In terms of after-school Disney cartoons, Judge Adam Arseneau prefers The Gummi Bears, but Gargoyles will do in a pinch.
In 1994, Disney quietly released an unassuming cartoon into their after-school child-friendly block of animated shows—a show about mythological creatures captured in stone for the last thousand years and brought to modern-day New York City. Gargoyles quickly gained a rabid fan base through its stylish animation, sophisticated tone, forward-thinking story arcs, and well-realized character development, and ended up attracting both their target demographic as well as more of a mature fan base than its creators had probably envisioned.
Featuring all thirteen episodes from the first season on DVD for their tenth anniversary, Gargoyles stands ready to woo another generation into stony submission. But does the DVD do justice to this seminal animated series?
Facts of the Case
High atop a hill in 994 AD, a Scottish castle is overrun with hordes of vicious Vikings. The Scottish soldiers fight back valiantly, but it becomes clear that the Vikings are too strong…soon they will break through the castle's defenses and slay everyone inside. As the battle wages on, the sun begins to set…and suddenly, with a terrible crackling of stone, the stone gargoyles that sit atop the castle come to life! The Vikings are shocked and try their best to attack the mythological creatures, but the gargoyles soon send the Vikings fleeing off into the Scottish hills.
The clan of Gargoyles has lived on this hilltop for many centuries, even before the castle was built, and they exist in a tense symbiotic relationship with the humans who dwell within its walls. Neither is terribly thrilled to have the other about, but the relationship is one of mutual defense…during the day, the gargoyles revert to their stone form, and require protection lest they be attacked. Likewise, when the night comes, the castle gains a near-invincible army of winged warriors capable of repelling any invader from their borders. It is a relationship based on security, not on trust or friendship. In fact, the relationships between both sides have been wearing thin, and the humans become more resentful of the gargoyles every day.
The captain of the guard convinces Goliath, the leader of the gargoyles, to venture out at night en masse and attack the Vikings, lest they return to threaten the castle. Reluctantly, Goliath agrees. Unable to locate the Vikings, he senses something is wrong, and immediately returns to the castle, but is unable to return before sunrise. Helpless, he turns to stone, only to emerge later that evening…only to find the castle sacked and the princess kidnapped! Horrified, he stumbles upon pile after pile of broken rock…pieces of his gargoyle kinsman smashed to bits during the daylight hours.
Goliath and the few remaining gargoyles still alive descend upon the Viking camp like a swarm of monsters, tearing the army apart, and find the captain of the guard—their betrayer—with the Vikings. But the extent of the human betrayal soon becomes apparent when the castle shaman, blaming the gargoyles for the sacking of the castle, casts a devious spell over the remaining creatures to turn them into stone—permanently!
Flash forward a thousand years to the city of New York, where Xanatos, a wealthy billionaire industrialist has transported the entire Scottish castle back to New York City. At extraordinary cost, he has rebuilt the entire castle on the top of his towering skyscraper to serve as his headquarters. Having recovered the Shaman's spellbook from Scotland years ago, he realizes the true nature of the curse: The gargoyles are doomed to sleep forever in stone, until the castle rises above the clouds…
That night, as the sun sets, the gargoyles come back to life for the first time in a millennia. Partially out of gratitude, but mostly out of primordial instinct, Goliath pledges to protect the castle and assist Xanatos in his endeavors. Unfortunately, Xanatos proves to be a very deceptive and manipulative individual, and he soon turns the gargoyles into tools of his own financial desires. As the gargoyles stare down into the wonders of New York City at night, they realize the world has changed a great deal, but in a thousand years, there are still many humans who cannot be trusted…
When Disney released Gargoyles back in 1995, I remember hearing about it primarily because it was something of a Star Trek: The Next Generation reunion show (which was bowing off the airwaves at about the same time). The series featured primary voice work by Johnathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis, and with supporting cameo work by Michael Dorn, Brent Spiner, Nichelle Nichols, Avery Brooks, and Kate Mulgrew, it had a disproportionately high number of Trek-related voice actors working on it. In fact, at least one actor from every single Trek-related show ever made has been featured on Gargoyles.
Well, not counting Enterprise, of course. Nobody counts Enterprise for anything.
Gargoyles was definitely not standard after-school Disney fare—it was violent, brooding, cold, moody, and complex, with intertwining narratives, a dense theological and mythological background in character design and symbolism, and full of chest-pounding action. Disney had created a show that was simultaneously appealing to the kids while offering something decisively un-Disney like: an animated series with deep brooding characters, dark and twisted storylines, emphasis on personal consequence, and a definite taste for mayhem. It went against the mold of traditional animated Disney cartoons in a big way, and was a risky endeavor, but it paid off. Gargoyles became a hit, and was a strong contender on the airwaves for four years…that is, until ABC bought the show and flushed it down the sewer. The show had more than a few passing similarities to its spiritual contemporary, the animated Batman of the early 1990s. Both shows primarily catered to a young demographic, but managed to add enough dark and mature themes to captivate an older, more rabid fan base of teenage nerds. (Okay…like me. Shut up.)
Though definitely a children's cartoon show first and foremost, the success of Gargoyles as a show comes from its ability to balance both mature and childlike themes with skillful precision. The contrasting elements complement each other surprisingly well; the cartoon-ish and playful nature of the show rounds out the harsh neo-noir edges and keeps the show enjoyable without ever becoming too brooding and dark, while the gritty storylines and complex situational elements elevate the show to a sophisticated level without damaging its inherent childlike charm. This is not an easy trick to pull off without irreparably damaging one fan base or the other along the way. The show had Shakespearian alliterations, deep issues of guilt and personal responsibility, and dark and brooding anti-heroes, but at the same time, managed to come off light, action-packed, and entertaining…exactly the kind of show you would want to turn on after a hard day of school (or work).
