The Media Man Reviews: Gargoyles
The Disney Afternoon remains to this day one of the most nostalgic treasures of many an 80's and 90's Disney fan. Home to shows such as Chip N' Dale Rescue Rangers, DuckTales, TaleSpin, Aladdin: The Series, Goof Troop and more, everyone has that one show from the Disney Afternoon they hold dear to their hearts and has a very strong nostalgic connection towards. And no show can be held as a more prime example of this than the subject of today's review. That show of course...is Gargoyles.
Released in 1994 and running for three seasons, Gargoyles became one of the Disney Afternoon's biggest hits with heavy praise directed towards its darker tone, surprisingly mature themes, complex story arcs, deep character writing and clever use of Shakespearean themes and mythology that made for a show unlike anything Disney has ever made before or since. It was also the show that launched the career of Greg Weisman, the man that would give us other beloved cartoons like Young Justice and The Spectacular Spider-Man. The show has sadly fallen into relative obscurity in recent years, not being as talked about as much as other Disney properties but it has a very loyal fan-following that continues to this day and once had an annual fan-convention known as Gathering of the Gargoyles that ran until 2009. Also recent shows like DuckTales 2017 and Amphibia have thrown in references to the show so it's clear there's still some love for Gargoyles out there.
If you want to know my story or childhood connection with this show, I...don't have one. Seriously, I never watched this show back in its heyday due to the fact I was literally a baby at the time it was out and wasn't really watching television until I was about three or four. Even then, my childhood in terms of what was on TV at the time consisted of Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh, Digimon, Dragonball and Power Rangers. I didn't really watch Disney cartoons at that time, I just watched the movies. I wouldn't even be aware of this show's existence until I watched the Nostalgia Critic's review on it back when watching him used to be cool. Yes, I owe this asshole for making me aware of this show's existence. Gosh I feel dirty...
Still, I wouldn't watch Gargoyles until I got Disney+ and as mentioned in my Top 10 Disney Villains From Other Media list, I FINALLY ended up watching it as research so I could include David Xanatos on the list. So having finally seen the show, is Gargoyles is incredible as people say it is? Or should it be turned to stone and stay that way? Let's glide through the skies of Manhattan and dig our claws into this intriguing piece of Disney media...
Section 1: The Writing
Important disclaimer: I only watched the show from Season 1 to 2. I have NOT watched Season 3 and I don't plan to, especially as Season 3 is officially non-canon as stated by Greg Weisman himself. Also Season 3 is the season even fans don't care for so why bother? So, this review is based ENTIRELY on Seasons 1-2.
The story of Gargoyles centres around an ancient clan of...well, Gargoyles, that once resided in ancient Scotland. But due to betrayal from the humans they once swore to protect, only six remain alive by the end alongside a batch of eggs that are put in care while the remaining six are frozen in stone until "the castle rises above the clouds". 1000 years later, they reawaken in modern-day (at the time) New York and become defenders of the city whilst befriending a human police detective named Elisa Maza and going up against a colourful gallery of villains from the mystical to the ordinary. Also, the clan may discover there might be more Gargoyles out there than just themselves...
At the time, this show was viewed as "Disney's answer to Batman: The Animated Series" and it really shows. While this show is nowhere as dark as Batman: The Animated Series, it still feels closer to that show tonally than any Disney show that was out at the time and arguably more so than Disney's modern works. This show deals with heavy themes such as tragedy, genocide, corruption on the streets, gang war and there's even an episode about gun control that plays the situation very seriously and also very maturely as well. Half the time when watching this show, I was constantly asking "This came from DISNEY of all companies?!" because it really is hard to believe that Disney would ever make anything like this. Of course, I'm NOT using this as a criticism against the show. On the contrary, this just made the show a more unique viewing experience for me as it did for everyone else. If anything, it's really impressive to see this kind of show from Disney and that it turned out as well as it did. Pity Season 3 went against all that but again, we don't talk about Season 3...
