In The Snowman Cometh episode of Courage is interesting for the way in which the writers comically represent a part of science which is difficult to understand and even harder to portray on screen.
Most of the Courage episodes are set in the Bagge family home in the middle of Nowhere but by this point in the series the writers must be looking around for ways to shake it up. This episode opens with a familar picture of Eustace to the right and Muriel to the left of the screen, but instead of sitting on their rocking chairs at home they are inside an igloo. Continue reading “The Snowman Cometh Courage The Cowardly Dog”
The Hunchback of Nowhere is from the first season of Courage The Cowardly Dog. As ever, this modern re-visioning takes inspiration from a wide history of storytelling, including from The Bible.
Any adult viewer will know immediately that this is inspired at least partly by The Hunchback of Notre Dame, though the writers can’t expect a young audience to know this. Instead, they have to come up with a story which is complete in its own right while also nodding to the earlier story. A lot of viewers may have seen the 1996 film, however, which was only a few years old when this episode of Courage came out in 1999. (The Hunchback was having another moment.)
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE HUNCHBACK OF NOWHERE
Taking a break from the hero’s journey and Robinsonnade structures of previous episodes, this is a carnivalesque story as seen in many picture books. There is no battle sequence in a carnivalesque story. Instead we have a whole lot of fun, though it can look precarious in parts. There is no real opponent in this story either, apart from Eustace who we already know to be his own worst enemy.
This story opens with a shot of the rain pelting down.
We’ve had thunder storms a plenty in Nowhere but we haven’t seen much rain. Once again the story opens at night time, with a cute but ugly character going from door to door hoping for some shelter.
Rain is often used in comedy (and in genre fiction) as pathetic fallacy, in which rain equals sadness, sunshine equals happiness, and so on.
As Elizabeth Lyon says in her book Manuscript Makeover, readers are like ducklings; we fall in love with the first character we ‘see’. The same is true for the screen. (It’s clear the writers of Courage know this really well — a later episode features a duckling falling madly in love with the otherwise unloveable Eustace.)
The writers of Courage have opened with an opponent before, for example with the fox who wants to make Cajun Granny Stew, and this makes the opponent less scary for a young audience. Here we need genuine affection for the Hunchback in order for the rest of the story to work. So we see him as an outsider. He is recast as a modern hobo.
Eustace wants Courage to fetch his raincoat from the barn.
Courage wants Eustace to let the Hunchback stay. He says to the camera (because Eustace can’t understand him speaking English), “Why can’t he stay in the attic at least?”
The Hunchback wants to avoid getting wet.
Eustace. Had Muriel opened the door to the Hunchback there would have been no story. Muriel is accommodating by nature.
The Hunchback takes refuge in the Bagges’ barn.
Courage has found a friend so he intends for the Hunchback to stay until it’s no longer raining, keeping him safe from the grumpy, uncharitable Eustace.
Eustace plans to annoy the Hunchback and insult him until he leaves.
Instead of a battle sequence there is a play sequence in the barn. The barn is the Nowhere equivalent of the Notre Dame Cathedral because it allows for great contrast between high and low places — the highest point of the barn is really quite high, and we are reminded of this fact numerous times via high angle and low angle contrasting shots.
We find lots of high-low juxtaposition in stories about social inequality, which is very much what we have in the Hunchback story.
In this carnivalesque story we have scenes right out of an actual carnival/circus, with Courage and his new friend swinging like circus performers and playing tunes with the set of bells the Hunchback has brought with him.
The play scene includes plenty of tension because of the risk of falling from the high swing and also because Eustace comes into the barn demanding to know why Courage still hasn’t retrieved his raincoat as he was asked.
There is a comical game of shadow puppetry using a torch, in which Courage and the Hunchback make all sorts of improbable shapes using only their hands (even funnier because Courage has three stubby fingers.)
