It's a Duck Blur!by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
When it comes to video games, my nephew could play them 24/7 without stopping to take a breath or a bite of food. His loving and often befuddled uncle has little interest or skill in video games, although was quite a Ms. Pac Man player in his time. As a result, I missed out on all the Disney games that have been released over the last decades.
In 1989, Capcom released a DuckTales video game for Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) and Game Boy, as well as a sequel in 1993. According to many reliable sources, they were great games, with Scrooge even wiggling his tail when he was about to swing his golf club.
An HD remake of Capcom’s original game, titled DuckTales: Remastered, will be released this summer by Capcom and Disney Interactive for PlayStation Network 3, Xbox 360 Live Arcade, and Wii U.
Early reports are that the new game will be faithful not only to the original game, but also the television series—even though hand-drawn sprites and 3D backgrounds will replace the original pixel art of the popular video game.
Disney provided “original art assets” from the television series, like original sketches, hand-drawn animation cels, painted backgrounds (some of these items will be available as bonuses in the game’s museum mode), as well as 93-years-young actor Alan Young returning to play the role of Uncle Scrooge just as he did in the original series.
The work on the game is being done by WayForward Technologies located near California Institute of the Arts. Some of the founding members of the company 22 years ago were former students at CalArts.
The WayForward team actually had the two versions of the game playing side-by-side, with one controller used to control both games, and found that the character movement in DuckTales Remastered matched the NES version "almost perfectly."
"When we first started the game we were pushing toward making it more like the original game than anything else," explained WayForward’s Austin Ivansmith. "But when Disney came back and said they could get the voice actors, things shifted, and it was 'wow, let's really get the feelings of the characters from the show in there, and get as many characters as we can in there.' And it sort of expanded from there and became a little more like the show, but without really breaking the feel of the NES game. It's more like folding the show into the NES game."
The game will also include a version of Scrooge's money bin so that as a player accumulates wealth, he will be able to swim in the cash just like Scrooge.
While I still think of DuckTales as a new and controversial television series (Disney animation surrendering for the first time to the lower quality demands of television animation), I have to remind myself that the show premiered on September 18, 1987, and ended on November 28, 1990, after 100 episodes—so some MousePlanet readers may not even be familiar with the series.
Since I am a Disney historian and not a videogame player, let’s explore the history of how DuckTales was born.
In 1947, Disney Legend Carl Barks created the character of Uncle Scrooge McDuck as a one-shot character for a Donald Duck comic book story titled “Christmas on Bear Mountain” in Dell Four Color No. 178.
The penny-pinching Scottish uncle proved so popular that six years later, he was starring in his own comic book series from Dell filled with incredible stories by Barks that are studied and beloved today.
Disney Legend Jack Hannah told me that, because of Scrooge’s popularity, there was talk about using the character in a theatrical short, but that Walt Disney supposedly thought that a character who went wild over money just wasn’t funny.
However, in 1967, a 16-minute educational short Scrooge McDuck and Money was released with Scrooge singing about budgets, inflation, the history of money and vastness of actual wealth as he taught Huey, Dewey, and Louie the true value of money.
In 1983, Scrooge popped up again as the star in the animated featurette Mickey’s Christmas Carol with actor Alan Young supplying the voice as he did for the record album he co-wrote that was the inspiration for the film.
Michael Eisner, who became the CEO of the Walt Disney Company, got his real start as a highly successful programming executive at ABC. In this capacity he was responsible for Saturday morning children’s programming and among other projects that raised ABC’s ratings was overseeing the development of animated series featuring singing groups like the Jackson Five and the Osmond Brothers.
Basically, Eisner knew quite well that the only game in town at the time for children to watch new animation was on Saturday morning and it was a large and committed audience.
In 1985, Eisner announced, “The time has come for Walt Disney Pictures…to be a competitor on network television and to participate in improving the quality of our children’s programs for our present generation of children.”
Basically, Eisner announced that Disney would produce two Saturday morning series: The Wuzzles for CBS and Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears for NBC.
Inspired by his son’s love of the candy bears, Eisner personally sold Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears to NBC, according to a network official. The Wuzzles was sold to the CBS network by Disney development people, a CBS spokesman said.
Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears series was based on a chewy bear-shaped candy product of the same name that is still made by Heide, a West German company. Disney developed the individual bear characters with distinct personalities who lived in Gummi Glen and made a powerful Gummiberry juice, sought after by humans, for both the program and a toy line.
