Rebooting an old cartoon property has its pluses and minuses. On the one hand, reviving an old brand means the core of what you’re trying to build is already in place. Characters, relationships, stories, even music can all be mined from the old and adapted for the new. There are often tweaks made to the look of the show, new voices to cast, and a whole new team to assemble, but it’s undoubtedly easier and less expensive than starting from scratch. And it also allows a new generation of creators to take something they enjoyed as youngsters and mold it into something else. It also comes with risks, and as we’ve seen all too often recently there is an aspect of fandom that is, well, toxic to say the least. Take She-Ra, for example. Originally conceived as a way to market action figures to girls, She-Ra was integrated into He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, itself a show designed simply to sell toys to boys, and the backlash was swift and quick. Even those behind the creation of He-Man looked down on She-Ra and blamed her for hastening the decline of the franchise as a whole, “Now my sister wants to play with me? Gross!” This is all captured quite well in the documentary series The Toys That Made Us, if you want to know more.
She-Ra, I’m sure, had fans of her own, but they definitely were small in numbers, relatively speaking. Rarely did I ever hear anyone in conversation bring her up in a positive light and I literally met no one pining for a reboot in the same mold as He-Man himself. And yet, when a new concept was recently unveiled for She-Ra online the He-Man fandom and nerd culture as a whole was swift to pounce on it. Blaming it for ruining the character or for unoriginally adhering to the “CalArts style,” these fans were loud and largely obnoxious. It was similar to the backlash towards a new ThunderCats show that has yet to air. Did you ever watch ThunderCats back when it was originally aired? That show, just like She-Ra and He-Man and countless other programs, was terrible. It’s fine to be nostalgic for them because you grew up with them. I certainly watched a lot of crappy cartoons, but I don’t want to subject my kids to the same. If there are to be new versions of these shows I want them to be good! Not some 23 minute toy commercial. Fans should be happy these things still exist for a new audience. And the beauty of it all is, if you don’t like what’s new, you still have what’s old. It doesn’t go away or vanish the moment a new version shows up.
It’s interesting that one of the companies behind the pivot from making shows that sell toys to just making good animated programming was Disney with its Disney Afternoon programming block. The original Disney Afternoon toon was Adventures of the Gummi Bears, but the show most associate with the block is none other than DuckTales. Basically a loose adaptation of the Carl Barks comics for television, DuckTales centered not around Donald Duck but around his rich Uncle Scrooge McDuck. He was partnered with his grand nephews Huey, Duey, and Louie along with his personal pilot Launchpad. Together they went on grand adventures searching for treasure. They wouldn’t just travel to far away places, but backwards and even forward in time! It was memorable for its lavish animation that went far beyond the likes of Dic and Hanna-Barbera. Not to mention for its incredibly catchy theme song.
As such, it seems appropriate that when it came time for Disney to adapt DuckTales for a new audience it largely escaped the internet backlash that had befallen other properties. Oh, I’m sure there are detractors that do not like the new visual style or the Felicia Barton sung intro, but by and large the response I have seen online and in person has been overwhelmingly positive. DuckTales just concluded its first season. Commercially, I have no idea how well the show has done, though it’s done well enough to receive a second season. It’s hard to judge that sort of thing in this day and age when ratings mean almost nothing thanks to streaming options and DVR. There hasn’t even been a tie-in toy-line until very recently so sales of that aren’t going to offer much of a measure. Creatively though, it’s hard to think of a cartoon reboot that has been more successful than DuckTales. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles come close with their 2012 reboot, and really that ThunderCats reboot of a few years ago was miles ahead of the original, though it did not last very long. DuckTales is on another level though, and there are a lot of reasons why.
