Well so, this new DuckTales turned out great.
One year after the revival debuted, it’s become a real Swiss Army show: a fizzy adventure series that’s also a screwball family sitcom brimming with world-building imagination. The first season wrapped this summer with fourteen episodes (the finale airs Sunday at 9:30 AM on the Disney Channel). The loglines describe an embarrassment of riches: A locked-room mystery with a ghostly twist, a Romancing the Stone-ish romance caper, sky pirates with a song in their heart, a spooooooky jaunt through a spooooooky old castle, a riff on ’60s spy thrillers that found room for a vaguely Lovecraftian homage to Gummi Bears.
The gang met Greek gods, and someone built a problematic Uber for superhero justice. Did I mention the voice of Allison Janney? Did I mention the voice of Lin-Manuel Miranda? Did I mention the voice of Don Cheadle as Donald Duck?
Executive producer Matt Youngberg and co-producer/story editor Francisco Angones, who developed the series, built key elements of the reboot from the original ’80s cartoon. But the new DuckTales digs deeper into the comic book source material, too. Season 2’s wondrous penultimate episode, “The Last Crash of the Sunchaser!”, ended with a closeup on Scrooge McDuck (voiced by David Tennant). He was alone in his mansion, fist-clenching on a red armchair, beak festooned with a determined frown. The image replicates the first McDuck moment ever, a panel from the story “Christmas on Bear Mountain,” written and drawn and everything’d by the great Carl Barks.
Notable addition: McDuck cries! More than just a feat of rebootery, DuckTales carved some new directions for these characters. The emotional palette got complicated. Scrooge’s nephews had clear delineations. Huey (the red one, voiced by Danny Pudi) was the brain, one hand always carrying the Junior Woodchuck’s Guidebook. Louie (green, Bobby Moynihan) was lazy, money-obsessed, the leisure class personified. Dewey (blue, Ben Schwartz) had a dreamier side, felt strongly the mysterious loss of a mother he never knew.
Their mother! Season 1 built some serialization off the search for Della Duck, an adventurer who rocked pulp-hero aviator chic before disappearing years ago. A sense of lost history regained defined the series. The other longform thread saw the shadowy return Scrooge’s old nemesis Magica De Spell (Catherine Tate), a presence still lingering fifteen years after some climactic showdown.
Standalone adventures dug into McDuck’s century-plus lifetime as an explorer tycoon. The Duck family visited the ancestral home of Clan McDuck, inhabited by Scrooge’s own elderly parents, left alive thanks to some magic or other. We learned that Scrooge and Mrs. Beakley (Toks Olagundoye) spent retro days as an espionage duo, the latter revealed as Agent 22 of S.H.U.S.H. If there’s one reboot crutch the new DuckTales leans on, it’s a penchant for turning everyone into an action hero. Visually, the new Mrs. Beakley suggests Henry Cavill wearing shoulder pads made of other Henry Cavills.
But they’re all such droll action heroes. Allison Janney guest-starred as an old Scrooge flame, Goldie O’Gilt. In comics and cartoons past, Goldie was an aging ballroom matriarch, still living in a Gold Rush boomtown long since busted. On the new DuckTales, she’s a master thief, an ideal foil for straight-edge Scrooge. There was a sweet humanity to the original interpretation. The new angle had its own delights, though, like a swooning To Catch a Thief-worthy tango between a couple eternal exes.
Because DuckTales is, like, a cartoon about talking ducks with clothes on, there’s a multilevel kick to the show’s cinematic playfulness: Its stylishness is always a bit funny, its humor is always unexpectedly stylish. Reunited after long decades, Goldie and Scrooge swapped stories about their apparent immortality. “Found a fountain of youth in Wronguay,” Goldie said, no big deal. “Stuck in a timeless demon dimension,” Scrooge retorted, sounding quite proud of himself. “Which one?” Goldie exclaimed. “Pandemonimum or Demagorgana?” Sorry, wait: There are multiple timeless demon dimensions?
Some of the best DuckTales moments are like that: tossed off, self-aware, dizzy with overcomplication. In a rare moment of victory, baddie Flintheart Glomgold (Keith Ferguson) monologues towards Scroogey, “To the last I grapple with thee! From Hades’ heart I stab at thee!“, simultaneously paraphrasing Herman Melville and The Wrath of Khan. Dewey spent a birthday party communicating via keytar, wearing the golden Daft Punk helmet. There’s a split second in Saturday’s finale when Scrooge, left alone in his empty mansion, builds a pile out of half-empty pizza delivery boxes. He sits thereupon, a ruined king on a throne of garbage, a clever image that’s grand and deflating.
All of which would be cute-cool drapery, if the new DuckTales didn’t have a real gift characterization. Kate Micucci’s Webby is an ecstatic obsessive-compulsive heroine, a fun-for-kids variation of what TV critic Emily Nussbaum brilliantly described as a Hummingbird. But Micucci’s great performance gives Webby’s effusiveness an air of lonely-kid striving. There’s depth in the supporting cast, too. The most essential new villain is Josh Brener’s Mark Beaks, a new-money Silicon Whatever megamillionaire, Mark Zuckerberg crossed with Logan Paul. Magica’s niece Lena (Kimiko Glenn) is a morally ambiguous Disney kid, struggling with a literal inner demon. And of course: Manny the Headless Man-Horse, an undead equine demon with a Scrooge McDuck statue head for a face. On some (great) shows, he’d be a throwaway gag. On DuckTales, he got a job.
Lots of these characters (even Manny!) pop up in Saturday’s finale, “The Shadow War.” It’s a great wrap-up, satisfyingly closing out a couple plot threads while finding room for the large ensemble. There’s one aspect I struggled with; I’ll have a spoiler-y review up over the weekend.
But “Shadow War” made me realize another reference point for this new show’s achievement. Before he voiced Scrooge, Tennant was the star of Doctor Who. His years, steered by writer Russell T. Davies, merged one-off adventures with a seasonal serializations, drew on canon but set off in new directions. That pretty well sums up the new DuckTales. (In this comparison, Goldie = River Song, Beagle Boys = Cybermen, and Launchpad = TARDIS.) Further crossover: There’s a moment in the finale when Scrooge comes face-to-face with Magica, voiced by Who alum Tate. The Doctor and Donna, reunited? TV heaven!
The show’s profound achievements all came together last week, with the penultimate season 1 romp “The Last Crash of the Sunchaser!” It began with the family setting off in the plane. Scrooge promised them “our greatest adventure yet!” They were supposed to fly across the world, discover an ancient artifact from Netherworld War II, an heirloom winkingly called the Maltese MacGuffin.
Instead, the gang spent the episode onboard a half-crashed plane, dangling high above the clouds. It was, in fact, a near bottle episode, everyone trapped in a tight compartment full of lingering supicions and long-kept mysteries. Despite the single location, the stakes had never been higher. The fate of the Duck family hung in the balance — like, literally, they had to balance themselves across the cargo hold. There was a cosmic detour, a secret that seemed to destroy the family, the stirring revelation that Mrs. Beakley carries a butterfly knife. DuckTales, woo-oo! A