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DuckTales returns with some armchair psychoanalysis of Donald Duck's perpetual anger

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We’re back! After another long-term hiatus, DuckTales returns with another eight-episode bomb to close out the season. This has been an exciting, stronger season overall, and it looks like there’s going to be way more “stuff” on the horizon, if this poster is any indication. A ton of references to the Disney Afternoon will be coming this way through the rest of this season and the next! But as the show begins its venture into the “Disney Afternoon Animated Universe” (or whatever people plan to call it), we can’t ever forget about the show’s strongest and surprisingly resonant, classic character: Donald.

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It often felt like DuckTales originally meant for Donald to have a more significant role early on. He had the funniest bits, sure, but he also had the most emotional attachment to the nephews, the most trenchant insights in adventuring, and a certain verve that came to the surface when the people he loved were in danger. But it seemed as if the creative team couldn’t figure out how to write around his voice. Literally. It proved tricky to put so much dramatic weight on someone that many people can’t understand, so he was put on the backburner, relegated to elaborately (still funny) comedy bits and self-aware gags about how no one can really understand him. There’s been discussion in the comments here on how to write around this particular obstacle, but it hasn’t quite been explored on this show, at least not yet. “What Ever Happened To Donald Duck?!” transforms all of that subtext into literal text, which plays well in the episode climax, but struggles in a lot of other ways that hinders some of the action and development.

I think that a big issue is that this upcoming Moon invasion of Earth feels weirdly alien (pun intended). Della’s whole dilemma was tied to the introduction and motivations of the Moonlanders, but now that she’s home, this story line is coming across rather perfunctory. It has the requisite twists and turns–a softened Penumbra working with Donald to stop the invasion, the revelation that Lunaris has been working on a Earth invasion for a while–but beyond that, the Moonlanders aren’t all that interesting. The Moonlanders overall are easily manipulated and kind of lame, and even though they have a massive fleet of ships, this is DuckTales we’re talking about, so even that doesn’t seem like it’ll be much of a threat. Donald falls into the soldiers’ barracks and takes out every guard (in a funny, if overly long, sequence involving a scorpion-creature crawling in his clothing). Are we really worried that these people will become fearsome adversaries when the time comes? (Looking back at the last episode the show dealt with the Moonlanders, which included the poorly conceived theme of a Donald/Penumbra parallel that doesn’t even come up in this episode, I’m almost tempted to say that this Moonlander invasion plot isn’t really working at all.)

It makes sense, then, to bring in Donald to bring another connection/exploration to the developing invasion plans, if to provide this story a familiar spark, and someone to push this narrative further. Donald is, as usual, a lot of fun, but, as usual, the show contrives a reason to prevent him from talking (as opposed to handcuffing him). DuckTales puts Donald through the ringer for optimum hilarity (although there are some nit-picky issues I had with some of the blocking/timing), but the episode reaches its dark climax when he confronts Lunaris on top of his failed spaceship-launcher... thing. Lunaris boldly taunts Donald with the direct threat of destroying his nephews, a cold warning that forces Donald to his breaking point.

We’ve seen Donald reach this point before, especially when his loved ones’ lives are on the line. It’s part of this iteration of Donald’s appeal. Yet DuckTales plays it safe by explaining it in terms of anger management. During an investigation into Donald’s disappearance by Dewey and Webby (a B-story that honestly pushes the limits of a pretty strong pairing of characters), they run into Jones, an anger management counselor who verbalizes something we already knew. Donald feels beat up by the world, and unheard, and the only way to channel that anger and frustration is through his protective instincts, lashing out when his family is in danger. This isn’t particularly healthy, especially in this family that’s defined by danger, but it’s probably the best thing someone in Donald’s position will get. It does provide Donald a temporary one up on Lunaris, allows him to get off a (failed) warning transmission, and take that spaceship launcher device back to earth, at the threat to his survive. Donald’s absolute force of will to protect his family will allow him to survive that fatal flight, showing how much Donald can save himself and the episode at large. But outside of him, “What Ever Happened to Donald Duck?!” functions mostly to begin this season’s Moonvasion endgame.

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Stray observations

  • These next eight new episodes of DuckTales will have a very weird schedule. They will air on Disney XD first, then later in the day on the Disney Channel proper. They’re also on the app and On Demand the day they air. I’ll try to get reviews up around 4-5pm EST daily.
  • I find it weird that Lunaris tracked down the biggest threats to his invasion plans, but ended up focusing on Scrooge and his family. Which, in the DuckTales world, makes a degree of sense, but that he didn’t have any research of military personnel or equipment was bizarre.
  • When Jones is explaining himself to Dewey and Webby, he makes himself what appears to be an antacid drink. It’s a unique detail that feels like a bit of animation created just cause they could.
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About the author

Kevin Johnson

Contributor, The A.V. Club, with a clear preference for all things cartoons; check out his main blog at http://www.totalmediabridge.com.