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TV Study: Courage The Cowardly Dog: Shirley The Medium

shirley-the-medium-courage-cowardly-dog

establishing shot

establishing shot

STORY STRUCTURE

This story is an original recomposition of elements from diverse sources:

  1. Pandora’s Box fairytale
  2. A Christmas Carol, Dickens
  3. Modern TV psychics

WEAKNESS/NEED

Courage is unable to tell Eustace not to open the box.

Also, in this episode, one weakness is that he needs to please his owners, even though one of them is outright horrible. When he digs up a locked box he hands it over to Eustace when he overhears Eustace complaining about his dead brother’s box of money. This leads to no end of trouble.

DESIRE

Courage wants to prevent Eustace from opening a box.

trying-to-open-the-box

There is a different desire, however, to set off the action. Courage wants to find his yo-yo. He runs out into the yard and searches through his hole, which is the child-dog equivalent of a child’s toy box.  Continue reading

TV Study: Courage The Cowardly Dog: Duck Brothers

the-duck-brothers

STORY STRUCTURE

This story features opponents who are revealed to be not really bad, which makes for a comical battle scene. The battle scene is noteworthy for including a wide variety of small battles.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Courage is unable to convince Eustace when Muriel is in danger because of his lowly status as an anxious dog.

DESIRE

He wants to save Muriel.

OPPONENT

alien-space-ship

The opponents in this story come in the form of an alien spaceship, later revealed to be alien duck brothers who — though this part is never explained in the story — have abducted Muriel (and then Eustace) by mistake. They seem to speak in some approximation of an Irish accent. There would be several reasons for this:

  • Irish accents have comedic value
  • There’s a history of gangster/crime films featuring Irish brothers. E.g. The Boondock Saints (1999), which would have been in theatres when this episode of Courage first aired.
  • During the mid 20th century Irish families tended to have very large families.

The duck brothers are constantly arguing like children. The gag is that one or both of them keeps laying eggs, which is unmanly and emasculating. (Side note: If sexism weren’t a real thing this wouldn’t be a joke that people even understand — the brothers are lowering their status as manly ducks by doing something usually only performed by their mothers and sisters.)

The chef looks like he would be an opponent. He is hairy and wears a singlet and wields a giant knife. But he is revealed later to be just a regular guy with a reasonable temperament.

fake-enemy

PLAN

As ever, Courage’s first move is to tell an adult, whichever of the adults happens to be unafflicted by the bad thing. This is a necessary step in children’s stories. When a child is in great danger and still does not tell any adults in their life, there has to be a reason for this already established. Perhaps the adults are terrible people, for instance. (And even then… We know Eustace is not going to believe Courage’s story that Muriel’s been abducted by aliens.) At the very least the author needs some lampshading — usually in the form of a conversation: “Mom and Dad will never believe this!”

One point about horror stories for adults in which a child character tells the responsible adult something and the adult doesn’t believe them: Don’t try to write it straight. The following is from someone who reads a lot of story submissions in the horror genre:

MOMMY, THERE’S A MONSTER IN MY CLOSET

Children are a bunch of goddamn idiots. This is a fact. So it makes sense that, in fiction, whenever a kid complains to their parents about a monster in the closet, the parent laughs at how dumb they are and sends them back to bed. (Sidenote: if any of my hypothetical kids ever came to me with a monster problem, I would be so excited, like, you have no idea, it’d be a dream come true.) But in these stories, of course there’s really a monster in the closet, and of course it wants to eat the kid. Or, sometimes, it actually wants to eat the kid’s parents, and it convinces the kid to lure them into the closet. An alternative to this story would be instead of a monster in the closet, one of the kid’s toys is eeeevil. There are enough stories about children scared in their bedroom. Please write literally anything else, you unoriginal scumbag.

LitReactor

Eustace at least checks out the surroundings but -- bad luck -- the aliens aren't there right at that moment.

Eustace at least checks out the surroundings but — bad luck — the aliens aren’t there right at that moment.

Eustace rolls over and falls back to sleep, of course, so in true Courage fashion, who keeps a close eye on the action and jumps in whenever he sees an opportunity. First up, jumping onto the back of the ute.

BATTLE

Muriel, controlled by a device on her head, drives to a compound reminiscent of something out of a SF movie. We see a gated compound in Interstellar, for instance, or in the Netflix series Stranger Things. In SF, these factory-like establishments behind guarded gates are most often found near smallish communities where the residents live on the poverty line.

establishing-shot

Establishing Shot: Duck Brothers

interstellar-house

The house in Interstellar is similar to the house in Courage The Cowardly Dog. As is the fact they live near a mysterious, gated compound. Of course, Interstellar was made many years after this episode of Courage.

True to form, the writers choose a typical childhood game for the battle sequence. This time it’s piggy in the middle, after Courage locates the duck brothers inside a compound and tries to wrestle their controller off them.

piggy-in-the-middle

This is the device that is controlling Muriel’s movements.

There is also a food fight, this time with the duck brothers using their eggs to throw at Courage. “Aren’t you glad for these now?” one brother asks accusingly.

duck-brothers-food-fight

Another battle comes about between Courage and himself. Once wrestling the remote controller off the duck brothers he is unable to work it.

muriel-walking-on-the-ceiling

Another concurrent part of the battle scene centres on Muriel and Eustace (who has been captured and controlled off-screen) dancing awkwardly as the ducks seem to be playing with them like kids play with remote controlled toys.

remote-controlled-dance

SELF-REVELATION

The duck brothers are not evil. They are just like Courage — only trying to get a loved one back.

Courage comes to the rescue, walking into the chef’s kitchen and taking back the duck.

“What am I supposed to cook now?” asks the burly chef.

