Tools of the Imagination – Gargoyles

Gargoyles
produced by Walt Disney Television Animation, originally aired from October 1994 to February 1997, previously available on Youtube (but seems to have been taken down)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles meets Batman the Animated Series

Gargoyles was a remarkable show that is the product of a time and a place in not only the culture of the company that produced it but also the culture of the country at large.  Born smack-dab in the middle of the 1990s, it was a strange mutant TV show from Disney, but with decidedly non-kiddie sensibilities.  Whole books could be written about where Disney was in the 1980s and 1990s as a company, but suffice to say that this show was not Mickey Mouse or even Goof Troop, but more like the darkest episodes of Duck Tales fused with Batman the Animated series (which this show was specifically intended to compete against).  It was a show that seemed to really committ to the idea that not only were kids worth talking UP to (rather than down at) but also that just maybe kids weren’t the only ones who liked animated shows.

Gargoyles often gets lost in the discussion of classic TV shows and cartoons, largely because it came about in a time when entertainment was shifting.  Programming blocks during the afternoon, and the once-mighty Saturday morning, were beginning to lose their sway as national interests were replacing regional programming.  Video games and computers were starting to replace toys as the primary commodity for children, while comic books had ceased to be ‘just for kids’ and were now seen as viable investment options.  Everywhere you looked, the very face of entertainment was changing and in the wake of the 1980s cartoon explosion, many titles fell through the cracks.

 

Background
In 994, in Scotland, Castle Wyvern is beseiged by vikings but protected by gargoyles – mythical humanoid beasts that turn to stone during the day, but live during the night.  A complex betrayal causes the last surviving gargoyles of the clan to be stuck in their stony form until ‘the castle rises above the clouds’, a prophecy not fulfilled for a thousand years until billionaire David Xanatos buys the castle and has it flown to New York City where he sets it atop his skyscraper.  The gargoyles awaken to discover themselves in the 20th Century.

Betrayals and intrigue set the stage almost immediately as Xanatos uses the gargoyles as pawns in a powergrab.  This theme of manipulation and usage will be repeated often throughout future episodes and stories.

The ‘Manhattan Clan’ as they come to be known befriend a NYPD detective named Elisa Maza who becomes 20th Century mentor as well as love-interest for the leader of the gargoyles, Goliath.  The story initially focuses on the gargoyles coming to understand the 20th Century and deals with their multitude of foes (both new and old), but soon begins to take a turn towards the magical as the Clan – and then specifically Elisa and Goliath – begin to have dealings with faries and other denizens of fairy tales from around the world.

The first two seasons were considered only moderately successful (commercially anyway; fan and critical acclaim were steady), especially when compared to Batman the Animated Series (against which the show was meant to compete).  A third season was produced by ABC after Disney cancelled the show, but many (including the show frontrunners) have generally disavowed it.

 

Story – 4 out of 5
Gargoyles’ stories are often a cut above the rest.  Some of them are a little hokey, with morals that are a little forced (see Lighthouse in the Sea of Time, Outfoxed), while others are quite simply masterpieces of the genre (see Deadly Force, City of Stone).  There are really no episodes that can be considered ‘bad’, while more than a few can be seen as sterling examples of writing.

Art – 3 out of 5
The art in Gargoyles is underwhelming but more than adequate.  Given that the show comes from Disney – who literally pioneered animation – especially when it comes to the use of color and visual texture, the show can feel a little underwhelming.  It’s not bad at all, but when you compare it to the lush backgrounds of Ducktales or Tailspin (which were contemporaries of Gargoyles), the show looks a little flat.  It clearly is trying to be Batman TAS and, while not an innoble goal, it’s just trying too hard and, as a result, it doesn’t take advantage of the wider and more vibrant color-palatte its siblings enjoyed.

Animation – 4 out of 5
The animation is hard to score because it varies from episode to episode.  The pilot ‘Awakenings’ is gorgeously animated with smooth movements unlike anything seen outside of the best anime of the time.  A few episodes later, ‘Enter MacBeth’ is disjointed and uneasy, like the later episodes of GI Joe.  There’s never any truly bad animation, but some episodes are just merely adequate.  Meanwhile, other episodes (often episodes focusing on the ‘evil’ gargoyle Demona) are shining examples of what good animation can produce.

Characters – 4 out of 5
The biggest weakness of Gargoyles is the cast of the Manhattan Clan.  Goliath and the rest of the ‘main characters’ are really not very well developed.  Oh, they’re developed well enough.  Adequately.  But Goliath is the strong and stoic leader and that’s about the end of his character most of the time.  Lexington is the nerd, Broadway is the glutton, Hudson is the generic old man, etc.  Most of the gargoyles never really get the chance to (pardon the pun) spread their wings.
This is fine because while the heroes are mostly one-note staples of the genre, the villains are excellent.  David Xanatos is not some money-grubbing, mustache-twirling villain; he’s simply an extremely ambitious man for whom morally has turned to shades of grey.  He’s far closer to Thomas Crowne than Mr Potter.  Likewise, Demona – who initially seems evil for the sake of evil – is revealed to be a truly tragic figure who has struggled for years without end to keep her people alive against the increasing greed and selfishness of the humans she now dispises.  All of this, after the apparent loss of her love, Goliath.
The heroes aren’t poorly done at all, but they pale compared to the villains, who are the true stars of the show.  Each villain after the next is, more often than not, expertly written so that while they may be the antagonists, they really aren’t ‘bad guys’.

Acting – 5 out of 5
Everything about Gargoyles is above average, or at least oscillates into the stellar.  But where it truly excels is in its voice acting.  Keith David leads the way as Goliath, turning an unremarkable Batman knockoff into a sympathic and charismatic leader.  Pretty much all of Goliath’s personality ultimately comes from David’s excellence on the mic.  Every other character is the same way.  Ed Asner as Hudson sounds like a comfortable old chair, indicative of the character.  Jonathan ‘Will Riker’ Frakes makes Xanatos a colorful mirror universe version of Tony Stark.  Salli Richardson as Elisa Maza is nicely understated, seemlessly merging the hardboiled cop with the caring friend.  Every character is beautifully voiced.
The stand-out, though, is Marina Sirtis who may have missed her calling as a voice actress.  Her performance as Demona is truly inspired and will stand as one of the finest voice acting performances in animation, cartoon or anime or any other.

 

Overall – 4 out of 5
While this show is not without its problems, and not without it’s less-than-impressive episodes, it is none the less one of the best animated series ever.  No, I won’t qualify that with a specific decade or a country of origin.  This truly is one of the great shows that any fan of animation, or TV in general, should take some time to watch.  The second season is definitely long and nobody’s going to blame you if you don’t care for the third season.  But without a doubt, Gargoyles stands the test of time in narrative, in animation, in characters, in every way.  This one is not to be missed.

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Author: Robert V Aldrich

Author. Speaker. Cancer Researcher. Martial Artist. Illustrator. Cat dad. Nerd.

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