DuckTales: 25th Anniversary Retrospective

All modern American literature comes from Huckleberry Finn. All modern American animation comes from DuckTales.

DuckTales360

Preamble:

There are several things this year coming across their 25th Anniversaries. Normally each would be accompanied with public fanfare and a rush to capitalize/merchandise on the momentous event. (This is not a bad thing.) The most demonstrable is Star Trek: The Next Generation which celebrates its 25th Anniversary this year. Paramount/Viacom/CBS has a long history of making sure no Star Trek milestone goes unnoticed and this year is no different.

But what media company has almost 4 times the market capitalization of CBS and is among the largest media conglomerates in the world? That would be Disney of course. And what is Disney doing to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of DuckTales, the most successful syndicated cartoon series in history? Absolutely nothing.

I'm always quite amazed at Disney's inability to capitalize on their own successful products. Not only should fans of DuckTales be angry, but Disney shareholders should be angry too as this reflects badly on the current management's ability to earn profits. (And yes, I'm going to be vindictive and go for the jugular. 2012 was also the year of "John Carter", a $350 million (includes marketing) mega-flop of a movie which resulted in Disney to doing a $200 million write-down.)

Since Disney isn't going to do anything to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of DuckTales, I feel compelled to do my own tribute. I wish I were better at these things and really wish I had the time to do a video, but perfectionism is another word for procrastination, and I need to get something done before the date passes.

For this 25th anniversary, I wanted to do something special but I wasn't sure what my angle should be. I have various materials I've saved and collected over the years which contain behind the scenes information about the series, so I originally thought I should focus on that. Perhaps my most prized DuckTales possession is a copy of a self-published magazine called "The Duckburg Times", Issue #24/25 by Joe Torcivia and Chris Barat. I was so fortunate that a comic-loving friend knew I loved DuckTales and he gave me the issue. (I am forever grateful. Thank you Niem!) It contains a detailed review of every DuckTales episode from Season 1 (65 episodes) plus additional production information. (Unfortunately I missed out their full DuckTales Index which contained *everything*. Anybody who would like to make it accessible to me, please contact me.) 

But I noticed that additional information resources came from Chris Barat and Joe Torcivia, such as the introduction to "Carl Barks' Greatest DuckTales Stories". I noticed that Wikipedia and other web resources also seemed to contain a trail to them. And then I saw they have an active presence on the web. They are in my minds the true DuckTales experts and I defer to them. So bear with me as I try to find my own voice and share my thoughts on this magnificent series.


The Historic Significance of DuckTales

DuckTales may be the most significant and important show in recent/modern animation history. This is surprising to most people because it isn't the first thing people think of. When asked about DuckTales, many people will recognize the show and remember it fondly. But there is isn't the obsessive cult like following or nostalgic yearning for the series as some of its other contemporaries such as "Transformers", "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, "Power Rangers", and "Pokémon". 

There are many possible reasons for this. DuckTales lacks all the typical angles and gimmicks used to market a show to an audience. It doesn't try target specific sub-demographics such adolescent boys with their arbitrary fighting sequences, or adolescent girls with dolls and makeup, or tweens and teenagers with rebellious angst to exploit, or even go for a (now all too often pretentious) "adult" angle and try to bake in some "edginess" factor. There were no crutches on popular fads or music, no movie or video game tie-ins, no superpowers, and no cutsie stuff. In fact, all the other examples had strong merchandising lines whereas it was/is almost impossible to buy Scrooge McDuck/DuckTales paraphernalia (at least in the US).  (Go to any Disney Store in America and ask.) And perhaps this is the real reason DuckTales doesn't have the strong obsessive following as the others; Disney failed to market and capitalize on merchandizing from the series. As a result, the series was not drilled into people's heads and hearts as there were no toys to constantly remind of us of the product after the television was turned off.

But despite this fact, DuckTales endured and is the most watched syndicated cartoon show in history. And because of this important fact, DuckTales was the origin of an entire animation renaissance. This is why DuckTales has historical significance and importance and worthy of some remembrance on its 25th anniversary.


The decline of animation in America

Animation in America has been in decline since the 1960's. The period between roughly the 1930's to 1960's is often referred to as the "Golden Age of Animation". In this period, animation was produced for movie theaters (no television at the time) and production values were high. This is where the Walt Disney company built their empire with classics such as Snow White,  Pinocchio, and Sleeping Beauty to name a few and gave us our classic Disney characters like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy. This is also when many rival studios created their own animation divisions such as Warner Bros. and MGM and gave us Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote, Tom & Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, Droopy, and so forth. Most animators that entered the mainstream consciousness such as Walt Disney, Tex Avery, and Chuck Jones made their names during this period.

In the 1960's, animation began a steep decline as television penetrated the market. To produce something for television, it had to be much cheaper than the theatrical counterpart. While some of these did reach pop-culture status such as The Flintstones and The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, they inarguably differed greatly from animation done in the Golden Age.

But for various reasons, animation continued to decline and animation started to be considered "just for kids". Eventually the politicians got involved and helped cement this stereotype in law by passing various provisions requiring content to be educational or non-violent. This continued to put pressure on cartoon makers to make the cartoons as bland and boring and low budget as possible.

By the 1980's, animation was about at its lowest. Most new productions were geared for Saturday morning lineups shown on network television. There were some syndicated cartoons, but production values were always low. Networks which typically had larger amounts of money, still wouldn't invest much money. Generally, the feeling was that 'kids will watch anything'. 

One interesting failure in 1986 was Galaxy High for CBS. It is interesting because it was a rare time that a company actually wanted to invest a serious amount of money to bring up the production values. Unfortunately, though the production value was relatively high, the stories were boring and the show failed quickly. If timing and history were a bit more unkind, the likely lesson that would have been drawn was animation was a dead-end and not worth investing in because even after throwing money at it, nobody will watch. Fortunately, DuckTales was already in production at this time and couldn't take away any (bad) lessons from this event.


