Appellate Judge Mac McEntire can't wait for Brian DePalma to make Danny Phantom of the Paradise.
"How is it I have ghost powers and you're the weird one?"
When I first saw promos for Nickelodeon's Danny Phantom, the cartoony, jokey style was something of a turnoff, considering this was supposed to be show with supernatural freakiness and superhero violence. The god-awful rap theme song didn't help matters, either. Upon going through this four-disc season one set, I found the show growing on me. I started to enjoy its goofy charms and came to think of it as—dare I say it—good.
Facts of the Case
Danny Fenton (David Kaufman, Superman: The Animated Series) is an ordinary 14-year-old, except that his parents are mad scientists. Dad Jack Fenton (Rob Paulson, Animaniacs) longs to prove the existence of ghosts, and built a ghost portal in the family basement. The portal doesn't appear to work, until one night when Danny goes downstairs by himself and messes with the portal himself. The resulting accident transforms Danny, making him half-human, half-ghost.
The accident also means that actual ghosts are now escaping from the portal on a regular basis. Now, Danny must catch all the ghosts and send them back, without his ghost-obsessed parents learning his secret. Along for the ride are Danny's best friends, goth girl Sam (Grey Delisle, Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated) and gadget-loving wannabe ladies man Tucker (Rickey D'Shon Collins, Recess).
How to describe the overall tone of Danny Phantom? Mostly, it's a comedy, with some superhero/action elements. What's different is that the tights n' fights elements are played relatively straight, so that it's a superhero comedy that's not a superhero spoof. The high school setting provides opportunities galore for screwball mischief. Ron Perlman (Hellboy) goes against type as the kids' perpetually clueless teacher. Danny's goofball parents provide more broad, abstract yuks, as do Tucker's constant attempts to score with hot babes.
Despite all the silliness, I was pleased to see some genuine character growth during these 20 episodes. Danny and Sam's romantic tension goes through several ups and downs, while Danny's often rocky relationship with his sister Jazz (Colleen O'Shaughnessey, Bleach) takes a few interesting turns as episodes progress. We also get some solid continuity and world building. Villains introduced early on return in later episodes where we get to know them better and see them use their powers in new ways. Gadgets and/or story elements from the beginning make surprise returns near the end. At first, no one in this world is aware of the existence of ghosts, but by the end of this season, ghost reports make the news and Danny finds it harder and harder to do the secret identity thing. Not only does Danny's dad finally encounter ghosts face-to-face, but he eventually proves himself a halfway decent ghost hunter, while still not losing his comedic buffoonishness.
The ghosts that Danny encounters are varied, with only a few of the traditional haunted house variety. Given the light tone of the show, I can't imagine any kid being frightened by these ghosts. The fight scenes get a little repetitive after a while, with ghosts shooting energy blasts or throwing things at Danny to have him avoid them by going intangible or flying out of the way, only to eventually capture them in his thermos (a Ghostbusters-type doohickey). Later on, the writers wisely introduce more powers for Danny, including allowing him to fire his own energy blasts, and this adds a little more spice to the big battles.
A little more on the negative side, the show takes a simplistic "us versus them" stance when comes to high school cliques. Danny and his friends are the outsiders—which is, to say, the nerds—and they are relentlessly picked on by the jocks and the popular kids. Several episodes have jokes about how the cool kids will peak during high school and how Danny and his friends will become the cool ones after high school. I kept hoping the writers would introduce some sort of grey area in this conflict, and give the cool kids some of the same character development the others received, but it never happened. As your neighborhood Friday Night Lights fan can tell you, the jocks can be interesting characters too, but on Danny Phantom, they're just one-note bullies.
Back to the positives, the voice actors jump into this thing with enthusiasm, giving the whole series a feeling of wild energy. The animation style is deceptively simplistic, but allows for a lot of expressions on the characters' faces, as well as all manner of crazy designs for the ghosts, without any one element ever looking out of place. Danny Phantom will never pass for a Disney feature, but it doesn't have to. The visuals capture the lighthearted tone nicely.
Continuing down that path, the DVDs on this four disc set are clean and clear, capturing the bright colors and fluid movements in the animation. The audio is not as explosive as it could be, but the dialogue, score and laser-blastin' sound effects nonetheless come through nicely. Any bonus features must have been sucked into the ghost zone, because you won't find them on this set.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'm sorry but that theme song is a real brain-melter. I have no problem with rap used for theme songs (gotta love Aqua Teen Hunger Force) but I'm not sure if it was the right way to go for this particular series.
I didn't think I would like Danny Phantom, but the show really grew on me. File this one under "comfort food TV."
Not guilty. I'm going ghost!
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