Okay. Okay. I finally think I have a bead on how the new DuckTales is playing its game.
DuckTales is essentially using the audience’s expectations of a riotous, adventurous family against us. We expect the show (at least at this early going) to place its characters in exotic locales or eerie, nutty locations, and to more or less escalate the conflict through the insanity of said locations or the villains that Scrooge and the gang will face. And hey, maybe that will happen at some point. But for now, the show is being a bit more flippant, a bit more coy. Expectations of adventures are replaced with cartoonish takes on sitcom tropes. The thrill of adventure is less all-encompassing, but more broad, climactic dilemmas that reinforce the thematic rhythms that have been developed prior. Those action beats aren’t so much about placing our characters in real (for a cartoon), tense danger. They’re incredibly well-animated cathartic turns for the main character(s) in question after some rather mundane obstacles. Here, the family gets comically lost/distracted in a massive casino, and a lucky character winning all the time is contrasted with a character who literally goes through the worst of everything. The wild adventure for a magical golden cricket is supplanted instead by some rather cartoon basic antics. And that’s fine! Now that I know what to expect, I feel a bit more confident in voicing my critiques and detailing how I feel about them.
And as I think about this, I also feel a bit more confident in narrowing the main flaw with things so far. It kind of feels like DuckTales (at least from the perspectives of the nephews) is too focused on “who or what is cool” as a motivator. I know that Donald by design is lame and cosmically clumsy (for our amusement) but there’s something… off about Huey, Dewey, and Louie throwing Donald so casually under the bus to hang out around Gladstone and Scrooge (Dewey calls Donald “the worst” in the midst of Toad’s demonic reveal). And I’m aware that “The House Of The Lucky Gander” does that to ultimately reverse Louie’s sentiment in the climax, but there’s something… disingenuous about that? Like, this is a show that’s about family, but that earnest family sensibility only arises during certain moments? And only Louie actively encourages Donald when he gives up, despite Huey, Dewey, Scrooge, and Webby all being there and watching his struggles? I don’t know, it just feels off.
I will say that “The House Of The Lucky Gander” from a narrative perspective is a stronger outing, with a genuinely shocking mid-episode twist that provides a sharper context to the various events before, particularly Gladstone’s behavior. (Personally, I sort of wish the episodes teased a bit more weird dread to the situation during the first two-thirds, adding a stronger mystery element to most of the cartoon antics, but I’ll take what I can get). Gladstone calls Scrooge and the gang for vague help, and the whole family head to the city of Macaw(?), and the House of Lucky Fortune, to led their assistance, despite Donald’s clear hatred of his cousin and Scrooge’s disdain for his luck. There, they find Gladstone just living it up, but before they leave in disgust, Gladstone, Donald, and Louie try their luck on the games in the casino, while Scrooge and the rest try to find the exit, with the occasional distraction with a water show, live tiger, and scrumptious buffet.
Donald Duck is far and away the best character on the show so far, who best matches the show’s absurd comic highs, and its dramatic, aggressive, and most poignant moments. It’s weird to sympathize the most with a character who’s so unlucky, a spin-the-wheel game results in off-screen mayhem, and that a ball would somehow get stuck on a pin during a game of Plinko/Pinball. But his lack of luck doesn’t diminish his love and raw passion for his family, and both his unluckiness and his love is contrasted against the lucky but utterly selfish Gladstone, who charms and good fortunes are used against him, both story-wise and thematically. Gladstone is basically the real villain here. Toad Liu Hai (B.D. Wong) may be an evil chance-and-fortune spirit feeding off Gladstone’s luck for power, holding him prisoner, but Gladstone manipulates Donald to stick around so his bad luck can weaken Toad’s hold, actively putting the kids in harm’s way. Even during the final race, Gladstone doesn’t even attempt to maybe work with Donald and rest of the family to beat Toad (Scrooge seems game for that). His callous disregard for his family (he is Donald’s cousin after all) is gross, shocking, and made all the more sweeter when Donald’s pure, nonstop rage forces him to victory.
There’s a deeper story here. The contrast between Donald’s poor luck and Gladstone’s pure luck is the focus, but there in the background is Scrooge’s contempt for Gladstone’s lazy, freeloading nature, when compared to “McBillions” and his mantra on hard work and ingenuity. (Remember, too, that Scrooge also has negative feelings towards Donald as well). All of that flavors the episode and possesses the most intrigue, and there’s the sense we’ll be getting to that later–DuckTales is still in table-setting mode.
But now it’s clear how DuckTales is setting that table. It still struggles with somewhat flat, underwhelming first acts; more than half the episode is over before the twist and the real weirdness/adventure/conflict is revealed (and even then, it’s undercut, with Scrooge’s verbal disappointment in not being able to participate in that final race). You could argue that Scrooge and crew getting lost in the casino (and the number of distracting events) is a sign of the setting’s demonic power and hold over the family, and that’s probably right, but “The House Of The Lucky Gander” never quite utilizes the quiet and suspenseful (if comic) dread it probably needs. The show’s unique approach to its narrative is fine, and it’s certainly up to the creatives to tell the stories as they see fit, but I worry that the totality of that approach isn’t bringing in and retaining the consistent audience engagement as they might believe–word is that Disney XD isn’t doing so great ratings-wise. In other words, I’m asking - is it satisfying? (Honestly, I’m asking: is this iteration DuckTales working for you all?)
- The episode does work better on rewatch–there’s a few moment where Gladstone’s eyes shift ever so slightly towards the various casino “staff members” before he forgoes telling his dilemma–but it’s hard to escape that “something’s still off” feeling.
- Of all the inspired casting choice that DuckTales went with, perhaps the most inspired is utilizing Paul F. Tompkins to voice the insanely and arrogantly lucky goose, Gladstone Gander. I mean, the natural Scottish accent of David Tennant fits Scrooge perfectly, but “effortless, clueless pompousness” is practically Tompkins’ calling sign. I also like that despite his desperate need to escape, Gladstone is still caught up in his love for his self-luck bullshit that even when he moments to safely ask for help, he still preens in his successes. He is the worst.
- Say what you will but about Quack Pack, but that show, while presenting its nephews as Poochie-fied triplets, actually did quite a bit to show how sad, pathetic, and lame those so-called hip teens were. Honestly? I’m finding this version of DuckTales more comparable to Quack Pack than DuckTales classic.