Disney's Re-commitment and Great Experiment

Michael Eisner took the helm of Disney in 1984. One thing that happened under him was a reinvestment/revitalization of things the Disney company was once famous for, such as its animation studios. One obvious area to shore up was Saturday morning. Disney launched productions for The Wuzzles and The Adventures of the Gummi Bears with a new television animation studio. But Saturday morning cartoons are typically 13 episodes a season, and a much more ambitious idea was conceived. Instead of just doing a network Saturday morning run, what if Disney produced a weekday cartoon series and syndicated it, potentially earning lots of money in an untapped market?

But something like this for Disney is unprecedented. Not only does the number of episodes need to quadruple, to meet Disney's own minimum standards of animation (which are generally higher than their competitors), a lot of money and a lot of manpower needed to be invested. Disney to their credit was willing to risk the money. To find the manpower however, Disney did another historic, unprecedented thing for them; they sought overseas studios to produce the animation.

For a company like Disney, this was especially risky. What if the overseas studios couldn't maintain Disney's standards or meet the schedules. Using their Saturday morning push with Wuzzles and Gummi Bears as a proving ground, TMS (Tokyo Movie Shinsha) was a success which gave the green light to go overseas for their weekday syndicated venture, which is of course, DuckTales. 

But to underscore the size of the effort of needed, Michael Webster, vice president of Television Animation for Disney said:

It is no cheaper for us to do it over there, but they have a talent pool of fantastic draftsmen that we don't. We have some talented artists over here, but nowhere near enough to handle the massive amounts of footage we need. And the work ethic in Japan is phenomenal. They all work six day weeks, and probably at least 10 hours days. Some of them work all night. I've gone into the studio in the morning and seen guys sleeping under their desks; it's unbelievable. [1]

Perhaps another insight into how massive an undertaking DuckTales was, in addition to TMS, Wang Film Productions (aka Cuckoo's Nest Studios) of Taiwan was also brought in to produce episodes.

To underscore Webster's claim about costs, the budget for DuckTales was unprecedented for a weekday syndicated cartoon series. Each episode was budgeted at $300,000. [1] For comparison, Star Trek: The Next Generation which also debuted the same year as DuckTales through syndication was started with a budget of about $1.3 million per episode, which was among the highest for the time. Babylon 5 which debuted (also syndicated) in 1994 had a budget of $800,000 per episode. Keep in mind that the latter two are hour long science fiction shows with on-screen actors whereas DuckTales was animated and only a half hour long. Both of these latter shows also only do about 22-26 episodes per season. DuckTales did 65 episodes for its first season meaning Disney was risking $20 million dollars on production costs alone. (These numbers are not inflation adjusted.) The takeaway is that Disney was spending serious money on a weekday series targeted for children that would compare to first class adult programing. Gone was the conceit that 'kids will watch anything'.

Another detail hinting at the complexity of the undertaking was that the production time for DuckTales was also atypically long. More often, a series may produce a limited number of initial episodes to confirm there is an audience and then produce more as the series is running. This means production starts are closer to actual original air dates. But again and again, we see that DuckTales is special and unique. DuckTales production is known to go at least as far back as 1986 if not more. Barat & Torcivia note that Roger C. Carmel died on Novemeber 11, 1986 who provided voices for several characters in the episode "Master of the Djinni". Classic Star Trek viewers will know Carmel as the scoundrel Harry Mudd. 

So even before it aired, DuckTales was already making history.


My (rhetorical) questions about the early inception

Unfortunately, I have not encountered a whole lot of details about DuckTales' early inception. The aforementioned Barat, Torcivia, and their usual circle have the most information, and there are interesting stories about famous Duck authors not thinking much of DuckTales and poor character designs that fortunately never got serious adaption such as Vacation Van Honk and Quacky McSlant. [2]

VacationVanHonkQuackyMcSlant


But here is the most basic question I've never seen a solid answer to.

How did they decide on "DuckTales"? Why pick Scrooge McDuck as the basis of the series as opposed to dreaming up something entirely different like "MouseTales" based on Mickey's nephews or "Pluto's Deep Space Adventure".


So here's my own attempt to answer that question:

Carl Barks is a wonderful story teller and it would be wise to adopt stories and influences from him. So who is Carl Barks and what does this have to do with anything? 

Probably like the majority of DuckTales viewers, I never read the comics and did not know the Duck universe at all. (I loved animation, but almost never touched comics.) DuckTales was my entry point into discovering these things. In a nutshell, Carl Barks was a comic artist/writer that worked for Disney writing stories about Donald Duck. While doing so, he invented his own characters, one of which was Scrooge McDuck which became his most popular character. Barks prided himself not on his drawing abilities, but his ability to tell interesting and wonderful stories. Early in Barks career, Disney had a policy where all work was done anonymously. But fans could immediately identify the high quality of Barks's work and referred to him as "The Good Duck Artist" since they did not know his name.

Barks's stories built up an entire universe for the Ducks. Other authors, some now legendary in their own right, contributed to the universe by writing more stories based on his characters. (I'll name two: William Van Horn and Don Rosa, the former kindly volunteered to draw the cover of the infamous Duckburg Times #24/25, and the latter I'll refer to later.)

But to answer the question, for a project as ambitious and risky as what Disney was trying to do, starting with a base of proven stories and characters makes the project less risky. 

