Small Screen Series: DuckTales

August 12, 2017 - Television
Small Screen Series: DuckTales

Life is like a hurricane, here in 2017. Could there be a better time to bring back a beloved television billionaire well-known for love of money and family both? Arguably any other time but now, but let’s not second-guess Disney’s scheduling too hard – remember, this has been in the works since before the Great Orange Menace grossly disfigured the American relationship with greedy televised billionaires.

A reboot of the classic 80s cartoon, DuckTales brings together a voice cast that includes Danny Pudi, Kate Micucci, and David Tennant as the avaricious anatid himself. The series is recast in a modern animation style that evokes the pages of comics at times, for better and worse. The premise is as familiar as ever – Donald Duck’s three nephews come to meet and live with their great-uncle, the wealthiest duck of them all in a world substantially infested with same. Also, he’s Scottish, to the irritation of a kilted rival. When not swimming in his money bin, Scrooge is often plotting new world-spanning adventures with the not-so-subtle aim of further entrenching his preposterous wealth.

If you’d like to avoid spoilers for the first episode, bail out now.

Last chance…

…and we resume.

2017’s reboot gives us much the same introducktion: Donald Duck has charge of three devious nephews, a houseboat, and the sort of assets one possesses when one has been out of work for a period of time, “nonspecific land-based irritable sailor” being not as much of a growth industry as one might hope. En route to a job interview, he discovers his nephews’ plan to go joyriding down to Cape Suzette (that’s TaleSpin country, for those in the know) and with neither time nor options available must resort to leaving them in the custody of family. Family, in this instance, is his estranged uncle, who Donald has not seen for 10 years and who the boys do not even know is a relative.

To say Scrooge is enthused by the sudden family reunion would be rather more than a stretch, particularly when the curious boys discuss how great he used to be. It seems the good Mr. McDuck has also become a victim of 2017, sitting in on board meetings for his water and electric company where a dry team of bureaucrats move to terminate the few innovative and interesting branches remaining, considering them a waste of money. He’s driven around by a dimwitted and talkative young man, has a limited household and no secretary, and is surrounded by the trophies of better days. Yes, Scrooge has been recast as the ultimate gentleman adventurer… when he was in his prime, at least, rather than shackled to the realities of running a large business.

Twigged by the notion that he’s become a has-been, Scrooge ponders setting off to plunder Atlantis. Meanwhile, the nephews meet the housekeeper’s granddaughter Webby, #1 fan of the McDuck clan and relations, who reveals that there’s more to our fowl friends than they originally let on: not only is Scrooge himself a world-class adventurer, but there was a time when Donald was part of the action. Dewey plays the doubter and accidentally pokes an artifact or two that shouldn’t have been roused, resulting in Scrooge bursting in to save the day, a dragon escaping, and a coordinated effort to put things back to rights that reawakens Scrooge’s adventurer spirit.

So that’s half the premiere.

As Donald lands a job, Scrooge whisks his grand-nephews and their friend off to Atlantis in search of a lost jewel. Wouldn’t you know it, Donald’s new boss is none other than the second-richest (but perhaps most Scottish) duck in the world, Flintheart Glomgold. His plan? Follow Scrooge, steal the goods, kill his rival for fun and profit. As one does. Atlantis proves to be suitably laden with death traps, some of them rather disappointingly located where they are unlikely to kill people (to Dewey’s frustration). This episode pitches Dewey as the duckling who desires to stand out and get noticed, taking risks to prove himself as an adventurer and get Scrooge to remember his name.

Sure enough, Dewey manages to impress Scrooge by noting that the upside-down death traps foreshadowed the unlikely location of the actual treasure, as opposed to the worthless decoy secured by Glomgold. The heroes escape to a triumphant return to Duckburg, upstaging Scrooge’s rival and presenting the glowing jewel as a kind of arc reactor lite, which can provide clean energy to Duckburg for some 50 years. We also get a shoutout to Spoonerville (that’s Goof Troop for those keeping score), so this world hasn’t just gone to the ducks. We’ll see if that plays out down the line.

The adventurous spirit is in keeping with the original, and remodeling Scrooge’s exploits as predicated on a desire for adventure rather than mere money is a predictable update. David Tennant doesn’t have the rich brogue of Alan Young, but to his credit the new Scrooge isn’t an imitation of the original. The rest of the cast gets to skate by on the less iconic status of their characters – did you really care if Huey, Dewey, and Louie retained the Donald-lite voices of the originals? – but give a lot of color. This is important, as color is a thing which seems somewhat lacking from the show in general – and I do mean color.

I don’t know what it is about this art style – I’ve seen it put to use by Disney a few times now, and it invariably seems desaturated in the worst way. There’s a predominance of yellows and greys, leaving me wondering where to find the bright blues so fundamental to the classic Donald Duck outfit. Perhaps it’s intended to be less robustly cartoonish, but these are anthropomorphic ducks and one of them talks like his larynx is a zipper – robustly cartoonish is not a vice. The animation is fluid but lacks weight and warmth – my eyes were rarely drawn to the screen, let alone glued there. Perhaps it’s a product of my 90s upbringing, but I like some vivid color in my designs, and I don’t like feeling that someone slapped a yellow filter across the show when I wasn’t looking.

Content-wise, this is the good stuff – classic characters coming back to a classic premise and teasing the early 90s Disney cartoon universe as an interconnected world. There’s a sense that this version will be more narrative – allusions are made to a more comprehensive family tree, and Dewey discovers at the end of the second episode that his connections with adventure aren’t limited to his uncle and grand-uncle. There may be a risk of going down the wrong rabbit hole, but to be quite honest? I didn’t feel any. I like it, I think it’s a great hook, and I look forward to seeing if they choose to deliver.

In the meantime, DuckTales has wasted no time in putting together a world where supernatural nonsense is not only on display but literally gathering dust in Scrooge’s garage, where the richest duck in the world is Indiana Jones coming out of retirement, and where one very well might solve a mystery or rewrite history.

Final verdict on DuckTales? A-WOO-OO!

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