So I discovered this weekend that the first episode of the new DuckTales cartoon has been made officially available for free on the YouTubes.
And while kidvid isn’t our usual subject matter here on the nerd farm, DuckTales has a funnybook pedigree that brings it under our purview. The series is based, after all, on the comics of Carl Barks, who created most of the characters and concepts in the show. Barks established the “high adventure” tone, created Scrooge McDuck and Duckburg, established a new, more adventurous personality for Donald Duck, and gave birth to what is now referred to as “The Duck Universe” (and if you want to climb down THAT jaw-droppingly delightful rabbit hole, you can start here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Duck_universe).
Barks also created, by far, the best comics about the duck characters (at least until Don Rosa came along, and became his rightful successor). The Barks duck comics are legendary stuff, with Barks’ name often mentioned in the same breath as Golden Age greats like Jack Cole and CC Beck. Some have even called him the Jack Kirby of funny animal comics, bringing the same vibrancy and sense of possibility to that genre that Kirby brought to super heroes. Barks’ gag strips were always tight and funny, and his adventure stories were things of pulpy wonder, filled to bursting with lost civilizations, magic, and amazing science. He established iconic images like Scrooge swimming in his Money Bin…
…and lent his stories’ exotic locales a grand scale seldom seen in funny animal fare.
And, though he was very much an artist of the clean-lines-and-clear-storytelling school, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t capable of doing some visually interesting stuff when the story called for it:
So, yes. Carl Barks’ duck stories are some of the greatest children’s adventure comics ever made. Since Barks was working primarily in the 1950s and 60s, however, I never got to read many of his comics as a child. I did have a few reprints here and there; I remember “Micro-Ducks From Outer Space” quite clearly in a sea of lesser stories that made less of an impact. But mostly, I’ve read Barks as an adult. What made the biggest impact on me as a kid were Big Little Books inspired by Barks’ work…
…and though I didn’t know it then, they made me a huge Barks fan (and helped instill my life-long love of adventure fiction). So when the original DuckTales cartoon debuted in 1987 (even though I was in college by that time), I tuned in. And that show was a lot of fun. Granted, it was a bit bland in comparison to Barks. Their Scrooge was less crotchety, and they never quite pulled off the same sense of wonder and discovery that Barks’ best work did. But it was well-done, and definitely in the right spirit. I liked it, and watched it when I had the time.
So while I hardly consider myself an expert, I do feel like I’ve got the proper background to discuss the new show. And so far, I like it quite a bit.
Keep in mind that it’s definitely an update. The character designs are clean but flat, less lush than Barks’ versions and (thankfully) not as cute as the ones from the original series. While not as stylized as something like Teen Titans Go, it still feels very much of the moment. Huey, Dewey and Louie have been given a far more modern look, for instance, and there’s a bigger role for Webby, the granddaughter of Scrooge’s housekeeper, who functions sort of as an unofficial Duck cousin.
They’ve also established more distinct personalities for all four of the kids, with each of them seeming to represent different aspects of Scrooge’s personality. Dewey shares his love of adventure. Louie shares his greed. Huey has his brains and general sense of preparedness (Barks’ beloved Junior Woodchuck Manual is only referenced once in the pilot, but it’s Huey who does it). Webby comes closest to the whole Scrooge, I suppose. She’s a competent fighter and enthusiastic historian who has knowledge and physical skills the boys lack. But her sheltered upbringing in the shadows of Scrooge’s mansion has made her socially awkward.
All of them have their foibles. Dewey loves adventure, but he’s not good at it yet. Louie’s a miniature con man who’s cool under pressure, but he seems to lack a moral compass. And Huey… Well, honestly, Huey’s the one least well-served by the pilot. He seems enthusiastic and competent, but I don’t have much sense of who he is beyond that. The show definitely seems interested in long-term character development, though, so I guess they’ve got time.
And overall, I’m rather pleased with how they’ve set up the boys. Those kids were a lot more mischievous in their early cartoon appearances, and I’ve always found that missing in DuckTales. Barks made them fairly upright citizens in his comics, and they were only sanitized further in the original series. But I always preferred, for instance, the three righteous brats who conspired with a witch to get revenge on their uncle for being a jerk on Halloween.