Also, DuckTales would be in good company to borrow from Barks because even George Lucas and Steven Spielberg did so for Raiders of the Lost Ark. "The rolling rock sequence at the beginning of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' was consciously borrowed from one of the Uncle Scrooge stories, 'The Seven Cities of Cibola". [3] [4]

raiders21 raiders22raiders29raiders32


Additionally, Alan Young (voice of Scrooge) did a fantastic job in Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983). While billed as the first serious appearance of Mickey Mouse in 30 years, Mickey was barely in it and Scrooge carried the entire film. This demonstrated that Alan Young/Scrooge could carry a story by himself.

With all of these factors as positives, a show featuring the adventures of Scrooge McDuck with Alan Young voicing would be a rational pick for the decision making process.


Since somebody reading this might actually know the answer to this, I'll ask this trivia question I've always wondered about. Why is Scrooge's coat blue instead of red?

I read that blue is used in Italy for Scrooge's coat. But why did they go with Italy? If I recall, red is not a great color for pre-digital television due to the ways color gamuts work; maybe this factored into the artistic decision?


Success and Legacy

DuckTales debuted in a special 2 hour premiere "Treasure of the Golden Suns" the weekend of Sept 18, 1987. It was an instant hit. The astounding success of DuckTales had serious and immediate repercussions. Disney proved that animation was in demand and also syndicated markets were wide open for profits. 

Eventually a total of 100 episodes were made, plus a full motion picture, "Treasure of the Lost Lamp". But the real significance of DuckTales is not in the number of episodes it made, but the industry it inspired.

Disney immediately commissioned another series to follow DuckTales. In 1989, Chip 'n' Dale's Rescue Rangers debuted. But Disney proved there was demand and money to be made, so other studios got involved wanting a piece of the action. Warner Bros. started off with Tiny Toon Adventures. Fox was building up a network and saw Disney's syndication attempt as a potential threat so it spent time building up its own divisions and responses such as Fox Kids.

Disney countered by introducing The Disney Afternoon. And from there, we saw the first emergence of series cartoon wars since the Golden Age. 

Thanks to DuckTales, a new American animation renaissance emerged (for a while). Here's just a few of the immediate cartoons that were created in the wake of DuckTales:

Tale Spin
Darkwing Duck
Goof Troop
Bonkers
Animaniacs
Pinky and the Brain
Freakazoid

And without DuckTales, those edgier, critically acclaimed, and/or nostalgic animated series such as Batman the Animated Series, X-Men, and Gargoyles would never have come into existence.

And Fox Kids (which probably wouldn't exist without the Disney Afternoon which wouldn't exist without DuckTales) brought Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers to market. (I didn't say all influences were necessarily good.)

While hard to substantiate, there is also credence that the success of DuckTales may have some influence in making Fox take the gamble on the Simpsons series (1989). A similar claim might also be made of Disney's The Little Mermaid (1989), perhaps not so much with giving it the green light, but emboldening Disney to invest more money into the production of the film. The Little Mermaid was the largest investment Disney made in a film in decades. (And Disney's success with the Little Mermaid is almost is profound as DuckTales, and ironically, their similar neglect with it too, though Ariel just makes it through the "princess" qualification for Disney Marketing.)


Ernest Hemingway said "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn". Chris Barat and Joe Torcivia suggest that all modern cartoons come from DuckTales. With DuckTales's established influence, Disney's ability to translate DuckTales to many languages and be shown in countries all around the world, plus with Disney's huge corporate penetration and influence around the world, this claim may be more substance than hyperbole.


What were the reasons for DuckTales's success?

So why was DuckTales a success? Even back then, Disney's marketing team didn't seem particularly skillful at marketing anything that didn't have a gimmick or angle. For example, today everything needs to be a "princess". What is a marketing team like that going to do with a series staring an old geezer gazilionaire cheapskate? Fortunately, for DuckTales, in a time where there was really no serious quality competition, all Disney had to do was get it into all the syndicated markets and just let people watch. And Disney was very effective in getting DuckTales into most markets. At that point, the high production value got people initially watching. Then DuckTales won over its audience with gold old quality classic story telling and interesting characters.

It also didn't hurt that the theme song was so darn catchy.


Timeless Stories

Some shows don't hold up over the years and are typically only enjoyed by those wearing nostalgic glasses. I would argue DuckTales still holds up today and can be enjoyed by an entirely new generation. In fact, a handful of episodes were directly adapted from Carl Barks's original stories. These stories date back as far as the 1950s. Here is an incomplete list of Barks stories that were adapted to DuckTales:

Back to the Klondike (1953)
Land Beneath the Ground (1956)
Micro Ducks from Outer Space (1966)
Lemming with the Locket (1955)
The Lost Crown of Genghis Khan (1956)
The Hound of the Whiskervilles (1960)
The Giant Robot Robbers (1965)
The Golden Fleecing (1955)
The Horseradish Story (1953)
The Status Seeker (1963)
The Unsafe Safe (1962)
Tralla La (1954)

Watching DuckTales in the 1980's, I could not tell that the stories were from the 50's. But even if there were signature signs that identify the era (such as the designs of automobiles or lack of cell phones), the underlying stories are just as interesting and compelling today as they were in 80's as they were in the 50's. These stories endured because they were quality stories. DuckTales was smart and fortunate enough to inherit those properties from which is was originally derived. Ultimately, this is why DuckTales was so successful.


Quality Characters

To complement the timeless stories, DuckTales had a cast of interesting characters that interacted well with each other. Below are some of my thoughts about the characters. The list is not comprehensive since this article is already way too long, but covers various things I find particularly interesting that you probably won't see elsewhere.


Scrooge McDuck

Make no mistake, Scrooge is the star of the series. (By my own count) Scrooge appeared in all but 3 episodes of DuckTales, far more than any other character in the series. (The three episodes Scrooge did not appear were "Superdoo!", "Sir Gyro de Gearloose", and "Launchpad's Civil War" (though Alan Young is credited for participating in the latter, probably contributing as a support character).)

