When I was eight years old in 1989, my two favorite TV shows both happened to feature similarly drawn anthropomorphic ducks who traveled the world having adventures inspired by pulp fiction. The first of these was Count Duckula, whose British humor and Gothic aesthetic were a major influence on me. The latter was DuckTales, about a globetrotting Scottish tycoon and his grandnephews. Both shows led me to where I am today by repackaging classic genre stories and offering kid-friendly versions of ancient history, myths, and legends. While DuckTales, which aired from 1987 to 1990 and in reruns thereafter, was a great series for little kids, its most important impact on me was introducing me to the classic Uncle Scrooge comics, particularly those drawn by Carl Barks, which I have loved ever since. DuckTales, however, like so much juvenilia, is something I remembered better than it was.
Nevertheless, I was excited to learn last year that Walt Disney had ordered a new series of DuckTales, which began airing last year on Disney XD and currently airs on the Disney Channel. The producers of the new series promised that it would evoke the old series but incorporate elements of the Carl Barks comics and Don Rosa’s additions to them for a richer and more dynamic version of the life and times of Scrooge McDuck. They also hired a stellar all-star cast, led by David Tennant as Scrooge. An engaging and generally exciting pilot episode set up the potential for a great reboot that never quite came to fruition.
Now that DuckTales is nearing the end of its first season—there are five episodes left—it seems like this is as good a time as any to talk about why the new series has been so disappointing.
There is a lot to like about the new DuckTales, led by the show’s high caliber voice talent, including the regular cast and celebrity guest stars. The art style, while a little more angular and stylized than I’d prefer, and not as colorful as I’d like, is suitably attractive and does a good job of approximating the washed out look of aging four-color comics. The nods to classic DuckTales episodes and incidents from the Barks and Rosa comics are also good for a nod of recognition. But these high points are also problematic because they are elements that appeal to adult viewers. A good number of the references to Scrooge’s long and complex history, as laid out by Don Rosa in The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, won’t make much sense to young viewers, whom I doubt read Rosa’s comics from three decades ago. With that background, many of the DuckTales stories make sense, but if you came to it without prior knowledge, it must seem like a sketch of a show, an incomplete set of references to incidents never explained. Even basic elements of Scrooge’s backstory, like his money bin, the writers simply assume that the audience already knows about. This is in many ways a very postmodern show, apparently meant to be consumed alongside Wikipedia’s entry for Scrooge.
More disappointing, however, is the decision to cut most of the adventure out of DuckTales in favor of talking about adventures instead. While most of the episodes that have aired so far have the form of an adventure story, their structure is decidedly postmodern. Instead of following a mystery from start to finish, too many stories simply allude to an adventure, talk about what happened or didn’t happen, and then spend the majority of the run time on smaller domestic matters, single incidents meant as a cameo of the whole story, or incomplete stories that rely on the viewer’s prior familiarity with earlier incarnations of the characters to appreciate. Such a strategy could, in theory, work. Pindar’s famous Fourth Pythian Ode—and this is probably the only review of DuckTales that will make such a Classical comparison!—takes the entire epic of the Argonautica and distills it into a few choice incidents that suggest a complete story in a satisfying way without actually telling the story, relying on the reader’s prior knowledge to fill in the omissions. But DuckTales is not exactly poetic, and too often its stories seem rushed, oddly paced, or incomplete. The juxtaposition between the murderous villainy of the evildoers—who in this version are literally trying to kill Scrooge and his family in gruesomely described ways—and their Looney Tunes-style slapstick personas is a bit disconcerting, a bit like Mark Hamill’s Joker crossed with Elmer Fudd. The tone is just off, particularly for Flintheart Glomgold, a formidable enemy of Scrooge in the comics and a bitter rival in the first DuckTales but here turned into a broad caricature of slapstick rage that seems to encourage kids to find attempted murder hilarious.
Overall, DuckTales has been uneven in its first season, doing some things well and others poorly. As the season progressed, the mix tilted more toward the good, and it looks like the second season will continue the upward trajectory. DuckTales was always going to be a strange hybrid—of comic series and TV show, of 1980s nostalgia and 2010s sensibilities, of appeals to adult viewers and fodder for its younger target audience. But even jaded young audiences would likely find it more fun if it embraced the sense of scope and scale of Barks’ comics, and the science fiction sensibility of midcentury when adventure implied boundless possibility. As it is now, the call to adventure seems more like an annoying voicemail when the characters would rather be texting.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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