Life is like a hurricane
Here in Duckberg.
Racecars, lasers, aeroplanes,
it’s a Duck blur!
Might solve a mystery
or rewrite history…
I’ve mentioned before my love of TV animation. I’m the kid who never grew up, I guess, and who still thinks a Saturday morning watching Cartoon Network with a bowl of Cap’n Crunch makes for a pretty good time.
Because I’m a big animation fan, I’ve been witness to its ups and downs over time. I was particularly excited when what I considered to be a new golden age of television animation came about in the mid-1980’s. Leading the way was Disney, who decided to stake out syndicated children’s programming as a revenue-center for the company. Over the course of a decade and a half, they created a roster of shows that even now stands up well compared to modern contemporaries:
- Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers
- Tale Spin
- Darkwing Duck
- Goof Troop
- The Lion King’s Timon and Pumbaa
But the flagship program was DuckTales.
The AV Club website recently posted a wonderful article that discusses the history of the show, how it came into being, and what its particular strengths were. Part of it had to do with the strength of the source material, the comic books of Carl Barks and Dan Rossa. But credit must also be given to the creative team, which strove to be the absolute best at what it did. That attitude was a direct result of the Disney leadership change in 1984.
I urge you to read the article. What I took away from it, as it looked back at the show from the perspective of a quarter century removed, was that it was amazing to see what had been made possible in terms of animation as entertainment – how much was possible, how much was achieved…and yet, how much of it has been squandered away since.
The fall was probably unavoidable. Part of it due to changing management at Disney – the article fails to mention it, but the decline of The Disney Afternoon coincides with the death of company president Frank Wells in a plane crash and the change in philosophy of the management team that Michael Eisner replaced him with. The changing media landscape was also a consideration – Disney was in the end competing with itself, as syndicated programming on air would draw customers away from Disney’s own cable channel, as well as competition from others in syndication like Fox and Warner Brothers, cable channels like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, and finally, that new-fangled thing you’re now reading this on -the Internet.
But it’s my own take that DuckTales was the trailblazer for that era. I believe if Disney’s gamble failed, then Warner Brothers doesn’t team up with Steven Spielberg, and shows like Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, Batman the Animated Series, and their descendants never get made.
No Nickelodeon animation. No Spongebob. No Doug (which, ironically, ended up being one of the last shows to be included in The Disney Afternoon).
No Cartoon Network. No Ben 10. No Adult Swim. No Robot Chicken. No Toonami. And Futurama stays cancelled forever.
If you think about, Scrooge’s Number One Dime really did turn out to be a pretty powerful thing.
Buried deep inside the article was something else that caught my attention – a quote from another blogger, Kevin Johnson at Total Media Bridge, about the depth of the writing and characterization on the show.
This is a series about adults and kids relating to each other, but remaining adults and kids, instead of trying to play at each other’s levels.
There’s a reason this caught my eye. My ex-wife is a schoolteacher who works with middle school students. One day, she called me and complained that my writer friends in Hollywood were ruining her life. She asked me to pass them a question – why does it seem that all entertainment programming aimed at children portrays adults as objects of ridicule, especially if in positions of authority. At first I didn’t agree, but a quick spin through the dial on The Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network seemed to bear her out. All authority figures – parents, teacher, business owners, police – were routinely shown as bumbling idiots who were easily outwitted, unaware of what was obviously happening right in front of them, and deserving of such treatment.
When I passed on these question and asked for the reasoning, Bob Schooley, executive producer of Nickelodeons award-winning The Penguins of Madagascar and co-creator of Kim Possible was gracious enough to reply. He explained that it stemmed from a desire to provide the target audience with wish fulfillment and empowerment, especially in a world where their real lives provided them very little of that. Kids watched it and felt, vicariously, they were better, if just for a little while.
Schooley’s argument has merit, but I wonder if there’s too much of a good thing in that regard. As I recently asked my friends on Facebook, try to name any single show on any Disney network, animated or live action that is now currently airing that has its characters interact the way they do on DuckTales.
As far as I can see, I believe the only two might be Doc McStuffins and the new show Sophia the First. Another show that came to mind, Jake and the Never-Land Pirates, sadly doesn’t work – all the adult characters are pirates and again, are treated as dim-witted buffoons, easily defeated by children. Note that these shows air on the newest Disney network, Disney Junior. The target audience? Ages 2-6.
Disney XD? Nope. Most programs there don’t even show adults, or are aimed at adults in the target audience.
We won’t even waste any time discussing ANY show currently airing on the Disney Channel, as they adopted a sitcom-based philosophy in the late 1990’s that everyone older that 18 was a buffoon not to be trusted or respected. Formulaic live-action sitcom after formulaic sitcom, all hammering home that same message. And yes, that even includes the attitude towards adults on their animated hit, Phineas and Ferb.
So, a quarter-century later, on three networks owned by the creator of this style of character interaction, I can only find an hour each day for this type of adult/youth relationship. One hour out of a possible 72.
You have to wonder…
If there were more DuckTales-style character relationships in shows, would more kids perceive a message that they were empowered, but that the adults in their life were not always objects of contempt and could work with them to solve problems?
Perhaps children receive such a steady diet of contempt for authority in the media they consume that it bleeds over into reality for them and makes them cynical in their real-life interactions.
Now that would be the ultimate sad irony – something conceived as a way to entertain children somehow becomes the vehicle to train an entire generation to be cynical upon arrival at adulthood.