First and foremost, the work of Carl Barks has not been ignored. Scrooge is back to his red overcoat and he’s partnered with all of his nephews this time – including Donald Duck! Back when the original Disney Afternoon was conceived, Disney was hesitant about letting any of its big stars headline a show. Landing Donald for the few episodes he was in was a huge get, as characters like Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy were completely shut-out at the onset. That stigma has long since passed allowing Donald to finally star alongside his uncle as he should. Huey, Dewey, Louie are still around and now they have distinct looks and personalities all to themselves. The prior nephews in basically every iteration were interchangeable. It was part of their charm, but also pretty limiting from a character perspective. Now they’re free to be themselves and the writers are allowed to explore each individual duckling. Huey is the closest to the original mold, the burgeoning Junior Woodchuck. Louie is more slothful and laid back while Dewey embodies the adventurous spirit of his great-uncle with perhaps a touch too much enthusiasm. Webby is also back and she’s no longer the little girl who seems to get in the way, rather she’s an adventurer herself who looks upon the likes of Scrooge and Donald as something close to legendary figures. She’s good-natured, and her grannie Mrs. Beakly is still around to look after her. Oh, and Mrs. Beakly is no longer the meek maid to Scrooge but a former covert agent herself with a rather massive and intimidating physique.
The show’s approach is similar to the original DuckTales, take Scrooge and the gang on adventures to fantastic worlds with treasures to uncover and villains to foil. Since the cast is larger, episodes will often pairs things down to just a handful and save the full cast for the most important episodes. It also includes more structured story-telling and the first season revolves around a character we’ve only ever seen mentioned, and rarely at that – Della Duck. Della is the sister to Donald and the mother to the boys, and at the end of the second episode (aired as one long episode for the premiere) the boys uncover a painting that depicts her alongside her brother and uncle. Della previously was basically only mentioned in the cartoon short “Donald’s Nephews” with Donald shown reading a letter from her asking her to watch her kids. She’s basically never been mentioned again and never seen, as far as I can recall. The boys start off knowing something happened to her and it may or may not have led to a falling out between Scrooge and Donald. The first episode deals with Donald reluctantly going to his uncle for help in watching the boys so he can go on a job interview, and that arch ends with Donald and the boys moving in as Donald seems to understand its best for his nephews (plus his house boat was destroyed in the process). The boys spend parts of the first season secretly investigating what happened to Della, and the mystery is unraveled slowly and takes some twists and turns. It even threatens to split the brothers apart as Dewey discovers something and decides to keep it from his brothers. Things come to a head in the penultimate episode leaving the finale, which just aired this past Saturday, to deal with the fall-out.
The other big teaser throughout the first season revolves around Scrooge’s old enemy – Magica De Spell (Catherine Tate)! She was a frequent foil in the original series so naturally she’s back. As basically the big baddie of the whole thing, it’s a lot of fun to see the show treat her as such. When the season begins she’s magically sealed away and only able to interact with the world through her niece Lena (Kimiko Glenn) who poses as a friendly sort in order to gain the trust of Scrooge and thus somehow free Magica from whatever keeps her sealed away. To do so she gets close to Webby and the two become best friends. Throughout much of the second half of the season we get to see Lena being pulled between the two forces in her life; her friendship with Webby and her loyalty to Magica. It’s nothing new, but it’s handled well and there are some genuinely emotional moments that come of this and there’s a lot of payoff in the end. Plus, the animators used this really creepy effect where Lena’s eyes turn black and “spill” shadows to form Magica. It’s genuinely unsettling.
The original DuckTales cartoon dealt with plots that continued from one episode into the other. There were even changes to the main cast as was the case with the introduction of Bubba and Gizmoduck. Those storyline pay-offs though were not on the equal with the new show. The main theme of family is at the core of this new show and it never strays too far from that. Very few of the episodes in the first season felt like filler as all seemed to serve some purpose. Either a character learns something about themself or their relationship to the others or something else happens to move the overall story along. It’s a great way to structure a show and I always love seeing what is primarily children’s programming take this sort of risk. There will always be television executives who look down on children and think the simpler the better, but trust me, kids notice this stuff and appreciate it when a show doesn’t treat them like brainless buffoons.
