Gargoyles: “Awakening (Parts 1-3)”
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Gargoyles: “Awakening (Parts 1-3)”

A modern cartoon classic begins

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Gargoyles

“Awakening (Parts 1-3)”

Season 1, Episode 1

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Gargoyles was supposed to be Disney’s Fantastic Four #1, the start of a sprawling fantasy universe featuring characters with wings and loincloths instead of masks and spandex. In this interview with ComicM!x, series creator Greg Weisman details the sequence of events that led to the development of Gargoyles, which began as a light-hearted comedy series in the Gummi Bears vein before developing into something far more dramatic and complex.

After considering and ultimately rejecting a plan to purchase Marvel Comics, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner wanted to create a shared “superhero” universe that the company could call its own, and Gargoyles would be where it all began. (15 years later, Disney purchased Marvel.) Executive turnover at Disney halted this initiative from moving forward, but that ambition to be something bigger than the ordinary children’s cartoon gave Gargoyles the depth that makes it a modern cartoon classic.

Incorporating the ensemble-based, serialized storytelling of Hill Street Blues into the colorful action-adventure of Disney’s animated fare, Gargoyles provided a meatier, darker viewing experience, capitalizing on the new interest in more mature animated series following the success of Warner Bros.’ Batman: The Animated Series. Michael Reaves, the primary writer for Gargoyles’ first season, plotted and/or scripted many of B:TASmost memorable episodes, and his talent for balancing character-based storytelling with kid-friendly superheroics shines in his episodes of Gargoyles, beginning with the five-part series premiere “Awakening.”

The show’s ambition is immediately apparent in its film-length opening, which was also released as a direct-to-video movie. As the potential start of a project that could rival Marvel and DC’s superhero universes, Disney wanted Gargoyles to reach as many people as possible, and tapping into the home-video market was a major part of that strategy. “Awakening” stands alone as a strong story about a group of medieval outcasts making a home for themselves in a new time, but it feels like the first chapter of a much larger tale, one that unfolded weekly on syndicated television.

Considering the series’ original intentions, it makes sense that its concept would be an amalgam of different superhero ideas. Defenders of the night defined by tragedy (Batman), hated and feared by the world they’ve sworn to protect (X-Men), and stuck in a world that is drastically different from the one they used to know (Captain America), the titular creatures simply want peace in a world that runs on war. Their demonic appearance and raw power makes the human population distrustful of the Gargoyles, and the events in the first three parts of “Awakening” force Goliath and his friend to take a similarly cynical view of the people sharing their castle.

All those aforementioned superheroes are a big part of this show’s DNA, as well as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Beauty And The Beast, whose influence comes through in the Gargoyles’ relationship with Elisa Maza, a human detective that becomes their friend and confidant. She’s the Belle to Goliath’s Beast and the April O’Neil to the rest of the Gargoyle’s Ninja Turtles, providing the team with a valuable guide to this strange new world of ’90s New York City. To mark her importance, “Awakening” opens with Elisa, who pulls up to the disaster area that is David Xanatos’ skyscraper and is almost crushed by falling debris. Noticing a rock with claw marks on it, Elisa wonders what could be capable of such strength, prompting the episode to jump back a millennium to answer her question.

Cartoons are no strangers to high-concept (probably because a lot of them are created as tie-ins to toys that need an absurd story to make sense), but Gargoyles has is high-concept that allows the writers to address some very serious subject matter while still providing the rollicking fun that attracts kid viewers. Except for the opening scene with Elisa, the first part of “Awakening” takes place in Scotland, 994 A.D., where we learn that the Gargoyles helped defend their Castle Wyvern home from Viking invaders before being betrayed by the human they trusted most.

Beginning the series with a five-part premiere gives Reaves and co-plotter Eric Luke the opportunity to take their time with the story, easing viewers into the Gargoyles’ medieval environment and solidifying character relationships before a major shake-up at the end of part one. (Except for Goliath, the Gargoyles are unnamed in the first part, but I’ll be using their names for clarity’s sake.) Goliath and Demona are lovers, Hudson is the grandfather figure with his guard dog Bronx, and Brooklyn, Broadway, and Lexington are the best friends whose curiosity gets them into trouble with their leader.

The first part of “Awakening” also introduces the conflict between humans and Gargoyles that provides most of the series’ substance by serving as a metaphor for a number of real-world issues. Like the X-Men, the Gargoyles represent the ongoing battle of minorities in America who fight for representation and acceptance. Like the European Jews in the ’30s and ’40s, the Gargoyles are displaced from their homes while their brethren are slaughtered, left to make a new life for themselves in New York City.

The Gargoyles turn to stone when the sun is up (a trait that aligns them with vampires), and that vulnerability allows the writers to depict some horrific violence without getting in trouble with censors. The most shocking moment in “Awakening” comes when Viking leader Hakon (voiced by the always-welcome Clancy Brown) smashes a stone Gargoyle, an event that is shown in silhouette, but is no less impactful. It’s essentially watching someone take a sledgehammer to another person except the body is rock instead of flesh and bone, and creating an emotional connection between the viewer and the main Gargoyle cast makes it devastating when the rest of their race is brutally wiped out.