“Strudel,” replies Courage in an uncharacteristically deep voice. (The whole episode is a parody of extreme masculinity.)

The chef thinks this is a great idea.

thug-chef

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

next-morning

Next morning in Nowhere

The three duck brothers have been reunited. The audience is used to a complete set of three from a tradition of fairytales and The Rule Of Threes. When we find there are three brothers instead of two that makes perfect sense to us and feels complete.

three-duck-brothers

three-eggs

The brothers continue to bicker about eggs and masculinity, and we can assume they always will.

Back at home, Courage and Muriel are putting the alien duck brothers’ device to excellent use. They are using it on Eustace — who turned up earlier at the compound wearing it — to get them breakfast in bed.

eustace-breakfast-in-bed

In a Refrigerator Moment, we realise there is a gated compound in Nowhere, housing a chef who — for some strange reason — has alien specimens lining the walls and who likes to cook duck but who will settle for strudel. (Hitchcock coined both ‘McGuffin’ and ‘Refrigerator Logic’. He was a man who really understood story.)

 

TV Study: Courage The Cowardly Dog: Mother’s Day

mothers-day

Until this point in the series, Eustace Bagge has been a singularly unpleasant character. We haven’t see what made him the way he is. In this episode, for the first time, we learn his ‘psychological wound’, or the backstory that explains why he treats others so badly. In stories, as in real life, this is simplistically attributed to deficiencies in the mother.

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

As usual we have an opening shot in which Courage looks momentarily at peace.

courage-at-peace

Of course this does not last long because of the two people he lives with. Because he is a child (in the body of a dog) he will have to just go along with them, trying to appease them.

DESIRE

Eustace doesn’t want to go see his own mother for mother’s day but he wants to get Muriel off his back. go-and-see-your-mother

Continue reading

TV Study: Courage The Cowardly Dog: Night Of The Weremole

night-of-the-weremole

The folklore of the werewolf is great fodder for a horror comedy and it was bound to be used sooner or later. Others have made new creatures out of the werewolf story — Wallace and Grommit have The Curse Of The Wererabbit, for instance, in which they take a cute, fluffy animal that can’t (directly) harm humans. Here we have a mole, equally harmless to humans, and also a little underrepresented in children’s literature, though we do more recently have Mo Willems and his naked mole rats. For comic appeal, that subcategory is even more appealing.

As usual in the Courage stories, the moon has a cycle of its own.

crescent-moon

a crescent moon at the beginning of the story

full-moon

The crescent moon is full after the weremole turns up

STRUCTURE

The fact that this story is a nod to B-grade horror flicks is underscored by the scenes in which Muriel (and initially Courage) are watching one on their television inside the storyworld.

b-grade-horror

In a horror comedy the fun is in making use of tropes which are so worn out that editors will rant about how they never want to see certain storylines ever again.

Max Booth at LitReactor writes about one such storyline here:

OH MY! WHAT IS THIS STRANGE AND MYSTERIOUS BITE?

Maybe someone is exploring a forest, then a strange bug happens to take a small bite out of them. Or maybe they receive a mysterious package in the mail, and its contents leave a mark on their flesh. It doesn’t matter how it happened, but now your character has a mark that won’t go away, and every day it spreads. The character goes to the doctor, but the doctor just shrugs, because doctors are stupid and know nothing. The mark continues to mutate until the character has completed its transformation into a monster. The reader has known how this story was going to end from the very beginning. Why? Because everybody writes this story. And it’s never surprising. It’s never interesting. Writers like this idea because it gives them a chance to exercise their gross-out techniques. They can get their hands dirty and have fun detailing graphic mutations. And there’s nothing wrong with that! I love gore just as much as the next guy. But what’s important to remember is this: you need more besides disgusting mutations. You need a real, genuine story. What you have right now is an idea. A very boring, overused idea.

10 Horror Stories Nobody Wants To Read

 

WEAKNESS/NEED

Courage is cowardly. Rather, he is very brave but anxious all the while. A truly cowardly hero would be no good for a series hero.

courage-watches-horror-show

Courage is happy just as long as he’s left alone to snooze in the living room.

eustace-drooling

DESIRE

Courage wants to protect his family from the weremole.

OPPONENT

The weremole who turns up as Muriel is outside doing a spot of night gardening. Because a rabbit turns up first, she is fooled into thinking the creatures are cute and even offers a carrot.

muriel-gardening

rabbit-foil

something-burrowing

muriel-gardening-at-night

Eustace is also an opponent here. Because of his blindness and stupidity he doesn’t realise that he’s trying to kill his own wife with his mallet. The fact that Eustace can’t find his mallet at first lends suspense. We know, eventually, that he will find it.

All B-grade horror films need a bathroom scene. Here we have the gender inverted with a skinny, sexually unappealing old man instead of a terrified, alluring young woman.

All B-grade horror films need a bathroom scene. Here we have the gender inverted with a skinny, sexually unappealing old man instead of a terrified, alluring young woman.

PLAN

As usual, Courage’s initial plans to remedy the situation don’t work and he has to keep thinking of ways to outsmart the situation and his opponents.

When Muriel’s hand swells to an enormous size Courage and Eustace (begrudgingly) take her to the doctor.

Take note which way the ambulance is driving: from right to left. In the West we know from picturebooks that this directionality indicates a stall in the linear flow of the story (based on the desire of the hero).

Take note which way the ambulance is driving: from right to left. In the West we know from picturebooks that this directionality indicates a stall in the linear flow of the story (based on the desire of the hero).

The colour palette is significantly different here to show that the characters are away from the house.

The colour palette is significantly different here to show that the characters are away from the house.