This description of Scrooge McDuck comes from the 1985 DuckTale series production "bible" [2]

Scrooge McDuck is a fighter, a "duck of iron". He learned the importance  on an unbending will while prospecting for his original fortune in the Yukon. He is a very "big operator" and dreamer who has conquered commerce on every front and built a monument to himself: three cubic acres of cash! His wealth was not handed to him on a silver platter. He spent a lifetime of sweat acquiring it. He views his fortune as an index of his worth: "I made it by being tougher than the the toughies and smarter than the smarties!" Scrooge is also incredibly resourceful, drawing on wide and varied experience… his bouts [with rivals] demand cleverness, fortitude and sometimes trickery… and way down so deep even he won't admit it, Scrooge is even capable of a generous act…

Those familiar Carl Barks and the Uncle Scrooge comics will immediately recognize this Scrooge. (Why mess with perfection?) For those of us unfamiliar with the Barks universe, we were treated to a wonderfully deep and complex character that is so rare to find in film and television, let alone animation or even print. 

There are two obvious clichés for a character like Scrooge in film. One would be an evil, rich business man bent on cheating and exploiting people for his own selfish purposes. The second would focus on his age and either portray him as an old mentor type character to a young protagonist in the story (e.g. Obi Wan Kenobi) or an old doddering old fool who is past his prime and can't adapt to the ever changing modern world.

Instead, we are given a character that unabashedly loves making money. But he is conscientiously ethical about earning money honestly ("I deserve every penny because, I made it square" - Don't Give Up the Ship) and is adamant that cheating people is bad business ("Making money at the expense of others is no bargain" - Duck to the Future). 

And nor do they try to remove Scrooge from the lead role. In fact DuckTales goes as far to embrace Scrooge's age rather than downplay it (and occasionally make it the butt of a few jokes). Early in the series, they tackle Scrooge's age directly by throwing him a birthday party which makes him feel obsolete which prompts him to quest for the fountain of youth. (Sweet Duck of Youth) While the episode ends affirming the cliché "You're only as old as you feel", the series establishes the Scrooge's determination and adventurous spirit will not be dominated. We also see in that Scrooge's vast experiences and skills he has learned are assets on his new adventures. Prospecting, piloting, cattle herding, scuba diving, sailing, you name it, he's done it.

MalyasianUmbrella WronguayInRonguay

I learned how to make these while hunting for uranium in Borneo. It's called a Malaysian Umbrella.

He never backs down from any of the toughies or sharpies that threaten him. He'll take on evil magicians, gangs of thieves, and powerful corrupt business rivals without batting an eye. He impresses Huey, Dewey, and Louie so much that they wish to be like him when he grows up. (Heck, Scrooge is a total badass, forget Huey, Dewey, and Louie, I want to be like him.)

GrowUp1HomeSweetHomer

Scrooge: Don't worry about growing up to be like your Uncle Scrooge.

Donald: He's right boys. If you're smart, you'll grow up to be like your Uncle Donald.

GrowUp2HomeSweetHomer


But just as compelling as Scrooge's positive attributes are his flaws. While his ultra-cheapskatedness offered many opportunities for jokes through the series, it also helped feed an internal consistent logic to the series. (Scrooge goes to a free health clinic: "How do you think I got to be the richest?!" Yuppy Ducks) Long forgotten in this modern age is the virtue of thrift, but Carl Barks created Scrooge at the end of the Great Depression era where people craved stories of fantasies of wealth. (source: Carl Barks: The Good Duck Artist)  A fantastically rich duck with the sensibilities of everybody going through the depression probably helped explain his initial attraction.

QuickSand SweetDuckOfYouth

<Sinking in quicksand>

Nephews: It's your money belt. You've got to get rid of it.

<Long pause to think about it>

Scrooge: I'd rather sink.

To DuckTales's credit, they did not soften up these attributes and quite the contrary, we journey with Scrooge in his quests for more wealth and treasure and endure with him the difficulties in earning and keeping treasures. (Many stories both in DuckTales and Barks result in very little if any actual financial gain as the treasure is lost or must be sacrificed for one reason or another.) Instead we become invested in Scrooge's personal wealth and feel the pain when it is unjustly stolen or squandered and begin to identify with his pain.

Scrooge had other character flaws such as being too serious, being obsessed with money, and sometimes being too greedy which blinded him to his own sense of ethics and lead to bad decisions. But these qualities helped give Scrooge depth and believability as we all have our own personal low-lights and falls.

Scrooge also seemed to have insecurities related to his wealth. He often seemed to equate his self-worth with physical amount of wealth he had actually accumulated. Losing the #1 position in wealth and losing his wealth entirely were his greatest fears.

Finally, Scrooge had a real problem showing caring and sentiment. He would rather admit he has none, but his on going dealings with his family keeps this ever-present even if he won't consciously acknowledge it. And this might be Scrooge's own most serious flaw which kept Scrooge and "Glittering" Goldie O'Gilt apart.

But like any person with a lifetime of experience and baggage, Scrooge carries on as best as he can. Voiced by television veteran Alan Young (best known as Wilber in Mister Ed), he helped bring Scrooge  to life on screen. We could have been stuck with a really one-dimensional voice (say always angry) using a bad Scottish accent to mask the deficiencies, but Alan Young really nailed all the complexities that were Scrooge; the intense seriousness, joyous celebrations (in finding treasure), silly relaxed moments (swimming in the Money Bin), sarcasm, hostile anger (Flintheart Glomgold), fear, and even those soft sentimental parts such as when he reminisces about Goldie. I am reminded of stories from the Original Star Trek and Leonard Nimoy where he was constantly struggling to find outlets for Spock to show emotion otherwise the character would be perceived as having ho personality. I have read occasional criticism of DuckTales that Scrooge got a little too sentimental compared to the comics. I'm not convinced this is completely true (looking at Don Rosa), but for arguments sake, I think for an adaption to the screen, this may have been necessary and Alan Young really pulled off the balance. I also want to note that Young has great comedic timing and really helped deliver numerous little jokes/punchlines throughout the series.


