Statements you will never hear again in your lifetime: in entering the TV animation landscape with Gummi Bears, Disney made perhaps the most unfortunate decision in their entire television history: they made it GOOD.
Have you ever heard of a show that just decided to become good? There are shows where the premise has potential but they seem to always fall short. There are shows with potential that manage to reach it – heck, even surpass it. There are shows with weak premises that somehow become incredible. And, of course, there are shows with weak premises and weak executions. But have you even heard of a show that had a weak premise, became incredible, and because of which made the show more problematic? Is such a thing even possible?
Gummi Bears may have actually achieved this.
Gummi Bears may be the first and only show in the history of television where the marked and genuine improvements of the show worked in the show’s detriment. Not because the improvements were unnecessary, but because young people would not be cognizant or aware of the amount of depth put into the show. Gummi Bears uses its candy-colored (and candy-based) protagonists to appeal to girls and its fantasy setting to appeal to boys (a setting that was quite popular in the mid-80s), but Jymn Magon and Art Vitello, who were tempted to lazily create an adorable preschool-esque show with cheesy names and cheesier lessons, opted for a somewhat grim but ultimately positive tale of swashbuckling heroes, ancient races, mysterious contraptions, calculating villains, and cruel monsters. They were tempted to do Care Bears, but instead made Dungeons & Dragons with teddy bears. The mistake? Care Bears is, at the very least, looked back upon in ironic enjoyment, a workman-like, Hallmark consumer product that sold toys and taught lessons, so whatever. Gummi Bears, on the other hand, surged forward with epic tales and tight storytelling and a broad sense of continuity, and yet relatively few people seem to remember any of this.
That’s the problem. Gummi Bears gets genuinely good. Not simply by improving the animation or voice work, but by creating epic, often-powerful stories and authentically tense moments that rival some of the 90s best television shows. The writing becomes crisp, characters are developed, backstories are explored, history is divulged, and continuity is established. Which, of course, most people would never know. Gummi Bears was years before DVDs and DVRs, before any sense of kids TV shows following an established storyline (the exception might be JEM and the Hologram, which is saying A LOT). The continuity is broad – not nearly as serial as today’s TV shows are – but it’s definitely present, with characters quite often discussing and referring to specific events that happened in prior episodes. Considering, though, that Gummi Bears would have certainly been aired out of order (and with the small attention span of most children), there would have been little chance anyone would have picked up on this. Characters actually grow and change (at least they start to: later episodes seem to diminish earlier developments), but even when Gummi Bears does start to coast, it still manages to create a sense of progress, development, and transformation. But with no way to follow this, Gummi Bears comes off messy, silly and unfortunately forgettable. It’s a deep show masked as a cute show. The irony is that if it WAS just a cute show, it might have been better remembered.
Gummi Bears starts off as you’d expect, with a nice, straight-forward pilot as we follow Cavin and his discovery of the Gummi Bears, who are cute and cuddly, and possess “Gummi Berry Juice,” a liquid that allows them to bounce, because it’s oh-so-adorable to see these bears bounce around. Even though the show makes it a point to establish their different personalities, they’re all stock in trade – Cubbi’s adventurous, Grammi’s motherly, Gruffi’s the “meanie,” Tummi loves food, Sunni is sweet, Zummi is wise if doddering – and there’s a whole thing about a magic book. The pilot, “A New Beginning,” plays lip service to being “last of the Gummi Bears” and the world it establishes, but subsequent episodes of the first season are just what you’d expect. Cubbi and Sunni get into trouble. Tummi’s love for food gets him into trouble. Zummi’s slight klutziness gets him into trouble. There’s a little bit of continuity, what with Tummi’s love for ships and Zummi’s gradually learning spells – but it seems mostly superfluous for whatever cute story the writers cook up.
Then, all of a sudden, the season one finale, “Light Makes Right,” happens:
Nothing says “shit just got real” then depicting an entire population of Gummi Bears running for their lives as their village is destroyed and their homes burn into the night sky. It’s a jarring, momentum-shifting, jaw-dropping moment, made even more dramatic thanks to TMS’s animation, which, I can’t stress enough, is just tops. In this episode, the concept of being the last of the Gummi Bears is given real substance, these six Gummis acknowledging their responsibility to take care of the Glen until the refugee bears can return home. They take note of the uneasy relationship between Gummis and humans, and debate whether its time to call them back. They discover a giant machine that can connect them to these missing Gummis, and they even get a response back. Their hope for a reunion is cut short when Duke Igthorn (who’s backstory, as a former knight of Dunwyn turn betrayer, is explained, making him more than a generic big bad) hijacks the machine and makes it into a weapon. There’s this dark, sad scene where the Gummis, sitting around a fire, shaded in muted shadows, come to the conclusion that they have to destroy the machine, sacrificing their chance to see their people. Watching Zummi desperately grab the final message from the exiled Gummis is legitimately harrowing, giving extra weight to their final mission. It’s a fantastic episode, arguably the best piece of Disney Afternoon animation in its entire lineup.