But the doctor, with his bushy eyebrows and no eyes, is just as oblivious as Muriel and Eustace themselves. He repeats that everything will be fine, “just keep soaking it”.

When Courage faints from fright he finds hmself in the doctor’s office. This works really well because the viewer at first expects to see Muriel in the doctor’s office.

courage-at-the-doctors-office

Courage deals with this by picking the doctor up and running with him back home to fix the real problem, which is Muriel.

Unfortunately the doctor gets eaten. (This is temporary.)

doctor-danger

doctor-is-eaten

Courage once more turns to his Internet friend, who tells him that in order to save Muriel he will need hair of the mole. The computer has another purpose though: young viewers aren’t necessarily au fait with the ins and outs of werewolf mythology, so we are told via an animated diagram that once bitten by a were-creature you yourself turn into a were-creature. This is probably already obvious from the story so far, but here it is underscored.

At home, Muriel is soaking her hands in the kitchen sink when she is overcome by the power of the moon, which shines in through the kitchen window.

weremuriel

computer-in-the-attic

Courage dresses himself up as bait, trembling. He wants to get a hair out of that weremole.

courage-dressed-as-rabbit

The weremole’s undoing is his own craziness. He is so busy thrashing Courage around that he doesn’t realise he’s only thrashing around the suit.

The thing about opponents in horror stories is, they act like machines. You can't stop them; nor can they stop themselves.

The thing about opponents in horror stories is, they act like machines. You can’t stop them; nor can they stop themselves.

The audience doesn’t realise this either, until Courage appears back on the scene holding a huge pair of tweezers.

 

BATTLE

There are parallel battle scenes going on:

  1. Eustace locates his mallet and plays whack-a-mole with the Were-Muriel in the bedroom as she pokes her head through holes in the floor. He thinks it’s a rodent of some kind because, handily, he is oblivious to the world around him.
  2. In the yard, Courage gets attacked by the weremole, who thinks he is a tasty rabbit.

whack-a-mole-muriel

thrashing-the-rabbit

SELF-REVELATION

Courage realises at some point that he can win this battle. We see the look on his face after he manages to pluck a hair out of the rabid mole.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

At first it seems everything is back to normal

courage-relaxed-with-muriel

Note that we see Courage seeing something before we see it ourselves.

courage-sees-something

courage-terrified

This is a repeating story. The doctor turns into a weredoctor. (Though etymologically, this word doesn’t quite work…The etymology of werewolf is ‘man’ + ‘wolf’. Technically we have a ‘manmole’ in this story.)

weredoctor

TV Study: Courage The Cowardly Dog: The Demon In The Mattress

the-demon-in-the-mattress

In this story we have the full moon, the midnight ‘witching’ hour and a comic horror story about possession.

midnight-witching-hour

The idea of an evil mattress is of course horror fantasy, but comes from the real world mistrust we have about sleeping on other people’s beds. Here in Australia it’s not even legal to sell a secondhand mattress. When sleeping in cheap joints (and even sometimes in expensive ones) we worry about bed bugs. Horror stories are always making the most of our deepest anxieties. Comic horror stories tend to pick the more trivial ones… like fear of creepy crawlies inside mattresses.

full-moon-opening

Colour

Colour is used in this episode as the story changes in tone.

purple-house

green-bedroom

courage-digging-hole

Demonic Possession

Demonic possession is the belief that individuals can be possessed by malevolent preternatural beings, commonly referred to as demons or devils. Obsessions and possessions of the devil are placed in the rank of apparitions of the evil spirit among men. It is obsession when the demon acts externally against the person whom it besets, and possession when he acts internally, agitates them, excites their ill humor, makes them utter blasphemy, speak tongues they have never learned, discovers to them unknown secrets, and inspires them with the knowledge of the obscurest things in philosophy or theology.

— Wikipedia

The oldest mention of possession is Sumerian, but modern horror stories tend to draw most heavily from Christian traditions. Traditionally it was believed that people possessed are possessed by the Devil. The Devil is a fallen angel.

 

STORY STRUCTURE

The episodes in which opponents come to the house, this farmhouse in the middle of Nowhere, are similar to a Robinsonnade, in which there is an island. The drama in a Robinsonnade comes from the characterisation and interpersonal conflict. There’s not much characterisation here, of course. Mainly gags and horror tropes. In any case, the Bagge family don’t even need to leave their house — like a police station in a crime show, trouble just walks in the door.

WEAKNESS/NEED

As usual, and this never changes, Courage is just a dog and no one believes him when things go wrong.

As for the inciting incident/need of Muriel, this is established right away when she points out that a whole lot of springs are poking out of their mattress.

springs

DESIRE

When Courage listens to the other end of the phone, he realises the mattress vendors are no good. They’ve ‘been waiting for your call’.

Muriel wants a new mattress.

OPPONENT

We first see a shot of the opponents’ lair. A couple of small creatures scuttle past.

opponents-lair

The mattress delivery guys turn up in a medieval chariot.

mattress-delivery

They appear to be some kind of rodent pair. They have special contempt for Courage, hissing at him as they walk into the house. They know Courage is the only one who suspects them of mal intent.

PLAN

As ever, Courage first tries to warn Muriel, then when the possession happens he tries to tell Eustace.

And, as ever, he checks things out thoroughly before diving in. Here he is peering inside the window.

courage-looking-in-window

It’s clear by now that the family computer is the domestic equivalent of a sage. Courage asks the ‘sage’ how to get rid of a demon and then Eustace is able to read the print out. The plan is for Eustace to dress up in a floaty gown and memorise a chant.

consulting-the-computer

As is common in children’s comedy, it is funny that Eustace (a man) is demeaned by dressing him in female clothing.

