Walt Disney Television Animation boldly goes into action/adventure
Walt Disney Television
Created by Greg Weisman
In retrospect, it seems rather funny: when I first heard of Disney's then-upcoming Gargoyles TV series a few years ago, my initial reaction was to cringe. The notion of Disney doing an action-adventure series just seemed so strange. While the Disney Afternoon lineup varied considerably in styles, there was little to suggest that they could do a straight adventure show without sidekicks, cutesy comedy relief, or keeping everything to the level of preteens.

Imagine my surprise when, in an early episode, I saw a Viking invader hurled to his doom from a castle wall. Imagine my further surprise at seeing a show that effectively combined Disney character animation and Japanese-style action animation and effects on a TV budget. And still more surprise!--the series had a continuing storyline, done the right way--meaning that dilemmas were not necessarily wrapped up in every half-hour episode, and time was spent gradually developing characters and laying groundwork for upcoming episodes.

When the series opens in 994 AD, we find Castle Wyvern in Scotland under siege by Viking hordes. Among the castle defenders are the gargoyles--a race of beings described in the show's second-season opening as "stone by day, warriors by night." When struck by sunlight, they turn to stone and essentially hibernate. When the sun sets, they awaken as their fearsome selves: winged, horned and with claws that can rake stone. Despite their tireless efforts to defend the castle, many people still fear or hate them, due to their bestial appearances.

Through treachery and magic, the gargoyle clan is decimated, and the few survivors are placed under a spell whereby they remain in stone throughout the night, until such time as their castle "rises above the clouds." Fast-forward to 1994, where wealthy industrialist David Xanatos transplants the castle to the top of a New York skyscraper--and the gargoyles find themselves awakening in a strange new world.

Since the gargoyles are stone by day, most of the series takes place at night, echoing the "Dark Deco" Batman: The Animated Series. However, where the fictitious Gotham City is a mix of the present day urban environment and elements of the past's design, aesthetic and fashions, Gargoyles blends modern New York with elements of the future: criminals deal in laser cannons, hovercrafts regularly fly over the city, and technologies such as cybernetics and genetic engineering are more advanced than our own. The series maintains its gothic ties through the gargoyles themselves, their attempts to preserve their ways as they adapt to the 20th century, and the people and objects from the past that pop up now and again.

If anything, Gargoyles' main strength is its crossover appeal. Gargoyles is undeniably targeted at children; it airs during the Disney Afternoon block and on Saturday mornings, both of which are blocks devoted to the under-13 set. However, while there's plenty of action for the younger crowd, there's more than enough intrigue and intelligent character interaction for adults to sit down and watch the show with or without the young ones in the room.

Gargoyles is also unique in that it tries to be a more progressive and socially conscious show without being too blatant and preachy. The emphasis, however, is on the word "tries". In some cases, the show succeeds at its ambitions. For instance, Gargoyles is one of the few cartoons that acknowledges interracial romances; the main female protagonist, Elisa Maza, is a very strong character who spends as much time rescuing Goliath, the gargoyles' leader, as he does her; Goliath, despite being a male warrior, is a very sensitive and emotional character without being angst-ridden; episodes on such topics as gun control and hero worship are handled intelligently. On the other hand, there are times when Gargoyles tries too hard and doesn't quite hit the mark, particularly in the second season where episodes on such topics as preservation of the rain forest and native American heritage are presented too ham-handedly. One very nice touch is the continued emphasis on reading; in later episodes, we discover that two of the gargoyles never learned to read, and they come to terms with accepting and then dealing with their illiteracy. There are also more than a few literary references in the show designed to encourage kids to read. The message isn't always subtle, but it certainly is welcome. Similarly, Gargoyles has an underlying theme on the importance of family. Different relationships are explored at different times in the series (Elisa and her parents, Goliath and his clan, David Xanatos and his father, etc.), but in all cases--even with the villains--characters value their families. Better still, there is no emphasis on what constitutes a "proper" family; the extended family is considered as important a support structure as the biological family.

This is a very refreshing attitude in commercial animation, but then Gargoyles is a very refreshing show.

Originally printed in fps #11 (Autumn 1996)