As much as I have been enjoying this current iteration of DuckTales, there was always something that was nagging at me, something about the show that felt off. There have been a number of epic, amazing episodes, with some fascinating, ballsy revelations, but the one thing that stuck in my craw the most? The absolute non-ending to “The Spear Of Selene!” which struck me more as a weird, panicky “we don’t know how to end this” kind of thing. It (alongside my genuine bafflement on the show’s “anti-mine cart chases” crusade) represents a certain... I don’t know–discomfort? reluctance?–that DuckTales often struggled with. It would try too hard, or maybe not hard enough–a lot of time with its villains (Beaks, Glomgold), but also with its themes and meta commentary about adventuring, self-awareness, and nostalgia trips. DuckTales gradually got more and more comfortable with the world it created and the ideas it generated, but it still felt like it was trying to establish itself and really figure out what it wants to be. Yet if this premiere is any indication, DuckTales has finally learned to just relax and be a fun, adventure show.
It’s pretty much the theme of “Challenge Of The Senior Junior Woodchucks” (B+). Heck, at the end, Scrooge provides a short speech about ignoring the treasure at the end of an adventure and just enjoy the journey where ever that adventure takes you. Maybe I’m reading too much into things, but it feels like a subtle rebuke of all the previous episodes’ attempts to find meaning, criticism, analysis, or commentary on adventuring. Watching this group of ducks venture forth, following a map before detouring on an outlandish but more productive journey following a wacky, singing bird, was just fun. At this point, DuckTales have gotten quite acquainted with all its characters to the point that they can weave in and out of a large group outing like this and make them all mesh together hilariously and wondrously. This isn’t the first produced episode of the season, but it’s clear why Disney debuted it first. Everyone at this point just clicks. Except for Huey.
I’ve mentioned before that Huey seemed like the one character the show couldn’t quite get a handle on. He had a knack for meticulous organization but he never seemed to quite click into focus (he really “led” one episode last season, an clunky episode that furthers my point). Giving him a clear goal here, and showcasing how his organizational skills and dedication to the Junior Woodchucks is both his strength and his weakness, allows the triplet to finally shine as a specific character. His need to be a Senior Woodchuck makes sense, due to his deification of the Guidebooks–and to be fair, a lot of the lessons get him through quite a bit of the journey. But his obsession with winning it becomes all-consuming, both causing an illusory floating book to appear along side him (voiced by the always game Stephen Root), and him cruelly leaving behind his opponent, Violet Sabrewing, in a vicarious position. Huey dedicates and defines himself through the Woodchucks, but he gets so caught up in the prestige of being an instant top dog that he forgets the basic rule of compassion and altruism. Violet shows this by saving his life before perishing in a fire, as well as her openness to her past failures for the promotion. That Huey let Violet win shows both his learned gratefulness and humility, knowing he can try again in the future (Della sticking up for him is a nice touch and great showcase for her character). This episode gives Huey purpose, drive, and a strong lesson that brings his character clarity, even if perhaps a little more insight would have been great to see. We have a whole season for that though.
It’s no coincidence that the “Quack Pack” (A) follows a Huey-centric episode. Huey is the only character who realizes that something is wrong when the cast of DuckTales suddenly finds themselves in the very specific setup of a sitcom–including a laugh track, clearly defined sets, and stock catchphases. His sharp, specific sense of organization and routine has him suspicious during the cold opening, but it’s when he discovers his Junior Woodchuck Guidebook is blank that he snaps out of the spell and begins to question his surroundings. Using an empty guidebook is the perfect catalyst to Huey’s realization that his family is trapped in the safe, formulaic rhythms of a sitcom–and the tropes/beats of a sitcom are satirized perfectly. From the reactions, the close-ups, the broad gestures, that intro: “Quack Pack” really nails the typical sitcom patter, and while “parodying sitcoms” has been done to death by this time, Bob Snow’s script keeps things moving while maintaining the specific character details that almost suggest that DuckTales could, perhaps, work as one. (Della and Webby are by far the standouts.)
