Ultimate Disney Review
November 29, 2004
"Gargoyles" The Complete First Season DVD Review
One Saturday morning in September of 1985, "The Gummi Bears" and "The Wuzzles" made their debuts as the Walt Disney studio's first two fully-animated television series. Nearly twenty years have passed, and those years have given us over two dozen additional Disney cartoon programs. The children of the '80s who were nourished on fare like "DuckTales" and "Chip n' Dale's Rescue Rangers" are now grown up, in their twenties, and maybe parents. A good number of those twentysomethings (and those outside of the target audience who have caught the shows in the years since) may look back fondly on their childhood programs. Those colorful shows filled with comedy and adventure that reside in their memory and make for a fine topic of discussion with someone else who would have been watching sometime.
With the popularity of DVD releases for television shows not just from the present but from decades past, it is somewhat surprising that Disney has ignored the home video potential of their cartoon programs. What also may surprise is that their first genuine foray into a season set for an animated television series is not something bright, bouncy and familiar, but "Gargoyles", a dark, dramatic series that ran for just a few years in the middle of the 1990s.
But, if you're not in the know about "Gargoyles", you'll learn that it is a pretty solid water-tester for Disney. This series, created by Greg Weisman and animated by Disney's studio in Tokyo, has attracted quite a following in the ten years since it first aired. In fact, its fanbase seems as epic in scope as the Shakespearian tales the show tackled.
In the fall of 1994, "Gargoyles" ran in syndication as part of "The Disney Afternoon"--a popular weekday block of animation filled mostly with bright colors and comedic characters. On Fridays, the show would air in between "Goof Troop" and "Aladdin." The subject matter and storylines of "Gargoyles" may seem out of place sandwiched between Goofy and the Genie. But audiences would find it, and thanks to the persistence of fans and creator Greg Weisman, Disney brings us this two-disc Complete First Season set on DVD. Whether or not season sets for other Disney cartoons will rely on the sales performance of this, as some have indicated, it's a pretty significant first.
As the title makes clear, "Gargoyles" is an action-filled drama about...well, gargoyles. In daylight, these stone creatures stay perched and motionless high above a castle. At night, they come to life as winged beasts who powerfully defend themselves and their allies. The five-part pilot episode, which aired on 5 consecutive days in October of 1994, does a great job at setting up the show's very interesting premise. As stated in a commentary, this pilot "Awakening" was intended to be four parts and was expanded. Whereas most situation comedies can fully set up their premise in about 10 minutes or the first half of one episode, "Gargoyles" does indeed need five shows to flesh out the full backstory for its relocated heroes.
Once the fearless protectors of a 10th century Scottish castle, most of the gargoyles were killed off and those that survived were cursed to spend a millennium unawakened in stone form. That curse was lifted in the modern day when the gargoyles were transported to Manhattan thanks to the amoral billionaire David Xanatos. This storyline presented in the pilot (which was later edited into a direct-to-video feature Gargoyles: The Movie - The Heroes Awaken) grabs you in and makes you want to keep on watching.
Most of the American cartoons that are on television today seem to be comedies, as is most child-friendly animation. So "Gargoyles", as an action series, has material that might not be "child-friendly" but it also has an intelligence and depth that older viewers will find extremely rewarding, provided that they can get past the "it's animated" aspect of the show. (Which, of course, is no problem for regular UltimateDisney.com visitors.)
The show mostly works quite well. The potent dramatic score from Carl Johnson serves the material appropriately. Action sequences make up a substantial part, but they never overpower the rest of the show and they're pretty skillfully crafted rather than flashy detours the way they may be in some live action films. The emphatic delivery of sharp dialogue narrowly eschews camp, and lends itself to the mythos and the pathos that make up the series.
Let me provide a very quick overview of the compelling heroes. The towering Goliath is the strong and wise leader of the pack, plus the central figure of the series. His closest advisor is the eldest gargoyle, the scarred Hudson. The three supporting characters are mostly comic relief - like all the gargoyles, they are nameless for much of the pilot before taking names after parts of New York City. These three are eataholic Broadway, the thrill-seeking Brooklyn, and Lexington (who most resembles Gollum of The Lord of the Rings films). The first 3 episodes of the pilot would each highlight one of these three supporting gargoyles, but the stories emerged more than the characters. I'm assuming more will come in future episodes that would define their personalities. Lastly, there is the watchdog they dub Bronx.
