Before Walt Disney died, he dreamed of making an animated series, but he had never done it because he didn’t see it as economically feasible. Obviously there was Ludwig Von Drake, but that was not an animated series. It was an animated segment of The Wonderful World of Disney wrapped around pre-existing Disney films. It turns out Walt Disney was an anime fan because it was Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy that inspired him to want to venture into animated television. He even wanted to collaborate with Tezuka on a sci-fi story after they met in 1964, but Walt died in 1966 so nothing came of it. The first time the Disney Company actually made an original animated television series was in the 1980s, and in true Disney fashion, the shows they created in this period would end up pushing the quality of animated television forward.
When Michael Eisner became the CEO of Disney in 1984, he oversaw the company while it was on its meteoric rise in the late ’80s into the early ’90s with films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, theme parks like Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom and acquisitions like Miramax, ESPN, ABC and the Muppets. All these things are such major events that Disney’s effect on television animation often gets overlooked.
Walt Disney Television Animation, which was founded in 1984 the same year Eisner came into power, was the realization of Walt Disney’s dream of making an animated series, because Eisner, who constantly pushed for Disney to expand its brand into new areas, insisted that they raise the budgets on the animation quality of their TV shows to stand out from the competition. A move that was considered risky since TV animation budgets were traditionally low investments up to that point (as evidenced by what most animated TV shows looked like in those days). But Disney’s gamble paid off with a string of hit shows that they shopped to networks, cable and syndication, which eventually led to the introduction of The Disney Afternoon, a syndicated television block featuring Disney’s animated shows that ran on weekday afternoons from 1990 to 1997 and my introduction to many of the shows I will discuss in this article.
Simply enough, Eisner introduced the core idea behind their first TV series Adventures of the Gummi Bears because his kids loved eating the Gummi Bear candy. Screenwriter Jymn Magon and Pink Panther and Ralph Bakshi animator Art Vitello were hired to come up with the concept for the show, which ended up being a high fantasy adventure series about a group of magic bears who drink Gummiberry Juice to gain super bouncing abilities.
Zummi Gummi (Paul Winchell) is the wise leader of the Gummis.
Grammi Gummi (June Foray) is the Gummi matriarch who prepares the Gummiberry Juice.
Gruffi Gummi (Bill Scott) is the crafty mechanic.
Tummi Gummi (Lorenzo Music) is the food-loving Gummi.
Sunni Gummi (Katie Leigh) is the preteen Gummi who is curious about the human world.
Cubbi Gummi (Noelle North) is the youngest and most impetuous of the Gummis.
There was also Gusto Gummi (Rob Paulsen) and Chummi Gummi (Jim Cummings), and in later seasons the Barbic Gummies of Ursalia, in addition to the human characters Cavin the squire, Princess Calla, King Gregor the ruler of Dunwyn, Sir Tuxford and Duke Sigmund Igthorn the main villain of the series who commands an army of ogres and seeks to learn the secrets of the Gummi Bears’ power.
In terms of writing, the show was not particularly outstanding, but it was noteworthy how different it looked compared to other animated shows in terms of quality and presentation, which you could almost mistake for a feature film when compared to the styles of Hanna-Barbera and Filmation.
The most memorable thing about the show was its catchy theme song which did a good job hooking you before the episode even started. That song was written by the songwriting team of Silversher & Silversher (who would go on to write the theme song for TaleSpin, the songs “Nothing in the World” and “Forget About Love” from The Return of Jafar, and the soundtrack for The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea) and vocalized by singer and Toto band member Joseph Williams (who would go on to perform the singing voice for adult Simba in the songs “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” in The Lion King).
