Monday Morning Imagineer: Here in Duckburg

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If you pitched a series today about a greedy old man and three trouble making kids gallivanting across the globe in search of more wealth, you’d probably be kicked off the lot. But in 1987, Scrooge McDuck and Huey, Dewey and Louie not only starred in that series, but it paved the way for an entire series of memorable cartoons that are fondly remember decades after their release. This week, Monday Morning Imagineer takes a step away from the parks and invites you to solve a mystery or rewrite history as we revisit Duckburg in a look back at DuckTales.

The Road to Duckburg

If it happened at Disney in the 1980s, you can probably trace it back to Michael Eisner1.

In November of 1984, Eisner shepherded an ambitious new concept with the opening of the Walt Disney Television Animation department. While many people(myself included) think of the 80s as a golden age for animation on TV, in the first few years of the decade it was seen as cheap and disposable. Many series that appeared on Saturday morning blocks were infamous for static shots and reuse of the same animation frames. Eisner believed that animation with higher production values would set Disney apart and make headway in first run syndication. Remember, when Eisner started laying the groundwork, G.I. Joe was still in the early days of its run, and Transformers had only just started to air.

Eisner also laid down a mandate that the familiar cast of Disney characters were off limits, and then pulled out a gummy bear and told his staff to write a cartoon about the candy. Eisner would also propose a series based on creatures that were combinations of two animals. This led to the first two productions of the new department, Adventures of the Gummi Bears and The Wuzzles. While fondly remembered today, the series didn’t take off as Eisner hoped and a third entry in this “magical animals” trilogy, Disney’s Fluppy Dogs, never made it past the pilot stage.

The restrictions on Disney characters was loosened, and to find its next series, the studio looked to the past.

In 1947, the legendary Carl Barks wrote a story for his Donald Duck comic that introduced Donald’s miserly uncle, Scrooge McDuck. Thanks to his money providing a wealth(sorry) of plot opportunities, fans fell in love with the character, to the point that in March 1952 Scrooge received his own comic book. Scrooge, along with Donald and his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, went on incredible adventures around the globe, looking to add to Scrooge’s enormous wealth.

The character became so popular that in 1975, Disneyland Records released an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which in turn gave way to an animated adaptation in 1983, increasing Scrooge’s recognition with fans2. So when Disney decided to go back to its stable of classic characters to create a new series, they found the wealth of material from the works of Carl Barks irresistible. In September of 1987, “Treasure of the Golden Suns” introduced those stories to a whole new generation of fans.

Treasure of the Golden Suns

“Treasure of the Golden Suns” was released first as an entire movie, then broken up into a five part mini-series for the run of the series. It does everything you expect a pilot for a new series to do: It introduces the core cast of characters, establishes the world of the series and sets the tone for the rest of the show. These five episodes hold up almost thirty years later, and have just as much entertainment value for adults as for their children.

ducktales 2The first episode sets up the premise, which does have one major differences from the Barks comics. While Donald took part in many of the treasure hunts, in the show he’s rarely around. It turns out that Donald has enlisted in the Navy and has been assigned to an aircraft carrier. Though he shows up a few times in the series(including the third episode of the pilot), his role is limited3. Instead, Scrooge is tasked with watching over his great nephews.

While they get off to a predictably rocky start, the four get closer courtesy of another import from the Donald Duck comics, the Beagle Boys. The hapless crooks are sprung from jail by a mysterious stranger known only as El Capitan, who wants them to steal a model boat from Scrooge’s museum. The nephews prevent the theft, and then bond with Uncle Scrooge by fending off the Beagle Boys using Scrooge’s candy factory as a weapon4. The nephews overheard that the boat was the map to a great treasure, and of course Scrooge wants to try and find it.

ducktales 5From there, each episode deals introduces the other characters we’ll come to know and love over the course of the series, from new characters like Bentina Beakley, the governess to the boys, her granddaughter Webbigail and ace pilot Launchpad McQuack(who would also show up in the spinoff series Darkwing Duck), along with classic Carl Barks creations like Flintheart Glomgold, the second richest duck in the world5.

(UPDATE 9/12/16 – According to Darkwing Duck creator Tad Stones himself in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the show takes place in an alternate reality and thus isn’t a spinoff. The question of whether or not Drake Mallard in the DuckTales universe exists with a goatee, sash and knife have not yet been answered.)