The most important task for these gargoyles in 994 was to protect the castle. Transported to modern day Manhattan, this remains a duty they deem valuable, but the show comes to focus more on their efforts to find their place in this advanced society. The gargoyles aid their human friend, police detective Elisa Maza, in her attempts to thwart crime. At the same time, they must avoid peril directed squarely at them, often deriving from Xanatos, the smart and shrewd bigwig who brought them back to life. The more lighthearted and less immediate journey of the gargoyles has them adapting to contemporary phenomenon like TV and video games, and embracing current slang.
Following the impressive and engulfing "Awakening" with standalone 22-minute episodes seems like a tough thing, but "Gargoyles" pulls it off fairly well. What occurs in earlier episodes is not forgotten, and the various adventures of the gargoyles as they awaken at night and glide above life remain compelling. While the episodes are more down-to-earth and occasionally somewhat silly, they still engage. From the biblical overtones of "Temptation" to the surprisingly violent act of the rarely-seen "Deadly Force", the show offers intelligent storylines, exciting action, and rich, nuanced characters.
As there is a strong and continuous narrative especially in the first five episodes, chronological viewing seems imperative. I've made my best effort to avoid revealing surprises, but those unfamiliar with the show might still wish to skip over most or all of the episode descriptions below, so as not to have the story twists "spoiled." Disc One houses the first 7 episodes, 8 through 13 are located on Disc 2.
1. Awakening (22:52) (Originally aired
October 24, 1994)
In the very first episode, the series opens in present day Manhattan with a scene of chaos, as rocks fall from down from a skyscraper. Then we jump back to Scotland in the year 994 A.D., when Goliath and the nameless gargoyles protect the castle from a group of ruthless vikings. Princess Katharine is ungrateful for the help; she wants nothing to do with the beasts. But she comes to need them, when the vikings return.
2. Awakening: Part Two (22:49)
(Originally aired October 25, 1994)
After failing to stop the vikings on their path to the castle, Goliath returns to a state of disarray. Princess Katharine's advisor, a sorcerer named Magus, puts an irreversible spell on the few surviving gargoyles that curses them to remain in stone form indefinitely. Jumping ahead to the present day, David Xanatos, a ponytailed tycoon, brings the gargoyles to Manhattan, where they come to life for the first time in one thousand years and soon after must defend their relocated castle top. This finally makes clear the first episode's opening sequence.
3. Awakening: Part Three (22:56)
(Originally aired October 26, 1994)
Detective Elisa Maza investigates the commotion from Xanatos' building. While there, she discovers Goliath who saves her when she falls off the roof. Goliath tells Elisa about his kind, and they agree to meet again. While Xanatos moves forward with secret plans, Elisa shows Goliath the town and they see the potential he could have helping her take care of Manhattan's crime.
4. Awakening: Part Four (22:51)
(Originally aired October 27, 1994)
Goliath and Elisa escape a close call from their commando attackers. When dawn breaks, Goliath turns to stone in the park. After the rest of the gargoyles decide on names, Xanatos has a surprise. He provides Goliath's old love; the two are thrilled to see each other again for the first time in 1,000 years. As a way to thank Xanatos, Goliath and company seek to find and return for him the important disks that have been stolen.
5. Awakening: Part Five (22:57)
(Originally aired October 28, 1994)
Against the odds, Goliath and company bring back all three disks to Xanatos. But, Goliath learns from Elisa, that the disks were never stolen from Xanatos in the first place. The cunning billionaire has been using the gargoyles, and now he is ready to unveil his superior robotic gargoyle replacements. Goliath's lover has a couple of surprises as well.
6. The Thrill of the Hunt (22:50)
(Originally aired November 4, 1994)
"The Pack", a band of TV action heroes that the gargoyles have been watching, makes an appearance at Madison Square Garden. Starstruck Lexington can't resist the urge to meet them, and "The Pack" in turn wishes to meet Goliath. But when Lexington returns with Goliath, they soon realize it's a trap and combat ensues.