Ahem. In short, the show rocked.
From a production value standpoint, Gargoyles was slicker than a butter-coated metal mixing bowl sliding down a hill. The animation could be described as detailed, sumptuous, elegant, gorgeous, and beautiful, but I prefer to use all those words to describe its majesty. No jerky animation or missing frames here; the animation is a thing of fluid beauty and precision crafting. Created almost entirely in Disney's Japanese animation department in Tokyo, the characters feature wonderfully expressive facial features and a fantastically skillful application of shadowing and light textures. The way shadows fall delicately over the facial expressions of each character, the beautiful hand-painted backdrops of New York City, and thousands of other tiny details and perfections elevate Gargoyles heads and shoulders above the quality of typical after-school cartoons.
Gargoyles also had excellent voice actors and actresses, even when it occasionally ventured outside of the Star Trek alumni. The quintessential voice actor for any and all tortured cartoon characters living in the back alleys of New York city, Keith David (Pitch Black) brings his unique and gravelly baritone to Goliath, one of the most perfect casting choices ever made for an animated cartoon. Plus, the role gives him plenty of opportunity to throw his head back and roar, which he does very well. Ed Asner offers up a gruff and growling Hudson, no doubt because Ed has no other way of talking in real life. Indeed, all the voices are top-notch and match remarkably well with their on-screen personas. Some of the voice actors do double and triple-duty as secondary and tertiary characters throughout the series, which is pretty standard cartoon procedure.
Disney has done a great job transferring this show to DVD elegantly, but the picture is not without its flaws, miniscule as they may be. Get close enough to the picture and one can detect a small amount of grain, flecks of dirt, and tiny damage to the transfer, but you have to be pretty nitpicking to notice. What you will notice, however, is the deep black levels, the rich colors, and the excellent sharpness. The animation style is fluid, stylish, rich, detailed, and surprisingly skilled for a Disney after-school cartoon; again, one could compare it to the Batman animated series of the same era in terms of quality and stylishness, though the show lacks the same stylized neo-noir look as its contemporary. Like many animated cartoons transferred to DVD, edges can go a bit jagged now and again, but the transfer is well within respectable limits. No doubt the show has never looked so sharp, so colorful, or so detailed. Any imperfections in the transfer can simply be attributed to the original source material…Gargoyles on DVD is a treat for the eyes.
One of the best aspects of the show is its symphonic score, full of action and melodrama, and the Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track captures every note with perfect precision. Sure, a surround track would have been nice, but no sense forcing such a thing upon a presentation that does quite fine on its own. The 2.0 tracks make good use of their sonic space; gunshots and lasers zip across the sonic space quite effectively, and the wing flaps of gargoyles soaring through the night radiates across the channels in a thoroughly pleasing fashion. Perhaps the track could have used some more in the way of bass response, but as it is, things sound pretty good.
Like most DVDs, this one could have used more in the way of extra material, but the offering collected is certainly respectable in its own right. Episodes one through five contain commentary tracks by show creator Greg Weisman and producer Frank Paur, and three of the commentary tracks feature Keith David (the voice of Goliath) joining the party. Both creators clearly have a lot of love for their creation, and bemusedly reminisce about the early days of propositioning Disney, like how Michael Eisner excitedly bought into the show…after the third pitch; and how the show's biggest influence in the early days of conception was—you guessed it—The Gummi Bears. No, seriously. The pleasure that the creators obviously feel for their achievements and the amount of fun factoids they manage to pass on make this commentary track a winner…shame they only chose to feature the tracks on the first five episodes.
Probably the most interesting feature for die-hard Gargoyles fan boys and girls is the original pitch put forth by the series creators to sell the show back in 1993 to Disney and television shows across the country. This is the kind of incredibly cool content that all animated cartoon DVDs should include…the really embarrassing, terribly out-of-date, behind-the-scenes stuff. Of particular interest is how amazingly childlike the original designs of the gargoyles were envisioned; very Disney-like with big googly eyes, like Donald Duck with sharp claws, teeth, and wings. Finally, a 13-minute featurette takes us to the 8th annual "Gathering of the Gargoyles" in Montreal, a fan convention to celebrate all things Gargoyles. People dress up as gargoyles; they talk about gargoyles, write fan fiction, and talk about how much the show has shaped their life. There is but one word for this featurette: dorky. Incredibly, incredibly dorky.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Nothing irks me more than television shows that fail to include chapter stops in individual episodes. Each episode constitutes its own chapter, so you can forget about easily skipping between commercial breaks or bypassing the opening sequence.
Sure, this is the tiniest of bones to pick, but it was all I could think about to gripe about this otherwise excellent DVD.
Simply put, Gargoyles rules, and Disney has transferred the show to DVD with the respect it deserved. But such a wonderful DVD comes as something of a bittersweet pleasure, in a sense. Revisiting the show ten years after the fact, with its wonderfully allegorical mythology, complex storylines, and supernatural action, all come as a painful reminder that the show was unceremoniously abandoned after a few yeas. Oh, what things a show like this could have achieved had it survived the tides of the airwaves.
Still, we have a few more seasons of goodness to look forward to, and that is definitely something. For die-hard fans (of which there are still surprisingly a vast number of), this DVD will be the answer to your long-awaited prayers, and for the curious or nostalgic, this DVD is a gem from start to finish, perfect if you get the urge to revisit some after-school animated memories.
The only guilty people are those people in attendance at the 8th annual "Gathering of the Gargoyles" convention in Montreal.
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Scales of Justice
• Original Show Pitch by Greg Weisman
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