The One Disney Remake That is Actually Outstanding
Disney has a fair number of remakes of their classic works coming out these past few years. Given that the remake of The Lion King has become the highest grossing animated film in history we can expect to get more of these live action films coming to our screens. Lady and the Tramp, Aladdin, Dumbo and others have been released, with Mulan, Cruella, Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid, Snow White, Pinnochio, The Sword in the Stone, Lilo and Stitch, Bambi and The Hunchback of Notre Dame currently on the slate. There’s also all manner of sequels and spin-offs in the works.
Although the box office numbers have been strong enough to justify this insane number of projects to be green lit, there’s been a divisive response to the live action remakes of classic animated films. The awkward effects work, stunt casting and the nagging feeling that we’re looking at a photocopy of a unique, lightning in a bottle original.
There’s one and only one Disney remake currently in release that not only rivals the original in terms of quality, imagination and entertainment. And it’s certainly not Dumbo.
It’s Ducktales. Woo-oo.
If you’re old enough to remember Ducktales from when it originally aired in 1987 there’s a good chance that you didn’t know that it was recently remade. You might even be calling foul (heh) that such a perfect and unique piece of animated television could be remade. But it has, and it’s bloody good.
A bit of history. Ducktales is a Disney animated series that focused on the adventures of ‘Uncle’ Scrooge McDuck, a cantankerous Scottish billionaire, and his three interchangeable grand-nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie (red, blue and green respectively – I memorised this information as a child and trot it out every chance I get). They’d travel the globe on the hunt for treasure, getting into fantasy, adventure and sci-fi scrapes with a colourful cast of villains. Among the extended cast for girl duck Webby, accident prone pilot Launchpad McQuack, and curmudgeonly rival Glomgold.
There’s a number of reasons the show worked. Most episodes were stand-alone and each had a unique flavour. They’d take their inspiration from classic tales of pyramids and mummies through to exploring space with androids and everything in between. The rotating cast of villains included mad scientists and witches, so every time we tuned in we got a new experience grounded with the familiar characters. Scrooge and his cranky attitude was always the most fun, and he was voiced by Alan Young who played the role for over 30 years. We had great merchandise on top of everything else, such as NES games and Happy Meal toys.
Oh, and there was the theme music. The one you have running through your head right now. You know the one. This introduction goes a long way to keeping the show appealing, as we’d get glimpses of insane scenarios that might just happen in this weeks episode.
In 2017 Disney released the first season of the new Ducktales. Naturally our deeply held nostalgia for the original made us a bit sceptical, especially as Alan Young had passed away the year before having just voiced Scrooge in the remake of the classic NES game. It was with reluctance that we decided to check out the debut episode that was released onto YouTube to lure people in.
Scrooge McDuck having a different voice is always going to be a bit jarring. Young’s version of the character is iconic. Whoever steps in to take the role would have to put their own spin on it without losing that cranky Scottish charm. Enter former Doctor and most terrifying MCU villain David Tennant, using his natural accent for a change. Tennant is leading off a huge cast of surprisingly big names for this show. We can start with his old Doctor Who companion Catherine Tate plays the nefarious Magica De Spell, a sinister presence throughout the first season.
Huey, Dewey and Louie – voiced by Danny Pudi (Community), Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation, Sonic the Hedgehog) and Bobby Moynihan (SNL) – now come with their own distinct personalities and each have stories dedicated to them. Webby (Kate Mecucci) has been reinvented as a demented survivalist who has never left the mansion, and is the source of the best comedy in the show, whilst her grandmother Mrs. Beakly (Toks Olagundoye) is a former secret agent.
Whenever a familiar face from the past returns in the new show there’s an amazing guest star to play them. It’s a never-ending string of amazing talent. Lin-Manuel Miranda has a recurring role as Fenton Crackshell-Cabrera AKA the cyborg Gizmoduck. Community star Jim Rash plays absent-minded inventor Gyro Gearloose. The leader of the Beagle Boys – Ma Beagle – is voiced by character actor Margo Martindale, while Bojack Horseman‘s Mr. Peanut-Butter Paul F. Tompkins plays the astoundingly lucky Gladstone Gander. Scrooge’s old flame and adventuring partner Goldie O’Gilt gets her vocals from Oscar winning legend Allison Janney. We even have famed voice actor Jim Cummings reprising the role of Darkwing Duck for a brief cameo.
It’s almost worth watching just for the talent. It’s a phenomenal cast they’ve pulled in.
Overall, this is a clear demonstration of what a remake should be. It’s not a shot-for-shot remake of a beloved property with cursory changes for the sake of a change. Whenever this is done – from 1998s Psycho through to The Lion King – it always feels like a cheap imitation. The passion is drained, and the talent is left trying to replicate what already worked. On that note, it’s weird that only the good properties get the remake treatment. They’re fine the way they are. Remakes should pick flawed works that could use a polish, or something dated that needs a new coat of paint.
The new Ducktales showcases the best way to approach a remake. Find the heart of the story and keep that sacred. In this case it’s the family ties and the call to adventure. Then update the rest to suit the new context. Webby was ‘the girl’ character who only existed so girls would have a Happy Meal toy. Now she’s a fully fleshed out character with her own backstory and arc. Every week Scrooge would search out new treasure. Now there’s ongoing plot threads about old rivals and mysteries drip fed over the season. This is the right way the revisit old material for new audiences. Keep watching past the first season and you get some real old character returns for the Disney nerds, such as the Three Cabarellos from a 1944 Donald Duck movie.
It also feels as though the producers of this new version of a classic may have taken some cues from the excellent Gravity Falls, also produced by the Disney company. We have layered and interesting young characters whose opposing values form the basis of conflict, larger than life villains who present insidious threats and over-arching stories that tend to produce many cliff-hangers. The most interesting of these in the first season regards the disappearance of Della Duck, mother to the triplets and twin-sister to Donald.
As is the trend in modern media, there’s a great deal of comedy derived from lampshading. For those unfamiliar with the term, this refers to drawing attention to a commonly used or unrealistic trope in order to ‘excuse’ it. This can be used in a cheap way, but when it’s used by writers being to poke fun at themselves it can be a lot of fun. Addressing weird aspects of the canon, such as Scrooge being able to swim through chunks of metal and Launchpad’s inhuman ability to survive the most destructive of crashes. Best of all though is when the triplets admit that they don’t understand what Donald is saying unless there are contextual clues.
If you have small children in your household, you’re nostalgic for the late 1980s afternoon viewing or you just like lighthearted adventures, this is a well worth the time. It’s also a perfect showcase of how Disney should be approaching their remakes rather than the straight-forward, slightly tweaked live-action copies we’ve been getting. Seriously, the unexpressive animals and dulled musical numbers (they just can’t match the energy of animation) are tiresome and played out. More of Ducktales please.
Oh, we almost forgot. They have a cool new version of the theme song.