Monday, August 06, 2007

Darkwing Duck: Volume 2
TV on DVD review by Sombrero Grande

The early ‘90s children’s cartoon show Darkwing Duck seemed to have trouble making up its mind. A spin-off from Disney’s excellent DuckTales cartoon series, Darkwing Duck waffles between trying to maintain the same level of kiddie adventure and suspense that DuckTales did, and being an all-out, silly, borderline Tex Avery-style cartoon. Not only that, but the show can’t seem to make up its mind about its main character either. Is “the Terror that Flaps in the Night” a gadget-wielding superhero ala Batman, a noir detective ala The Shadow or a secret agent ala James Bond? Is Darkwing Duck merely meant to parody these types of heroes or should he be able to stand on his own? Is he a genuine hero with honest-to-goodness crime-fighting skills or just a bumbling Clouseau-esque goofball who inadvertently ends up saving the day? These are the questions I’m left pondering after rewatching what used to be one of my favorite cartoon shows as a kid and witnessing contradicting evidence of all of the above in the 27 episodes comprising the show’s second DVD volume.

Unfortunately, to my adult eyes, the show has lost much of its luster as these nagging questions and incongruent inconsistencies darken my enjoyment of Darkwing Duck.

Though a few of the characters carry over from DuckTales, the same sense of adventure (inspired by Carl Barks’ Scrooge McDuck comic books of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s) does not. Instead, the sense of “danger” and suspense that usually revolves around a protagonist placed in harm’s way becomes void in Darkwing Duck as the Tex Avery rules of cartoon physics come into play. In the episode “Heavy Mental,” Darkwing finds himself trapped beneath a giant anvil that’s poised to plummet at any moment. Any tension is sadly missing, though, despite the show’s attempt to use the situation to create such, because earlier in the same episode the audience witnessed Darkwing comically squished beneath an even larger falling house, which he survived by springing back accordion-like. Indeed when the anvil does eventually fall and land on the episode’s villains, they miraculously survive and only suffer the minor inconvenience of taking on a pancake’s dimensions. Why, then, should we worry for Darkwing’s safety at all? In other episodes he’s comically zapped into dust then appears fine in the very next shot. The fact that the show insists on trying to keep a sense of peril with an anything-goes-in-a-cartoon attitude makes it hard for an adult to get into. It didn’t seem to bother me as a kid, but I was probably just too happy to be at home watching TV instead of at school to care, now that I think about it.

DuckTales was the first of Disney’s syndicated afternoon cartoon shows, followed by Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers and Tale Spin each year afterwards, eventually being paired with Disney’s Gummi Bears as a two-hour block of children’s entertainment dubbed “The Disney Afternoon.” Darkwing Duck and each following year’s successive cartoon series being churned out by Disney’s TV cartoon unit began to skew much more towards loony “cartoons” than the previous, distinctly old-school Disney animated efforts. The shows went from honest-to-goodness adventure tales that incorporated humor to jokey, hokey ‘toons that tried only for cheap laughs. Darkwing Duck was the turning point.

Overall, the writing in Darkwing Duck is sloppy and inconsistent. The episodes featured in Volume 2 already reek of end-of-the-series, we’re-running-out-of-ideas storylines and plot twists. Only a couple of episodes, such as “Life, the Negaverse and Everything” (in which Darkwing is sucked into a parallel, “negative” dimension where he must team up with his now-good arch enemies to tackle his now-evil friends) and “Twin Beaks” (an amusing parody of Twin Peaks that surrounds a mysterious alien invasion) seem to rise above and remain entertaining to my adult sensibilities.

“Planet of the Capes” starts out with a promising storyline: a superhero from another planet comes to Earth to ask for Darkwing Duck’s help. Thinking that he’s being called upon to save an entire planet with his own hero skills, Darkwing gladly agrees, only to find once he gets there that the entire planet is populated by citizens with superpowers who need Darkwing to be their “Ordinary Guy,” the one that they continually are saving. When the previous “Ordinary Guy” returns, however, things take a turn for the dumber as the action escalates to Darkwing and the original “O.G.” start growing until they are larger than the planet itself. Then they start duking it out with the very stars and moons of the galaxy.

Much of the rest of the episodes contained within Darking Duck: Volume 2 come across only as mind-numbing and plodding, suitable only as the most TV-addicted kids’ fare. The inconsistencies in the way each story (and character) unfold can be chalked up to one simple, apparent goal of the show’s writing: to always go for the easiest, cheapest laugh possible. In “Dead Duck,” Darkwing tells a foe that “his goose is cooked.” The villain responds by removing a cooked goose from a nearby oven and remarking that it still has a while to go. What kills the joke here is that this is all taking place on the catwalks of a factory where an oven has no logical reason to be. However, to try and make the situation seem somehow less “cartoony,” the oven is shown mysteriously apparent on the catwalk in the background of an earlier shot, as though that allows the joke to somehow “make sense” in a rational setting. All that extra work for a really, really dumb joke. Sigh.

Before settling down to watch Darkwing Duck I had recently checked out a few episodes of DuckTales, now also available in multiple volumes on DVD, and found that they held up rather well even now. If you’re looking for a hit of pure Disney Afternoon nostalgia and don’t want to end up disappointed, I’d suggest catching DuckTales on DVD instead of Darkwing Duck. It turns out here’s more of the “Terror that Flops in the Night” than you might remember.


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