The One About DuckTales (ooh-woo-ooh!)

Life is like a hurricane
Here in Duckberg.
R
acecars, lasers, aeroplanes,
it’s a Duck blur!
Might solve a mystery
o
r 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
  • Gargoyles
  • Aladdin
  • Bonkers
  • The Lion King’s Timon and Pumbaa

But the flagship program was DuckTales.

Image copyright 2012 The Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

Image copyright 2012 The Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

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.

Ooh-woo-ooh, indeed.

About D. G. Speirs

D.G. Speirs is a storyteller, novelist and voice actor living in central Florida. He keeps searching for better stories to tell, even if he has to make them up himself. His latest novel, TRIANGLE: WILDCARD, is now available on Amazon.com.
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2 Responses to The One About DuckTales (ooh-woo-ooh!)

  1. Hey there! Firstly I want to thank you for commenting on my blog. Glad you enjoyed the piece!

    Secondly, I want to comment on this post (and, consequently, the comment you left). What’s odd about Schooley’s comment (and I spoke with him as well) is that… well, it isn’t as if Ducktales doesn’t have a copious amount of wish fulfillment and empowerment for kids as well. The nephews constantly and thoroughly get Scrooge and others out of trouble. The reward, in the case of Ducktales, is respect and even admiration. Scrooge finds common ground with his nephews, bonds with them, and DEPENDS on them.

    Most other shows don’t have that. I love Phineas and Ferb as a comic piece of animation, but even there, keeping the mother ignorant of the boys’ shenanigans is part of the glut of cartoons of kids “in the know” while parents remain distant squares. I’d guess the new MLP has a bit of an adult sheen to it, although that’s been slowly dissipating over the years. Avatar/Legends of Korra does a good job respecting both sides though.

    I personally think its a mistake to emphasize “kids over parents” themes; it’s a concept that skews itself younger (2-6) and it’s why kids cartoons are rare, usually not good, and replaced with live-action shows and cartoons that, in some ways, equalize the stupidity among the entire cast (Spongebob, VicTORIous, iCarly, TUFF Puppy, etc.)

    • D. G. Speirs says:

      Kevin:

      MLP? I must admit, since I spend more time writing than watching these days, I’m not as familiar with all the shows as I should be, and will thus be embarassed when you spell out that acronym, to be sure.

      I did find another show that has the child/adult dichotomy similar to DuckTales – the Dreamworks series Dragons: Riders of Berk. But in both cases, I’m now curious. They have rich source material to draw upon – the Carl Barks comics, and the book series by Cressida Cowell. There were nine books in the series by the time the film premiered – a dozen by the time the follow-up series did. I believe the writers are determined to show the teens trying to be responsible, a part of the community.

      In the other shows, there is an anarchist streak. Now, there is a precedent for anarchy in animation – the Looney Tunes thrived on it. And it was usually underdog getting one over on a superior foe – which IS the initial dichotomy that appears in the “kids versus adult authority figure” that is prevalent in much animation AND live-action aimed for pre-teens and tweens since the mid-90’s. But perhaps what I’m seeing different isn’t so much the target as the tone of the comedy?

      Here’s an interesting thought. In the early 90’s, Fox premiered the sketch comedy show In Living Color, featuring the Wayans Brothers, and Jim Carrey, among others. The tone of the comedy was, to put it mildly, a lot harsher. It was funny – but it was “kick in the groin” and “You’re much stupider than we are, especially if you don’t get these jokes” funny. I wonder, if you interviewed Butch Hartman, if he would agree that ILC was an influence on Fairly OddParents.

      I see you call out the Nick series, but Disney has been doing this formula with live action sitcoms starting with Even Stevens (how anyone ever saw anything special in either Shia Lebeouf or Christy Carlson Romano is still a mystery to me this day), through Lizzie Maguire, That’s So Raven, Hannah Montana, Wizards of Waverley Place, Jessie, A.N.T. Farm, Shake It Up, Austin and Ally, Zeke and Luther, Pair of Kings, Kickin It, and now something called (and I kid you not) Dog with a Blog. I guess man’s best friend is now in on the joke of punking hapless adults.

      The thing is, before Even Stevens, the sitcoms on the Disney channel didn’t use that formula (The famous Jett Jackson, for exaample). So this was a conscious choice by the network to move in this direction, and to stay with this formula starting at the turn of the century. Here’s a question – was there a change in Disney Channel management at that time that ordered the change in formula?

      Finally, no discussion of this would be complete without mentioning the spiritual parent of all of these shows – the much beloved and equally maligned Saved By The Bell.

      Please understand, I like animated shows that are adventure oriented – The DC Animated block, Ben-10 and Star Wars: The Clone Wars on Cartoon Network are all well written, as are the Transformer shows on The Hub and the new iteration of TMNT on Nick. But they all know their target demo – older, male-oriented, and action oriented. Only Ben-10 shows a bit of the “Kid versus Adult” edge -and when he does, the character usually gets thrashed.

      One of my writer friends has messaged me to take a look at the Hub’s shows based on the the Hasbro Toy Lines (My Little Pony, Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake, and Littlest Pet Shop). I plan on taking a precautionary insulin shot beforehand, just in case.

      But CN is also home to a series of shows that, f’m not sure about. Where would you say Adventure Time fits in the model? Regular Show? Gumball?Are these more along the lines of the “stupid character shows” instead?

      But I also enjoy snarky humor. Animaniacs, in reruns twenty years later is still as funny as it was in its original run – which is an incredible feat of writing, if you think about it. I’m a huge fan of Robot Chicken. But there’s a reason Saturday Night Live was on late, and why blue shows in Vegas started at 1 p.m. and why Adult Swim starts when it does. It’s adult humor. But I believe it is having a much heavier influence on programming on children-oriented cable networks than many parents, who don’t watch these shows with their kids, perceive.

      This will be an interesting topic to explore further. I look forward to continuing our discussion over time, and to following your work.

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