I’m going to be very, very clear: no one does “appealing dick” characters as well as the Disney Afternoon writers. No one. Scrooge McDuck. Darkwing Duck. Pete. Iago. Hell, even Gruffi Gummi. Part of what keeps these characters from falling into unlikable territory is that the writers usually make sure they have a clear redemptive or emotional layer within them. But that’s just it – the characters within the Disney Afternoon shows are some of the most fun, clever, and complex characters out there, and it’s really worth the time to explore what exactly makes those characters click. Steven Universe isn’t the only show to portray a non-traditional familial structure; Disney has been doing that for years.
But what really makes them stand out are the stories these characters are involved in. Disney’s after-school animated block, for the most part, just tells very good stories, with just the right amount of heart, tension, pacing, and comedy that even live-action TV shows strive for. (The embedded video, TaleSpin’s “Her Chance to Dream,” is as effective an episode as, let’s say, ER at its best.) Even the block’s weaker shows (I’m looking at you, Mighty Ducks) contains the ideas for strong story or characters beats that at the very least hint at something that could’ve worked. You can find some of the best, most layered and complex characters and plotting on these Disney Afternoon cartoons, from moronic pilots desperate to make his family proud to silly-yet-aimless cops eager to impress their peers and bosses. I mean, everything that happens in the first two seasons of Gargoyles is as deep and crazy as the whole run of Doctor Who – and I’m only slightly exaggerating.
I’m not the kind of guy to bemoan that “animation isn’t as good as it once was.” Nostalgia is fine, but can be dangerous when people don’t explore their past enjoyments with a healthy amount of skepticism. Yet while I’m a fan of how today’s slicker, stylized animation is utilized (particularly in Wander Over Yonder), I can’t help but note how smooth, rich, and grounded the animation was in the Disney Afternoon’s classic programming. Lush, detailed backgrounds and incredible character designs compliment fantastic storyboarding and diverse uses of color palettes. The warmed-over 1930s Art-Deco aesthetic of TaleSpin is a completely different feel than the “morning in America” calm-but-crazy feel of Goof Troop, which is itself a different feel than the dark, gothic, “Batman/Shakespeare/Hill Street Blues” atmosphere of Gargoyles. The animation is confident, which allows it to feel real, to feel as if there’s substance to the characters and their world. (The whole mine cart sequence in the above episode of DuckTales is fantastic.)
This is important, whether being serious and grounded like TaleSpin or Gargoyles, or wacky and absurd, like Darkwing Duck or Quack Pack, or something in between, like Chip N’ Dale Rescue Rangers,DuckTales, or even Bonkers. The diverse aesthetics allow its characters to function and thrive smoothly in their respective environments, while utilizing a host of fantastic facial expressions and body tics that just look great, even when gags fall flat or story beats don’t work. If anything, the Disney Afternoon works best as a strong lesson in both basic and advanced cartoon principles, lessons that allow for a diverse showcase of tones, styles, atmospheres. A sad, poignant moment in one show can easily be followed up by an anvil falling on a character in the next, and look sexy all the while.
3. “Adult/Mature” Moments That Go Beyond Being “Edgy” or “Shocking”
I love you all. I really do. But if I hear one more person bring up the “finger Prince” joke from Animaniacs I’m going to punch babies. We have a weird obsession with pointing out past cartoons and how they got away with crude, juvenile, shocking gags. Which is fine, but it’s also kind of lazy, if you think about it. We bemoan Family Guy’s current incarnation but we keep bringing up that time Dot refused to finger bang the Purple Rain artist. The cartoons from the Disney Afternoon era are much more diverse and comfortable with its use of “adult” moments, lightly and cleverly sprinkling them out across their shows with a deft that should be respected. And even though they may go over kids’ heads, they’re right there for adults to latch onto, whether comedic or dramatic, adding a layer that is worth exploring.
In today’s world of TV criticism, where hundreds of eager writers pour a seemingly endless number of words over television programs, past and present, where conventions and fanbases thrive in the creepy, if intriguing, world of fan-fiction, shipping, and slash, it’s kind of crazy that there hasn’t been a lot of critical re-evaluations of Disney’s television output (outside of Gargoyles). And while Disney is tentatively dipping its toe into its past – with a DuckTales reboot on its way, along with an apparent Rescue Rangers film – a studious, cursory look at the Disney Afternoon would do wonders, particularly in exploring what made something like DuckTales work and what made something like Quack Pack fail.
I mean, sure, there are plenty of people who hate Bonkers, and I’m certainly not going to argue with them, but it’s fascinating to note exactly why everything went wrong with the show with its behind-the-scene squabbles, but there are also some storytelling elements I think that work. There are specific beats, scenes, character moments, and plot points that do work in all Disney Afternoon shows, but there are plenty that don’t, and it’s worth evaluating, particular for aspiring animators and cartoon writers, but also for fans of animation, VO artists, storyboarders, background designers, and so many other creatives as well. It’s a real disservice to discount or ignore the actual content of an era of programming that revitalized TV animation as we know it. I know we tend to dismiss Disney content as being too broad or kiddie, but it’s really a specious argument; even at it weakest, the Disney Afternoon was great, and it’s time to give it the respect it deserves.