Additional challenges arise when creating a new version of a 30-year-old show. Namely, the voice talent available isn’t the same anymore. Alan Young, who provided the voice of Scrooge for decades, is no longer with us. And since it was decided that the nephews would be approached differently this time around, the talents of Russi Taylor were declined and instead each was given a unique voice. These changes are often the hardest for the old fans since not only do these characters barely resemble what we fell in love with as children, but they also sound very different. Once you get past that change though, it’s hard to say bad things about this cast. David Tennant is a great Scrooge with a natural Scottish accent. He brings everything you need from a voice actor to the character. He can be gentle, intimidating, enthusiastic, and even sad. It was hard to say good-bye to Young, but Tennant has done a remarkable job in his first season at the helm. The nephews are voiced by Danny Pudi (Huey), Ben Schwartz (Dewey) and Bobby Moynihan (Louie) and they all impart their own personality on the characters. If there is one negative to this season, it’s that Dewey definitely feels more developed than the other two and thus Schwartz shines brighter than the others, but season 2 could easily rectify that. Kate Micucci is Webby and she was perfect in the role while Toks Olagundoye voices her grandmother Beakley. Beck Bennett plays a more aloof Launchpad, but otherwise kind of sounds like he’s trying to do Terry McGovern which is a little sad because I know McGovern really wanted the part. If you’re feeling uncomfortable with all of the newness in the cast then at least you have Tony Anselmo reprising his role as Donald Duck, as it should be.
The new visual style of the show is bright and expressive. It’s a bit flat, which seems to be a trend in 2D digital animation, but it has its own look which helps differentiate it from the original series. The look of the old series just can’t be duplicated in today’s environment, so the show was smart to not even try. I really like the new look for Scrooge and Donald and feel it suits them well. The nephews have taken some getting used to as they have really large heads and in some respects resemble chickens more than ducks. The backgrounds are all really well done and there’s plenty of variety to be found from suburban settings to creepy castles. There’s also more imaginative and fantastic settings to be found and the show does an admirable job of mixing things up. It does the same with the villains and guest spots and virtually everyone you know and love from the original series makes an appearance or two here. There are also a few new characters thrown around, some inconsequential and some rather imaginative (I’m looking at you statue-headed horse) and almost all have some pay-off.
Of the first season’s 23 episodes (25 if you count the premier and finale as two episodes) it’s hard to pick a favorite. The first episode, “Woo-oo” was wonderful for its patient and rewarding reintroduction of these timeless characters. Any episode that pits Scrooge against Glomgold was usually humorous and entertaining to watch and the episode “Beware the B.U.D.D.Y. System” was equally humorous for its focus on Launchpad, plus it had Gizmoduck! Some of the episodes have some rather delightful Easter Eggs in them. You have undoubtedly seen or heard about the numerous Darkwing Duck ones, and the finale included one Easter Egg from the old NES game. And it’s really hard for me to not just pick the last three episodes as my favorites. They’re the most weighty with the biggest emotional moments in the whole season. I even get a lump in my throat just thinking about them.
As I said earlier, it’s hard to imagine a reboot having as successful a reintroduction as DuckTales did in 2017 and into 2018. The new show proves the old comics and original series still have legs, their foundation was one that can anchor any show in any era. This is the rare reboot that should have little trouble appealing to the old fans while also being something new for a younger generation that may never have even heard of DuckTales before 2017. If nothing else, my own children have proven to me time and again that the old theme song will never go out of style as the two will happily sing it at the dinner table, from their car seats, or while they play. It’s really rewarding as a parent to see your children embrace something you loved as a kid yourself, even if it’s not the same and in a new form. I have no doubt that DuckTales is in good hands right now and I look forward to watching the second season with my kids, or even on my own after they go to bed (it can be hard to focus on these things with a pair of short-attention span toddlers).