The play scene isn’t quite enough to make a complete story, however, and the writers know this. There is a battle of wits at the breakfast table the next morning after Muriel invites the Hunchback for a pancake breakfast. “Any friend of Courage is a friend of mine.”
Eustace doesn’t want this and insults the Hunchback. Pleased to have a ‘voice’ at last, Courage writes notes to the Hunchback, who gets at Eustace’s most self-conscious feature — his baldness. Eustace stamps out in a huff.
The third part of the battle happens on the barn roof, in which the roof is a domestic stand-in for a cliff in the natural world. Courage and the Hunchback are up there playing a concert to the appreciative Muriel, who is perfectly happy to listen to them under the cover of her umbrella below.
Eustace has a self-revelation (which won’t last, naturally) when the Hunchback pranks him. Eustace has been pranking Courage all along with his scary tricks, especially throughout this episode. Noticing this, the Hunchback gives Eustace a taste of his own medicine. Anyone watching realises immediately that Eustace can give it but he can’t take it.
When the Hunchback says goodbye he pulls out a huge bell. Why does he do this, apart from the laugh? Throughout this story the Hunchback has been a more powerful version of Courage due to his being able to talk and also outwit Eustace by scaring him with his very own face. The Hunchback is saying he has won on behalf of Courage, with his identical but much smaller bell. (The bell = voice.)
The Hunchback says he hopes to find other kind people on his travels.
This episode of Courage seems to be a parody of an episode of a TV serial from the 1930s based on a novel by Arthur Reeve. It is called “The Clutching Hand” and is about a detective named Craig Kennedy. This serialised original includes the following elements:
A get rich quick scheme
Assuming a false identity
The original is slow and pretty boring for a modern audience, but the creators of Courage The Cowardly Dog have created a masterful mishmash of the above elements and made a brand new story for children using the basic formula they have already established for themselves combined with broad strokes from Arthur Reeve.
Children’s stories often feature oversized (or undersized) characters/elements. We have that here, too, with Eustace’s massive festering foot which literally swallows him up.
This is the most difficult to watch episode so far in terms of gross out humour. Despite the cartoon depiction, the foot — and especially Muriel’s home remedies for the foot — really make my skin crawl.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE CLUTCHING FOOT”
Much use is made of The Rule of Three in Storytelling. “The Clutching Foot” is basically a spoof of a heist movie, so includes the classic scenes from those. There is a pyrrhic victoryfor Courage as he sacrifices his health and wellbeing to save the day.
It’s very clear by now that Courage’s needs and weaknesses never change. He is a dog who is charged with the task of saving his home and family.
This would get old after a while, except the humans Courage lives with have different weaknesses and needs depending on the episode. Here, Eustace is foiled by his refusal to see a doctor when his foot festers.
Eustace does not want to see a doctor — he wants to have a nap and wake up and find his foot all better. He lets Muriel try out her home remedies (three of them):
Unfortunately for him, his foot completely takes over while he’s sleeping, and swallows him right up. This is basically an intruder in the house — the massive foot might as well be a monster who has come in through the window or a ghoul. The function is the same, but is a bit more like a psychological suspense story in that the monster is Eustace himself — it’s a part of him. The nasty part of himself is the very thing that will consume him in the end.
And it does. Quite literally.
The gangster persona is a masterful touch for a foot opponent because the big toe can be the Don and the little toes can back up everything he says. The size of the toes equal the hierarchy in a typical gang.
With Eustace stuck inside it unable to speak, the foot itself comes up with a plan. This is a gangster foot, and speaks in a parody of gangsters from American film in the early part of the 20th century. The foot is going to use Muriel as bait, “Do what I say or the fat lady gets it,” and will force Courage to carry out heists for it.
Courage, of course, will do what he needs to in order to save Muriel (and Eustace by default.)
The battle sequence involves Courage
Driving the getaway car
Breaking into a bank and robbing the place. (He fails because although money showers down it’s all torn and singed from an explosion.)
Holding up a train.
