It only took four episodes for the new DuckTales to do an homage to The Warriors. In Walter Hill’s 1979 clown-grunge B-flick, underworld emperor Cyrus assembles the differently costumed gangs of New York in Van Cortlandt Park. (He wants to know if they can dig it.) On DuckTales, Ma Beagle assembles differently costumed Beagle Boy gangs in the junkyard. (It’s her birthday.) There are representatives from every Beagle crew: the Glam Yankees, the Déjà Vus, the Sixth Avenue Meanies, the Sixth Avenue Friendlies, the Longboard Taquitos, the Déjà Vus, the Tumblebums, the Déjà Vus…
Party-crashing this junkyard fiesta: Webbigail Vanderquack and her new friend Lena. Webby had some trouble with the Beagle Boys a couple episodes back. And Webby’s sorta family to Beagle nemesis Scrooge McDuck, richest being in the talking-animal world. So Webby and Lena run afoul of — and have to run away from — the pack of Beagles. They climb onto a rooftop and see McDuck Manor in the distance — somewhere out on that horizon, out beyond the neon lights. They spend the night fighting through Duckburg to get home, a couple war chieftesses struggling toward their own private Coney Island.
At one point, they meet the Longboard Taquitos, xtreme bros with skateboards and squirrelsuits, so the lamest cool things of 1991 and 2011. At another point, Ma Beagle chases them with a truck-throne down an alleyway. And later in the long march home, Lena and Webby meet Duck-brothers Huey, Dewey, and Louie, who try to prove how not-identical they are by accidentally yelling “Antidisestablishmentarianism!” in unison.
You wanted to believe that this new DuckTales would be good. But here’s what you didn’t expect: a whole episode casually focused on a Bechdel test-acing female friendship, one duckette voiced by half of Garfunkel & Oates and the other voiced by Poussey’s girlfriend from Orange Is the New Black. Did I mention Ma Beagle has the voice of Margo Martindale? Did I also mention that this episode’s wild expansion of the Beagle Boy mythology seems to imply that Ma Beagle has several dozen sons, amplifying her rogue’s gallery status upwards from “Metropolitan Criminal Matriarch” to “Mother of Demons From Episode 8 of Twin Peaks Season 3″? Great honk! There’s a Beagle Boy mythology now!
So, some news: The new DuckTales is better than the original show. Funnier, more ambitious. (It’s on Disney XD on Saturdays.) It was developed by Matt Youngberg and Francisco Angones, the rare rebooters who clearly see the wonder of the original thing and clearly perceive everything that was missing. Call this a labor of tough love. If you’re a helpless fanboy for Disney’s Duckverse, you recognize how they’re both more true to the comic-book source material and more willfully experimental in new directions. Relocate the Money Bin offshore, make Flintheart Glomgold a full-blown Wario, imagine Beagle Boy theme-squads, dig up long-lost relatives, give everyone a smartphone, somehow make Louie’s personality distinct from Dewey’s: This new DuckTales has rediscovered the old magic, but also broken new ground.
And they literally just started. The fifth episode airs this Saturday. A second season’s been greenlit. You get the sense the writing staff has big plans. At one point, Webby reveals her Carrie Mathison vision board, a feast of fan-ish arcana. Central to the new interpretation of Webby is that she’s a die-hard Duck fan, with encyclopedic knowledge of Scrooge McDuck’s whole history. (Webby, c’est moi!)
And at first blush, this board could just look like a feast of fan service, the kind of deep cut meta references that forced everyone to pretend to care about Odin’s trophy room. But look closer:
So, yes: Those are pictures of McDuck relatives introduced in the comics, and yes, that reference to “Sky Pirates” seems like a clear shout-out to another Disney Afternoon nostalgia artifact, the jetcore Jungle Book reboot TaleSpin.