Gargoyles is a show that boasts surprisingly complex storytelling for what is by all means a family-friendly show. I even wonder how many of the kids watching the show at the time were able to keep up with the story at times because it really isn't as easy to follow as most family-friendly shows are. There's heavy attention to detail, heavy use of continuity and a lot of clever and unexpected twists that really gives the writers a lot of credit for being able to carry out such complex storytelling as well as they did. The biggest moments for me include the backstories of Demona and Macbeth and the practically Doctor Who style time-loop with the Archmage. Those aspects had a lot of detail to them and watching those particular stories make you think "Ah...it all adds up now!" when you watch them and are given the answers to the questions you may have. While the show is mostly episodic, the serialized storytelling is often there even in the episodes that might not seem all that important and certain plot points end up leading to something bigger later down the line. The show almost never forgets anything and even when you think it does, it surprises you by finally addressing it as if to say, "Don't worry, we were saving that one for later".
The show also has a consistent tone throughout the series. It is darker than most Disney shows out there, but it never feels like it gets too dark, and it mostly plays its concepts and ideas completely straight with not too much silliness to them, especially when it comes to the portrayal of mythical legends and historical figures. Yes people, this is the kind of show where myths and legends are real and yet the show doesn't make it as silly as it sounds and even gives a lot of these legends the nuance and dignity they deserve. Due to being family-friendly, the show still has to be toned down enough so kids can watch but I still feel it does a good job on making it engaging for adults as well as kids and it never once talks down to them or sugar coats what it's talking about just because they're watching. Need I bring up the gun control episode again? Or the sheer tragedy of Demona and Macbeth's backstories? There is at least one moment in the show that felt too silly, even by this show's standards (the subplot in the episode "Vendetta" to be exact) but overall, Gargoyles remains consistent and true to the kind of show it's set up to be and doesn't feel the need to dumb itself down for younger audiences.
And as many have praised about the show, the characters are often a high point when it comes to the writing. Many of them are deeper than you can possibly imagine and have layers to them that make them more than the sum of their parts. The villains especially aren't just evil villains who do evil things because they're evil (with some exceptions) and at times have a more human side to them that makes them more than just the bad guy our heroes have to face. It's easy to get the impression that Greg and his team loved writing these characters and developing them over the course of the series. Not all of them are as deep and complex as others are, but many of them are more than what they seem, and I mean that quite literally with some of the surprise reveals we get with some of these characters.
So yeah, this show is really awesome. I don't think that's an unpopular opinion. XD But I'm sorry to say my friends that I have to find something to criticize about it...you may feel free to send Goliath after me now. =P In all seriousness, the show doesn't have too much wrong with it but even it falters in spite of its otherwise high-quality writing. While the show has a good memory, there are still plot-points that go nowhere and that can feel a bit of a shame at times. Elisa records Fox confessing to David's crimes and gives it to her brother to listen to? Nothing comes of it and the tape is never even mentioned again. David gets a powerful computer virus from Coldstone? Never brought up again and he never uses it. Matt Bluestone investigating the Illuminati and being given a badge to maybe join them one day? The Illuminati never appear again after the episode "Revelations" and this plot point goes nowhere, having to rely on the comics in order to continue it. Now some of this might be down to the show having to be changed for Season 3 so they couldn't do some of these plot-points but some like the first two I mentioned really should've had some kind of payoff.
And of course, I have to bring up the big elephant-in-the-room regarding this show...The Avalon World Tour Arc. This arc is divisive for many reasons and I'm sorry to say that I side with the detractors in this case. It's WAY too long, WAY too formulaic, some of the episodes like "The Hound of Ulster" are more filler than anything and a lot of the concepts and characters introduced here are literally just there to set up spin-offs that never happened. No, I'm not trying to be funny here, that is LITERALLY the case! It really feels like the show got too over-enthusiastic about itself and thus made this arc as a means to set up expanded universe material instead of focusing on its own story and thus the World Tour arc ends up feeling largely unnecessary in the end. Had I been in charge, I would've made it much shorter and had some of these concepts and ideas introduced come back into play again in the series itself. Still, the arc has some good things about it and it's not a total waste of time. I just agree with the detractors that it was too long and should've prioritized its own story over setting up spin-offs that ultimately never happened.
And don't get me started on that dumb sub-plot with Vinnie in the episode "Vendetta"... That subplot especially feels more like something Season 3 would do, not Season 2 and I don't get why it's there. Heck, "Vendetta" as a whole is a pure filler episode that really didn't need to happen. Hakon's defeat was already satisfying back in "Shadows of the Past", we didn't need him to come back again just so we can confirm that he and Wolf are related. That really wasn't a big deal in the grand scheme of things.
