The new Disney DuckTales reboot has taken on a mythology all its own, one far more complicated than the show we might remember from the nineties. The theme song threatens “racecars, lasers, aeroplanes,” but those things seem tame compared to what the ducks are facing now: Duels on erupting volcanoes, shadow creatures, sorceresses, gladiators, sky pirates, undersea realms, cursed talismans, and full-blown demigods. That’s more than a duck-blur. This is some Game of Thrones action, only with less murder, more jokes and a lack of crushing disappointment from the conclusion. At least for now.
Sound silly? Well, the new version of Ducktales; which started in 2017 and recently ended its stellar second season on — of course — a cliffhanger, has more in common with the world of Westeros than the Disney-verse of old. And not just because its characters are perpetually pantsless.
Consider the stacked star wattage. Former Doctor Who David Tenant leads the cast as Scrooge McDuck. Regulars like Bobby Moynihan and Ben Schwartz bring comedy chops. Guest stars have included everyone from Oscar winners (Allison Janney, Jim Rash) to prestige TV favorites (Michael Chiklis, character actor Margo Martindale), and even Lin-Manuel. That roster reads more like prestige TV than most 22-minute kids’ shows. I mean, Daniel Tiger is great, but it’s not like they’ve got Christian Bale doing the voice of Dad Tiger.
The complexity of the stories that unfold across the two seasons of DuckTales is what brings it more in line with shows like Thrones. The show isn’t just a bunch of throwaway gags and one-off episodes — yes, DuckTales is very funny, and nobody would get too lost if they dropped in mid-season with no prior knowledge. But the series offers layered storytelling that unfolds across each season, with extreme attention to character details and journeys, cliffhanger endings, and long-term payoffs across the narrative. It’s a fully realized, lived-in story masquerading as a silly show about wise-cracking, adventure-seeking fowl. It’s stealthily heady in the way it takes this simple premise — ducks go adventuring, sometimes butt up against the Beagle Boys or evil Flintheart Glomgold — and makes it into a sprawling quasi-epic.
That might turn off some folks just looking to unplug, but this is the new world order in our era of rebooted nostalgia properties that speak to new millennial parents as much as — if not more than — their kids. It’s the same reason that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic operates in an Equestria that’s closer to Hogwarts in its sprawl. These are shows for kids, yes, but they’re also for parents who want to remember their favorite shows. As such, DuckTales is a cult hit for many grownups in the same way Adventuretime is, with websites like The AV Club dedicating precious re-cap space for long reviews and recaps for the show right along with adult prestige fare like Thrones.
The new DuckTales is dotted with references both obvious (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and deeper (Twin Peaks: The Return?!), but the smartest thing it does is breaks past the reference-heavy, winking stuff that’s been around since Shrek and wisely makes references to, well, itself. That’s no easy task. One of the most pandering moves a show can make to cater to adults is a rib-poking meta-reference to another show or a jarring needle drop that suddenly sends the characters dancing to old pop music. That’s easy. But DuckTales manages to drop in everything from inversions of A Christmas Carol to a reunion of Donald Duck’s Three Caballeros while layering in callbacks to its own decades-spanning mythology. And make no mistake, DuckTales history is unexpectedly rich, to the point that it wouldn’t be too surprising if there was a blogger working on the McDuck saga’s version of The Silmarillion as we speak.
All of this is pretty weird when you consider DuckTales began its life in 1987 as a way to repurpose old Disney IP. The plot, initially, makes zero sense, but in the ’80s studios seemed to be playing MadLibs with their characters. That would explain why Scrooge — he of Dickensian redemption and infinite greed — was reimagined as a modern-day Indiana Jones (or honestly, more like Indy’s dad, Sean Connery) who had a thing for swimming in a vault full of coins. Suddenly, Goofy was roller-blading with Paulie Shore, Balloo the bear was a smuggler pilot in a bomber jacket, and Chip and Dale became private eyes, complete with fedoras and Hawaiian shirts. It was… a strange time.
Most of those ideas have faded away into obscurity like much of the ’80s misremembered nonsense. But somehow, DuckTales endured, spawning mythology-bolstering comics and hugely popular video games remembered as among the best of the NES era. So when reboot culture became the norm, it only made sense that it would resurface.
That nostalgia is the key to the hearts of millennial parents, who all but demand a bite of “memberberries” in what their kids watch. Usually, they’re bringing with them baggage; a desire for resolution on stories and more myth-making. To them the journey of Launchpad McQuack and Webbie demand resolutions, season-long character arcs, and emotional depth.
Lucky for them, the DuckTales team more than delivers on these unreasonable appetites. The show’s got heart. Epic adventures. Metatextual commentary. Long-term consequences. And, of course, fan service. It’s a hilarious show, one that seems to know that fans want it to be huge, and thus goes bigger while giving kids something to hold close. It’s prestige TV for kids and parents trapped in their nostalgia, a prime example of generationally transferred fondness. And it’s not showing any sign of stopping.
In this year’s gripping finale — two words that should make no sense in reference to anthropomorphic ducks — the show managed to skewer toxic fandom, gritty reboot culture, and nostalgia for the past while simultaneously offering up a resolution to a dense season-long plot, complete with enough in-jokes, callbacks, and visual gags to fill out a season of Archer and enough double-crosses, trippy visuals, and white-knuckle conflict to satisfy a Thrones die hard. It ended with a cliffhanger, a twist, and the introduction of a powerful new foe. Winter is in fact coming to Duckberg. And it’s looking fantastic. Woo-oo!