BATTLE

The battle sequence turns the house into an ominous shade of chartreuse. A green mist comes out of the bed and takes hold of Muriel. She loses her head. She is talking in a deep male voice. But the possessed Muriel is not truly horrific. She conceals something beneath the covers and we find out it’s a tray of tea (rather than a dismembered body part, say.)

horrific-tray-of-tea

possessed-muriel

The writers of Courage The Cowardly Dog like to make use of childhood games in the battle sequence. We’ve already seen a game of handball/squash and a food fight. Here the possessed Muriel has a thumb wrestle with Courage to settle the score.

thumb-wrestling

eustace-chanting

white-flag

SELF-REVELATION

In the end only Courage can save Muriel. Eustace isn’t saying the magic spell correctly. Courage digs a hole in the yard until he comes across the floating gown, then puts it on himself and turns Muriel back into Muriel.

Unfortunately, in this ‘never-ending’ or ‘repeating’ story, Eustace ends up possessed though his own ineptitude. Muriel hits on on the head with a rolling pin which she seems to carry everywhere. (It breaks in two.) Courage rolls him firmly inside a mattress in a second short battle. Eustace, in this episode, is rather a tragic figure and we feel sorry for him.

eustace-inside-a-mattress

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

“We don’t want your special mattress,” Muriel says angrily into the receiver. She tells the creatures to come and pick it up for a refund.

Eustace is taken away by the pissed off rats.

Muriel and Courage sleep together on the couch downstairs, which Muriel declares is very comfortable.

watching-tv-on-the-sofa

But we know Eustace will make it back in time for the next episode…

TV Study: Courage The Cowardly Dog: Hot Head

hot-head

This episode owes much to the Jekyll & Hyde trope. We can probably go back further than that, to Cain and Abel.

For more on twins in literature see here.

See also: A History Of Other Selves.

STORY STRUCTURE

This is a story in two distinct parts.

  1. Courage sees what happens to the old man in the toilet when he applies the hair growth lotion.
  2. We all see what happens later to Eustace when he applies the same lotion. This time the audience knows exactly what’s going to happen. The interest comes from how Courage is going to deal with it.

The horror element of this story comes from real life drug abuse, but is handled here in a completely comedic way.

Here's Courage hiding in a toilet. Courage is often hiding inside things in this series.

Here’s Courage hiding in a toilet. Courage is often hiding inside things in this series. Finding unusual hiding places is one of his idiosyncrasies.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Courage is only the dog so is unable to really help his family when he sees things going terribly wrong.

Eustace’s weakness (among many others) is that he is vain. It is the weakness of Eustace that drives the story.

newspaper-advertisement

DESIRE

Courage wants to stay home with Muriel and definitely not have a haircut.

Eustace wants hair.

OPPONENT

The main opponent in this episode is Eustace.

As for Eustace, his main opponent is the doctor who prescribes him this lotion. In this story with fantasy elements, there are two tracks. There’s the literal fantasy story and then there’s the real life analogue. Certain illicit drugs are well-known to cause angry outbursts. The cultural phenoemnon adult viewers will think of is, of course, use of anabolic steroids among the athletically inclined.

warning

The Asian guy is introduced in this episode. He will appear later as a main opponent. In this episode he cuts Eustace off, which is the first time Eustace blows his top.

cut-off

the-asian-nemesis

 

PLAN

Courage knows exactly how angry Eustace is going to get. Once home, his main aim is to keep Eustace calm so he doesn’t hurt Muriel. The first thing he always does, even though it NEVER works, is try to alert Muriel.

watch-out-muriel

He massages Eustace’s feet

foot-massage

He plays the harp

courage-tries-to-keep-eustace-calm

Here he is coaxing Muriel out of the kitchen, where she has asked him to open a container of dog food (which is impossible to open).

i-have-the-mail-for-you

BATTLE

For this sequence of the story the writers have taken a variety of irritating everyday tasks: fixing a squeak in a chair, getting a lid off a jar, threading a needle, which the (adult) audience will identify with.

This sequence is an up-and-down roller coaster ride in which Eustace is about to blow but then something calms him down. For instance, he is happy that he has sprouted a curly hair, then let down to find it falls flat in front of his face.

well-then-can-you-thread-my-needle

This roller coaster story structure is reflected in an earlier part of the plot, in which the dodgy, unseen doctor subjects Eustace to a variety of harrowing rides reminiscent of a roller coaster at a theme park before determining whether Eustace would benefit from the lotion.

eustace-roller-coaster-ride

roller-coaster-ride-2

These things make Eustace so angry that his anger ends up blowing up the house.

cracking-the-house

This was foreshadowed in the men’s toilet inside the doctor’s tower. Unlike Eustace, this little old man was very polite to begin with. We see him rather comically thanking the doctor, over and over again, unable to end the conversation. If this nice little old man can react like the Incredible Hulk with a few drops of this lotion, we know the permanently cantankerous Eustace is going to react even worse.

polite-man-applies-lotion

polite-man-turns-evil

house-to-rubble-foreshadowing

SELF-REVELATION

This story structure is unusual because, due to the double story structure, we know what’s going to happen early on.

For more on types of plots most frequently found in children’s stories see this post.

repeating-story-structure

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

In a wonderful example of Muriel’s signature litotes/obliviousness, the entire house is blown up around them and still Muriel worries about the squeak in her chair.

new-equilibrium-house-blown-up

 

OTHER OBSERVATIONS

The Windmill

In the previous story I wondered if the windmill was a symbol for mysterious ‘change’ about to happen.

windmill-transition

The windmill in this episode is used first as a scene transition and at first I thought that’s all it was until I saw it again, this time blown up along with the house. I realised at that point that the windmill blown up looks very much like the hairs that sprouted from the bald men.

wrecked-windmill

The Tardis Effect

The doctor’s office is in a long, thin castle. We never see a fullscreen view of this castle. Instead, the camera pans up until the tower tapers out into what looks, symbolically, like a single strand of hair.