Gargoyles wouldn’t be the favorite it is today without its exceptional voice cast, a group that was masterfully assembled by voice director Jamie Thomason. As the central character, Goliath is primarily responsible for grabbing the audience’s attention in these first episodes, and the growling bass of Keith David’s voice resonates with power that gives the character immediate authority. In a joint interview with Weisman for The Critical Eye, David talks about how the heightened language of Gargoyles made the series especially fun, allowing him to explore the theatrical range he would normally reserve for his stage work.

In that interview, David mentions a specific line from the second part of “Awakening,” a standout moment of the first season that showcases the ferocity of Gargoyles at its most dramatic. After Hakon and the traitor Captain fall to their deaths, Goliath roars a spine-chilling cry to the heavens: “I’ve been denied everything…EVEN MY REVENGE!” The pain and torment in David’s voice make it impossible not to sympathize with Goliath in that scene, and the quality of the performance explains why Goliath would choose eternal slumber over life without his people.

Of course, that slumber isn’t eternal. The Gargoyles are placed under a spell that keeps them in their stone forms until Castle Wyvern rises above the clouds, a contingency that comes to pass when billionaire David Xanatos has the castle transplanted to the roof of his New York City skyscraper. The visual of a medieval castle on top of a skyscraper entranced me as a kid who read a lot of King Arthur stories and spent a lot of time in downtown Chicago, and the juxtaposition of classic fantasy elements in a contemporary urban environment is a large part of this series’ charm.

After waking up from a thousand-year nap, the Gargoyles are immediately attacked by armed goons that ambush Xanatos’ building and allegedly steal valuable information held on hard disks. It’s a reminder to Goliath that despite all the magical changes the world has gone through, it’s just as savage a place as it was, but Elisa is there to change his opinion and show him that he’s prejudging New York City the way humans have prejudged his kind.

As a biracial woman in a profession dominated by white men, Elisa knows what it’s like to be judged on her appearance rather than her ability, and she finds a kindred spirit in this hunky lavender dragon-man. Their relationship has a very Superman/Lois Lane quality, largely because it begins with Goliath saving Elisa after she falls off a building rooftop, and like Lois with Superman, Elisa gives Goliath a better understanding of humanity. Salli Richardson’s voice for Elisa has the delicate balance of softness and spunk that characterized the Disney princesses of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and she has great chemistry with David, an essential quality if the show wants the audience to root for what is basically an interspecies romance.

The main voice cast includes Ed Asner (Hudson), Jeff Bennett (Brooklyn), Bill Fagerbakke (Broadway) and Thom Adcox-Hernandez (Lexington). As Demona and Xanatos, respectively, Marina Sirtis and Jonathan Frakes (Xanatos) are the first of many Star Trek alumni who will contribute their voices to this series. Everyone is exquisitely cast and intensely dedicated to their material, immediately conveying a spectrum of personality traits in their line readings to make each character a fully formed person in an abbreviated period of time. Each of these actors will get significant time in the spotlight by the end of the season, and their work only becomes more textured as they spend more time with the characters.

The animation quality is inconsistent over the course of Gargoyles, and we start to see that in these first parts of “Awakening.” The first two episodes are primarily animated by Walt Disney Animation Japan (with assistance from assorted other studios), and they have the smooth motion and crisp detail that is expected from a Disney product. The third part takes a dip as Tama Productions and Jade Animation take the reins, resulting in jerkier movements and characters that deviate from their models depending on the camera angles, but it’s still better than most of the children’s shows on the air at the time.

Gargoyles never birthed a universe of interconnected series, but it easily could have. Instead, viewers received two remarkable seasons (and one less remarkable season) of a TV show that took the best qualities of popular properties and combined them into something fresh and original. Revisiting the series as an adult, it’s impressive just how well these episodes have held up in terms of writing and animation, and “Awakening” is just the tip of an iceberg that will become huge by the end of the second season.

Stray observations:

  • I’ll be covering two episodes a week from here on out, so get ready for five more weeks of Gargoyles coverage. Season two depends on readership, so comment and share if you want to see more.
  • One of my favorite design elements on this series is how the Gargoyles’ wings clip at the front to create a cape, helping solidify that superhero look.
  • How hilarious are Margot and Brendan, the husband and wife that are rescued by Elisa and Goliath when their car breaks down in a shady part of town? I love how the writers are able to convey the stress and power struggle in their relationship with just one quick scene. 
  • Dear Broadway, a turkey leg is not an effective weapon.
  • “Get back or you’ll all be street pizza.”
  • “I hope we’re not down here long. He might eat us.”
  • “Now once again: What are you doing here? And don’t fall off the building this time.”
  • “Your naïveté is refreshing, Goliath.”

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