But what gives “Quack Pack” its power is not only how the episode ties its nostalgic bent into its story, but how it’s utilized within the desires of the show’s most important low-key character: Donald. Donald has been the surprising breakout of DuckTales, not only because his physical antics are hilarious, but his emotional drive has been the most visceral and palpable. In the midst of yet another dangerous adventure, Donald, inadvertently rubbing a magic lamp, wishes he and his family would just have normal family problems. This snaps everyone into the sitcom world, and Donald–with his smooth, wish-fulfillment, Don Cheadle voice–happily accepts the “normal” family world they now inhabit. Donald is tired, frustrated, and genuinely, perpetually worried about his family and all the danger they’re put into. He just wishes they could be normal. Many shows have utilized the “comfortable sitcom world” to mask/reveal the fears of a central character–Bojack Horseman, Mr. Robot, and even Steven Universe. DuckTales embraces it in its own specific way, through Donald’s genuine fears, and through the use of Gene, the genie from “Treasure Of The Lost Lamp!” Jaleel White voices him, and he is so game and entertaining, a force of neutral chaos that genies tend to be. But it’s Goofy that manages to talk Donald into returning to the real world. He emphasizes that all families are “not normal” in their own ways, and the crazy adventures are the ones that generates the best, strongest memories. (In a complete coincidence, a recent great episode of Bob’s Burgers has that exact same theme.)
Donald makes the wish and returns everyone back to the “real” world, finally accepting the state and the circumstances his family thrive in–at least for now. A bit more insight into Donald would be cool (I’m always begging for this, I know), but “Quack Pack” is running on all cylinders, with both the details and the depths of the episode being exemplary–too many for me to recount on a review that’s already running too long. Both episodes seem to acknowledge, at some level, that DuckTales is finally just comfortable with itself, easing into its stories about family, adventures, and the wild combinations of the two, without the pressure of its legacy and the need to (meta)comment so much upon it. This is going to be one heck of a hurricane.
- We only seen them together-together sparingly, but the just the few times Donald and Della pop up here are gold. Della helps her brother get untangled from film and tries to keep him calm in the face of an antagonistic natural world. But a shock from some lighting rain infuriates her, and she whips out some uncanny perfect Donald-esque tantrums. It’s incredible, and I want to see them on a fully-fledged adventure together.
- The final leg of the Senior Woodchuck competition has Huey and Violet crossing a rickety bridge over actual lava. That such an immediate, literal danger is a generic part of a course for children works better than the idea of the only duck family just being attracted to/compelled by dangerous adventures. Everyone in this crazy world has to deal with chaos instead of just Scrooge and his immediate family/compatriots.
- UPDATE: I just had to quickly but importantly mention Violet looks to have two gay fathers. Such a great and valid step in the right direction on LGBT depiction in cartoons!
- I’m glad “Quack Pack” doesn’t make any jokes at the expense of the original actual Quack Pack (except in broad, meta terms). I’m willing to go to bat for that show. It definitely engaged in a lot of “COOL, EXTREME, RADICAL 90s TEENS” visuals, but that was for the marketing. Huey, Dewey, and Louie may have appeared to be surfing, quad-riding, paragliding “bros” in the promos, but in the show, they were goofy, inexperienced, clumsy, awkward, and kind of dumb. You know–teenagers. Donald was fantastic, and Daisy was great as well. Not every episode was a winner, but I highly recommend the episode “Can’t Take a Yolk.” It’s Quack Pack’s way of doing meta-comedy, and it’s hilarious. If you have Disney+, I strongly recommend it.
- I don’t know how they can bring Goofy back into the show proper since he’s a product of the sitcom world, but it would be great to really see him, and Max, fit into this world. (I know he’s technically real at the end as a GUEST STAR, but it’s hard to tell if that’s just part of the grand joke about his appearance. Bill Farmer is a treasure, though).
- This season looks like it’ll have the family tracking various lost treasures from the journal of Isabella Finch, (late?) Chief of Woodchuck Exploration, with the mysterious F.O.W.L. hot on their heels. Intriguing!
- We’re just reviewing the premiere of this show folks! Maybe we’ll do a drop in or check out the finale, but that’s all up in the air for now!