Still, Gargoyles is a very smartly written show that had way more effort put into it than it probably needed and as a result gave us one of Disney's most intriguing shows they've ever created...
Section 2: The Characters
There's a lot to cover but I'll try and stick to the important ones so this review doesn't get too long.
We have the Manhattan Clan of Gargoyles consisting of Goliath (voiced by Keith David), Brooklyn (voiced by Jeff Bennett), Broadway (voiced by Bill Fagerbakke), Lexington (voiced by Thom Adcox-Hernandez), Hudson (voiced by Ed Asner) and Bronx (voiced by Frank Welker). Goliath is the leader of the clan and the main protagonist of the show so he gets most of the character development and screentime of the group. Goliath is awesome and is one of the best characters ever created for a Disney property. He is strong and powerful but also compassionate, wise and honourable. He can be pushed to his limits and almost forgo his moral values but in the end, he stays true to them no matter what and proves himself a Gargoyle that is truly worthy of leading the clan. He cares dearly for his fellow Gargoyles but is also willing to risk life and limb for the humans too. Even though they were responsible for slaughtering most of his clan back in ancient times, he still believes there is good in humanity and with his human friend, Elisa Maza, he has proof that he's right in his beliefs.
The rest of the clan aren't quite as developed or as important as Goliath but they have their own uses and moments to shine throughout. Brooklyn is the hot-head who later becomes second-in-command of the team, Broadway is the big eater who's mostly brawn but can be smarter than he seems at times, Lexington is the tech-expert who may seem meek and mild but is stronger than he looks and Hudson is the old-timer who is Goliath's Number Two and the former leader of the clan who passed the title on to him long ago. Each Gargoyle is memorable in their own right and can prove useful to the clan when on missions and I guarantee everyone will have a favourite to choose from. The one exception to this is Bronx who due to basically being the family dog of the team doesn't have much in terms of personality and half the time I question why he even exists because he's not always that useful. I feel you could've written Bronx out the show and not much would change. At least the World Tour arc gave him more screentime and more of a change to prove his worth.
Come Season 2, the clan gains a new member in the form of Angela (voiced by Brigitte Bako). Angela is Goliath and Demona's daughter, something so obvious that Elisa notices at first glance and yet the show tries to present it like a twist for some reason. Angela may not be the best in a fight but her compassionate nature slowly starts to rub off on Goliath as they spend time together and eventually he comes to acknowledge her as his daughter. Her presence even seems to bring out what little good is left in Demona, which is also interesting. It would've been nice if we could've seen more of her adjusting to life in New York and interacting with the rest of the clan but again, that's not the show's fault as Season 3 changed everything, and not for the best, so I won't hold it against them.
We also have our human companion, Elisa Maza (voiced by Salli Richardson). Elisa is basically the April O'Neil to the Gargoyle's Ninja Turtles and she fills the role in perfectly. Elisa is tough-as-nails and is one cop you don't want to mess with. While at times she might seem like a load due to being a human getting involved with mythical creatures like Gargoyles, she's not totally useless and can even hold her own in some cases. She takes her role as police detective VERY seriously and doesn't let anyone or anything stand in her way. She helps the Gargoyles adjust to their modern setting and is the one that ultimately helps in protecting them from public exposure by hiding them in the clock tower above the police station. If any human was to be the Gargoyle's companion, they were lucky it was her.
And now we come to the villains. There's quite a few but again, I'll only talk about the major ones. We have the main villain of our show, David Xanatos (played by Jonathan Frakes). David is a fantastic villain who subverts many of the usual villain cliches by being an intelligent schemer to the point he nearly always wins no matter the outcome, not being a moustache-twirling supervillain who laughs maniacally and monologues for his own amusement, not always being against the heroes unless it benefits him in some way, actually genuinely loving his loved ones and even finding causes like revenge a "sucker's game". David is a fascinating villain and is a Disney villain like none we've ever seen before in any of their movies or shows and I doubt we'll ever get another villain like him again. I like how despite the fact he does some pretty immoral stuff like being behind the mutates project or what not, he still has an air of humanity to him and he still has lines he won't cross.
