None of us deserve DuckTales. And yet here it is all the same. Disney’s new DuckTales relaunch is absolutely 100-percent, uncut, not-fooling-around tales of Duckburg. This is Heisenberg-pure DuckTales. Scrooge, you absolute madman. It’s intimidating, almost insulting, how much they refuse to fool around. You’ve heard of pimping my ride? Well, they pimped my expectations, and yo dawg I hear you like DuckTales, so we put even more DuckTales in your DuckTales. How could I have prepared my body for more of these outrageous ducks? Their power to not fool around scares me, and I am convinced racecars, lasers and airplanes will follow soon. The new 2017 DuckTales has everything that made the original series great, and then some.
I have loved DuckTales most of my life, for reasons that I am not entirely able to fathom, but I’m confident the world’s best therapists could take a crack at it. Somewhere in the back of my head, there is a part of me that could sit in a comfy chair and watch DuckTales, and read Carl Barks comics, until the sun bloats red and dies and rolls over on its back like an overdosing possum. Even then, it would not be the end of my adoration for them ducks.
The late-1980s animated series was so lovable and memorable that it’s remained a trophy object for many of us who grew up in the Age of Bush I. Forget for a second all of the conventions that came with the original show: the canned background music, the tendency towards filler, the overabundance of unnecessary explanation. The original series marked the rebirth of no-kidding serious TV animated programming: The original DuckTales premiered on September 18, 1987, and the first Simpsons episode launched on December 17, 1989. And frankly, the Tales of Duckburg were much better than anything Disney TV did for years afterwards.
The arrival of DuckTales and its strangely compelling idea (crusty trillionaire is dragooned into bringing his family along on adventures), the international ear-worming of its striking (and possibly immortal) theme music, and the blue-ribbon production values of Disney Television Animation circa 1987, seemed to signal a new dawn. Disney was going to purvey complex, consistent storytelling through the venerable funny animal genre to the great unwashed masses. Then the 1990s saw the corporate board yoink the ducks and lean back over to conventional programming.
Reader, they euthanized the waterfowl. The future of televised animation belonged to satire, and satire alone. The Simpsons saw to that.
So, when I saw that Disney was relaunching the franchise, I was ambivalent. This is the age of ill-starred reboots. And Twin Peaks-style success stories are far and few between. I needn’t have worried. This reboot was made by people who loved the original. The new DuckTales is like watching a legendary cover band who also happen to be groundbreaking artists at the same time.
That’s why the fresh edition doesn’t feel like an empty rehashing, or nostalgic flattery. The relaunch show was made for a slightly older audience, and while I miss the brighter palate of the original series, and the modern animation has a flatter affect, there’s a lot to love about the new style: The nuances are just as subtle, the character designs more innovative. The dialogue is twice as good, and the entire implied universe of Duckburg has the stellar, fresh weirdness that only the best DuckTales stories brought to the table. However, as Kotaku pointed out, the chief refinement is in the characterization.
Scrooge is the same—you can’t embroider perfection—but the rest of the cast is much-improved. In the original comics, Donald was part of the adventures. He wasn’t a regular on the original DuckTales, but it looks like he’ll be a mainstay of the new show. The nephews now sound more like teenagers (which takes getting used to) but have distinct personalities, which allows for better drama. Launchpad is still the unspeakably strange pilot of our childhood imaginings, but more so. Best of all, Webby is no longer shunted into place as generic female tag-along, but is arguably the break-out member of the cast: a genuinely intense adventurer-obsessive who is also feverish cataloger of all things McDuck. I can sympathize. Even Mrs. Beakley has an arc. And there’s a mystery subplot about the nephews’ parentage. No shock that the team behind Gravity Falls is working on the relaunch.
Why is DuckTales a success, both then and now? It all comes back to two crucial people: McDuck, and his creator, Carl Barks. There is no way I can emphasize this enough: Barks was one of the greatest comics artist-writers of the twentieth century, and the enduring influence of the Disney Duck franchise is almost entirely his doing. Creatively speaking, he is analogous to those great engineers and scientists who labor in obscurity but whose influence is longer-lasting than any number of better-known and soon-fleeting stars.
A lot of it comes down to a duck in a top hat, though. You could say that Scrooge is a shameless old plutocrat, and his edges are softened by Barks’ storytelling and the supporting cast. I don’t think so, though. Scrooge does not accrue physical comfort from his fortune, or buy anything with his cubic acres of cash; he seems to simply love the getting of it, not the spending of it. It’s as if weaponized greed was merely an excuse to seek adventure and companionship.
Scrooge is a character whose proclaimed conscious preferences run like this:
5. Adventure, Love and Acceptance
But whose actual, unconscious preferences are:
2. Love and Acceptance
4. Beating His Rivals
McDuck would really prefer to have all five. If forced to choose—like, we’re talking at gunpoint here—he will choose his family every time. But the secret of Scrooge’s appeal is that even within the bounds of being a superhuman capitalist and utter cheapskate, he will be as decent as possible. He’s as close to being hero and villain as any funny animal character in comics. Imagine if Superman was ridiculously, pathologically devoted to woodworking—almost to his detriment—but he was still devoted to his loved ones and determined to save everybody. Ultimately, DuckTales is the story of funny animals on wild adventure binges, and there is a level of perpetual, undying charm about the entire idea. There’s a special providence in animated cartoons. And it’s there in DuckTales. WOOHOO.
New episodes of DuckTales premiere Friday, Sept. 23 on Disney XD.