DuckTales (2017)

5 out of 5

Developed by: Matt Youngberg and Francisco Angones

covers season 1 through 3

There’ve obviously been massive talents working at Disney and at its various branches over the years, but like any massive corporation – especially one which aims the majority of its content at younger audiences – there’s a “general appeal” wash to things that can filter out a certain amount of creativity. So it becomes easy to lump things into a simplified ‘Disney’ category, almost regardless of its era; even classics are not necessarily immune to this type of summary.

But I used the words ‘general’ and ‘simplified’ in there; such stuff comes in ranges, with certain projects standing out as being a bit more original and setting trends, causing waves of purposeful copycats for a while thereafter.

Still, there’s an over-arching sanitization at play with those trendsetters. It happens.

On TV, there can be a bit more wiggle room on occasion, as you do the right moves at the outset, and then earn privilege to experiment along the way. Some great stuff has been produced as a result, and I’d like to try to re-underline that I’m not trying to denounce all of Disney forever and ever on the whole, as there’s plenty of landmark content (and non-landmark content) of theirs of which I’m a big fan, I suppose I’m just trying to state that these things have to succeed despite Disney’s invisible borders, and not because of it; what the “brand” suggests isn’t a guarantee of anything except it’ll probably be fairly safe and kid-friendly.

2017’s DuckTales, the reboot of the old series which aired on Disney XD, is surely safe and kid-friendly. It’s got a goofy, manic Donald Duck; it’s got Uncle Scrooge with a funny Scottish accent; it’s got wily, week-by-week antics. It’s also one of those success stories, though: an animated project that respects its audience’s intelligence and can hold the interest of any age range of viewer; it’s funny – and often hilarious – to those various demographics without being kid-pandering in the least, and manages to juggle an episodic, digestible format with growing storylines and legitimately evolving character arcs over its three seasons. That already makes it enduring and notable top tier stuff, but there’s even one further claim it can make: it is one of the few cartoons – Disney or not – that arrives with all of these pieces intact at the outset. There’s no “just give it a season,” approach needed, or a sense that she show is biding its time for ratings before unleashing more adult humor and stories. And it doesn’t achieve that by riding on nostalgia – rather the opposite, in fact, as DuckTales’ writers do this weird thing where they don’t assume you know anything about Huey, Louie, Dewey, Scrooge and Launchpad, but also incorporate references to past events in a way that broadens and informs the characters’ behaviors and the storylines, as opposed to just being cute winks to make you think about the 90s. It’s fantastic and funny and also pretty layered from the start, and remains consistent on that for three seasons.

The general setup of any given episode is reliable: after machinations move the three nephews into their Uncle’s mansion – with Donald living on a house boat in Uncle Scrooge’s pool – there will generally be some treasure-hunting shenanigan that will get them out of the house for an episode, and / or the trio stumble across some Beagle Boys plot, and / or new friend Webby will encourage them along on some self-motivated adventure in her idolatry of Scrooge. Pretty basic stuff, but none of these setups rest on laurels of predictability, acting as pretty solid comedy mysteries most of the time, or bringing in funny new characters which help modernize the show even further. Running alongside this you get season-long stories involving Magica, or the hunt for the boys’ missing mother, or a war on the moon, or, heck, why not let all of those plots actually be intertwined and build on one another.

Even without this, the episodic antics would probably suffice, thanks to perfect joke timing in the animation, as well as spot-on acting from everyone – David Tennant’s Scrooge, Kate Micucci’s Webby, Danny Pudi, Ben Schwartz, and Bobby Moynihan’s Huey, Dewey, and Louie – not to mention the occasional guest stars who pop up, giving their all to often recurring characters; it’s surely a good sign if just dialogue exchanges between our ducks can be entertaining, no hijinx required.

I suppose a criticism could be that DuckTales 2017, tonally, is far from previous versions, but that’s sort of as it should be – it’s modernized. But while it’s kinda sorta impossible for me to say this now, and while some of its tech-related humor (like riffing on Facebook) will one day be outdated, the way this was modernized was to make it more timeless: intelligent humor and solid story hooks will never die. The show looked and acted the part of a Disney series, but was a true original – both for the brand, and for cartoons over all.