We have our secondary villain and the main Gargoyle antagonist, Demona (voiced by Marina Sirtis). I find it so clever that the main two villains of the show are a human and a Gargoyle respectively. It's a subtle way of establishing that our heroes have enemies on both sides. However, unlike David, Demona is not as compelling or even as likeable as he is. While she makes for a great foe for the Gargoyles, as a character she's just annoying. She's your typical "Rargh, humanity sucks and I want to kill them all!" kind of villain and her stubbornness and refusal to take responsibility or even acknowledge her own actions in the crimes she's committed make her come across as hypocritical and ignorant to the point of borderline stupidity. Not even her lengthy, complex backstory helps her case any as she's to the point where she's below any sympathy from me. Why would I feel sorry for this self-righteous hypocrite when she keeps blaming everyone but herself for her actions and keeps wanting to kill the humans even when there are billions of humans that haven't done anything to her? I keep wishing that Goliath would get through to this idiot and she'd FINALLY wake the hell up and get a clue for once but she never did! If any character SHOULD have had a redemption arc, it's easily Demona. She would've been so much better if she had an arc where she finally realizes how her lust for revenge has wrecked her life so and finally reconciles with Goliath but alas, that never came to be. I know a lot of people like this character and find her a great villain and I respect that. I'm just sorry to say she didn't work for me.
We also have another recurring villain in the form of Macbeth (voiced by John Rhys-Davies). Macbeth is another fascinating villain with his deep, lengthy backstory and connection to Demona while also still maintaining a code of honour and a sense of class and dignity to him. Macbeth's ultimate goal is to be rid of Demona so he can finally die after being kept alive for so long and he shows to be quite the badass whenever he's in action.
We have other villains throughout the show such as The Pack, Thailog, the Weird Sisters, Dr. Sevarius , the Archmage, Tony Dracon, the Hunters and more but most of them are villains for certain arcs in the show rather than main villains like the ones I mentioned earlier. The Pack feel very underutilized as a recurring supervillain team and it feels like they should've been used more, Thailog is fascinating as this clone of Goliath and Xanatos...that only appears in THREE episodes and that's it so he feels wasted(!), Dr. Sevarius is only memorable because Tim Curry plays him, the Archmage is your typical one-dimensional evil sorcerer who at least is made fun to watch thanks to the late David Warner's performance, Tony Dracon is boring as all hell and I never enjoy him whenever he's onscreen and the Weird Sisters are as weird as their names would suggest. The Hunters are great villains in concept but in execution, we didn't get enough of them as they only appeared in a three-parter at the end of Season 2 and the show went in a different direction come Season 3 so not more could be done with them, sadly. While not all of them are the best villains compared to the main three, they do pose a variety of different threats to our heroes and give us some cool action set pieces to put the Gargoyles in from time-to-time.
We have some other noteworthy characters to mention. There's the elderly Halycon Reynard, the father of Fox who has a strong belief in integrity and while seeing Goliath as an enemy at first, comes to respect him later on and somewhat become an ally to him. There's Derek Maza, Elisa's brother who becomes a mutant creature who ends up leading his own group of mutant Gargoyle creatures to give them a new chance at life after Xanatos and Sevarius took that away from them and of course, there's Fox who starts off as the leader of The Pack and later becomes David's wife. I liked those characters and enjoyed the stories they ended up telling, especially Halycon with how he wasn't just another villain and Derek with how he ended up making the best of a bad situation despite what became of him. Still would've helped if he'd been a little more trusting of his sister over David though...
There are some lesser characters in this show but the ones that are good are VERY good and are a big reason why this show is so enjoyable to watch. I guarantee that there's going to be plenty of favourites to pick from with this cast...
Section 3: The Animation
Most 90's cartoons tend to look somewhat outdated by today's standards and it's very easy to make fun of that. However, I personally feel Gargoyles has aged pretty decently all things considered and its animation is pretty high quality by TV standards.
Sure it still looks a little dated and you have the usual kind of animation errors that come from old cartoons such as these like characters being off-model, awkward movements and facial expressions, colouring errors, inconsistent framerate and more but for the most part, I think this show looks really good and is surprisingly well-animated for a show of its time.
