse, the first British cartoon to break out in the United States. Its winged friend began its run on September 6, 1988 and ran for three series. British television being the way it is, that turned out to mean 65 episodes that concluded on February 16, 1993. It was originally produced by Cosgrove Hall Films, who had not only done Danger Mouse but also the award-winning stop-motion 1983 version of The Wind in the Willows.

The show itself is built around the often quite silly inclinations of the Count. The first episode (not to be confused with the pilot, which actually aired in series three) involves an impromptu trip to Egypt to find a mystical saxophone. Count Duckula in his sweet ignorance would like to play it simply because it sounds delightful. Igor supports the mission because he knows that the instrument will allow the Count to become the evil overlord of the entire world, or something along those lines. They end up inadvertently bringing along a troop of passing thieves, who see the dilapidated, solitary Count Duckula and start climbing up to what they assume is abandoned treasure. Once they get to Egypt things become increasingly absurd, with physical comedy set inside a pyramid and some wisecracking camels.

All of this magnificent architecture is rendered with a charming sensibility by the animation and design team, whose governing principle seems to be that everything and everyone look on the verge of comic collapse at every moment. The creative, ubiquitous use of ducks is reminiscent of the alternate universe built in DuckTales, which was produced right around the same time (1987–1990). Each frame is a delight and a surprise, if only because of the crazed effect of the characters within it.

That mood extends to the script as well. The unexpected pleasure of this cartoon is its relentless, alarming use of puns and bad jokes. Count Duckula is always one step ahead of Nanny and Igor when it comes to conversation, cracking himself up in spite of their stone-faced confusion. He’s like a feathered Groucho Marx, always looking for a laugh even if it ends up only being his own. This mood is embraced by the show as a whole, feeding him as many opportunities to send cringing giggles to the audience as possible. Each episode actually includes a throwaway joke given by two Russian birds living in a cuckoo clock, tossed in just to further lighten the mood.

A triumph of wincing, nonsense comedy, Count Duckula is perhaps not as beloved as it should be.

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