So, why aren’t we talking about Ducktales?
Think about it. We have blogs after blogs dedicated to Animaniacs, Gravity Falls, and Adventuretime. We have large fanbases for Freakazoid and Tiny Toons. The cult followings of My Little Pony and Rocko’s Modern Life are quite sizeable. But the Disney Afternoon block of syndicated animated TV seems to be only mentioned in passing. We’ll say they were great, but never exactly expand upon them. Sure, the animated block didn’t end all too well – Bonkers, Quack Pack, The Mighty Ducks, Hercules, and The Emperor’s New Groove don’t exactly garner much enthusiasm (for valid reasons), but the Disney Afternoon’s prime of Gummi Bears, Talespin, Ducktales, Darkwing Duck, Rescue Rangers, Goof Troop, and Gargoyles more than makes up for it.
Ducktales was the pinnacle of the group, the only cartoon that produced more episodes past its initial 65 episode order, making it to the coveted 100 (including a wildly entertaining gem of a film called Treasure of the Lost Lamp, to be discussed later.) Ducktales was based on the extremely popular Donald Duck comics from the creative minds of Carl Barks and Don Rosa, two talented artists who gave life and story to some of Disney’s most memorable ducks, including Scrooge himself. Taking the comics to the airwaves was no easy task, but the animation team took it on, and created a truly timeless show for the ages. Why aren’t we talking about Ducktales? I’m not sure, but I sure have plenty to say about the greatest cartoon of all time.
Ducktales – (1987)
Director: Bob Hathcock, James T. Walker, Alan Zaslove
Starring: Alan Young, Russi Taylor, Terence McGovern
Screenplay(s) by: David Weimers, Ken Koonce, Jymn Magon
Ducktales is, at it’s core, an adventurous, epic saga of a rich duck going through hell and high-water to save his wealth and his family equally. This is important and I’ll touch upon it later, but Ducktales is primarily focused on telling interestingly pulpy tales of hidden treasures, mysterious natives, time travel, robots and ghosts and legends, through which Scrooge McDuck and his plucky nephews battle. Beyond this are the various factions and issues that someone like Scrooge would have to deal with – associative (like a rivalry with second richest duck Flintheart Glomgold), personal (like feeling too old to continue) and business (like securing a deal with the navy to build stealth submarines).
The raw energy and charisma of the characters keep Ducktales moving along at a fun, exciting pace, and each episode is rich with details and character moments. Each episode is also rather unique, given the freedom of the premise to explore any deliciously pulpy idea to fruition. Robots run amok? Sure! Mansions and castles with secret rooms? You bet! Sea monsters? Holla! Don’t forget aliens, secret spies, Amazonians, and superheroes.
For the most part, Ducktales has their stories and tales told so well and so passionately, while maintaining a sense of fun, adventure, comedy, thrill, mystery and drama throughout. “The Treasure of the Golden Suns” five-part premiere is the epitome of all that, a strong intro to various players in the show, as well as developing the kind of relationship between Scrooge and his nephews through out the series. I love how they pace their episodes, too, allowing 5-7 minutes of set up or backstory before jumping into the plot (“The Curse of Castle McDuck” for example). It’s rare to see something like that in cartoons, where the general rule seems to be maintaining momentum and action as much as aesthetically possible.
One of the things that most impressed me is how Ducktales delved into that relationship between Scrooge and his nephews. Huey, Dewey, and Louie are not annoying brats that find themselves getting into trouble like so many cartoons tend to portray their younger characters. They are PART of the adventure, characters that Scrooge truly relies on to help. He doesn’t simply want them around; he NEEDS them. It’s a creative sensibility that seems lost to most kids networks today. They tend to focus on kid characters being the solitary hero in a world of “mean” adults, or shows about man-children-like characters being silly to evoke laughter. Ducktales shows that kids simply want to be PART of the adult world, and when Scrooge says “me and the boys can handle this,” it feels empowering to a young mind. Adults needing a kid’s help? Adults talking to kids like adults? That’s a rarity these days, and Ducktales nails it.
This unique approach to relationships is not only limited to Scrooge and his nephews. Flintheart Glomgold is Scrooge’s rival, and definitely a villain in the truest sense of the word, but it’s a rivalry that’s more ego based, that could be applied to both of them. Scrooge loves to “shove it” into Flintheart’s face as much as he does to Scrooge. The beginning of “Robot Robbers” has Flintheart winning a bid to build a bank, and he shows Scrooge around the construction site to show off instead of ranting about his victory with maniacal laughter. It’s a rivalry in showmanship over destruction, a much more deeper protagonist/antagonist relationship than one would think. Similar relationships exist between Scrooge and Goldie, a romantic pairing that wasn’t meant to be.