Adventures of the Gummi Bears made its television debut on NBC in 1985 and it was released the same day that Disney’s The Wuzzles, another animated series, premiered on CBS. The Wuzzles was about a group of hybrid animals (BumbleLion was a cross between a bumblebee and a lion, Eleroo was a cross between an elephant and a kangaroo, etc.) although it lasted only 13 episodes. Not necessarily because it was unpopular as Moosel voice actor Bill Scott passed away suddenly during the show’s run. Gummi Bears, however, ran for 6 seasons until 1991, moving around the schedule at one point entering an hour-long Disney bear block next to The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh before coming to The Disney Afternoon in the nineties.
The success of Gummi Bears led to a number of other successful animated shows from Disney that would not only overshadow Gummi Bears in popularity but would also overshadow the popularity of every TV show Disney ever made.
DuckTales (1987-90), developed by Jymn Magon and Brad Landreth and based on the Uncle Scrooge comics by Carl Barks, followed the adventures of Scrooge McDuck the richest duck in Duckberg and his great nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie who Scrooge is looking after while Donald Duck enlists in the Navy. Scrooge and his great nephews often went on globetrotting treasure hunts and foiled the plans of villains who tried to steal Scrooge’s fortune, including the Beagle Boys, Magica De Spell and Flintheart Glomgold (the second-richest duck in Duckberg). Other characters who often got involved in the plot include Webby Vanderquack, the granddaughter of Scrooge’s housekeeper Mrs. Beakley; Launchpad McQuack, an incompetent pilot who flies Scrooge wherever he needs to go (often with a crash landing); Gyro Gearloose, an optimistic and highly intelligent inventor; Fenton Crackshell, Scrooge’s accountant who secretly doubles as a Robocop-like superhero named Gizmoduck; and Bubba the Caveduck, who Scrooge first meets after going back in time using Gyro’s time machine.
DuckTales was and continues to be one of the most popular animated shows ever made. And just like Gummi Bears, its theme song was likely the most popular thing about it. I previously called it my favorite TV theme song ever made (it’s impossible not to like!) with credit going to Mark Mueller who wrote the music and lyrics as well as the music and lyrics for the theme song for Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, both songs vocalized by Jeff Pesceto. The popular show also inspired a reboot which aired on Disney XD from 2017 to 2021 and surpassed the original series in many ways.
Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers (1989-90), developed by Tad Stones and Alan Zaslove, follows the chipmunk brothers Chip (in Indiana Jones-inspired jacket and fedora garb) and Dale (in Magnum P.I.-inspired Hawaiian shirt garb) who form a detective agency alongside mechanical mouse genius Gadget Hackwrench, cheese-loving traveller Monterey Jack and his sidekick Zipper the housefly. Also highly popular, this show inspired a feature film that is set to be released on Disney+ in 2022, although the film directed by Akiva Shaffer (of Lonely Island and SNL fame) puts a new Roger Rabbit-like spin on the concept. The popularity of both DuckTales and Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers led to Disney pairing them up for an hour, and this eventually led to the concept for The Disney Afternoon and even more shows.
TaleSpin (1990-91), developed by Jymn Magon and Mark Zaslove, was an action-adventure serial take on the characters from Disney’s The Jungle Book, featuring Baloo as a cargo delivery pilot, Louie the orangutan as a nightclub owner and Shere Khan the tiger as the wealthy business mogul behind Khan Industries, and introducing original characters like Don Karnage, a wolf who commands a crew of air pirates; Kit Cloudkicker a former pirate in Don Karnage’s crew who currently serves as Baloo’s navigator; Rebecca Cunningham, Baloo’s hard-nosed boss at the sky delivering service Higher for Hire; Molly Cunningham, Rebecca’s adventurous daughter; and Wildcat, a lion mechanic who maintains Higher for Hire’s aircraft. The series was like Casablanca meets Indiana Jones, while Baloo and Rebecca’s relationship was inspired by Sam and Diane from Cheers (the most popular show at the time TaleSpin aired). It’s probably my favorite Disney Afternoon show for its characters, writing and setting.
Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers creator Tad Stones would next helm the superhero action comedy Darkwing Duck (1991-92) about suburban father Drake Mallard who doubles as a crime-fighting vigilante who stalks the streets of St. Canard and fights such villains as Negaduck, Bushroot, Liquidator, Megavolt and Quackerjack, often with help from his daughter Gosalyn and his sidekick Launchpad of DuckTales fame. The character would reappear years later in the 2017 DuckTales reboot.
Goof Troop (1992) is a sitcom about single father Goofy and his son Max who move to Spoonerville and become the next-door neighbors of Pete (better known as Mickey Mouse’s rival) and his wife Peg, his son P.J. and his daughter Pistol. Wacky family comedy ensues. The series would later serve as the basis for A Goofy Movie and its sequel An Extremely Goofy Movie.
Bonkers (1993-94) is a Roger Rabbit-inspired cop show about Bonkers the bobcat, a former toon star-turned-police officer who teams up with his human partner to solve toon-related crimes throughout Hollywood. It was a spin-off of Disney’s Raw Toonage.
Greg Weisman’s Gargoyles (1994-97) was a darker and more realistic Disney cartoon that follows a group of winged creatures who have spent thousands of years encased in stone and finally awaken in modern-day New York City, but they can only come to life at night.
Other Disney Afternoon shows include Bill Kopp’s The Shnookums and Meat Funny Cartoon Show (1995), Disney’s answer to Ren & Stimpy which was a spin-off of Marsupilami, itself another spin-off of Raw Toonage; Aladdin (1994-95) based on Disney’s 1992 film and set after the events of The Return of Jafar; The Lion King’s Timon & Pumbaa (1995-99); Quack Pack (1996); and Mighty Ducks (1996).
The Disney Afternoon ended in 1997 and afterwards many of the shows that aired in that block moved to the cable network Disney Channel and later Toon Disney, while Walt Disney Television Animation moved from weekday afternoons to Saturday mornings with Disney’s One Saturday Morning block, which initially aired shows like 101 Dalmatians, Jungle Cubs, Recess and Pepper Ann. The lineup would later include Hercules, Mickey Mouse Works, The Weekenders, Teacher’s Pet, Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, House of Mouse, Lloyd in Space and Teamo Supremo. The block was later renamed ABC Kids and aired Disney Channel shows and a lot of Power Rangers spin-offs. Today Disney’s television animation studio mainly makes shows for Disney Channel, including Kim Possible, Phineas and Ferb, Gravity Falls, Sofia the First, Elena of Avalor, Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure, Big City Greens, Amphibia and The Owl House, along with a few Disney+ shows like The Wonderful World of Mickey Mouse.
While the feature films of Walt Disney Animation Studios are often animated in Burbank, California, Disney’s animated TV shows were often farmed out to other countries (because it was cheaper) including France, Australia, Japan and Canada. In fact Disney formed their own studios in those countries not only to animate their shows but a few of their theatrically released animated features and all of their straight-to-video sequels. DisneyToon Studios was founded in 1990 and produced many of these movies for Disney until it went defunct in 2019. But its existence was likely a result of The Disney Afternoon’s success. Many of these movies were forgettable and not very impressive but a few were good. The first was the theatrically released DuckTales film adaptation DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp, and others include The Return of Jafar, A Goofy Movie, Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Pooh’s Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin, The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas, An Extremely Goofy Movie, The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea, Return to Neverland, The Lion King 1 1/2, Pooh’s Heffalump Movie, Bambi II, Cinderella III: A Twist in Time, The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning and all the Tinker Bell and Planes movies.
Okay I admit Eisner gets a lot of flack for overdoing it with these sequels so this isn’t exactly his best legacy. But the animated shows Disney is making for cable and streaming right now are some of the best shows they have ever made, so that’s the legacy of The Disney Afternoon that I would rather focus on. We definitely owe Eisner’s kids for loving Gummi Bears so much.
I never realized that Disney’s first animated series was only in the 80s.
You would think the studio famous for their animation and their television would have made one sooner.
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