In children’s stories, the outside view of a house belies a much bigger interior — much like the tardis of Dr Who. A picturebook where this is done is Oliver by Birgitta Sif.

Inside this tall skinny castle we have a mansion right out of Bluebeard.

bottom-of-a-well

big-white-room

doctors-corridor

Anthropomorphism vs. Personification

stinky-cheese

Doctor Le Quack from Courage The Cowardly Dog

IS THERE A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PERSONIFICATION AND ANTHROPOMORPHISM?

anthrop = human

morph = shape

— from The Cognatarium – a search engine which allows you to search for the meanings of English words by morpheme (the smallest unit of meaning).

In pop culture the two terms seem to be used interchangably. See, for instance, 10 Movies That Will Traumatise Your Child With Anthropomorphism from io9.

But some people like to maintain a distinction, despite the overlapping usage. I like this explanation:

Both personification and anthropomorphization assert intangible human characteristics — such as consciousness and thought — onto an inanimate object, entity or animal. The difference is that anthropomorphization imposes physical or tangible human characteristics onto the subject to suggest an embodiment of the human form.

– from the wordreference.com forum

To put it another way, with examples:

Personification pretends (for literary effect) to ascribe one or two human attributes (especially thoughts, feelings, intentions) to non-human things.

Anthropomorphism turns non-humans into humans completely — such as Bugs Bunny, the animals of Aesop’s fables, the three bears who chased Goldilocks, or the Uncle Remus characters.

Another way of looking at anthropomorphism is that it is actually talking about humans — but pretends that they are shaped like animals.

This is a popular device in children’s literature, fairy tales, and comic strips. One benefit is that the characters don’t have any race or gender, so all children everywhere can identify with them. [For more on that see Why So Many Animals In Picturebooks?]

– from someone at Yahoo answers.

TV Study: Courage The Cowardly Dog: Big Foot

courage-and-big-foot

The great thing about the horror comedy is that writers not only have access to a treasure trove of metaphors and symbols — they also have access to urban legends and conspiracy theories.

Here we have a story which makes use of the legend of Big Foot.

Bigfoot (also known as Sasquatch) is a mythological simian, ape, or hominid-like creature that is said to inhabit forests, mainly in the Pacific Northwest. In American folklore, Bigfoot is usually described as a large, hairy, bipedal humanoid. The term sasquatch is an Anglicized derivative of the Halkomelem word sásq’ets.

Wikipedia

(Here in Australia we have ‘Yowie’.)

This legend is combined with the classic movie Godzilla when Courage transmogrifies into a monster, stepping on cars and buildings. Presumably Courage has seen this film in the world of the story. It doesn’t matter if the child audience hasn’t. It still works.

allusion to Godzilla

allusion to Godzilla

Windmill Symbolism

windmill

At the risk of reading too much into the opening image, it’s worth asking why the animators chose to open with a medium shot of the windmill before showing us the entire scene.

The most famous windmill in literature is the one in Animal Farm, but I doubt this one has anything to do with that. If anything, I’d say that ‘change is on the wind’.

STORY STRUCTURE

Like the other Courage stories, Courage discovers a threat, fights against the threat and wins out in the end. The Bagge household will end happily ever after… until next time.

WEAKNESS/NEED

As in all of the stories in this series, Courage is the ‘everyman’ hero. Blake Snyder calls this kind of a hero ‘dude with a problem’. An ordinary guy finds himself in extraordinary circumstances. He is thrust into a circumstance he is ill-equipped to deal with. Other examples of the everyman hero are Bilbo Baggins (Lord of the Rings), Arthur Dent (Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy) and Edmund Pevensie (Chronicles of Narnia).

Hence, Courage is innocently fixing himself an archetypically American after dinner snack of milk and pie when he is scared by something outside.

pie-and-milk

Note the significance of the colour purple. The pie is purple, and so is the monster lured in by it. The very nightscape is purple.

He is not taken seriously by his owners. This is underscored in every episode, not least because it provides another opportunity for comedy.

"Oh Courage, it's just the raccoons!"

“Oh Courage, it’s just the raccoons!”

The Significance Of Windows

Often in stories, the first step of adventure, the longing for it, happens at the window. A character looks out through the eyes of the house, maybe even hears a train whistle calling, and dreams of going.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

The window is the ‘portal’ between the inside and outside of the safe, family house. We see it a lot in Courage stories set in and around the house. We see Courage looking out, we see him as an outsider ourselves. This dichotomy is tied to the fact that Courage has opponents both inside and outside the house.

courage-sees-something-out-window

binoculars-out-window

courage-and-the-shadow

courage-on-other-side-of-window

pie-cooling-windowsill

Muriel has left a pie to cool on the window sill. Courage sees it moving suspiciously — Muriel has unwittingly left it out as bait. In a calamitous action sequence involving mainly himself, he ends up covered in pie (a ‘pie in the face’ sequence) and also all over the wall. The pie in the face thing has been done so many times it’s a wonder it’s still funny. Actually, the main comedy here is that Muriel appears and says, in the midst of great mess, “Courage. Next time use a plate.” This is funny because it’s both unexpected but completely expected of Muriel.

This scene also foreshadows the food fight which will happen later.

I mention it here because finding himself covered in pie is emblematic of Courage’s weakness: He gets too anxious to think straight. He ends up looking silly and so even Muriel doesn’t take him seriously.

muriel-appears

pie-mess-foreshadowing

DESIRE

Courage wants to protect Muriel from this dark shadow.

