DuckTales keeps getting better: EW review
The cartoon revival features wonders large and small. The pyramids! The humpback whale! Slap bracelets!
Eight new episodes of DuckTales are arriving now, four this week and four next week. So many new adventures for the Ducks of Duckburg! A thrilling stranger from a distant land demands the return of an ancient artifact. Heroes visit mythic Ithaquack, an oceanfront Olympus full of legendary creatures and genuine goddesses. The kids hang with their insane neighbor, a terrorizing richie-rich kid prone to hourlong theremin recitals. The Beagle Boys return, led by their junkyard-dog matriarch, Ma Beagle, voiced once again by esteemed character actress Margo Martindale.
And that’s just the first new episode, “Treasure of the Found Lamp!,” which debuted Tuesday. (New episodes air on the Disney Channel in an after-school 3 p.m. time slot, though it’s easier for all ages to watch via the Disney Now app.) And even that summary of summaries doesn’t capture the playful sensibility powering this revival, which keeps getting better in its inventive second season.
The series’ chief creatives, executive producer Matt Youngberg and co-producer/story editor Francisco Angones, build every episode with merry-prankish enthusiasm, twisting any obvious plotline skyward. A Wild West adventure becomes a romantic competition with a time-travel twist. There are key characters living on the moon or in sideways dimensions, and yet there have been excellent recent episodes that barely leave McDuck Manor. This is the kind of whip-smart television that expects you to catch the reference when a scientist exclaims, “Holy Marconi!”
And this is the kind of loopy television that will drive a main character fully insane. Scrooge McDuck (David Tennant) goes rage-crazy when a few coins disappear from his money bin. Apropos of nothing, he starts screaming at “Chester,” an “interdimensional imp” nobody else can see. And then Scrooge holds up his cane, and then battle-ax blades flip out of the cane, and now suddenly here’s a crazy old duck with an ax-cane! DuckTales can be a high-level spoof, or it can send cartoon tears cascading out of its talking waterfowls’ big bright eyes. “My heart! It’s too full!” says Webby (Kate Micucci) in one upcoming episode. I forget which episode; it could be any of them.
Did I mention the moon? Stop what you’re doing right now and go watch “What Ever Happened to Della Duck?,” a lonely episode that aired in March. It’s one of the all-time great breakaway adventures, a decade-in-the-life introduction to Della (Paget Brewster), Donald’s twin sister and mom to the Duck triplets.
In season 1 she was an ongoing mystery, a fearless daredevil long lost in space. When her focal episode begins, Della crash-lands on the lunar landscape. Her foot’s trapped under a piece of debris. SMASH CUT TO: Della, hours later, walking around on a spare-parts robo-leg. “Metallic replacement limb” is a character trait that vibes Furiosa-ish, and Brewster’s sprightly performance is as unstoppable as a war rig. She makes Della Duck sound like someone generating rocket fuel with pure pep.
“What Ever Happened to Della Duck?” is a melancholy parable of endless frustration: escape plans foiled, the taunting Earth overhead. Della keeps recording video messages for her sons — but she’s never even met them, and she doesn’t even know if anyone will ever see the videos. Della’s already iconic after that episode, I think. And the whole idea — an epic flashback, a radical new setting, a basically new character introduced in such a way to make her feel entirely essential going forward — is the kind of sci-fi conceit you’d expect from a show building a larger serialized world.
Which DuckTales has done effectively. The new burst of episodes feature familiar-face swingbys, focusing on recurring figures like GizmoDuck (I swear you can hear Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ear-to-ear grin) and Glittering Goldie (Allison Janney, man, Allison Janney!).
There aren’t any throwaway characters here. I thought it was nifty when Insecure’s delightful Natasha Rothwell guest-voiced earlier this season as Zan Owlson, a good-works-for-humanity executive trying to steer Glomgold Industries away from the Maniacal Schemes business. Now Owlson is a recurring figure, a rock-solid counterbalance to lunatic Flintheart (Keith Ferguson). “We can be a force for good in this world!” she promises, begging her boss to act a little more stable. “Hear that, McDuck?” Glomgold screams out the nearest window, “I’m more stable than youuuuu arrrreee!”
By now, the show’s done an impressive job differentiating Huey (Danny Pudi), Dewey (Ben Schwartz), and Louie (Bobby Moynihan). I have a special love for Moynihan’s slithery-apathetic performance — it’s on the table that Louie is the ultimate villain of DuckTales — and the writers have the ability to tell any kind of compelling story about any of their characters. There’s a sweetly humane subplot about poor Donald Duck (Tony Anselmo) suffering from serious anxiety. There’s a sleepover adventure where Webby bonds with Violet Sabrewing (Libe Barer), another kid who speaks Old Norse. Before long, Violet’s reading Webby definitions out of a grimoire. “Tulpas are manifestations of powerful emotions,” Violet says. “Hatred, jealousy, greed. They live in a dark realm adjacent to our reality.” Tulpas? Great Honk! Is this show homaging Twin Peaks???
This reboot stands on its own, but it rewards anyone existing in meta-realms of franchise self-awareness. “Treasure of the Found Lamp!” was a nudging rejoinder to 1990’s DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Found Lamp. That memorably weird toon featured a character named Dijon, a poltroon-pastiche of Middle Eastern stereotypery. “Found Lamp!” counter-adapted Dijon into Faris D’jinn, a declamatory explorer wonderfully voiced by Omid Abtahi. There’s an evolutionary quality to a lot of DuckTales’ references; you’d almost think we’re living in a bright future confronting past mistakes with intelligence and grace. Not to get too heavy or anything, not about a show where David Tennant gets to say freaky-sincere statements like “Et tu, Headless Man-Horse?”
And then there are moments where pure fandom rises to worshipful artistry. To calm a scared little moon-thing, Della sings a lullabye. The song’s lyrics are directed to the sons she’s never met — and the music is “The Moon Theme” from the Nintendo DuckTales video game. My heart! It’s too full! A