Gummi Bears immediately takes on new life. The second and third season surges forward with incredible, exciting, and poignant adventures that actually build upon the world and the inhabitants within it. We learn about other Gummi realms and old machines, we learn about Igthorn’s brother, we learn about trolls and orcs, we see Sunni and Toadie connect for a brief moment, we see Grammi and Zummi have a WONDERFUL moment together (in perhaps the richest episode of the run), and they even introduce a new Gummi. It’s remarkable stuff, and even though there are plenty of filler episodes, they work with the context that previous episodes established. Admittedly, they reach a rut in the middle of season four (particularly with Sunni, who they never make into a good, likeable character – she’s always acting bratty to her detriment – and they loose a lot of established good-will with Cubbi), but they introduce the abandoned Gummi capital of Ursalia, Sir Thornberry, Lady Bane, and the Barbic Bears, a sect of Gummis that broke away from the science/magic Gummis to live off the land, giving the show a more rich, well-developed foundation.
DO YOU SEE THIS? Even as I typed out that proceeding paragraph, I can’t still believe all the things this show did and created. All of these well-thought out, clever and rich ideas were present in this show, and it only seems like a few diehard fans would ever know. Not even the living Disney Afternoon crew seems particularly enamored over what they accomplished here (oddly enough they seem strangely mellow over the entire DA lineup, contrasting with the Tiny Toons/Animaniacs cast, who seem rightly proud of their past creation). But Gummi Bears is a fully realized world of fantasy and sorcery and steampunk, of dungeons and dragons – a Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones-esque show with characters that grow and change.
Take Cubbi for instance. The pink bear with a wooden sword who seeks adventure has all the hallmarks of a safe toy product for the youngest of children, arguably desired pink for girls and adventurous for boys (in an attempt to cross the gender divide). Over the course of the show however, it becomes clear that Cubbi is extremely lonely and feels completely helpless. It seems that bears his age would be in the throes of becoming a knight, but due to being the only living bears around, his life is spent running and hiding. With tales and legends of great Gummis fighting and battling for victory filling his books and lessons, it’s no wonder that Cubbi’s thirst for adventure is at his full force. Age be damned – remember in Game of Thrones, the young character of Rickon watches his father behead a man. So here, in “Up, Up, and Away” when the opportunity comes to leave his family behind to finally become a knight, he takes that chance to finally grow up:
If it was any other set of characters, we’d probably be talking about Gummi Bears today, perhaps in the same cult-hushed tones of praise that we give to shows like Gargoyles or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But it’s hard for even myself to reconcile my enjoyment and investment in a show that stars six purposely-cuddly teddy bear toys, and this is from a guy who not only enjoyed The Wuzzles, but honestly believes it ought to be rebooted. Other TV shows should be envious of the amount of detail and development that “plagues” Gummi Bears, and can only give nothing but respect to the cast and crew for contextualizing stuffed animals into a fully-fleshed fantasy world – Lord knows how easy it would have been to coast by, considering those first eight episodes.
Yet despite all my reluctance, I have to give Gummi Bears all sincere credit, breaking away from the easy, simple kid stories and make something with richness and depth. It’s rewarding to see, for example, Cavin’s grandfather, who indirectly discovered the Gummi Bears, return and become privy to their existence. Princess Calla grows into her own as she proves herself to be a warrior. There’s real cultural and logistical tension that arise between the Glen Gummis and the Barbic Gummis, depicting two groups that developed differently and therefore have different approaches to how to handle humans. It takes several episodes for them to reach any real accord, and when they do, it feels earned. “The Rite Stuff” and the two part “King Igthorn” series finale finishes the show in pitch perfect fashion. The refugee Gummis don’t return, but there’s hope that the future holds a true reunion between not only all the Gummis, but the humans as well.
Gummi Bears works so much better than you’d think. It’s smart and clever, adventurous and exciting, dramatic and funny, with a few great gags (and a couple of groaners). Yet the real greatness of the show – its overall development of its characters and deep plot continuity – is rarely, if ever talked about. This should change. Whatever you may think of a show with six rainbow stuffed animals at the helm, Gummi Bears was built for fandom culture. Consider me a fan.