OPPONENT

  • The monster is first revealed as a dark shadow.
  • Next we see reports of a Big Foot sighting on the nightly news.
  • Courage finds a massive footprint in the dust and imagines the worst.
  • Next, Big Foot is in the house.

The other opponent is, of course, Eustace. Having an opponent both inside and outside the house makes for a fuller, more satisfying narrative. A story doesn’t absolutely need both. In Roald Dahl’s The Twits, for instance, a husband and wife are the only opponents. That story feels slower in pace compared to this one. Because of the pace of a cartoon, more story is needed to fill a shorter amount of time.

Eustace’s plan suits him because he is a one-sidedly evil character. He is only interested in fame and fortune — the common denominator when it comes to cartoon baddies. Every now and then you also get a sadistic one (Eustace himself is often sadistic, especially when Courage is already scared and he pulls out his mask), or one with an insatiable appetite (e.g. Katz of the Katz motel, the fox who kidnapped Muriel for his Cajun stew).

PLAN

Courage pulls out a pair of gigantic binoculars. The comedy here is that in order to find a Big Foot you need big binoculars. In other words, Courage doesn’t understand commonsense science.

courage-big-binoculars

He goes in search of the footprint he and Eustace saw on the television. He uses an oversize magnifying glass.

big-microscope

big-foot

It doesn’t matter that we’ll later find out this footprint is far too big to match the creature who turns up. We accept exaggeration and discontinuities in this form. It’s all symbolism and gags.

Speech bubbles are used to show the audience what Courage is thinking.

Speech bubbles are used to show the audience what Courage is thinking.

Meanwhile, Eustace has a plan of his own. He wants to catch the Big Foot for financial gain. Comedy is derived from the fact that the reward for catching such a formiddable creature is a paltry $25 plus a lifetime subscription (to I’m not sure what). A similar gag is used in an episode of Seinfeld, in which Kramer jumps the gun in his coffee scalding lawsuit and ruins his chance of winning $50k compensation due the company first offering him a lifetime supply of free coffee.

In this episode, it is Eustace who stars in the bulk of the ‘plan’ segment. We see him lay out all sorts of hunting equipment across the table. What on earth he’s going to do with a fishing rod and a tennis racket we can only guess. Comedy comes from the juxtaposition between the size of a hypothetical Big Foot and the ridiculousness of the weaponry.

eustace-comes-up-with-a-plan

Eustace formulates his plan

eustace-and-his-weapons

Eustace lays out his weaponry

BATTLE

Courage throws some food at the Big Foot when he sees it in the kitchen. This starts a food fight. All the while, Muriel enjoys a ‘wee cup of tea’ in her kitchen rocking chair, oblivious to all of this in Mr Magoo tradition.

big-foot-in-kitchen

food-fight

muriel-wee-cup-of-tea

The battle inside the house is followed by an assault from outsiders — the faceless crowd (masterfully depicted as a single black mass) who try to knock the door down, hoping to run the monster out of town.

the-faceless-crowd

crowd-tries-to-enter-the-house

SELF-REVELATION

It’s clear by now that in this comedy series there is no ‘self’ revelation. Comedic characters never grow. They start in the exact same place they were last time at the beginning of the next episode.

The revelation happens with the Big Foot starts dancing like a Hawaiian. He is not a scary monster after all. He is cute and fluffy. This is the story structure of many picturebooks featuring monsters. Publishers like them because of our tradition of reading stories to children before bed. These stories have squeezed out the more truly horrifying stories, which are less likely to be published.

fruit-dance

The fact that pineapples feature so heavily in this trope is down to the Dole company, who planted many pineapple trees in Hawaii.

The key challenge for the storytellers here was in the switch between the end of the food fight and the beginning of the dance.

The audience has been helped along somewhat with the foreshadowing (kept from Muriel) that a little old woman has come to the door looking for her lost son. The audience knows to wonder if this woman is legitimate. In stories such as Snow White we’ve seen little old ladies who are actually witches underneath.

big-foot-mother

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Big Foot’s mother comes out of the crowd. Mother and son (daughter?) are reunited.

big-foot-mother-reunite

Evil Eustace tries to steal the child Big Foot back for his own selfish gains but Muriel orders him to “take the cuff off the child”. Since Eustace is a psychological child himself, he does.

The story ends with a long shot of the house, and a crescent moon behind it.

closing-scene

Contrast this with the establishing shot:

opening-shot

And a transition shot:

huge-moon

It’s clear that the moon in Courage The Cowardly Dog is a magical entity which can wax and wane over the course of a single day.

TV Study: Courage The Cowardly Dog: Doctor Le Quack

dr-le-quack

Courage The Cowardly Dog is set in the middle of nowhere in a place called Nowhere. “Be quiet, Eustace,” says Muriel one morning, “you’ll wake the neighbours!”

eustace-on-the-roof

This setting is perfect for western spoofs. Many of the Courage stories are horror spoofs but in Dr Le Quack we have the cartoon, child-friendly version of a wild western caper film.

GENRE

A caper story is a story in which the main characters pull off some kind of heist. (Also called a heist story.) A caper is a comic crime story. So, caper = crime + comedy.

The caper, also known as the heist film, is among the tightest and most focused of forms, built on a specific and high-speed desire line. That’s why caper stories are almost always very popular.

The caper is one of the most plot-heavy of all genres, right up there with detective stories and thrillers, and is designed to fool not only the opponent in the story but also the audience. The prime technique of the caper writer is trickery. Like a magician, you point the audience’s attention in one direction while the real action is happening somewhere else.