7. Temptation (22:53) (Originally aired
November 11, 1994)
Brooklyn goes joyriding on his homemade motorcycle and encounters some vicious bikers. He is saved by Demona, who tries to show him how awful humanity is. Convinced, Brooklyn agrees to help Demona put a spell on Goliath that will reveal to him the truth about humans.
8. Deadly Force (22:53) (Originally aired
November 18, 1994)
Broadway really enjoys the gun-totin' Western "Show Down." Elisa suspects slick gangster Tony Dracon (voiced by "21 Jump Street" star Richard Grieco) and his cronies in the theft of hundreds of high-tech weapons. When Elisa gets shot, Goliath and the NYPD assume it's the work of Dracon, but it's not. Elisa fights for her life at the hospital, while the gargoyles aim to enact justice. Pretty intense for any animated series, this episode has mostly been shelved instead of reairing on the Toon Disney cable channel with the rest of the series.
9. Enter Macbeth (23:06) (Originally
aired January 6, 1995)
Just days from the end of his jail sentence, Xanatos gets a visit from Macbeth, who offers to fumigate Xanatos' tower of the gargoyles. In an effort to trap Demona, Macbeth puts up quite a fight against the gargoyles, but they escape to freedom. Goliath reluctantly agrees with Elisa that they'll need a new home for their safety.
10. The Edge (22:48) (Originally aired
January 13, 1995)
The gargoyles settle into their new home. To her dismay, Elisa is assigned a partner named Matt Bluestone (Back to the Future's Tom Wilson). Fresh out of jail, Xanatos stages a museum heist with the Steel Clan, his robotic gargoyle replicas, to direct the authorities' attention to the real gargoyles. A battle between the sets of gargoyles ensues atop the Statue of Liberty.
11. Long Way to Morning (22:50)
(Originally aired January 20, 1995)
Hudson is at the foreground of this episode, which uses dual narratives to link a past experience with the present. In the year 984, Hudson struggles to defend the Prince when the gargoyles protected Scotland's castle. In the present day, Hudson does battle with Demona, who has attempted to poison Elisa to get Goliath's attention. This episode includes a nice homage to The Fugitive.
12. Her Brother's Keeper (22:43)
(Originally aired January 27, 1995)
Jackal and Hyena, two members of "The Pack", plot to steal an expensive diamond that Xanatos has purchased. When Elisa and her brother Derek foil the robbery in a police helicopter, Xanatos offers Derek a job as bodyguard and pilot. While Elisa struggles with telling her brother about the gargoyles and about Xanatos' nature, Derek is quickly accepting the new position.
13. Reawakening (22:47) (Originally aired
February 3, 1995)
Working together, Demona and Xanatos bring to life Coldstone, Goliath's rookery brother. Coldstone isn't looking to serve ice cream, but revenge to Goliath, who Demona has identified as his enemy. This pretty exciting episode ends with Goliath declaring all of Manhattan as the "castle" that the gargoyles need to protect.
VIDEO and AUDIO
"Gargoyles" is presented in 1.33:1 fullscreen, the aspect ratio it was animated and aired in. The show's animation is obviously not of big screen feature quality, but the hand-dawn artwork holds up reasonably well 10 years later. As with any syndicated television cartoon, the animation is limited, but certainly not to the degree that those which rely on comedy do. Since it is an action series, there aren't shortcuts on motion and lively visuals.
Some episodes looked quite better than others. There is a good amount of detail within the mostly nighttime environments, which gives many things a deep blueish-gray tint. With production values far below a feature film, it's not surprising that the video quality isn't perfectly pleasing. In the weakest-looking episodes, an inconsistency among lines and colors understandably mars the presentation, and there's a bit of ringing and some moiré effect.
Audio, in the way of a Dolby Surround track, doesn't exhibit any drawbacks that recognizable. Carl Johnson's strong score is nicely conveyed, making fine use of the surround speakers. Dialogue is richly recorded and sounds natural within the environments. There's a fair amount of sound effects that are aptly mixed with the rest of the audio. There's a reasonable amount of bass present in the track. There's even some well-done directional effects among the speaker setup. Overall, the soundtrack is every bit as effective as one could hope for on a 10-year-old syndicated cartoon series.