The Wuzzles was a co-venture with toy manufacturer Hasbro Bradley Inc. The program was based on six different characters that were developed by both companies for both the series and a plush toy line to be marketed by Hasbro.
Wuzzlesare combinations of two animals—for example, a bumblebee and a lion becomes a "bumblelion."
While the Disney Company rarely comments on money, a spokesman for Hasbro at the time said The Wuzzles contract calls for Hasbro and Disney to split the profits 50-50 from both the series and the toys.
''It won't look like the very stiff sort of thing you're used to seeing on some animated shows where people walk like sticks and occasionally their jaws go up and down to let you know their talking,'' said Gary Krisel, the Disney Productions executive responsible for Saturday morning programming.
''We're trying to bring a higher quality animation to Saturday mornings,'' Krisel said. ''We owe that to the art form. We're creating a style of animation that's appropriate for television, and for television's budgets that will look, for those who have an eye for animation, better than anything else on television. Disney artists are drawing all the backgrounds, however, and all the script writing, recording of voices and music and editing will be done at Disney's Burbank studios as well.”
Of course, to accommodate the limited Saturday morning budget, the animation would all be done overseas where animators were paid roughly 25 percent of what the union Disney animators made and there were no benefits.
In an August 29, 1985, interview with the Los Angeles Times, animator Walter Stanchfield (who had worked at Disney since 1948) stated, "[Disney President of Motion Pictures and Television] Jeffrey Katzenberg gave a talk to us and tried to assure us that it wasn't that we were being ousted in any way. They're going to be more cost-conscious from now on, and to do a picture like Bambi [the original version] would be impossible now."
At the same time, Eisner moved the Disney animators out of the building that had been their home for more than 40 years to make room for offices for live-action producers. The animators found a new home in nearby Glendale.
In 1984, Disney established The Walt Disney Pictures Television Animation Group (the name was then later changed, shortened to Walt Disney Television Animation starting in mid-1988 and was its name up until 2011, when it was shortened again to Disney Television Animation). The unit was originally formed as the animation production arm of the former Walt Disney Television Group banner.
The first two Saturday morning Disney programs, The Wuzzles and Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears debuted in fall 1985…directly opposite each other in the same time slot but on different channels. While the animation was clearly higher quality in comparison to its competitors, it was nowhere near the quality usually associated with Disney animation.
Krisel stated in 1985 that the licensing fee for the shows was more than other Saturday show-suppliers receive, but less than what it cost Disney to produce the series. Like the producers of primetime series, Disney was practicing ''deficit financing,'' gambling that it would make its profits when the networks exhausted their rights and the episodes could be syndicated or shown on The Disney Channel on cable.
However, Eisner soon saw that the profit margin was lower on Saturday morning than in weekday syndication that was primarily the home for reruns on old cartoons, but that the success of the new He-Man and the Masters of the Universe series that had debuted in 1983 was setting a new business model with its partnership between Mattel and Filmation.
The networks could cancel a program before it met the magic number of 65 episodes (allowing for 13 straight weeks of one episode per weekday in syndication, resulting in the series to be run four times per year and quickly recovering its original production cost). CBS cancelled The Wuzzles after just 13 episodes, which is one of the reasons it did not get rerun over the years.
So, Eisner took a gamble and committed to producing 65 episodes of a Disney animated series that could be sold directly to local television markets as well as overseas. However, if the series was a flop, Disney would only recover a small part of its initial investment of approximately $20 millions.
The Disney Company realized it could not use its main characters, like Mickey Mouse, in a limited animation format for fear of not only watering down the brand and over exposing the characters but the expected negative outcry from Disney animation fans.
Adapting the Scrooge stories of Carl Barks seemed like a good idea, especially since it had connections to the Donald Duck universe and would provide more Disney credibility than newly created characters like Wuzzles and Gummi Bears.
"Barks was never really consulted," stated Tom Ruzicka, associate producer of Duck Tales, in a 1987 interview when the show premiered. "Although the show was initially based on the concept of doing Scrooge McDuck and the nephews, we discovered that a lot of stuff that made wonderful comics wouldn't translate into the '80s or into animation. So we started evolving new characters and other things to contemporize the show. As we did that, the stories got further and further away from the comics, although a few episodes are lifted right out of them."
Those Barks-inspired episodes include loose adaptations of The Giant Robot Robbers, The Lost Crown of Genghis Khan, Micro Ducks From Outer Space, Back to the Klondike, The Golden Fleecing and The Great Steamboat Race among other classic stories.
