For the kid growing up in the late 1980s, there was two sacred timeslots when television cartoons were at their finest: weekdays in the late afternoon and Saturday mornings. Saturdays tended to focus more of the major headlining acts, but as the decade closed out, weekday afternoons became a powerhouse of animation in their own right. There were a lot of great shows I used to love sneaking away from my homework to watch, such as COPS, Inspector Gadget, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
However, the real heavyweight champion stepped into the ring when Disney started cranking out its string of popular and successful syndicated cartoons, starting with 1987’s DuckTales. These weren’t the coolest shows, at least not when we shared our favorites at school, but DuckTales, Tale Spin, and the like were easy watching and well liked even so.
DuckTales took what was previously a third-tier Mickey Mouse character — Scrooge McDuck — and elevated him to headlining status. A fabulously wealthy duck, Scrooge earned his finances from and continued to channel them toward world-spanning adventures. He was kind of like a very well-financed Indiana Jones with a classy top hat. Along for the ride, he’d bring his not-so-bright pilot Launchpad, his three nephews, and other assorted hangers-on.
There are many elements of this show that went down into pop culture legend, most notably Scooge’s dips into his money bin and the obnoxiously amazing ear worm of a theme song, but it was the focus on exploration and adventure that really made me like the show. There was a sense of continuity that you didn’t often get with cartoons — story arcs, cliffhangers, and returning characters. You tuned in because you never knew where Scrooge was going to go next.
It was a fine show, a nice slice of my childhood, but nothing I really worshiped or longed to see come back.
That’s why I was initially dismissive of the 2017 DuckTales revival. The art style seemed flat and not as colorful, and there didn’t seem to be a huge groundswell for more DuckTales 30 years later. Yet when I gave it a chance, this show knocked my flippers off.
Instead of continuing with the previous show, the new DuckTales is reinvention that carries forward a lot of the same themes and characters. In this version, Donald Duck is struggling as he handles raising his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie. The four end up visiting — and then staying with — Donald’s uncle Scrooge, a bold adventurer and business tycoon who realizes that family is what he’s been missing for so long. Also living in the mansion is the ghost of the former butler, Scrooge’s former secret agent partner Mrs. Beakley, and Beakley’s fearless granddaughter Webby.
And as much as I really liked the old DuckTales, there’s no doubt in my mind that this reboot is far superior in every way. There’s more of a focus on character building, for starters, and each of the nephews has much more of a personality than the color-coded triplets of the original (and I’m glad we didn’t have to listen to their squeaky voices, either). Every member of the larger cast — including Launchpad, Gizmo, and Scrooge’s many competitors — are striking and interesting in their own way, and the show doesn’t just introduce cool characters only to forget them forever after that.
Even better is the drive toward stronger storytelling. Nominally, going on adventures is still the backbone of the series, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Multiple stories weave in and out of episodes, from Scrooge’s aforementioned struggle with the concept of family to the triplets’ search for their lost mother Della to Webby’s new best friend who might just be under the influence of a very bad magical figure. It’s also a show that can genuinely make you cry. I didn’t think that was possible in a kids cartoon like this.
And it’s funny. SO funny. It’s funny in that great cross-generational way that tells jokes that are both amusing for me and for my kids. I was laughing my head off when the show referenced Gummi Bears and Darkwing Duck, for example, but my kids were giggling their heads off at Donald accidentally setting his houseboat on fire. There’s so much weirdness that goes on in this show that it can just surprise laughs out of you. If you ever wanted to hear Donald Duck speak normally and actually grow to respect him… well, there’s a first time for everything.
Finally, if the writing, jokes, and characters aren’t enough, DuckTales 2017 is blessed with some great voice talent. David Tennant (you know, Doctor Who) does a fabulous Scottish Scrooge McDuck, and Danny Pudi, Paget Brewster, and Jim Rash from Community all have some great roles as well.
DuckTales is a perfect example of taking something that used to be great in one time period and making it great in a different way for a new era. Both are terrific shows, but it’s the new one I’ll be watching from now on.