But “WHAT LOOMS LARGER THAN McDUCK’S SHADOW?” What the hell does that mean??? “WHEN IS CASTLE McDUCK?” Screech. That’s some “Deputy Hawk Reveals a Map of the Twin Peaks Cosmo-geology”-level eerie throwaway teases. I’m not making these Twin Peaks references accidentally: The DuckTales reboot is just as re-inventive as the recent Showtime revival. And also, Della Duck is a total Laura Palmer.
Oh yes — Della Duck! Remember that old joke about the weirdness of Disney’s Duck Family, all those uncles and nephews, not an actual blood-relative parent in sight? The DuckTales premiere ends with the revelation that Huey, Dewey, and Louie’s long-lost mom used to be one of Scrooge’s adventure friends. Della, Donald, and Scrooge were a trio, it seems. Della left, for reasons mysterious; Donald and Scrooge had a falling out, for reasons related.
The Search for Della is a casual through line of the season so far, and it’s almost one hot concept too far. (Does even Donald Duck need a secret origin now?) But it enriches this whole endeavor, bestowing upon DuckTales a generational ambition, a sense of lost time. Della-Donald-Scrooge had their fun long ago. Then things turned sour. Maybe the ’90s ended. Maybe they met Bubba the Caveduck.
You can remember how it felt to love an old TV show, and still feel disappointed when you go back to watch it. That’s how I feel about the original DuckTales, a cartoon created not long after I was. I have vivid waking-dream memories of the series, mostly of the original premiere movie, titled “The Treasure of the Golden Suns,” which my family tape-recorded on its original 1987 airing.
“Golden Suns” is split into five chapters, altogether comprising a video game-open-world of action climate zones: the city, the sea, the jungle, the Andes, the Antarctic, all stuffed with cities hidden and ships sunken. Watching “Golden Suns” was my initial introduction to Scrooge McDuck, the only cartoon character I still seriously wish I could meet.
Scrooge is a wonderfully strange character for a children’s’ story: Old enough to have two generations of nephews, he is a strenuous workaholic who hates spending money. There’s something self-deniably priest-like about him — he’s devoted to pursuing wealth he will never spend. But he is often cast as both teacher and pupil, expert in tycoon adventure yet eternally learning straightforward lessons about family and human decency. “To tell the truth,” Scrooge tells a journalist early in Part 1, “My life is pretty lonely.” His whole primal arc — from his first introduction in a 1947 comic book by Carl Barks, to his first introduction in the original DuckTales, to his first introduction in the new show — is about re-engagement, about an old miserly cynic who has gained the world suddenly realizing he still has time to regain his soul.
“The Treasure of the Golden Suns” follows Scrooge on his search for the titular hidden treasure, but the quest trends Kurtzian. By the final act, he’s gone money-mad with Gold Fever, his desire for riches even infecting his nephews. “Money isn’t everything” is the final message, maybe an important lesson to reiterate given the leaders some people have been choosing lately.
Along the way, there are some real moments of cartoon beauty, none more memorable than the end of Part 2, when Scrooge rows the nephews and Glomgold into the tangerine sunset, water as purple as a frozen grape Otter Pop, sky as pink as 1987 ever was:
The original show was one of the great cultural gateway drugs of my life. Loving DuckTales led me to its brilliant source material, the magnificent Uncle Scrooge comic books produced by writer-artist Carl Barks, who somehow iterated the basic Disney concept of “Wacky Duck Who Talks” into a whole wild raucous Duck universe. Barks was one of the great adventure storytellers of the last century, and reading him led to the just-as-magnificent Duck comics written-illustrated by Don Rosa, the funky Thoreau to Barks’ magisterial Emerson. (Go read The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck if you haven’t.) And there were tie-ins to DuckTales: a great video game, a legitimately strange movie. For a lot of people, there was really just the theme song, but that song was catchy, dammit, and when you get older, life really is like a hurricane.