In heist stories (farce and caper), the mechanical plot is taken to such an extreme that the plots have the complexity and timing of a Swiss watch, and no character at all.

— John Truby

Breaking Bad makes use of caper elements e.g. At the beginning of season five when Walt and Jesse rig up an explosion to wipe out an incriminating laptop in police storage, and earlier in the seasons when they steal the chemicals from the factory wearing woollen hats with pompoms.

Western

Western symbolism can be seen in many of the Courage stories. Here we have the story opening with the rising sun at dawn. While this is not specific to the western genre, the sun has symbolic meaning in a western. Though it has been used countless times in western movies and novels, readers never seem to tire of the age-old symbol of the sun setting on the cowboy riding or walking off into the sunset. Quite a few picturebooks end with characters walking off into the sunset, too. Here we have dawn breaking over the desolate plain. 

The sun can be a symbol of giving or taking life, depending on how it’s portrayed. The sun can break through and show brighter days, or it can be boiling hot and deadly if lost in the desert. Here, I don’t think it has any specific symbolic meaning. Along with the soundtrack and the big skies it is simply meant to convey the atmosphere of an old western film.

However, a rising sun in a story does indicate that this is going to be one eventful day, and that the events will conclude by the end of it.

dawn-nowhere

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

Courage is cowardly. Nonetheless, he needs to save the day.

DESIRE

After Eustace accidentally hits Muriel on the head with a plank of wood Muriel loses her memory. Eustace takes this opportunity to get rid of the dog.

Amnesia comes easy in fiction. It is also conveniently specific. A taste of Applied Phlebotinum, a particularly shocking traumatic event, or even a simple Tap on the Head will be sufficient to make your character forget all about who or what they are.

— TV Tropes

He wants to get back into the house and do something for Muriel.

OPPONENT

Eustace is the first opponent but soon another comes along in the form of an evil French duck. As with the cajun fox last episode, this duck isn’t really French — he slaps on a French moustache which falls off later right before the main battle. I think the producers might do this because the same voice actor mimics a variety of different accents in parodic rather than realistic fashion.

First we see Le Duck’s lair. This is a Scrooge McDuck character, which of course comes from Dickens. His riches do not make him happy. He is collecting riches simply for the game of it, leaving bags of money just sitting around. He hasn’t even replaced his office chair, which looks as if it’s got a big bite out of it. This is a purely evil character motivated by power.

le-quacks-office

Then we see who is sitting on the other end of the computer.

le-quack-in-office

PLAN

Courage has already gotten back into the house by first trying to swing in Tarzan style from a tree, then with a pole vault.

courage-tries-to-pole-vault-inside

Eventually he gets in and via the Internet enlists the help of a doctor. Even the computer is anthropomorphised and has an evil personality of its own. These were the days when viewers were using the Internet for the first time and there was more mistrust than there is today.

internet-help

Plans change when it becomes apparent that the visiting doctor meant to help Muriel is actually a quack who wants to raid the silverware drawer.

The duck’s plan is to

  1. Knock Eustace on the head so he’s out for a while
  2. Torture Muriel until she reveals where her piggybank is. He can’t find any treasure in the house.

This is where the heist spoof comes in. The duck sets up a toy train track and binds Muriel up in rope reminiscent of a scene in which a beautiful young woman is tied to the train tracks. Instead of using this quite sexualised trope, the writers of this children’s story modify it quite a bit — Muriel sits on a chair nearby and the toy train throws pies in her face.

muriel-bound

le-quack-train-track

This familiar scenario [chained to a railway] first appeared in the 1867 short story “Captain Tom’s Fright, although a more rudimentary form of it was seen on stage in 1863 in the play The Engineer. However, it really entered the meme pool as a result of its inclusion in the 1867 play Under the Gaslight, by Augustin Daly. […] As bizarre (and horrible) as it may seem, this trope is Truth in Television. At least six people in the United States were killed between 1874 and 1910 as a result of being tied to railroad tracks.

— TV Tropes

The same trope is also used in games such as Red Dead Redemption.

red-dead-screenshot

Courage blows him up. When opponents are destroyed by Courage in this series it’s common for the opponent to say something understated like, “How annoying.” That’s what happens here. This feels a little meta. Why would the duck panic about being blown up? He’s a cartoon character who will bounce back to life before the next scene.

courage-blows-up-duck

When this doesn’t work the duck disgusts her by holding a plate of smelly cheese right under her nose.

stinky-cheese

Next we see a huge, muscled rat with tats appear in the doorway. It first seems that he has been attracted by the cheese, but when Courage pays him off we see that this has been Courage’s plan all along. The common sequencing in this story is that something happens, we worry about Courage, then we see he planned it.

rat-cheese

BATTLE

The final battle involves a vacuum cleaner. The duck tries to suck Courage up. But instead he sucks up all the planks nailed across the doorway and the whole thing blows up in a huge explosion, reminiscent of the explosions often used in train heist stories to wreck parts of a railway line.

exploding-vacuum-cleaner

The policemen Courage has tried to summon turn up at this point and stomp all over Courage to get to the duck.

 

SELF-REVELATION

We learn that this duck is a wanted criminal.

img_5895

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

We think the duck is going to prison. “We’ve been looking for you!” say the policemen.

le-quack-in-back-of-prison-van

But the duck breaks free — we get a flash scene reminiscent of something out of No Country For Old Men — and says to the camera that we haven’t seen the last of him yet.

le-quack-breaks-free

TV Study: Courage The Cowardly Dog: The Shadow Of Courage

the-shadow-of-courage-title

 

At first I wondered if the title were a riff on The Red Badge Of Courage but no — apart from the grammatical structure and perhaps some of the themes (of bravery vs cowardice) this plotline borrows little from the classic American novel.