And speaking of Unca Donald, I’m also really pleased to see him along for the ride in the new series. They wrote him out of the original for reasons I’ve never understood, and it was always disappointing to me that he wasn’t around. Here, as in Barks’ comics, he’s back in the thick of things, and I think that’s for the best.
The version of Donald we get here is something of an amalgam of Barks’ Donald and the one we know from the cartoons. He’s traded in his blue sailor suit for the black one Barks gave him, and he’s also an adventurer like Barks’ version (albeit a more reluctant one). But his personality (like the boys’) is a lot closer to the cartoon version. Barks made Donald more level-headed, but here his violent temper has returned, and it’s a welcome sight.Donald losing it over a malfunctioning stapler is comedy gold, and I look forward to more epic freak-outs as the series progresses. It also makes me wonder how much Donald’s temper lead to one of the pilot’s more intriguing plot points: the estrangement of Donald and Scrooge. When the new series opens, the two haven’t spoken in a decade, for reasons that aren’t revealed. We learn that they once adventured together around the world, but something came between them. There’s a hint that it may have something to do with the reason the boys came to live with Donald in the first place: their absent mother.
But we don’t know for sure, and it looks like they’ll be developing that as one of the series’ core mysteries. Because, again, this is an updated DuckTales, for the era of serial television. All indications are that we’ll be getting continuing development and sub-plots behind the main adventures. This is a departure for the show, and makes me wonder if they’ll be drawing on Don Rosa’s work as well as Barks’. Rosa had a penchant for developing Barks’ world and the characters in it, perhaps most famously in his 12-part epic The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck. He worked mostly during and after the show’s original run, meaning that his influence wasn’t much felt on that show. Rosa’s had some disagreements with Disney over the years, too, but (if they could see fit to pay the man some royalties) they could do a lot worse than to draw on his stories and approach for the new series.
At any rate, Donald’s primary concern is not with adventures and treasure-hunting, but with protecting the boys as their thirst for adventure leads them into danger. He thinks Scrooge may be best-equipped to teach them how to survive, but it’s quite clear that he doesn’t entirely like or trust his uncle. And that opinion may not be entirely undeserved.
Which brings us, at last, to the real star of the show, Scrooge McDuck himself. As voiced by David Tennant, this Scrooge is appropriately grouchy and forbidding, and may have some of the less flattering personality traits given to him by Barks and Rosa. While an essentially good person, comic book Scrooge can be a greedy miser who’s not above lying to get what he wants, and we get hints that this Scrooge may be much the same. Tennant’s great in the role, though, getting across the character’s gruffness, but also his sense of wonder. All that time on Doctor Who obviously prepared him for this.
So, yeah. I’m pretty happy with this new DuckTales. It updates the original without feeling cheap, and respects all of its source material, drawing on both the comics and the cartoons that the whole thing is based on to create a satisfying whole. It strikes a nice balance between cynicism and hope, glorifying the good while still acknowledging that things suck sometimes. And it’s not afraid to be weird; at one point, there’s a “headless man-horse” running around, which… I don’t know what a man-horse is, but that’s a great and mildly disturbing idea, so I’m all for it.
Now, you know… The show’s not perfect. The jokes are very much in the quippy modern-comedy style, and thus feel a bit safe and even stale at times. And it occasionally veers too close to self-awareness for my taste. It hasn’t yet fallen into the trap of making its characters so aware of the conventions of genre fiction that they comment on the cliches even as they’re happening, thank god. But (though I’d have to spoil something to give an example) it’s still occasionally a bit too on-the-nose for my taste.
So the show is no Adventure Time, in other words. But that’s okay. Not everything can be that good, and I frankly wouldn’t expect Disney to turn out something that idiosyncratic and awesome. What I do tend to expect from them (in the current era, at least) is sharp, well-crafted mainstream entertainment. And DuckTales is definitely that. It’s a fun kids’ adventure show that honors its past while having its feet firmly planted in the present. And I can’t knock that too hard.