And everything in that last paragraph — comics and video game, movie and music — is more essential now than the actual original DuckTales series. I rewatched “Treasure of the Golden Suns” a few weeks ago, could quote half of it from memory, felt little urge to continue. By season 2, they were adding characters who felt like network notes. There was the aforementioned Bubba — and there was GizmoDuck, because it was the ’80s and everyone was cyborgs.
I’m being cruel to be kind, and sometimes the stuff you loved as a kid is only good when you’re a kid. Nothing wrong with that — but that just heightens the real achievement of this new DuckTales. The old DuckTales could never quite update its way out of Barks’ midcentury visions of prosperity and urbanity and jet age fantasy.
This new series, conversely, suggests a wild clash of multiple eras. It sends the kids to a video arcade playland, a more recognizably ’80s-kid experience than anything the kid-ducks did back in the actual ’80s. But it also casually integrates modern technology. There’s an upcoming episode set in an elaborate parody of a Silicon Valley tech company. Just when you’re crediting the timely goofery — trampolines in the office! — the plot turns into a dissection of tech industry practices. It’s a paradoxical achievement: a laceration of social media values full of GIF-ably tweet-worthy moments.
There’s another episode coming up set in a casino, but I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about how the episode begins with a plane crashlanding while Donald Duck screams, “We’re all gonna die! I’ve wasted my life!” There’s a deadpan cleverness in the show’s dialogue, and there’s a boisterous energy in the animation, with a retro aesthetic that belies the layers of kinetic visual comedy.
Old characters have been updated in surprising ways. Mrs. Beakley (Toks Olagundoye), previously a maternal maid, is now a no-nonsense (maybe?-)ex-spy. Gyro Gearloose (Jim Rash), once a hayseed inventor, is now an ego-crazy angry-nerd mad scientist. The show has tried hard to differentiate Huey, Dewey, and Louie. This is both an obvious idea and one that was already pre-doomed. SMASH CUT TO: Quack Pack, starring backwards-hat Louie and baggin’ saggin’ Huey and Dewey with bowlcut bangs (and the voice of Pamela Adlon!).
But Danny Pudi, Ben Schwartz, and Bobby Moynihan were well-cast as the trio, giving the boys a jocky fraternal chemistry. I don’t think I fully have a handle on which brother is which: Dewey is the one with the overarching plot, Louie is the lazy-decadent id, and Huey does machines, maybe? But I respect that the show’s trying to carve them into separate arcs. Meanwhile, David Tennant is doing longtime Scrooge-voice Alan Young proud. (The former Doctor Who star is only 46, but his Scrooge sounds older than Young’s, a genuine senior citizen, less gruff, more wily.)
Some intriguing guest stars loom on the horizon. And if the show can legitimately build all its curious ambient mysteries into a grand arc, it could step into the void that’s about to be left behind by Adventure Time, which so expertly world-builds cosmic arcs out of weird experimental one-offs and gonzo sitcom plots.
The show’s not there yet. At times, the sheer kinetic blitzkrieg and cultural self-awareness can seem cutesy, or DreamWorks-ish. And two episodes have ended with “twists” that require some vague-but-precise knowledge of the original show. This represents the absolute least interesting reboot instinct — let’s tease ’em with something they’ve already seen before! — and it makes me wonder if this show plays better with oldsters than youngsters. There was a pleasant simplicity to the original series, a leisure to the static animation. This new DuckTales moves ultra-fast, suggesting whole C-plots of mythology in three-second visual gags.
But one of those gags works on me, man, every time. It’s in the opening credits sequence, which features a new version of the theme song by Barton. (Barton’s tune is ecstatic and a bit droid-ish, suggesting some midpoint between Kidz Bop and EDM.) The assembled Ducks are in some lost golden cavern of buried treasure. Suddenly, there’s a giant lobster! And then Barton sings “Woo-ooo!” and the Lobster snaps its claws twice, SNAP SNAP, in freakish choreographed percussion, like even the monsters are getting down to this sick beat. There’s a word for that: Antidisestablishmentarianism! No, no, no: Great! And now, in 2017, DuckTales is finally great.