Courage is trying to appease the bad foot while also saving his family and not breaking the law. He manages to save the train from being robbed by eating a banana and throwing the skin onto the ground. At first I wondered if this was going to derail the train, but in fact it made the foot slip, sending the train far into the distance.
Once again we have a modification of the woman tied to railway tracks (we’ve seen it in an earlier episode with a toy train inside the house). Muriel screams as the foot holds her down. Courage risks his own life by standing in front of an oncoming train.
Stories in which likeable characters are forced to hold up a bank are popular in fiction. We have Thelma in Thelma and Louise, for instance. More recently we have an episode of Season Three of Black Mirror, “Shut Up And Dance”, in which a teenage boy and another reluctant man are forced to rob a bank or risk having their online activities emailed to everyone they know.
I wonder if these stories are popular because we’ve all wondered if we could pull off a bank heist. It’s a task that looks easy if only you can manage your emotions.
When the computer tells him that dog slobber can save the day, Courage is basically learning that the only one capable of saving everyone is himself. He must make the ultimate sacrifice. This is a pyrrhic victory. He must lick the foot.
We see Courage in the bathroom brushing, gargling and flossing to get the disgusting taste of festering foot out of his mouth.
We end with a circular story when Courage discovers the fungus has transferred to his own tongue. The first we know of this is that the gangster voice echoes out from deep inside him. Next we see his mouth open:
In the “King Ramses’ Curse” episode of Courage the Cowardly Dog we have three plagues — since storytelling loves The Rule Of Three — and the plagues comprise a mixture of ancient and comically modern curses.
This horror comedy for children takes inspiration from ancient holy texts such as found in the Bible and in the Quran.
In the Bible we have The Ten Biblical Plagues, also known as The Plagues of Egypt.
In the Quran there is also mention of a plague and it’s pretty similar except it happens all at once.
STORY STRUCTURE OF KING RAMSES’ CURSE
Muriel and Eustace are obliviously going on with their lives inside their house in the middle of Nowhere.
“Shirley The Medium” is an original recomposition of elements from diverse sources:
Pandora’s Box fairytale
A Christmas Carol, Dickens
Modern TV psychics
STORY STRUCTURE OF SHIRLEY THE MEDIUM
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.
Courage wants to prevent Eustace from opening a box.
“The Duck Brothers” episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog 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.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE DUCK BROTHERS”
Courage is unable to convince Eustace when Muriel is in danger because of his lowly status as an anxious dog.
He wants to save Muriel.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Another battle comes about between Courage and himself. Once wrestling the remote controller off the duck brothers he is unable to work it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
“Mother’s Day” is an episode from season one of Courage The Cowardly Dog. This is where we get some of Eustace’s back story. 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 OF “MOTHER’S DAY”
As usual we have an opening shot in which Courage looks momentarily 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.
Eustace doesn’t want to go see his own mother for mother’s day but he wants to get Muriel off his back.
In “The Demon In The Mattress” episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog we have the full moon, the midnight ‘witching’ hour and a comic horror story about possession.
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.
Colour is used in this episode as the story changes in tone.
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.
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 OF “THE DEMON IN THE MATTRESS”
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.
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.
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.
We first see a shot of the opponents’ lair. A couple of small creatures scuttle past.
The mattress delivery guys turn up in a medieval chariot.
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.
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.
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.
As is common in children’s comedy, it is funny that Eustace (a man) is demeaned by dressing him in female clothing.
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.)
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.
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.
“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.
But we know Eustace will make it back in time for the next episode…
Courage sees what happens to the old man in the toilet when he applies the hair growth lotion.
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.
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.
Courage wants to stay home with Muriel and definitely not have a haircut.
Eustace wants hair.
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.
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.
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.
He massages Eustace’s feet
He plays the harp
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).
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.
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.
These things make Eustace so angry that his anger ends up blowing up 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.
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.
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.
In the previous story I wondered if the windmill was a symbol for mysterious ‘change’ about to happen.
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.
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.