Review
Gargoyles: The Complete First Season
Emru Townsend · December 8, 2004 | Somewhere during the audio commentary of Gargoyles' five-part series pilot, series creator Greg Weisman refers to Disney's first action-adventure animated TV series as "American anime." I thought it was an interesting twist, because I seem to remember Steven Spielberg's 1998 TV series Invasion America was also described as American anime.

There's a difference between the two self-descriptions, though: Invasion America was a serial with a science-fiction plot, a prime-time timeslot, and characters with big eyes. Gargoyles was a serial with fantasy and some science fiction, an afternoon timeslot, and characters who didn't have particularly big eyes. Invasion America screamed, "Hey! We're adult! We're anime!" but failed because ultimately it was just trying to mimic a perceived trend. Gargoyles, on the other hand, declared itself merely an action-adventure series, and quietly included textured characters, a romantic undercurrent, and a willingness to occasionally aim over the heads of the audience.

Guess which one deserves the title?

Gargoyles: The Complete First Season
Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2004
Originally released in 1994
294 minutes

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In Weisman's universe, gargoyles are living creatures that turn to stone at sunrise and sleep until they revert to flesh and blood at night. Fiercely territorial, they defend their homes—even, as in the case of our heroes, when that home is a castle in 10th-century Scotland whose human inhabitants are rarely grateful, or even friendly. A terrible betrayal sees most of the gargoyle clan killed during their stone slumber, and a handful of survivors are placed under a spell that ends up keeping them asleep in their stone forms for a thousand years.

Gargoyles' first season is essentially a look at how the surviving gargoyles adjust to life in 1994 Manhattan, trying to adapt their roles as protectors in a new and unfamiliar world while facing unexpected threats—some from their distant past.

What was initially stunning about Gargoyles was the number of taboos it broke. People fell to their deaths. Guns—real guns, not science-fictional "blasters"—were fired. People bled. And there were lines like, "Pay a man enough, and he'll walk barefoot into Hell." It was surprising enough to see things like that in TV animation, and doubly surprising to see it on an American show, let alone a Disney show.

To the show's credit, all of these things were contextual and therefore not sensationalized; when the shock wore off, viewers noticed that there was an interesting story with interesting characters backed by interesting visuals. Characters weren't black or white, but shades of grey (the show features one of my favourite animated villains precisely because he's not evil, but coolly amoral); and while the animation quality occasionally slipped—normal for a TV production—the design, framing and poses were almost generally strong.

Sound familiar? You bet. Those are the same features that draw people to anime. In fact, the first season was largely produced at Disney's Japanese studio, resulting in an all too rare synthesis of Japanese and American styles—American character design and animation, Japanese economy, staging, effects and backgrounds. American anime? Maybe. A storytelling and visual delight, as well as a sadly unexplored new direction for Disney? Most definitely.

DVD Features: Audio commentary on episodes 1-5; Gathering of the Gargoyles featurette; Greg Weisman's original show pitch.
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