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Baby Yoda may rule Disney Plus, but this hidden gem is worth a look

Commentary: Gargoyles, a cartoon for "kids" might be the most intriguing thing on Disney's new streaming service.

gargoyles
Disney

The first time I watched Gargoyles, a Disney cartoon about stone-winged creatures that come alive at night to fight evil, I was enraptured. This was something so dramatically different from anything I'd seen to that point. Thanks to Disney Plus, I had a chance to rewatch the show. My initial response 25 years later: How the hell did this show even get made?

That isn't meant as a slight. Gargoyles isn't your typical kids' show. Blending references to Shakespeare, grand Illuminati conspiracies and Arthurian legend with time travel, DNA splicing and flying robot battles, Gargoyles is a heady mix for any show, let alone one for children.

And then there's the violence. Characters actually die -- some quite gruesomely. One of the main characters is accidentally shot and hospitalized in an early episode. There are guns. Real guns with bullets and lasting consequences. Yet, somehow, none of it feels gratuitous.

Again, I'm not sure how Disney green-lighted this show.

But that's the beauty of Disney Plus. Yes, The Mandalorian and Baby Yoda are capturing all the buzz, but its true benefit is that of a time machine to your childhood. With content going back to the late '30s, there's something to strike virtually anyone's nostalgia chords. For me, that's Gargoyles. 

Keep in mind that this dark and brooding show aired in the afternoons in the mid-90s, when I rushed home from school to watch a block of bright and colorful cartoons like Duck Tales or TaleSpin. These were fun shows that packed plenty of adventure, sure, but despite Duck Tales' Launchpad McQuack crashing one aircraft after another, he walked away with little more than a headache or dizzy spell. As with most cartoons of its era, episodes and characters largely reset when they ended.

Not so with Gargoyles. At a time when most shows were episodic, Gargoyles offered a continuous arc from the get-go, introducing elements and characters from the first episode that paid off in twists and revelation two seasons down the line.

The five-part introduction to the series, titled "Awakening," alternates between the present-day Manhattan and ancient Scotland in an epic tale of betrayal that goes from the near-genocide of the eponymous creatures to their eventual revival a millennium later.

gargoyles
Disney

Killer characters

The leader of the surviving gargoyles is Goliath, voiced by veteran actor Keith David, who imbues the character with equal parts nobility, grace and ferocity. He guides his small group of characters, who take their names from New York locations (Brooklyn is the brooding one, for instance, and Broadway is the perennially hungry one, among others).

Our human connection to the show is New York Police Department Detective Elisa Maza, voiced by Salli Richardson. She serves as the heart and conscience of the show, with a dash of hard-edged gumshoe.

Maza, whose father and mother are Native American and African American, respectively, was a person of color in a lead role at a time when that idea was still largely a novelty. But her race didn't play a role until later in the show, when her diverse background served as fodder for interesting stories that explored her roots.

Beyond the core group, a wide variety of allies are introduced along the way, giving the show a deep and impressive cast of characters to work with. 

Villains with depth

Then there are the villains. David Xanatos is the scheming billionaire industrialist who kicks off the story by setting the gargoyles free from their 1,000-year stone nap.

Other notable antagonists include Demona as Goliath's lost love, a female gargoyle who's spent lifetimes developing a bitter hatred for humans, and MacBeth (yeah, from Shakespeare), another ageless warrior from the past with mysterious motives.

But unlike most cartoons, these characters revel in shades of gray. Each has their own unique, relatable motivations. None are beyond redemption despite heinous crimes. Another multi-episode arc in the second season, titled "City of Stone," adds new dimensions to Demona and MacBeth's past and fills in the backstory set up by the series premiere.

Trekkies will appreciate the voice cast. Jonathan Frakes, who played Commander William Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation, plays Xanatos, and Marina Sirtis (Counselor Deanna Troi) plays Demona. Michael Dorn (Worf) and Brent Spiner (Data) also appeared on the show, giving TNG fans a little unofficial reunion (the show had ended a few months before Gargoyles began).

It's not a perfect show

Beyond the nostalgia, there are rough spots when it comes to the animation. Character designs hold up, but visuals go from majestic to cringe-worthy -- sometimes in the span of a few frames. There are a few too many tangents in the lengthy second season, but things eventually come to a rousing conclusion.

The third season, tragically, is trash. For the finale, Disney got rid of the original creative team and opted to start fresh with "The Goliath Chronicles" as a Saturday morning cartoon. It lacks the depth and nuance of the earlier episodes, and is totally skippable.

There's also something weird about seeing someone insert a floppy disk to boot up an advanced cybernetic being, but in many ways it's a product of its time.

But in most other ways, the story and the characters boast a timeless quality. How many shows -- cartoon or otherwise -- can make the same claim? 

Gargoyles is now streaming on Disney Plus. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

Published at 5 a.m. PT on Nov. 28. 

Updated at 8:33 a.m. PT on Nov 28, and at 5 a.m. on Nov. 30.

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