Gargoyles: Disney’s Ambitious, But Underrated Animated Series from the 90s

Disney's Gargoyles was filled to the brim with creativity, mythology and great characters...

To get a sense of why Disney series Gargoyles stands as one of the more ambitious animated serials to have come out of the 90s, a good place to start is the episode “Avalon Part 2.” The second in a three-part narrative taken from the show’s elongated second season, it begins with one iteration of the villainous Archmage, voiced with glorious ham by David Warner, asking a doppelganger whether he’s certain he knows what to do. To which the doppelganger replies, “I should… I watched you do it.”

Said exchange doesn’t make much sense until the end of the episode, when the lines are repeated to an audience now fully informed, who have just seen two versions of the same character travel between the years 914, 984, 995, 1020, and 1995 to enact a causal loop that will see the Archmage save his past self from dying, and lead to him gaining unstoppable power thanks to the help of three ethereal witches inspired by the Weird Sisters from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

And this is from a channel that, until that point, was largely known for cartoons about ducks.

Gargoyles never particularly caught fire like the Disney Channel hoped it might during its mid-90s run. Disney undoubtedly had high hopes for it, looking to launch a new franchise that would sell plenty of merchandise, but at the time kids were more interested in the whip-zoom fluorescence and badly dubbed dialogue of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.

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But as with many seeming “failures,” Gargoyles was merely a success in a rather different way than the moneymen might have imagined – namely a creative sense, producing a show filled to the brim with mythology and layered characterization, one which seemed a world away from Goof Troop and Duck Tales. Time has been kind to Gargoyles, even if it never was to its stony protagonists.

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Opening with an engrossing origin story stretched across five episodes, the first series laid the groundwork for the swirling narratives to come, introducing us to Goliath and his clan of gargoyles, sent to sleep in 10th century Scotland and woken up in 20th century Manhattan. Ostensible villains were put in place – wealthy industrialist David Xanatos and Goliath’s former mate Demona – and a few brief flashbacks filled in more of the clan’s past.

Yet it’s only when the series ventured into its epic fifty-two episode second season that Gargoyles really let loose and started to build something much more intricate, largely pieced together under the creative guidance of producer Greg Wiseman. That ambition is first noticeable in the five-part episode “City of Stone,” which weaved together a clutch of ideas and storylines that delved into actual Scottish history, took cues from the collected works of Shakespeare, and used most of their running time to humanize two of the series’ “villains,” Demona and former Scottish king Macbeth.

“City of Stone” was a flag in the ground, a declaration that here was a show looking to deliver something a touch different from what audiences might be used to. We meet the Weird Sisters, a key part of Wiseman’s mystical mythology, we learn how Demona and Macbeth were fated to forever be entwined in each other’s lives, and we get new perspectives on scenes from the very first episodes. The series was moving beyond the traditional “good vs. evil” setup, and from that point on, the series kept extending and developing its intricate world.

Viewers were introduced to a new collection of gargoyles hatched from a collection of eggs seen at the very start of the series, the initially villainous Xanatos forged a shaky alliance with Goliath, got married and had a child, and Demona tried to develop her maternal side upon discovering she had a daughter.

Things changed. Characters grew and developed. Events from the past impacted events in the present, certainly not the norm for an animated series at the time.

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Once we reach the aforementioned Avalon triptych, we’re given complex time travel, literary mythology, and – hey, why not? – the arrival of King Arthur, adding Camelot to the mix alongside a mystical race known as Oberon’s Children, initially personified by the mischievous sprite Puck and eventually giving us the king and queen themselves, Oberon and Titania. Somewhere in there the gargoyles also end up touring the world, travelling to Ireland, Nigeria, Scandinavia, and a number of other global locations, a stretch of episodes only marred by a collection of abominable accents (although still nothing compared to the series’ many attempts at Scottish accents, which end up somewhere around Newcastle by way of Groundskeeper Willie).

Sounds like a lot to pack in, right? What writers in their right minds would try and blend Shakespeare, Arthurian legend, and Celtic history into one high-concept mix? Yet while there were inevitably a number of naysayers (including Batman: The Animated Series’ Bruce Timm, who labeled Gargoyles “namby-pamby”) and plenty of episodes that felt like filler, there was a real sense that Wiseman and his team wanted to create something special, something which wasn’t looking to talk down to its younger audience.

Allusions to the Bard of Avon could have gone down the cringe-inducing “Shakespeare 4 Kidz” route, but barring one well-intentioned but rather preachy episode about the power of books, Gargoyles largely steers clear of anything remotely “edutainment.” Shakespearean elements are sprinkled in intermittently, but they usually only extend to using character names and the occasional plot point. They’re there if you want to focus on them, but really just an extra ingredient to an already tasty series.

One unlikely element to the show was its strong links with the Star Trek franchise, another television production that made a (far bigger) name for itself as a series with brains to spare. The Gargoyles voice cast across three series included Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis, Kate Mulgrew, Brent Spiner, Michael Dorn, Colm Meaney, Avery Brooks, and Nichelle Nichols, spanning all four Star Trek series which had been on the air up to that point, a development that started out as largely unintentional but eventually became part of the show’s DNA. All these disparate elements came together to forge a unique animated adventure, one still as watchable today as it was in the 90s.

Of course, nothing great lasts forever. Gargoyles was canceled by Disney after two series, and was picked up by ABC and renamed The Goliath Chronicles. A shadow of its former self, the original writing team disbanded and the show just petered out, choosing to ignore its past history in favor of more standalone episodes. A number of comics were produced, spin-offs were considered, and there was even curious talk of a live-action feature film, but to all intents and purposes, Gargoyles was finished.

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A measure of how Disney now views Gargoyles is the fact that seven years passed between the release dates of the two DVD volumes of the second season. So not exactly a priority.

Yet Gargoyles still lives on two decades later, most notably through a number of fan websites, a couple of which receive input from Wiseman himself, who has penned a number of stream-of-consciousness blogs about each episode and answered hundreds of fan questions. Even though he’s worked on a number of animated programs since, many derived from multi-million dollar franchises like Batman, Spider-Man, and Star Wars, you can see that a small piece of his heart will always lie with Gargoyles.

That’s true of a lot of Gargoyles viewers too, this writer included. It might not have become the awesome pop culture behemoth Disney hoped it would be, but it had ambition to spare, and that’s something to be greatly admired.