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"Darkwing Duck Vol. 1": Let's Get Nostalgic!

Let’s face it, much like many other cartoons from the late ’80s and early ’90s released on DVD, for many folks the main reason to watch them is nostalgia. If you really examine many of those shows with a critical eye, the faults become easily evident. While Darkwing Duck does hold up better than most shows from the same era, it’s not without its flaws. However, for those that merely hear the name of the show and giddily sing the theme song like a fanboy (or girl), you pretty much can stop reading the review right now. Twenty-seven episodes is more than enough to convince the purely nostalgic fan that this is worth owning, especially since Darkwing Duck no longer airs on Toon Disney. And there is nothing wrong with that.

For those who have been living under a rock since 1991, Darkwing Duck is an animated series which concerns Darkwing Duck, aka mild-mannered Drake Mallard, a superhero who fights crime with his partner Launchpad McQuack. Drake also has an adopted daughter, Gosalyn, who usually finagles her way onto Darkwing Duck’s dangerous missions (though she often helps him save the day as well).

If Darkwing Duck himself is a memorable cartoon icon of the ’90s, his villains are even moreso. We get the deranged, electricity-obsessed Megavolt; the snappy dressing, wisecracking gangster Steelbeak; Liquidator, made entirely of water; Negaduck, a “bizarro” Darkwing; and Bushroot, a classic case of an eccentric scientist who becomes his creation (in this case, plants).

I must confess that I was never a huge Darkwing Duck fan as a kid. I was more into Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs. It wasn’t until the show re-aired on Toon Disney for a few years that I began to re-watch the show as much as I could, almost to catch up on lost time, as it were. While I always found it a decent way to kill a half hour, the show rarely “wowed” me. In theory, a show which combines comedy and action should be gold, right? So what’s the problem?

In general, Darkwing Duck leans more towards light-heartedness than genuine tension, so those expecting Batman: The Animated Series or some episodes of Teen Titans will probably be disappointed. It doesn’t exactly succeed in creating genuine tension in its action sequences, as the choreography of the fights is limited and rarely knock-your-socks-off. The villains, as memorable as they are with their unique quirks and looks, are way too confident and cocky (which always gives the hero the opportunity to fight back with ease); and like the old school Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, villains constantly escape and reappear in subsequent episodes. You honestly wonder if Darkwing Duck really tries hard enough to capture these bad guys, or if he just lets them escape to give him something to do every week. As such, it’s difficult to get into many of the plots on this volume, since you know Darkwing will come out unscathed, no matter how hopeless the situations look. There’s one episode which really makes you wonder how the outcome will occur, and that’s “Dead Duck.” Unfortunately that won’t appear until volume 2.

Like I said, the battles go more for laughs than suspense, but do the laughs succeed? Yes and no. The writing isn’t exactly top notch; each episode is filled with groan-inducing puns, lines you could see coming a mile away and cliched dialog. That’s another reason why it’s hard to take the villains seriously; all the clowning around they do makes you think they’re failed stand-up comics who just happen to have access to deadly weapons. There are moments of inspiration in the dialog and humor; in one episode, Darkwing sees something in the sky before accidentally being hit by Launchpad. Darkwing remarks, “Didn’t you see the flash of light?” Launchpad replies, “No, but I wasn’t the one that got conked.” Some of the methods of defeating the villains are creative and fun as well, and I always looked forward to what follows Darkwing’s trademark “I am the terror the flaps in the night!” But for the most part it’s par-for-the-course for its era.

What about its animation? Darkwing Duck came along at a time when American animation was at a crossroads, especially when it came to Disney’s TV division. With shows like DuckTales and Chip N Dale debuting a few years earlier, Disney proved that it had a big enough budget to use better animation than people were used to seeing from the ’70s and early ’80s. They did this by using some of their theatrical studios such as Walt Disney Japan, France, and Australia for animation duties (as well as anime studio TMS in its earlier shows). Granted, in order to avoid going overboard on budget, Disney also had to outsource to lesser studios, but when they got the goods, their shows looked fantastic.

Unfortunately, the majority of the episodes on Volume 1 come from Sunwoo, a rather average studio with your typical TV budget. True, they have some standout episodes with some good sight gags and squash-and-stretch, such as “Just Us Justice Ducks,” “Paraducks” and “Apes of Wrath,” but for the most part they offer little to stand out and the majority of the animation is stiff and uncreative. The best-looking episodes on this volume come from two studios. Walt Disney Japan’s A-unit, who did “Darkly Dawns the Duck” (part 2) and “Can’t Bayou Love,” offers excellent animation that almost reaches theatrical quality, with energy-filled bounciness and a crisp, sharp look. Walt Disney Australia also is a stand-out, with episodes like “Darkly Dawns the Duck” (part 1) and “Comic Book Capers,” which have multiple emotions inbetween the strong poses, well-done facial expressions, and exaggerated mouth movements. Honorable mention goes to Hanho-Heung’s animation for “Dirty Money;” you can see some of the crazy, full motions when Gryzlikoff goes ballistic with rage (as seen in the intro), among other moments.

In terms of audio, Darkwing Duck is competent but not spectacular. While I appreciate the orchestral music in the show, something that Tiny Toon Adventures re-emphasized a year earlier, they tend to repeat the same cues over and over. Yes, some of the cues are very memorable, but chances are you’ve heard most of them in previous episodes. The voice acting is decent; I’ve always loved Jim Cummings as a VA because of his range and delivery, and he performs well as our caped hero. But I’ve never been a fan of Christine Cavanaugh as Gosalyn, who has her share of lines that are painful to the ear.

As mentioned earlier, Volume 1 of Darkwing Duck comes with the two-part pilot, “Darkly Dawns the Duck,” as well as the first 25 episodes of the series (in airing order). This is a change from Disney’s earlier sets, which went in production order, and indeed, many characters appear before they are properly introduced, such as Morgana and The Liquidator. In addition, the pilot episodes are the edited versions that ran on Toon Disney; they’re missing a couple minutes of footage from their original airings, including a scene from the show intro. Otherwise, the episodes appear to be free of edits, and 27 episodes is plenty of material at any rate, even if they are not in production order.

There are a few downsides with the DVDs: For starters, the episodes don’t have chapter selections. So if you want to skip the opening theme, you have to manually fast forward. That’s a minor annoyance. Also, there are zero special features. And no, Disney trailers don’t really count. I can understand Disney’s reasoning with just the episodes; they want to see if these sets sell well enough to warrant special features for next time. In that case, hopefully the next sets will have something on them. Finally, the video quality, while not horrible, leaves something to be desired. Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by the Looney Tunes Golden Collections, but the video quality doesn’t seem cleaned too much.

If you’re looking for nostalgia, Darkwing Duck is one of the better outings from Disney’s afternoon line-up, if nothing else for the show’s unique concept and memorable cast of characters. This also came right before an era when Disney wasn’t making every other cartoon a spin-off or sequel of their theatrical works, so that’s another reason to appreciate the show. On the other hand, if nostalgia can only carry you so far, Darkwing Duck may also color your memories. At any rate, Darkwing Duck has stood the test of time in some areas, which is more than I can say for many cartoons from that era.

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