The hour-long debut of the long-awaited new DuckTales series has arrived. After airing on Disney XD on repeat for 24 hours, the episode is now available on the Disney XD YouTube channel, which means this cord-cutting reviewer was finally able to watch it. The verdict? This is everything I always wanted DuckTales to be, while still recognizably being the DuckTales I loved as a child.
(Spoiler Warning: I don’t spoil the major plot beats, but going forward there are unmarked spoilers for things like character appearances for this first episode.)
First of all, let’s talk about the visual style, since it is quite literally the first thing you notice. The DuckTales team has decided to strike off in a different direction in its visual style, using the archetypal elements of our major DuckTales characters while giving it their own spin; the style is more angular, a little rougher around the edges, though all very smoothly animated. Scrooge is the second-most-changed character (more on this in a moment): his design is closer to the Carl Barks/Don Rosa version from the comics, with a red coat, dark spats, and white sclera instead of the blue used in most renderings of the original animated model. Still, he is recognizably Unca Scrooge, just as Donald Duck is obviously himself, Launchpad is obviously Launchpad, and on down the line; there is no mistaking who any major character is, but their designs are updated and modernized for a story set in the 21st century. In this way, the art is a perfect echo of the story being told. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also shout out the original elements in this story, though: the backgrounds and props, especially those related to the supernatural, are angular and blocky in a way that reminds me a lot of Mike Mignola (Hellboy), which is a fantastic visual reference for stories of often-supernatural globe-trotting adventure.
That brings me to the world: I love the way the DuckTales world is portrayed in this first episode. The story wastes very little time in making high adventure and magic a part of the tapestry of the narrative, while still making it seem fantastical; Huey, Dewey, and Louie are awe-struck at the discovery of a pirate ghost, while Scrooge is a little bit more blase where there are not severe consequences. It feels like a world where anything can happen because we establish that anything can happen by…well…having anything happen right in front of us, rather than assuming we will take it on faith because it’s a kid’s cartoon, which was very much the attitude of the original show. The other note I want to make about the world, one which tells us a lot about the minds behind this story, is the sheer number of name-drops to the rest of the old Disney Afternoon block (or at least the ones that starred anthropomorphic animals). The characters reference other cities in casual conversation, which is only natural; but rather than fill in punny names for real-world cities, there are references to Cape Suzette (TaleSpin), Spoonerville (Goof Troop), and in the move that made me most excited, St. Canard (Darkwing Duck). We already knew from San Diego Comic-Con that Darkwing Duck might make an appearance, and this has me geeking out by itself; but the fact that the entire Afternoon lineup appears to exist together in one Disney-verse brings in potential for stories that have both my nostalgia brain and my writer brain absolutely ecstatic. This was an excellent move by the DuckTales team.
But I said I was going to get back to the characters. I want to talk about how great their characterization is. Let’s start with the nephews, who are the most changed visually; Huey, Dewey, and Louie all have distinct styles of dress and presentation, as well as distinct voice actors, instead of being a weird gestalt personality that only exists as a collective, and it’s a huge improvement over the way they were portrayed in the original show. Dewey gets the most spotlight time in this first episode, but just the fact an individual nephew can get spotlight time is a giant leap forward. Scrooge himself is also nicely revamped, given a rougher, but still caring, personality, with some newer and less, er, capitalist motivations for his adventures and his vaunted ego problems (I’m really into the idea that he’s trying to prove he’s “still got it,” and I am grateful they downplayed the stinginess). Flintheart Glomgold is differentiated even more clearly from Scrooge, not only with a new design but also with a ruthlessness that surpasses even the original, and a short-cutting, manipulative, dare-I-say-Trumpian approach to business that really brings him across as evil and sleazy right from the jump. As for the other three major characters…well…gosh, is this better. Webby, Mrs. Beakley, and Launchpad all take characters who were hugely problematic in their original portrayals and preserve some of the core, while also making them much more interesting and much more positive. Launchpad, rather than being a brain-damaged sea of ineptitude, is portrayed as well-meaning but oblivious, careless, and possibly guilty of not taking good care of himself (people with normal sleep schedules don’t fall asleep at the wheel repeatedly…); in turn, Scrooge’s berating of Launchpad focuses on his bad behavior, not insulting his intelligence. Mrs. Beakley moves from being a timid, shrewish old-woman stereotype to a capable, strong-willed, self-confident housekeeper who is both good at her job and completely willing to tell Scrooge not to make her do more than her share, and who is willing to adapt to new situations instead of being a clueless stickler for the rules. And Webby is totally revamped, changed from a tagalong kid dripping with over-the-top “girly” coding to a capable, enthusiastic participant in the team’s adventures, accepted as an equal by the nephews. Webby was the biggest revelation for me here, and helped me fall in love with the show even more. Also, I love how much of a badass Scrooge gets to be; he really comes off as a retired adventurer here, in a way that was so exciting to watch.
Okay, so the characters are great, the world is great, the visuals are great…what about the story? Well, that’s where I’ll wrap up, because the story…is also fantastic. The fantasy-adventure world of DuckTales is portrayed with great creativity and fluidity, presenting both a Normal world and a Magical one and making both feel equally real, while also driving home how bizarre the magical situations are. The characters are all given distinct flaws and character arcs — it’s most obvious in Scrooge, Dewey, and Donald in this episode, but everyone has something going on that the writing team can hang a story on in the future. The comedic timing is absolutely perfect, from the voice actors to the animation itself; I had to pause several times to finish laughing. And then there’s the twist at the end, which I promised I would not spoil, but which gives us that thing that the original DuckTales was so sorely lacking: an ongoing story arc.
So, yes, this new series is looking like a success so far, and I’m definitely looking forward to more ways to stream this sucker as time goes on. For now, if you have not seen the episode yet: Here you go. Woo-oo!