Story editor Jymn Mgaon claimed that "With DuckTales, we wanted to get into a gutsier story sense. Our focus was on adventure and I think it shows."
The original concept was for the show to be an hour long with a separate segment featuring a new character named Launchpad McQuack who was a daredevil pilot. However, when Disney learned that it was difficult to sell an hour-long series in syndication, they cut the show to the traditional half-hour common in syndicated series. By then, Launchpad had developed as a popular character and so was incorporated into the final cast.
Instead of Daisy Duck's nieces April, May and June, there was a new female character called Webbigail (Webby) who was the granddaughter of Mrs. Beakley, the nephews' governess. Rounding out the final cast was Duckworth, Scrooge's manservant.
Alan Young was once again brought in to do the voice of Scrooge as he had a few years earlier with Mickey’s Christmas Carol. Russi Taylor, better known as the voice of Minnie Mouse, provided the voices for all of the nephews.
Over the course of the series, incredible voice actors supplied their talents including Chuck McCann, Joan Gerber, June Foray, Hal Smith, Frank Welker, Rob Paulsen, Will Ryan and others.
Barks' original characters, including Magica De Spell, Flintheart Glomgold and the Beagle Boys, popped up.
The famous Beagle Boys were now given names for the first time like Big Time, Burger, Bouncer and Baggy where in the Barks' comics they only had prison numbers. Other Beagles followed in the "B" tradition including Backbite, Bankshot, Baron Von, Bushwack and Baffling.
However, Donald himself would only appear very briefly in the first episode as he enlisted in the Navy and was shipped off to explain why his nephews were being cared for by their greatuncle and why Donald was not around for the adventures.
According to DuckTales story editor Tad Stones, another reason for abandoning Donald was not just the fear of over exposure, but that it was impossible to understand the duck who had lengthy monologs in the comic book series. Donald’s voice was just too unintelligible to carry the important story points.
DuckTales would capture the “spirit” of the Barks stories with adventures around the world, the cooperation between different generations and Scrooge as the clever and persistent protagonist.
DuckTales and some of the later series employed a number of Pacific Rim animation houses (like Cuckoo's Nest Studios and Wang Film Productions of Taiwan), but the foremost was Japan’s Tokyo Movie Shinsha (who had supplied the animation for The Wuzzles and Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears and is now known as TMS Entertainment), the top company at working within the constraints of television animation. Often just to show off, they would include special “touches” to demonstrate their skills.
Michael Webster, Disney vice president of Television Animation, and Tom Ruzicka, DuckTales associate producer, insisted in an interview with the Los Angeles Times September 20,1987, that cost was not the determining factor in the decision to make DuckTales in Japan. (At $300,000 per episode, the budget for DuckTales was good, but not extraordinary.)
"When we started, the yen was at 240 to the dollar; it's now at 143 to the dollar, so our costs went up 40 percent just through shifts in the currency," Webster said. "It is not cheaper for us to do it over there. But they have a talent pool of fantastic draftsmen that we don't. We have some talented artists over here, but nowhere near enough to handle the massive amounts of footage we need. And the work ethic in Japan is phenomenal: They all work six-day weeks, and probably at least 10-hour days. Some of them work all night. I've gone into the studio in the morning and seen guys sleeping under their desks—it's unbelievable."
DuckTales premiered with a two-hour special on Sept. 18, 1987 in 150 markets covering 93 percent of the country. Originally created as a two-and-half hour five-part serial, the story was edited down to a two-hour version titled Treasure of the Golden Suns.
DuckTales was an instant hit and spawned other syndicated programs including Chip’n’Dale Resuce Rangers, Tale Spin, Goof Troop and others that led to the creation of a “Disney Afternoon” block of two-hours programming that was an afternoon blockbuster for local television stations, inspiring a similar block of programming from Warner Brothers, The Kids WB Network.
The afternoon syndication marketplace eventually collapsed, especially with the increased success of cable channels like Disney and Nickelodeon. Disney shifted its focus from original series to extensions of popular animated theatrical movies like Aladdin and The Little Mermaid.
“With the collapse of the syndicated animation market along with the ‘speak no good of the ducks’ atmosphere back then, the current execs at Disney don't have a visceral feel of how popular DuckTales and its descendants were,” Stones said. “We're talking a huge audience, an audience that now has kids. Imagine how a CG ‘DuckTales’ movie would do right now.”
While there is no discussion of reviving the series, filling the gap for DuckTales fans will be the new videogame and if it proves popular, who knows what may lie in the future for Scrooge and his greatnephews?