You know how when you watch those cheesy films with the father who’s so busy with his work he neglects his family, only in the end he discovers what’s “really” important? Scrooge McDuck represents the follow-up story. Scrooge struggles between his real passion for his “family” and his real passion for his money. He tends to get quite worked up in his pursuit for wealth and treasure that he forgoes the safety of his nephews and even himself. It’s a really interesting and nontraditional dichotomy to see Scrooge play between the two forces of work and family; while family always wins in the end, Scrooge’s struggle with it is a surprising change of pace from most TV, let along animated fare. It’s the element that dooms Scrooge’s relationship with Goldie, when most shows would “ship” them almost immediately.
Ducktales emphasis on its adventurous spirit and perception of business and success overshadows the questionable aspects of an eccentric tycoon’s pursuit of wealth and the effect it has on Duckburg, society, and the safety of his family. While occasionally dabbling in the aftermath of its premise – like in “Down & Out in Duckburg”, Ducktales is primarily concerned with adventure, the fun of adventure, and the “education” in relation to working hard, tough, and smart. It is this cartoon taken to its logical conclusion. To ask Ducktales to explore its own socioeconomic ramifications would be like to have an Indiana Jones film explore the actually practice of archeology and it’s anthropological effect on the cultures he ingrains himself. (When it does, it usually is not good. “Trala La” is rare miss for the show – sloppy, out of character, and kinda offensive.)
The show itself doesn’t condescend or simplify its storytelling (well, not too often). I was always surprised to find surprisingly twisty episodes like “Merit-Time Adventures” and “Duckman of Aquatraz” defy typical whodunits and present surprisingly complex tales. They’re clever and manage to keep up the pace without too much “cartoon” filler. And they’re also surprisingly violent, with characters shooting guns, missiles, and torpedoes quite frequently. I’m kinda surprised Disney didn’t raise too much hell. (They didn’t have to worry about S&P since the show was syndicated.)
I much prefer Ducktales approach to self-awareness and meta-comedy than, let’s say, something like Animaniacs. Ducktales focuses solely on telling its stories and having fun with the characters through the storytelling to wink-and-nod to itself. Sometimes it’s a goofy aside, like when Ma Beagle yells, ” What do you think this is, a cartoon?” at one of her sons in “Robot Robbers”. And “Scroogerella” uses a feverish-dream framing device to insert the characters in a batshit insane retelling of Cinderella. The four part “Catch as Cash Can” saga (which I think is slightly stronger than the “Treasure of the Golden Suns” saga) opens the ridiculousness up on full display when Scrooge and Flintheart have to deliver ALL THEIR WEALTH across the world weigh it on a giant scale. It’s such an outlandish concept, even in the cartoon/Ducktales world, but the commitment to it is so palpable that you can’t help be be engaged.
(And don’t think Ducktales doesn’t have its own share of hidden naughty jokes. In “Status Seekers,” Scrooge attempts to downplay his adventurous, free spirit to fight into higher society. He even tries to join a group of blue-blood snobs that call themselves the Association of Status Seekers. Writer Jymn Magon confirmed that this indeed was on purpose – and what I love is how it doesn’t call attention to itself. It’s a quick verbal gag, only mentioned once, and not beaten into the ground. You either pick up on it, or you don’t.)
Ducktales is also a bit more cartoonier than I remember, which is good. It’s nice to see effecting animation tricks – characters flatten, character fight-cloud, smears and blurs and jawdrops, squash and stretch, and so on – and as mentioned before, TMS does it all with aplomb. In fact, TMS animates an insane, elaborate mine-cart sequence in “Earth Quack” pretty much for the sake of showing off. The voice work is top-notch, to, with Alan Young as Scrooge nailing the highs and lows of the character when needed. And there’s a bit of a continuity in the show; well, I guess they’d be more like callbacks, but they’re callbacks that are integral to the plot and characters. Gyro invents a bathtub time machine, for example; they use it several episodes later when they have to time travel. The only knock against the show’s production is their eventual switch from TMS to Wang Studios. Wang does okay work, but it’s definitely inferior to TMS, and Wang does make some serious visual errors from time to time.
In the end, Ducktales is a strong, exciting piece of animation television. It’s dramatic, adventurous, and hilarious at all the right points, and even with introducing new characters – like Bubba and Fenton Crackshell/Gizmoduck – the cast and crew brings a life and an energy to everything that keeps viewers young and old glued to the screen. Save for a few rough patches here and there, Ducktales is a strong argument that indeed cartoons were better back then (not that I agree with that fully, but it can be made). It holds up better than Scrooge’s own money bin, and that’s saying something.