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Gargoyles: Stone by Day, DVD Review

Gargoyles: Stone by Day, DVD Review

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From the start, "Gargoyles" was something different. In the wake of the success of "Batman: The Animated Series", Disney was looking try doing an action-adventure series with a somewhat darker look and feel. What they got was "Gargoyles", a story of legendary creatures who sleep in stone by day and glide through the skies by night. It wasn't the "Batman" clone that some initially suspected. It was a smart, well made series that could truly appeal to both kids and adults. And now that the first season of "Gargoyles" is on DVD, anyone who never saw it before can see just why its fans love it so much.

"Gargoyles" tells the story of Goliath, the leader of a clan of gargoyles who protected a castle in 10th century Scotland. An act of betrayal lured Goliath and his mentor from the castle and weakened the human warriors' defenses. When Goliath returned, the humans and been captured by Vikings and nearly all of his clan had been destroyed, smashed as they slept in stone during the day. As Goliath and the other survivors sought vengeance, they were placed under a spell, freezing them in stone slumber "until the castle rose above the clouds." A thousand years later, wealthy businessman David Xanatos moves the castle to the top is his Manhattan skyscraper, breaking the spell and awakening the gargoyles in the modern day.

One of the aspects that sets "Gargoyles" apart from most other television animation is the writing. Though the series was ostensibly aimed at preteens, the writers were obviously not looking to talk down to kids. Lines like "I've seen horrors that would blast your soul" let the audience know that there's content for older audiences here as well. But there's no slapped-on violence or potentially objectionable dialogue just for shock value. Every line and action comes from the story and characters. Violent acts have real motivation behind them. Villains have their reasons for saying and doing what they do, whether justified in the end or not.

The continuing storyline in "Gargoyles" was also unique among Disney Afternoon shows and most animated television shows of the time. Unless there was a multipart story going on, a viewer could come in to "DuckTales", "TaleSpin", or "Darkwing Duck" on virtually any episode and have little or no trouble telling what was going on. Using continuity runs

the risk of losing viewers who might miss a few episodes and become confused. But it has the advantage of letting the series tell longer stories and follow plot threads through several episodes. Having a continuing storyline allows "Gargoyles" to show consequences to actions and lay out story ideas that will only pay off later, sometimes much later. After being shot, Elisa shows up on crutches in the following episode. When Xanatos is sent to prison, we see him there for part of the first season, until he finishes serving his time and is released. The mysterious Macbeth shows up in this season and hints at a connection between himself and one of the gargoyles, but we won't get the whole story until well into season two.

Continuity in a TV series gives a major boost to fan loyalty. Missing an episode or two can mean missing valuable information about the storyline, so watching every day or week is essential. But it takes more than a continuing plot to make a show really memorable. Characters can talk about their past exploits, keep trophies of their victories, and repair damage from previous battles, but it's almost meaningless if they aren't learning anything from their experiences. The real strength of continuity is not so much in story arcs as in character arcs.

Thanks to its high quality writing, "Gargoyles" is full of character arcs. Since most of the show's heroes come from a completely different century, they're obviously going to have to change as they learn about life in modern times. The three "teenage" gargoyles - Brooklyn, Broadway, and Lexington - are much quicker to adapt to the new world than their elders. But they still have trouble figuring out whether modern humanity can ever accept them, whether the heroes they watch on TV are heroes in real life as well, and - in a particularly (in)famous episode - just how dangerous guns can be. (That episode - "Deadly Force" - went unaired by Toon Disney for a while and was edited for content when it was eventually shown, despite the message about handgun safety.) All three of the young gargoyles learn from their mistakes and the consequences of these events stay with them for a long time.

Though somewhat older and wiser than the Trio, Goliath also needs to adjust to life in the 20th century. The entire first season can be seen as one big character arc, where Goliath and his clan gradually change from mere survivors in an unfamiliar time and place to clandestine protectors of the city. Goliath is not immune to misconceptions either. In his mind, Xanatos being sentenced to jail time means he was defeated and the castle now belongs to the gargoyles. It's a very logical assumption from a 10th century perspective. But at Elisa Maza, the clan's human friend, points out, it's not the 10th century anymore. Xanatos received only a sixth month sentence and the castle still legally belongs to him. Once that sentence ends, he'll be coming back and the gargoyles won't be safe from him. Elisa wants Goliath and crew to seek out a new home, but Goliath will have none of it. He's certainly not stupid; this is a guy who reads Dostoevsky for pleasure. He just doesn't understand all the ways the world has changed in the thousand years he and his clan slept. Plus, he doesn't want to lose the one thing that connects them to their now long distant past. So understandably, it's going to take him a while to accept that the castle is no longer truly their home.

Visually, "Gargoyles" is quite different from its Disney Afternoon predecessors. Since the show is set in the "real" world rather than the cartoony universes of the comedy series, there's a more realistic style in both the animation and the backgrounds. The character design is a balance between realism and the stylization of a more cartoonish anime series. Like other animated series of the time, the animation chores were farmed out to various overseas studios. So the actual animation quality fluctuates somewhat between episodes. But overall, the series does very well showing everything from big battle scenes to little character moments.

The backgrounds also support the idea that the series takes place in the real life Manhattan. Unlike "Batman", which uses dark gritty landscapes and blood red skies to give the show an appropriately grim feel, "Gargoyles" show us a city with a nightlife. The grim alleyways where street toughs lurk are still there. But the show also literally rises above the city's darkness to showcase its beauty.

The "Gargoyles: Season One" DVD has a few extras, which is pretty good for a less than first tier release. A "Gathering of the Gargoyles" featurette gives viewers a glimpse of just what goes on at the annual "Gargoyles" convention. There's the various fan panels, chances to meet cast and crew from the show, the masquerade party, and the radio play, where attendees serve as voice actors reading a special "Gargoyles" script. Both guests and fans were interviewed about why they love "Gargoyles" and just about everyone is thoughtful and articulate. It's a good introduction to those new to the "Gargoyles" fandom and a nice ego boost for those fans who can now proudly claim that they're on the DVD.

The original show pitch is an interesting peek behind the scenes. This little presentation was used to sell the concept of "Gargoyles". It's a combination of concept artwork and a series summary given by Greg Weisman, one of the series producers and creators. The basic concept is pretty much in place, as are most of the main characters. It's fun to see how some of the characters changed from their early designs. The senior gargoyle Hudson originally had a bulldog-like face, while gargoyle beast Bronx was much more cartoony than his final form.

The audio commentary covers the five part "Awakening", the series' pilot. (The original plan was to have commentary on the first two episodes and "Deadly Force", but the latter was dropped in favor of having all five parts of "Awakening" with commentary.) Doing the commentary are co-producers Greg Weisman and Frank Paur, with voice of Goliath, Keith David joining in for the final three parts. The commentary is a lot of fun and pretty informative as well, touching on the animation, the voice casting, and why Greg Weisman didn't make the credits of the first few episodes. Unfortunately, a lot of major reveals from season two are spoiled here. So you may want to skip the commentary track if you haven't seen the second season yet. Otherwise, just sit back and enjoy.

Disney had never done a show like "Gargoyles" before and really hasn't done one since. The release of the first season on DVD is an opportunity for people to revisit the show and for Disney to connect with an audience that may no be as interested in its other TV properties. As anime continues to be imported to the US and grow in popularity, the idea of an action-adventure show developed stateside may yet have another day. Until then, check out "Gargoyles: Season One" and see what happened when Disney Television tried something new.

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