Good-News Reboots in TV Cartoonland

Reboots have a dreadful reputation. Rarely do they gain much respect from critics or garner anything but derision from fans of their originals. Even if they have their own virtues — The Amazing Spider-Man with Andrew Garfield, for example, has its defenders — they can’t quite seem to measure up to What Came Before. And heaven forbid those behind the reboot find flaws in the originals and try to repair them. The full wrath of earlier generations will descend on them with angry-mob shouts of, “You’re ruining my childhood!”

This is why I feel a little queasy whenever anyone talks about rebooting a beloved property from the 1980s. We Gen-Xers seem especially protective of the movies and shows we grew up with, problematic as they might have been, and I’m just not up for all the inevitable drama.

But there is good news: sometimes it’s worth it.

When details first started to emerge about comics creator Noelle Stevenson’s reboot of Filmation’s She-Ra, reaction from those who remembered the 1980s original was predictably venomous. The designs of the characters looked unreal and overly “cartoonish,” they said. Worse, when the new Princess Adora transforms into the mythical warrior She-Ra, her outfit now includes a pair of shorts under her tiny skirt. Those shorts seemed to make the crowd especially angry, as if they couldn’t handle being denied the privilege of at least imagining the panty shots they’d never actually get. Yet when She-Ra and the Princesses of Power finally dropped on Netflix, the naysayers’ yammering started to die down, though it didn’t altogether disappear. The show confronted its critics by the best possible means — by actually being good.

The feminist elements of the show are obvious, though no less welcome. We have a female hero at the center of things, and rather than being a bland and featureless paragon of virtue, she’s a flawed, intense character with a snarky sense of humor. We have a corps of female friends and allies surrounding her, as well as a male friend who is not a love interest and gets his own moments to shine. We have a crew of female villains as well, led by an evil counterpart whom Adora must repeatedly confront. All the characters are unique and individual, though inevitably some get more development than others. It’s a show that every girl between the ages of 8 and 13 should be watching, and this Gen-Xer can’t wait for new episodes to emerge later in 2019.

But my most pleasant surprise came when I realized, after a particularly good Season 2 episode, that I enjoy watching every single character on the show, both good and bad. There aren’t many shows I can say that about. On Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Charles Boyle gets on my nerves. I cringe every time Stacy Boss shows up on iZombie. (Can’t that character just die already??) Supergirl‘s villains are too viscerally infuriating for me to get much pleasure from their screen time, though it is a relief to see them get their butts kicked. But on She-Ra, all the characters delight me in their own ways. The villainy of Catra and Shadow Weaver is complicated and fascinating rather than revolting, perhaps because we rarely if ever see them attack innocent non-combatants. Bow and the princesses are all funny and quirky as well as capable. Even characters who have only shown up once so far — e.g. Glimmer’s aunt Castaspella, Bow’s two dads — are endearing. Hordak, the Big Bad, may be a one-dimensional embodiment of evil, but at this point his screen time has been kept to a minimum, leaving the more complicated and interesting characters to dominate the scene.

I do have one concern: Scorpia, the big Horde force-captain who just wants to please her BFF Catra. (Of course, all the BFF-ing is on Scorpia’s side; Catra barely tolerates her, though she doesn’t hesitate to use Scorpia’s devotion to her own advantage.) I like Scorpia, but I don’t like that on a show that’s generally good about representing a variety of female body types, the only brawny, muscular woman is on Team Bad. “Woman + Big = Villain” isn’t a message we need to keep sending, though Scorpia may yet surprise us with a Heel-Face Turn.

In contrast to She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, the reboot of the Disney Channel’s late ’80s cartoon series DuckTales emerged without much “ruining-my-childhood” outcry. The pitch-perfect casting of David Tennant (Doctor Who, Good Omens) as Scrooge McDuck — the first Scotsman ever to voice the role — may have done much to turn away wrath; this alone would have assured fans of the original that the new show would be true to the spirit of its lead character, and thus made them more accepting of the more drastic changes, such as casting different voice actors to play Huey, Louie, and Dewey rather than using the same Russi Taylor voice for all three triplets. Still, like She-Ra, the new DuckTales has quieted potential critics by being very good indeed. Here’s another show in which I enjoy watching every single character it puts before me, from Scrooge and his nephews to the awesome Webby Vanderquack and her housekeeper/secret agent grandmother, from the dimwitted pilot Launchpad (his attempt to imitate Donald Duck is priceless) to the dastardly Flintheart Glomgold to the nerdy superhero Gizmoduck (voiced by Lin-Manuel Miranda).   And speaking of Donald Duck, his presence has increased compared to the 80s versi.  Even Don Cheadle gets to voice Donald in the first season finale.

I mentioned in my last post that I find the new DuckTales one of the most feminist shows on television, and I stand behind that. Webby, the most important female character, has brains and bravery and a spirit of adventure to delight the heart of my inner twelve-year-old — God, do I wish someone like her had been on TV when I was growing up — but what I love most about her is that not once does anyone try to leave her out of an adventure or hold her back from danger because she’s a girl. In fact, all the cliched “but you’re a girl!” shtick is blessedly absent from this show. The boys may find Webby strange, but it’s due to her nerdiness and hyper-energetic personality, not to her gender. Likewise, none of the other female characters on the show are called upon to prove their worth because they’re female. Nobody questions Mrs. Beakley’s being both a competent housekeeper and a badass secret agent. The boys’ mother, Della Duck, wants to succeed as both a mom and an adventurer, and nobody tells her she can’t. Even Gandra Dee, a drippy damsel in distress in the first DuckTales, is a brilliant but sneaky scientist in this one, and her intelligence is never shown to be surprising. These ladies are all wonderfully themselves in a post- sexist world. In them we get a glimpse of the freedom that could follow if we’d just leave all those nonsensical gender roles and gendered expectations behind.

If more reboots can be like these two shows, I say bring them on and devil take the whiners.

 

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