The story sees Scrooge globe trotting to discover the secret of the titular Treasure of the Golden Suns. The treasure map from the first episode leads them to a ship filled with looted treasure. A coin from that treasure subsequently leads to a mountaintop fortress where he discovers one half of a map, then goes to Antarctica to find the second half before finally venturing to the Valley of the Golden Sun. It’s a fairly straight forward adventure, but to say that’s all there is to DuckTales would be doing it a huge disservice.

The success of the show starts with Scrooge McDuck, and a lot of that credit goes to Carl Barks and Alan Young. In the first episode, Scrooge makes sure to tell a reporter that “…I made it square!” Barks gave Scrooge a well defined sense of ethics. In fact, he made it a point that his version of Scrooge would never break his word. While other writers have taken Scrooge in different directions since, the DuckTales version sticks closely to the version Barks created. Several times in the series, his obsession for wealth isn’t as strong as the love for the boys or even his extended, adopted family. He’s also a surprisingly capable action hero, to the point that he, and not Huey, Dewey and Louie, became the star of the popular DuckTales Nintendo game.

The writing also benefited from the peerless performance of Alan Young. Simply put, his Scrooge McDuck is one of the greatest voice roles of all time. He navigates effortlessly between the mean spirited miser and sweet natured family man, and somehow makes him lovable even in his most hateful moments. The end result is that Scrooge McDuck became the great uncle we all wanted, even if he might try to feed us cheese samples for three days in a row.

ducktales 3The show’s voice talent reads like a Who’s Who of familiar voice actors from the era, including Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, Jim Cummings and the legendary June Foray. Russi Taylor did quadruple duty as Huey, Dewey, Louie and Webbigail, and would go on to become the new voice of Minnie Mouse6. The voice acting on the show is top notch across the board, and remains another reason that the show holds up even today.

Perhaps the biggest part of the show’s success is its writing, which was notable for a variety of reasons. The show didn’t talk down or pander to kids, a big part of the reason it still holds up today. There are some really fun puns that kids are bound to enjoy. For example, Scrooge and Donald encounter a character named Joaquin Slowly, whose ancestor Marchen Slowly had one half of the map he’s looking for. The character who took the other half? Juan Tanamera, of course. This is in addition to the almost limitless number of duck puns that can be found in the character’s names.

But there’s also a surprising amount of self referential humor as well. In the final episode, when Scrooge finds a vault filled with gold coins and dives in, Huey, Dewey and Louie try to copy him… and hit their heads, prompting them to ask how Scrooge does it. In a later episode, when Donald is kidnapped, the boys remark he so loved the Navy that he wore a sailor suit before he enlisted.

One of the show’s great recurring jokes is introduced early on, when Scrooge signs the boys up for the Junior Woodchucks. The Junior Woodchuck Guidebook is, from its treatment on the show, second only to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as a repository for knowledge. The Woodchucks don’t stop at tying knots or building campfires, everything from using gold to repair a ship to landing the space shuttle can be found in its pages. The show’s not afraid to poke fun at itself, and the humor’s a wonderful distancing device to calm things down from the more action packed scenes.

And that’s another thing that makes DuckTales stand out. The peril the characters face is very real. From treasure rooms booby traps straight out of an Indiana Jones movie to natural disasters, it’s quickly established that our heroes can get hurt, and sometimes even are. In the fourth episode, they face down a gigantic prehistoric woolly walrus, and it’s not just played for laughs. Similarly, the stakes of the final episode are no laughing matter, with an entire temple collapsing around them.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the primary villain of the pilot, El Capitan. In the second episode, he seems to go down with a ship loaded down with treasure, and there’s even a reference to him drowning later on. In fact, it turns out El Capitan is in fact the captain of the ship Marchen Slowly and Juan Tanamera were both on, kept alive by his gold fever and obsession. Death isn’t really skirted around, just another example of how DuckTales doesn’t talk down to kids. Nowhere is that more obvious than when El Capitan and Scrooge wrestle over a loaded gun.