Disc One features audio commentary on the five pilot episodes with co-creator/co-producer Greg Weisman and supervising producer Frank Paur. Showing up for the third episode and sticking around to the end is Keith David, the voice of Goliath.
The audio commentaries are very informative and easy to listen to. All three speakers are clearly enthusiastic about having been a part of this series. Weisman discusses his inspirations, which include "The Gummi Bears" ("Gargoyles" was originally developed with a similar action/comedy tone), the crime drama "Hill Street Blues" and the visual style of Disney's Sleeping Beauty. Paur reflects upon how the show's violence (atypical for a Disney cartoon) bypassed network standards and practices since it aimed for syndication from the start. On the third episode, when David joins in, the commentary devotes a lot of discussion to the voice cast. David talks about his genuine appreciation for the series and recalls how he auditioned in his best Sean Connery voice. Paur remarks on Ed Asner's character, "If Lou Grant was a gargoyle from Scotland, he would be Hudson."
The discussion remains laudatory, but it is open, revealing, and thorough. There are tons of interesting tidbits that the diehard fanbase may already know much about, but were quite enlightening for me. Weisman and Paur recall the fear they had that people would avoid the show if they thought it was set entirely in the 10th century (hence the contemporary opening and departures from linear narrative in the pilot). There's talk of certain sequences that had to be deleted for time (nowhere to be found elsewhere on the DVD), how the score was stretched to fill the show with editing since they couldn't afford a full score with their budget, how their specific target audience was kids between the ages of 6 and 11 but it found a fanbase far beyond, and how Michael Eisner passed on the premise they pitched not once but twice.
The commentaries succeed both at giving background information and enhancing your appreciation for the show. The latter is achieved due to the willingness of the three speakers to discuss their creation and their intentions, both visually and dramatically.
On Disc 2, you find two additional bonus features.
"The Gathering of the Gargoyles" (13:45) is a featurette on the annual fan convention of the same name. This extra allows the diehard fanbase to sing the show's praises, citing its mixture of mythology and action as a source of wide appeal. The fans repeatedly cite the theme of outcast heroes as something they could relate to. For many of them, "Gargoyles" has become more than a animated show; it has become an important part of their lives. One woman cites online fan chats as helping her get through high school; others credit the show for developing interest in writing fan fiction and pursuing a animated voice career.
We also get a look at what goes down at the convention (which has now been held for eight years), from the elaborate costumes to the radio play and reflections from Keith David. Co-creator Greg Weisman shows up a bit to talk about the show and its ardent followers. Though the focus of this slickly-edited featurette would be easy to ridicule in some social circles, there's definitely something refreshing about the enthusiasm seen here, and surely it is because of Weisman and the fans that "Gargoyles" is seeing the light of DVD at this time, which makes it an appropriate and enjoyable bonus feature.
Last is the original show pitch from 1993 introduced by Greg Weisman. In this 4-minute video presentation for Disney, Weisman explains the premise of the series and the principle characters, with conceptual artwork (which isn't too far from the show's final look) providing the relevant visuals. It's interesting to see something like this, and to note that the show came to be part of the Disney family in the fall of 1994 pretty much exactly as Weisman envisioned it.
Sneak Peeks at the start of Disc One are for Aladdin Trilogy, Spider-man: The Venom Saga, Bionicle 2: Legends of Metro Nui, and Power Rangers: DinoThunder. These are also accessible individually and altogether from a Sneak Peeks menu.
MENUS, DESIGN and PACKAGING
Each of Season 1's thirteen episodes are presented in their entirety, running just under 23 minutes. To serve the continuing narrative of the first five episodes, there are "previously on" recaps and "next time" previews. There are unfortunately no chapter stops within any of the episodes. The fadeouts for commercials that are here seem like obvious places to add these for quick scene access.
The 4x3 menus are neatly animated, with an intro, well-done moving background, and transitions.
This 2-disc set is packaged in a rather low key fashion. The dark, dramatic cover and disc art features Goliath. The two discs are housed in a standard-width black dual Amaray keepcase. A double-sided insert lists the episodes for each disc and bonus features for Disc two.
A solid collection of episodes and some well-done bonus features at a very affordable price, this Complete First Season set should please the large "Gargoyles" fanbase and hopefully will pave the way for more Disney animated series to come to DVD in similar fashion.