Alan Young is still alive and is currently 92 years old. He still does voice work and still voices Scrooge when opportunities arise (e.g. video games). He continues to say Scrooge McDuck is his favorite. Please head over to his website and send him a thanks for his great voice work of DuckTales. (He has an email contact link there.)

http://www.mister-ed.tv


Donald Duck

Disney is well known to be protective of their A-list characters and risking a high profile character like Donald for a radical experiment like DuckTales probably wasn't something the Disney management would endorse. I would also speculate that writing out Donald from the series would also allow the other characters to grow rather than being under pressure to always feature their A-list character, and always in the best light at the expense of the rest of the cast and series.

IWantToSeeTheWorld

<Removing Donald Duck from the series by having him join the navy>

Donald: I want to see the world!

SoIllBuyYouAGlobe

Scrooge: So I'll buy you a globe.


Another fun aspect of DuckTales was it was reflective about the quirks of its own characters. In Donald's case, his garbled voice became the butt of multiple jokes. In one episode, he was given command in a weapons training exercise where he was commanding the crew on how to aim the missiles. The crew was panicked, frantically pushed buttons asking, "What did he say?! What did he say?!"

WhatDidHeSay

What did he say?! What did he say?!

Trivia: Clarence Nash the original voice of Donald died in 1985 leaving Mickey's Christmas Carol as his last significant Donald appearance. Tony Anselmo was trained by Nash and gave his voice to Donald in DuckTales. Tony Anselmo is still voicing Donald today and was named a Disney Legend in 2009.


Huey, Dewey, Louie

It is hard to nail down a personality for this trio. Among the Disney animated shorts, their purpose was usually to antagonize and torment Donald. In Carl Barks's comics, their personalities were much more varied, ranging from sometimes mischievous boys to loyal, smart, hardworking boys eager to help their uncles on adventures. Though Barks had a spectrum of traits for the boys, none of them were inconsistent with one another. Barks had an uncanny ability to capture the complexities of human nature in his characters. For example, with Donald, we would see much greater extremes; one day he would be angry, envious, or lazy, and the next day he would be a naive dreamer. 


DuckTales seems to inherit more from the Barks than other Disney sources. In DuckTales, we see the boys tormenting Duckworth, Mrs. Beakley, and Webby when they are bored, dutifully earning Junior Woodchuck merit badges, and traveling (sometimes sneaking) with Scrooge to join and help him on his adventures. Like with Barks, the nuances of their personalities were used to help the story that needed to be told without creating consistency problems. Sometimes the intelligence and loyalty of the boys would save the day, while other times their naivety or mischievousness could actually create the new conflict or problem in the story. But as with any good series, eventually the personalities start creating/driving the stories instead of just being a convenient plot device. In the episode "Duck to the Future", we see a dark future version of the boys all grown up where their ambition to follow in the footsteps of their Uncle Scrooge was perverted by their own naive/stereotyped misunderstanding of what defines Scrooge McDuck. Instead, they become the very kind of badies that Scrooge has fought his entire life.

OldHueyDeweyLouie

As I said, I was not a comic reader so my only familiarity with Huey, Dewey, and Louie was in animation. I never liked these characters until DuckTales. Personally, I preferred this characterization of the trio because it was a far departure from their one-dimensional plot-device personalities from the Disney animated shorts and the later Disney Afternoon cartoon "Quack Pack".


Launchpad McQuack

Launchpad is a character invented just for DuckTales. Originally, DuckTales was going to be a 1 hour show with Launchpad staring in one of the blocks. [1] That concept was scrapped but he was kept in the series.

Initially, it looked like Launchpad would be a stand-in for Donald Duck, basically filling in the sidekick duties required as in the comic books with the additional role/convenience in that he was a pilot that could take Scrooge anywhere. Launchpad was a heroic idiot: brave, noble, loyal, and a klutz that can make a lot of stupid mistakes. He was used a lot for slapstick with his crash landings becoming his signature. But Launchpad quickly developed into a much more than a sidekick and became the leading character in a fair number of episodes. 

Launchpad developed a fairly complex and nuanced personality; something that complements well with Barks's other characters. Launchpad above all loved to fly. We learn that his passion for flying comes from his family (all pilots) and he carries a deep inferiority complex that he is a disappointment to his family for not being a better pilot. 

LaunchpadShame

Time and again, he is heroic, trying to save the day (but not always succeeding). In "Where No Duck Has Gone Before", his mantra is "heroes just do their job". But we also see that Launchpad does have a little bit of an ego and might be a little of a ladies man. In the "Lost Crown of Genghis Khan", he is carrying glossies of himself instead of extra parachutes, and in several episodes we see women chasing after him.

LaunchpadGlossies

Launchpad, where are the extra parachutes?!

Launchpad and Scrooge also had a good dynamic together. It shared resemblance of a classic comedy duo (e.g. short smart straight one and tall stupid one, such as Laurel and Hardy, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Pinky and the Brain). DuckTales definitely played the two for comic effect, but also managed to strike a balance with the more serious nature of adventuring which allowed the characters to grow beyond simple cheap slapstick gags.