No, really.

ducktales 4It’s startling, when cartoons like G. I. Joe would famously use lasers instead of bullets and even in the 90s adaptations of violent Japanese anime would refuse to even say the words “kill” or “death”, to see lovable Disney characters threatened at gunpoint7. Even more striking is that the use of the weapon doesn’t feel gratuitous, but just a natural extension of the story. To be fair, the first few episodes my wife and I watched after the pilot felt lighter in tone, but it’s something I’m going to be watching for as my wife and I rewatch the series now.

One final thing worth mentioning is how that the increased production values that Eisner championed paid off. The animation in the series is gorgeous and holds up even today. The aforementioned woolly walrus scene is a real standout, with the walrus a particularly striking design that the animators bring to unforgettable life. Again, it will be interesting to see if the quality remains consistent throughout the series, but I certainly don’t remember any slips from my childhood.

It’ll take a while to get through all those episodes, though. DuckTales would run three seasons with a total of one hundred episodes, in addition to a theatrical feature, and won two of the four Daytime Emmys it was nominated for. The show validated Eisner’s faith in the syndication market and led to more series featuring classic characters, with the equally memorable Chip and Dale’s Rescue Rangers coming on its heels. And when Baloo and other characters from The Jungle Book populated a period show about an air delivery company called Tale Spin, Disney combined the three shows along with the earlier Adventures of the Gummi Bears to create an entire block: The Disney Afternoon.

DuckTales remains one of the most important television projects in Disney history, and I’m pleased to report that even today the show is as entertaining as it was thirty years ago. Nostalgia for the series runs high, to the point that in 2013 WayForward Technologies, Disney Interactive Studios and Capcom teamed on a remastered version of the unforgettable Nintendo game. Even better, in one of his last performances in the role, Alan Young recorded new dialogue as Scrooge McDuck.

ducktales rebootAnd now, a new generation will have its own version of Scrooge, Huey, Dewey and Louie to watch. In 2017, Disney XD will introduce an all new version of the classic series, with a new look and new adventures. While not much is known at this time, it will join an impressive line up on Disney XD that might bring back memories of the Disney Afternoon, with Big Hero 6 and one other new addition, a video game hero dreamed up by the same studio that made the DuckTales game and who also got his start in 1987.

Say, didn’t someone suggest that character might even be a great addition to Future World at some point? Well, since he’s now joining the Disney family in a way, perhaps it’s the time too tell you the history of a robotic household assistant named Rock, as a prelude to suggesting where he might find a home in the Disney parks. So next time we meet, I’ll share with you the story of Disney XD’s newest hero: Mega Man.

But this week, I’ll leave you with one of the greatest pieces of video game music ever composed. From DuckTales, it’s “The Moon”.

Not So Hidden Mickeys, AKA Footnotes

1 – Eisner is an interesting subject for Disney fans, as he’s been strongly criticized over the years. It’s worth mentioning though that Disney was not in good shape before he took over, and he’s presided over the expansion of Walt Disney World, the creation of the Disney Afternoon and of course, the Disney Animation Renaissance of the 90s.

2 – Disneyland Records hired actor Alan Young, famous for his role on Mr. Ed, to provide Scrooge’s unforgettable Scottish brogue. He would go on to provide his voice in Mickey’s Christmas Carol and then DuckTales, providing Scrooge’s voice for over forty years until his passing earlier this year. Whoever takes over has gigantic shoes to fill.

3 – Whether this was a conscious choice from the creative team or a mandate from Disney isn’t entirely clear, as Disney was still fairly protective of “The Fab Five,” though Goofy would later star in his own show Goof Troop and Donald would be one of the stars of Quack Pack later in the Disney Afternoon’s run.

4 – Really, fighting off career criminals using caramel and vats of chocolate would bring anyone closer.

5 – Interestingly, Glomgold originally hailed from South Africa, but due to their controversial policy of apartheid, the show’s creative team decided to make Glomgold Scottish in the series, which also lent itself to their rivalry.

6 – During a voiceover session for Minnie, she would meet her future husband, Wayne Allwine in the booth. The character Wayne was voicing? You guessed it, Mickey Mouse.

7 – It’s also a little odd to see lovable Donald Duck stationed on an aircraft carrier, complete with jets, which seems to imply that there might be a Duck Cold War going on. …okay, maybe it’s best not to think about this too much.

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