Let's start off with the art-style. The art-style reflects Gargoyle's more serious nature by looking more "realistic" compared to other Disney cartoons. The humans in particular look like they'd fit in a superhero comic world with how they look more like real humans than cartoony humans but they still have a few artistic choices to make them more unique and identifiable from Elisa's trademark blue hair to Tony Dracon's skunk stripe and Fox's long flowing red locks. The Pack especially get some creative looks when they get cybernetic or mutant upgrades later in the show. Very few of the trademark Disney style can be seen here, even in the fictious elements like the Gargoyles themselves or any of the mythical figures and legends like King Arthur, Oberon and his children or whatever legendary creature the Gargoyles face. It's this art-style that also makes it hard to believe this is a Disney show because it sure doesn't look like one! Once again, it's easy to see how this show was meant to be Disney's answer to Batman: The Animated Series as even the art-style feels closer to that than a Disney show, although the show still has its own art-style and doesn't follow Bruce Timm's usual style. It does however use a similar murky colour palette and often has heavy use of shadows and a night time setting for its stories, which also adds to the comparison.
For the character designs, the animators really show off their creativity when it comes to the Gargoyles themselves. Each one looks unique and easily identifiable due to each gargoyle having their own body-shape, colour and facial features and Lexington is even given a membrane to glide with instead of wings while Bronx has no wings due to being more of a beast than an actual gargoyle. And come later in the series, we see even more Gargoyles and the animators show us that not all Gargoyles have to have this humanoid bat-creature design as some have traits of other animals whether it's Griff looking more bird like, two Gargoyles in London resembling a lion and a unicorn respectively or even the snake-like one we see in "The Green". Even the mutates are given creative designs where they resemble cat/gargoyle fusions and also look unique from one another. I just find it fascinating seeing all the different gargoyle designs in this show and it really makes the gargoyles themselves a fascinating race to watch.
The show also makes New York look great. Granted, some shots are...uncomfortable to watch given the World Trade Centre is there (this show was before 9/11 remember) but New York still looks amazing and the background artists truly captured the feeling of the Big Apple despite working with a TV budget. They take full advantage of the setting too with plenty of locations to use for set-pieces and action scenes throughout the show while not overly relying on just using familiar landmarks just because of the setting. We even get some fictional elements to make this version of New York City its own, namely Xanatos's big skyscraper with Castle Wyvern built on top of it. That is ALWAYS going to be rather fascinating to look at no matter what show it's in and it's a brilliant visual metaphor for the old Gargoyles clashing with the modern David Xanatos. It's not just New York that looks good too. The backgrounds in general are well done no matter the setting. The Avalon World Tour arc takes full advantage of this with the numerous countries the characters visit and we even see Avalon itself which is depicted as this heavenly utopia that looks like a beautiful place to live. The episode "Revelations" even gives us an Illuminati owned hotel which is depicted as this house of horrors where every room is a death trap waiting to happen and I bet the animators had so much fun playing around with the backgrounds in that episode.
And of course, the animators really go out of their way to play around with the capabilities of their characters and no better example can be given than the action scenes. Most of the time, the fights can be rather tame so as not to make the show too intense but they still make them cool to watch with how they use the Gargoyle's abilities to their advantage with their ability to glide, their super strength, use of their tails and how they can fight in ways humans can't because of it. They give us all sorts of cool set-pieces for the action here whether it's in the air or on the ground and the animators really go all out to make it look cool. And then we have the two part "The Gathering" episode where we get the huge brawl with Oberon. That battle was insane with Oberon's godly abilities and how he managed to fight both powerfully and smartly with how he used his powers. The animators really captured the feel on what fighting a literal god would look like and it was quite a watch!
Gargoyles is a show that looks great and is awesome to watch for its visuals and I applaud the animators for giving us such a good looking show despite working with a TV budget. This is ultimate proof that the best results don't always come from having the most wealth and that you can create brilliant animation if you use your resources well.
While I wouldn't say I think as highly of this show as most people do, I really did have a good time with Gargoyles and I'm so glad I checked it out. It may have its flaws but the show glides high above the skies of Manhattan with what it achieved. The writing is surprisingly detailed, complex and intriguing, the characters have a lot of depth to them, the animation is really damn good by the standards of 90's cartoons and its overall among the most unique pieces of content to come from the Walt Disney company. They've never created a show like this before or since and it stands out as a result. I highly recommend checking it out if you can and I think you'll be in for something special if you do. This is one show that is as impressive as an actual Gargoyle...
That's all I've got for this review on a treasured relic from Disney's past. I hope you enjoyed it and I invite you all to share your thoughts on the show down below. Next week, I'll be journeying back into Xadia as I review The Dragon Prince Season 4. Don't miss it!