Launchpad as a replacement for Donald also works very well for the series. As much as Scrooge travels around the world, it makes it easy to justify having a pilot with him. Instead of having Donald needing to know how to fly a plane or whatever crazy contraption Gyro invents which would seem out of place with Donald, it suits Launchpad perfectly. Also, Launchpad has a more heroic and daring streak to him, plus is motivated by wanting to fly (crash) all sorts of neat planes. Lassoing Donald on a daily basis for the types of antics on DuckTales might seem odd after awhile, particularly the kind of verbal abuse Scrooge throws in this series ("idiot", "moron"). Whereas Donald would likely take offense, Launchpad can just let it roll off of him.


Now at risk of angering some of you out there, I'm going to criticize the series Darkwing Duck for contrast. Launchpad gets reused in that series as Darkwing's sidekick. Unlike DuckTales however, Launchpad rarely amounts to anything more than a placeholder. His unique characteristics and personality pretty much go unused. Launchpad doesn't have the comedic duo chemistry with Darkwing as he does with Scrooge. Launchpad almost never gets to assert his heroic instincts nor klutz things up when he tries acting on it. He has so little ego in the series that he is relegated as a fan-boy on the sideline, much like Doofus in DuckTales. Even his signature crash landings are almost non-existence in the series. You probably could put one of Mickey Mouse's newphews in his place and not really notice the difference. The only consolation was that Terry McGovern reprised his role. (Gosalyn on the other hand was used very effectively in the series and was so good, I don't think the series needed an official sidekick placeholder.) 


Gyro Gearloose

Gyro is Scrooge McDuck's inventor. He is another Barks character brought to the series. Since I was not an avid comic follower before DuckTales, I did not know this. In the comics, Gyro is a sportsman, fisherman, and adventurer. But in DuckTales, Gyro is mostly a homebody but with some frustrations of being labeled as "just a gadget man" (Sir Gyro de Gearloose). But more often than not, DuckTales used Gyro as a brilliant but also moronic bird brain. 

One of my favorite running jokes in the series is that since Gyro only knows one pilot (who also happens to be stupid/crazy enough to try), he keeps making his inventions only flyable by Launchpad McQuack.

McCrash

You know, he [Launchpad] really wasn't a bad guy. A bad pilot, yes, but not a bad guy.

One interesting trivia fact I discovered is that Scrooge and Gyro almost never appear in the same stories in the comics. This is due to a arcane (stupid) US Postal Regulation that required (requires?) that at least two distinct stories to appear in a comic book. So Gyro Gearloose was invented to fill a second story in the Uncle Scrooge comic books. But to complicate matters, not only must there be two distinct stories, neither of the stories may share characters used in the other story. When Barks wrote his first two Gyro stories, he was not aware of the latter rule and used Huey, Dewey, and Louie in both stories. He was alerted of this problem and quickly substituted Huey, Dewey, and Louie with Mickey Mouse's nephews Morty and Ferdie. Thanks to the story and dialog, they seemed really out of place. [6]

ScroogeGunAlarm

Robbers… thieves… politicians!

Fortunately, DuckTales didn't have this postal limitation and they were free to interact. But interestingly, one of the only episodes not to include Scrooge was "Sir Gyro de Gearloose".


Magica De Spell

MagicaDeSpell

Magica is the sorceress obsessed with stealing Scrooge's number one dime for the magical properties she can harness from it. She was voiced by the legendary June Foray. You grew up with her voices. She has been doing voice acting since the 1940's and you know her from roles like Granny from Tweetie Pie cartoons, Witch Hazel from Bugs Bunny, and most famously Rocket J. Squirrel and Natasha Fatale from Rocky and Buillwinkle. 


While some comic purists are critical that Foray's accent is not Italian which Barks took inspiration from two Italian actresses. But this was the first time Magica has ever been voiced, and I personally love this voice. While it does sound like Natasha Fatale, Foray is able to really to take this voice to the next level with Magica by infusing maniacal obsession into the performance. It works.


June Foray just won her first emmy at age 94 for "The Garfield Show". She is the oldest actress to ever receive one. She has an autobiography out now entitled Did You Grow Up With Me, Too? - The Autobiography of June Foray. And coincidentally, her birthday is September 18.


Ma Beagle and the Beagle Boys

Beaglefamily

The magnificent June Foray also voiced Ma Beagle. While sharing the same sound as Grammi Gummi from the Gummi Bears, I personally enjoyed Ma Beagle a lot more. Foray was able to also play with the range of Ma Beagle. When deceiving people, Ma Beagle might play a nice elderly woman with a soft quaint voice. Then Ma would turn on a dime and get outright nasty with her loud boisterous voice.

For the rest of the Beagle Boys, DuckTales broke with the comic book tradition. In the comics, the Beagle Boys are nameless and all look the same except for their prison number which only used some combination of the digits '1', '6', and '7'. DuckTales instead gave the Beagle Boys distinct names and personalities.

Not knowing the comics, this seems all fine and natural to me and never thought much about it until I saw the comics. I personally really like the characters; Big Time the short ambitious ringleader, Burger the hungry and generally likable henchman, Megabyte the nerd. But I will concede that DuckTales never really developed these characters beyond their original stereotypes, with a few possible exceptions such as "Beaglemania" where a few of the Beagle Boys accidentally become rock idols  and "go legit". Of related note, the Beagles were featured doing full songs in two separate episodes. 

BeaglesSinging

They are actually really good singers. Who would have thought?


Flintheart Glomgold

While Scrooge has many enemies, DuckTales made Flintheart Glomgold, Scrooge's nemesis. They even went as far as to make him Scottish like Scrooge. Some comic purists take issue with this since Glomgold is a "South African mine owner". If I were to nitpick it, I would say that that may just means he owns South African mines, not that he is actually from South Africa. Scrooge owns mines in the Yukon. Is he a Canadian mine owner, a Scottish mine owner, or an American mine owner?