STORYWORLD

The Moon

Set in ‘Nowhere’, the moon in this particular story is even more important than usual. The very first image we see is of a huge moon. We see it again and again. The moon, we are lead to believe, has something to do with anthropomorphised shadows.

See also: The Rule Of Oversized Moons In Picturebooks

moon

The house of Eustace and Muriel itself is a dream house, with the kitchen as a metonym for happiness (during the day and when Muriel is working away in it) but a terrifying prison by night. When Courage makes mischief after Eustace locks him in the attic, Eustace threatens that next he’ll be ‘sleeping with the termites’. This is a real threat because in the dream house there is only one place more terrifying than the attic, and that is the basement.

See: Symbolism Of The Dream House 

Mismatched Shadows

A trick sometimes utilised in graphic design is seen in the two images below, in which the shadow cast differs from the person/object casting the shadow. It’s generally used for ominous effect, but could also be comical. I use it in our picture book app Midnight Feast to show how the main character is angry at being sent back to bed.

Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds movie poster

The Shadow magazine cover

In Powder and Crinoline, 1912, Kay Nielson

In Powder and Crinoline, 1912, Kay Nielson

 

STORY STRUCTURE

In this story we have elements of

  • “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”
  • A psychological thriller, in which a character doubts his own sanity

WEAKNESS/NEED

Courage is terrified of the thunderstorm outside. He imagines a burglar breaking and entering.

imaginary-burglar

Unfortunately for Courage, he first coaxes Eustace and Muriel out of bed by telling them (via transmogrification) that there is a burglar in the house. When it turns out there is no such burglar Eustace and Muriel are disinclined to believe him when a real baddie enters the house. That’s where The Boy Who Cries Wolf analogy comes in.

DESIRE

He wants to save his family from the intruder, whatever it is. This is the same in every episode.

OPPONENT

The opponent, as in the previous Courage story, is introduced to us first. At first we think the main opponent of this story might be the evil old man looking at the moon through his telescope. But he soon dies of a heart attack.

Here is the establishing shot of the aristocrat’s house. He lives all alone in a big, dark mansion. We know that no good comes to old people who live alone in massive houses.

The terrifying house is usually a house that has gone over the line from cocoon to prison. In the best stories of this kind, the house is terrifying because it is an outgrowth of the great weakness and need of the character. This house is the hero’s biggest fear made manifest. In the extreme, the character’s mind has rotted in some way, and the house too is in ruins. But it is no less powerful a prison.

— John Truby

See Old Dark House at TV Tropes

You know that old, foreboding house up on the top of the hill, surrounded by thick forests, and accessible only by a single bridge that has a tendency to wash out during every rainstorm? Yeah, that one. Have you ever noticed that it always seems to attract eclectic groups of strangers who get invited for the reading of a will or a dinner party with a mysterious host? And why is it that the strangers keep getting killed off, one by one, during the night? It must be one of them doing it? But which?

aristocrats-house

evil-aristocrat

Next, we think the opponent of this story might actually be the butler, who has just been fired and looks about to turn evil. In fact, the butler is just a McGuffin. We don’t wonder what happens to him after he throws down his napkin and runs off, free for the first time in 50 years.

loyal-butler-mcguffin

We then see the dead aristocrat’s shadow morph into a shape on the wall, taking on a life of its own. This is the real opponent of this story.

The viewer is shown right away that this shadow is playful in nature. First it terrifies a little girl eating an ice cream.

After she runs away it terrifies the scoop of ice cream she has dropped on the ground, which wobbles in fright. As a show for little kids, it’s important to establish that the baddie is playful/hapless/ironic/quirky.

As usual, Eustace is another of Courage’s long-term opponents. Not least because it is Eustace who locks Courage in the attic.

courage-in-the-attic

Eustace takes great delight in scaring Courage for fun and criticising him for failing to be a real dog, which strikes me as a variation on fathers jibing their sons for failing to be a real man. Here he scares him, but when Muriel enters and whacks him on the head with a rolling pin he gets his comeuppance and the audience is pleased that justice has been served.

eustace-scares-courage

PLAN

The worst thing that could happen to Courage right now happens — Eustace locks him in the attic all alone. From the third-floor window he can see the evil approaching.

courage-in-the-attic

He breaks out to tell Eustace and Muriel, which is always his first plan — taken, of course, from the nature of real dogs.

breaking-out-of-the-attic

Although this series features a 1950s sensibility, Courage uses the Internet to find out how to defeat an evil shadow. This series was made in the early days of the Internet and the writers make a joke out of the way Google asks if you really mean such-and-such. It’s hard to remember now that this was ever novel.

searching-the-net

computer-courage

BATTLE

There is an extended battle sequence as the evil shadow chases first Courage then Eustace around the house.

scary-kitchen

At one point Courage is hiding under the sink and Eustace in the fridge. We don’t know where Eustace is hiding until he emerges, which heightens the comedy. He has also lost his hat. Eustace’s baldness is also a source of amusement.

eustace-in-the-fridge

Eustace starts to doubt his own sanity, running around his own house chased by a shadow.

SELF-REVELATION

The Evil Shadow turns out to be a meek and mild character who has been held captive by his evil aristocrat for many years. He’s always wanted to work in show business and is really not evil at all.

evil-shadow-confession

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

For the short future, at least, Eustace and Courage are just a bit more afraid of shadows than they were before. When Muriel comes back to bed they first see her hair in curlers and are terrified once again.

muriel-curlers

In a scene reminiscent of E.T., the shadow flies into the sky because Courage has suggested he be the shadow of a star.

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