Monday, January 23, 2006

Decent Disney

The Walt Disney company's TV output in the '80s and '90s was never very impressive overall. They had previously resisted doing any animated series for TV at all, on the basis that it would damage the Disney brand name to do less than top-quality animation, and especially to use overseas studios for the animation (an economic requirement for TV cartoons). When Michael Eisner came in, he ordered the company into the Saturday-morning-TV and direct-to-video market, which may well have had the effect of diluting the brand -- all those pointless video sequels tend to devalue the feature-length movies -- but was probably a necessary step, economically speaking.

However, the Disney TV stuff rarely had the effectiveness of the best TV cartoons of the '90s, like the Warner Brothers TV cartoons or "The Tick" (which Disney now owns and is about to release on DVD). Most of their TV product was based on their movie, short-cartoon, or comic-book franchises: "DuckTales" animated the Carl Barks universe; "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin" became animated TV series; "Chip n' Dale's Rescue Rangers" and "Goof Troop" found new formats for familiar characters. None of these shows did much more than remind us of why we liked the original versions better. One exception, as I recall, was "Tale Spin," which was a pretty good comedy/adventure featuring characters from "The Jungle Book" as adventurous pilots -- it was basically "Only Angels Have Wings" with Baloo the bear, and it worked surprisingly well.

Another Disney TV cartoon that was better than most was "Darkwing Duck", due for a DVD release this year; the story of an inept superhero -- or, more specifically, an idiot who thinks he's a superhero because he wears a cape and mask -- it was a bit like "Inspector Gadget" (bumbling hero with an intelligent niece), but much better and funnier. It was a very funny show, in fact, with great vocal acting from Jim Cummings in the lead role, and a fine team of writers. The DVD will probably be worth picking up, especially if they have some extra features.

The best-known of the Disney TV cartoons was "Gargoyles," their attempt to out-dark "Batman." With its dark storylines, violence (more violence than "Batman" could get away with) and seemingly endless story arcs and flashbacks, it was a fascinating show and often very well-written, though it perhaps took itself a bit more seriously than was really warranted by the story of stone gargoyles coming to life in New York. The show "Freakazoid!" did a parody of "Gargoyles" called "Lawn Gnomes," where the lead characters spend the entire episode filling us in on the backstory of how they got turned into stone, and by the time we cut back to the present, there's no more time for the contemporary story. The episodes of "Gargoyles" are being released on DVD; two box sets have been released so far and one more should come this year to complete the series.

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