But nitpicking aside, I think the juxtaposition of Scrooge and Glomgold works really well. Giving them similar cultural backgrounds really brings out their similarities, and more importantly, their fundamental differences. And the late Hal Smith (who also voiced Gyro) did a terrific job of being gleefully nasty to Scrooge.


Mrs. Beakley and Webby

These characters were made up just for DuckTales. Presumably, they were designed to give the show a more domesticated slant and also try to soften Scrooge and maybe the nephews. I don't personally have a strong opinion on these characters, but acknowledge they did impact the show. In particular, the forced the show to deal with Scrooge's crassness every now and them by putting him up against a little girl.

The other thing that always caught my attention was the large number of fat jokes that were in the series, usually directed at Mrs. Beakley and Doofus. Political correctness was already taking hold in America at this time. (For reference, the FOX series Married With Children also debuted in 1987 and is famous for mocking political correctness.) So either DuckTales escaped the PC police or with PC people, fat jokes are completely okay.

BeakleyJoke

Fenton: May I have a volunteer from the audience? You sir, may I borrow your change purse?

Scrooge: You'd have an easier time wrestling Mrs. Beakley from a starving cannibal.

Bubba and Fenton Crackshell (post Season 1)

Both these characters were introduced after the first season (65 episodes) of DuckTales. In my opinion, DuckTales already had a very strong cast and didn't need new characters. But we got them anyway.

Bubba is a cave duck Scrooge accidentally picks up in a time travel adventure/mishap. While I don't hate Bubba, I don't feel he really fit in with the series. In the episodes they introduce him, Scrooge becomes very sentimental to the character which I don't think works. I think it could have worked if the series was willing to get really dark and cause Bubba to get stranded forever alone in the past and Scrooge finds the fossilized remains of Bubba's club in the present day. (This would be the rough equivalent of Don Rosa's Hearts of the Yukon in my opinion.) But this would probably be way too dark and depressing for DuckTales.

But maybe the real reason to introduce Bubba was to get Frank Welker on board for a non-trivial role. Frank Welker is another legend and if the DuckTales crew was just trying to figure out how to utilize him, I consider the matter forgivable.


Fenton Crackshell (who also becomes GizmoDuck) is a guy unsatisfied with his life and wants to be something more. He literally is a bean counter working at a bean factory. He has the uncanny ability to instantly look at something and count the number of objects. He manages to get hired as Scrooge McDuck's new accountant (a perfect job for a bean counter) and then by circumstance also becomes GizmoDuck, Scrooge's security guard.

I personally think Fenton outside GizmoDuck is the more interesting character. DuckTales was decent, but but not perfect at avoiding the cliché of superpowers saving the day at the end of the episode. Fenton was the more interesting side of the character as he was very ambitious and also very insecure. He desperately was trying to please/impress Scrooge which seemed to be compensating for never getting positive reinforcement from his own mother. He also had a girlfriend (Gandra Dee) whom he was also very insecure about keeping/pleasing. Fenton is not very bright sometimes, and can't take a hint which makes his life struggles even more challenging.

Fenton worked much better as a new character than Bubba. An accountant and security guard fits much better into Scrooge's world than a cave duck. Perhaps the most difficult problem with Fenton was he displaced Launchpad as a sidekick and though the show did manage to get the two characters in the same episodes, the character balance and chemistry always seemed a bit off.

TralaLa

But one of the places Fenton worked the best was in "The Land of Trala La", an adaption of one of Carl Barks's original stories. The premise is Scrooge travels to a valley with no concept of money. A villager finds a bottle cap and all the other villagers want it which starts a road to a whole fiat monetary system based on bottle caps (complete with hyperinflation). 

In Barks's version, the villagers stumble upon the bottle cap themselves and instigate their own woes. In DuckTales, Fenton is very suspicious of a land without money and almost acts like the Serpent in the Garden of Eden to Eve. And it is absolutely perfect that an accountant is at the heart of this. 

In addition, Launchpad is now assigned the duty of air-dropping more bottle caps for the villagers, whereas in the original this was Donald's duty. In this case, having both Fenton and Launchpad to fill the sidekick roll works better than the original Donald. 

Barks's original ending also had the Trala Lallians release Scrooge and the nephews from their punishment to stop the bottle cap drops. In this one, the elders are much less trusting (and more realistic) and keep Huey, Dewey, and Louie hostage to make sure Scrooge and Fenton keep their word. This all leads to a perfect setup where GizmoDuck can legitimately help save the day.


The late singer, songwriter, and actor Hamilton Camp, voiced Fenton. Considering we got several songs from the Beagle Boys, it seems strange we didn't get a number from Fenton.


End of the Animation Renaissance

In the 25 years since DuckTales, I would say that the American animation renaissance has come and gone. There seemed to be a blow-up/burn-out about 10 years later. Both Disney animation on television and in the theaters declined. Today, Disney is predominantly dependent on Pixar to keep its animation credibility afloat, but traditional (non-3D computer animation) seems to be dead. At the same time, many of the competitor studios also suffered similar declines. The cartoon wars we saw for syndicated television seem to be over and what survives is only on cable. There is no more network Saturday morning cartoon programming either. On the bright side, animation is not as dead as it was before DuckTales. Cable and international markets help keep it alive. It is far easier to say import Japanese animation into the US today thanks to globalized markets and the Internet. But American production is not what it was.

The reasons behind this decline could be the subject of entirely different articles but perhaps it is simplest to suggest that the lesson of DuckTales is to remember what made it successful: Timeless story telling and great characters, all without the need to rely on gimmicks. For those of you who might someday try to lead another animation renaissance, you would be wise to learn from history and remember DuckTales.


