Review: "Gravity Falls: Six Strange Tales" - Silly, Surprising, and Spectacular
If the speed at which cosplay starts appearing is any gauge of how fast a TV show has gained traction in nerd mindshare, I think the only show that can rival Disney’s Gravity Falls is probably Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time. However, I think there is a good amount of commonality between those two shows beyond relative ease in putting together a workable costume for their lead characters. Both Gravity Falls and Adventure Time prove to be thoroughly unconventional and quirky shows that aren’t afraid to get strange or surreal, and both insist on playing by their own rules. I missed Gravity Falls during its initial broadcast, but Disney has released the first DVD, Six Strange Tales, and perhaps the best thing I can say about it is that it’s left me with an intense craving for the next volume.
Dipper and Mabel Pines have been sent to the backwater town of Gravity Falls, Oregon, where they’ll spend the summer with their Great Uncle Stan. Grunkle Stan runs the Mystery Shack, a run-down tourist trap museum of questionable oddities, with the help of the big-but-gentle (if slightly dim) Soos and the total slacker teen Wendy. In the first episode, “Tourist Trapped,” Dipper finds a mysterious notebook with the ominous warning to “Trust No One” as it documents incidents of the paranormal in Gravity Falls, including giant vampire bats, zombies, ghosts, and stranger things. Before long, Dipper finds himself tangled up in some strange goings-on of his own, as the suspicious behavior of Mabel’s boyfriend leads Dipper to think he’s a zombie.
The most refreshing thing about Gravity Falls is that it’s almost always exactly what you think while never being what you expect. It turns out that Mabel’s boyfriend is indeed one of the weirder denizens of Gravity Falls, but not the one that the show was leading you to believe. I don’t dare spoil the surprise (or any of them in the next five episodes), other than to say the denouement involves a stunningly hilarious barf joke and one of the strangest, funniest chase sequences I’ve seen in some time. The show consistently balances that knife edge of being serious and being funny, and of the six episodes on this disc, it never seems to be the same thing twice. “The Legend of the Gobblewonker” is the show’s take on Loch Ness Monster legends, and if it’s probably the weakest episode on the disc, it’s also the one that can manage to make Grunkle Stan equally pathetic and lovable, even as it cements your image of him as a fast-talking con man with extraordinarily few redeeming features. “Headhunters” can border on nightmare fuel as Soos, Dipper, and Mabel discover a long-forgotten storeroom of wax museum statues, which Grunkle Stan had used as the basis of the Gravity Falls Wax Museum until it stopped bringing in cash. The episode turns into a murder mystery when someone decapitates Grunkle Stan’s wax effigy, with the true culprits being as surprising as the cameo appearances of two name-brand celebrity personalities.
“The Hand that Rocks the Mabel” introduces Lil’ Gideon, Gravity Falls’ resident psychic (played by The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack creator Thurop Van Orman) who soon falls hard for Mabel even though she just wants to be friends. The romantic plot collides with Dipper’s belief that Gideon is a fraud and Stan’s long-standing animosity with Gideon’s father. It’s quite amusing how the episode ties all three together by the end. “The Inconveniencing” is a teenage ghost horror story, as Dipper’s sudden crush on Wendy leads to him and Mabel spending an evening with Wendy and her friends, breaking into the derelict 24-hour convenience store that’s rumored to be haunted. This episode may be the one that best embodies the “exactly what you think but never what you expect” angle of the show: the store actually is haunted, but the reasons why and the way out of it are appealingly original even as they’re kind of weird. “Dipper vs. Manliness” centers mostly on Dipper’s quest to become more masculine after a disastrous encounter with the manliness gauge at the local diner. His help comes from a surprising source which I won’t reveal, but I will say that the climax wins major points for the way it incorporates temporary tattoos and Multi-Bear (yet another “exactly what you think/not what you expect” bit). The subplot involves Grunkle Stan’s longstanding crush on the diner’s waitress Lazy Susan and Mabel’s attempted makeover. The real surprise to the episode is the genuine, bona fide moral of the ending that’s delivered with a gentle sweetness without feeling tacked on or artificial, even (especially?) as Grunkle Stan acts surprisingly out of character.
While I think I would have been much happier with a season set of Gravity Falls, the single-volume DVD we get leaves little to complain about. Picture and sound are both terrific, though if I had to nitpick I’d grumble about the annoying “Disney FastPlay” feature that may be useful for pre-schooler DVDs but not for something like this aimed at an older audience. I’m also happy that there are chapter stops within each episode, but unpleasantly surprised that they don’t let you skip the opening credits easily since the first one pushes you to after the first commercial break point. There are also a surprising number of alternate soundtracks and subtitle tracks on the disc beyond the native English. There are a few hidden Easter Eggs sprinkled throughout the DVD menu, which is a nice little nod to the show’s theme of sussing out mysteries. More surprising (especially in this day and age of cost cutting in home video) is the actual, physical reproduction of “Notebook #3″ included in the package, giving a closer look (if not full text) of the pages seen only briefly on screen in “Tourist Trapped.” It’s another feature that’s perfectly in keeping with the show, and is nice enough to balance out the absence of any other bonus features on the disc.
I can easily see why Gravity Falls won over so many fans so quickly, and its quirky, original tone makes it another in a long line of surprisingly creative and individual projects coming out of Disney TV Animation these days (including the now-canceled Motorcity and TRON: Uprising, neither of which seems to be getting much love on DVD). It’s a fun hybrid of Scooby-Doo with The X-Files, with a strong dash of whatever bizarro freak juice makes Adventure Time so distinctively outlandish. Let’s hope volume 2 (or, better yet, a Blu-ray season set) isn’t long in coming.