More! More! I want to see more!

MoreMoreIWantToSeeMore

Unfortunately, it is unlikely we will ever see new DuckTales episodes or a film ever again (and at the quality level we expect). So what should a DuckTales fan do? Here are some recommendations to help fill the void.


First, there are DVDs available to purchase. But Disney has not released all the episodes on DVD. There is a petition at Open Vault Disney to get the remaining episodes released. I'm personally ambivalent about the whole thing. Disney did a shameful job making the existing sets. They are not in any logical order, have no extras, and the transfer quality is poor. But on the other hand, maybe there is a remote possibility Disney does a better release if enough people petition and buy the current set.

http://openvaultdisney.wordpress.com/2012/08/18/get-ready-for-ducktales-month/


Chris Barat may be the world's most knowledgable authority on DuckTales. He is doing an per-episode retrospective right now. Check out his blog.

http://newsandviewsbychrisbarat.blogspot.com


Pete Fernbaugh is also doing episode columns for the 25th anniversary:

http://www.petefernbaugh.com/2012/07/dwelling-on-ducktales-3-send-in-clones.html


Joseph Adorno offers his memories of watching DuckTales for this 25th anniversary:

http://www.comicbookrehab.blogspot.com/2012/07/silver-dollars-ducktales-at-25.html


After DuckTales ended, my friend who gave me the Duckburg Times 24/25 also got me on "The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck" by Don Rosa. This work is absolute genius and there may never be anything as brilliant as this in the Duck space ever again. Rosa researched the entire history of Scrooge as told by Barks and chronicled Scrooge's entire life story. For those who remember the DuckTales episode "Once Upon a Dime", Rosa blows it out of the water. Rosa tells it in an epic 12 chapters totaling 212 pages. And not only is every detail backed by Barks cannon, but it is also grounded in factual world history which dovetail with Scrooge's life primarily between 1877 and 1947.

I know Barat and Torcivia hated "Once Upon a Dime" because it was inaccurate and in some places clichéd. But as somebody who didn't know anything about Scrooge until DuckTales, I loved the episode. I didn't know anything about the origins of the Number One Dime or any of Scrooge's life history. In defense of DuckTales, considering it was just one normal episode of 65, I'm surprised they got as much stuff in the ballpark as they did. Rosa did not publish his first part until 1994 so there wasn't exactly a researched reference they could look up. I'm guessing they were just pulling things from memory from all the stories they remember trying to piece a story together quickly enough to produce within their schedule. I'm personally impressed at how well they did. 

But regardless of whether you love or hate "Once Upon a Dime", Rosa's Life and Times is a must read.


As a follow up, you can then read Rosa's "The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck Companion" which contain supplemental stories that fill in some of the gaps in the above with a little more of Rosa's artistic liberty. For DuckTales fans, if you liked the stories with Glittering Goldie such as in "Back to the Klondike", Rosa's "The Prisoner of White Agony Creek" and "Hearts of the Yukon" are must reads.


Another great way for a DuckTales viewer to ease into the comics and Carl Barks is to read "Carl Barks Greatest DuckTales Stories" (Volume 1 and 2). Basically, this is a collection of the original Barks stories that some of the DuckTales episodes were based on. You can read these stories to get more familiar with Barks and see the origins of DuckTales. These collections also come with commentaries that talk about DuckTales (again Barat and Torcivia contribute their insights).



Want to watch a nostalgic review of the first episode of DuckTales? The Nostalgia Critic did one earlier this year. (Warning: May contain some offensive language.)

http://thatguywiththeglasses.com/videolinks/thatguywiththeglasses/nostalgia-critic/31838-duck-tales


Mike Matei from Cinemasacre.com coincidentally just posted his thoughts on Carl Barks and Walt Disney Comics & Stories. It's a great primer on Carl Barks and the Duck stories he tells.

http://cinemassacre.com/2012/09/16/donald-duck-comics-review/


On the topic of Cinemasacre.com, The Angry Video Game Nerd reviewed DuckTales for the NES. For those not familar with the game, it is a rare occurrence that a video game based on a television or movie franchise doesn't suck. What is even more amazing is this game is actually really good. It apparently surprised the AVGN and caused him to do possibly the only positive review he's done. (Warning: Contains offensive language.)

http://www.screwattack.com/shows/partners/angry-video-game-nerd/avgn-duck-tales-video-game-vault




Got more links? Please let me know. (The Comment Section is at the very bottom of the page.)




Finally, I encourage YOU to do something. Write a blog entry, make a video, tweet something. Maybe if enough of us do something, this 25th anniversary won't pass completely unnoticed. 




And please buy something through my Amazon links if you want to help me out :)


Update 2013-3-24:

The DuckTales NES game is being remastered! Read here for more details.

Update 2013-9-03:

I did a Let's Play Style Commentary for DuckTales Remastered.

References: 

[1] DuckTales: in the beginning, Jim Korkis, The Duckburg Times #24/25

[2] Of Ducks and DuckTales, David Gerstein, Disney Presents Carl Barks Greatest DuckTales Stories Vol. 1

[3] Carl Barks, Father of Scrooge McDuck, Is Dead at 99, Michael Pollack, New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2000/08/26/nyregion/carl-barks-father-of-scrooge-mcduck-is-dead-at-99.html?pagewanted=all

[4] DUCK TALES: RAIDERS OF THE LOST bARKs! http://www.dialbforblog.com/archives/429

[5] Carl Barks: The Good Duck Artist, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IO1L5urChlg

[6] Comic Book Legends Revealed #280, CBR, http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2010/10/01/comic-book-legends-revealed-280/


Copyright © PlayControl Software, LLC / Eric Wing