Twenty years ago, Disney premiered a new kids’ cartoon. It had magic and mega-rich villains, cops and robbers, jokes and elaborate fight scenes. It also had characters from Shakespeare and world mythology; complex narrative arcs involving sorcery, genetic engineering and robotic technology; and nuanced morals concerning the importance of heritage, virtue and responsibility.
It was a children’s show that took children seriously enough not to talk down to them, but respected them enough that they could still enjoy the adventure. It was as if G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien had got together to write a TV show that they would’ve enjoyed. It was Gargoyles, and I know of nothing else like it.
Gargoyles are fantastical creatures whose identity is entwined with the protection of the places they call home. During the day they are made of stone, but at night they awaken to become fearsome warriors with great wings. The series concerns the adventures of a clan of gargoyles in medieval Scotland, who have been turned to stone for a millennia by a magic spell and are awoken in modern-day Manhattan.
The richness of the narrative world is established in the very first episode where it is shown, in flashback, that while the humans depend upon the gargoyles for protection, they also fear and loathe them as monsters. When they are betrayed, it is by the one human, the captain of the guard, who admires them.
He betrays their castle out of anger at their treatment of him, but fails to stop the Viking raider, Hakon, from smashing their sleeping stone forms. All the gargoyles are destroyed, except for a few young ones who’ve been punished and the clan’s leader, Goliath, and his mentor, who have gone hunting the invaders in the night.
The remaining gargoyles rescue the humans from the Vikings. However, the castle’s magus blames them for what he thinks is the murder of the princess and traps half of them in stone. When Goliath returns with the princess, he discovers himself alone and requests that he join his comrades.
One thousand years later, the gargoyles are awakened in Manhattan by the scheming multi-billionaire, David Xanatos, for his own purposes, and the drama begins.
The series managed to incorporate Macbeth, the Weird Sisters, Oberon, Titania and Puck; the Loch Ness monster, American gangsters and the Illuminati; Odin, the Banshee and the Irish hero Cuchulain; Coyote and Anansi; and even King Arthur.
Characters are motivated by past wrongs done to them, which might lead to their pre-empting perceived betrayals and thus making more enemies.
The moral of each story is rarely simplistic. In one, a gargoyle accidentally shoots a main character. Instead of moralising on the evil of firearms, it makes clear that they need to be handled responsibly. Another shows the real complexity of environmental problems by presenting the real tension between the value of the Amazonian rainforest and the need for farmers to cut it down to survive.
Its overarching themes are that vengeance begets vengeance and that the modern world involves the negotiation of being loyal to one’s heritage while not rejecting the advances that come with technology.
It is difficult to do justice to the genius of this show. At least one critic has attacked it for the praise it receives, trying to argue that it’s just a cartoon fantasy and doesn’t deserve any accolades. Such critics’ tastes are clearly for gritty and depressing “adult” animations that deal with the horribleness of life, as they see it. Another can’t stand the show’s love of mythology and Shakespeare.
What they really seem to be objecting to is the success of a cartoon series that is suitable for children, but one that deals with sophisticated and adult concepts and that acknowledges that evil exists, but that persons who seem evil might be redeemed.
Umberto Eco once wrote an essay on the 1942 film, Casablanca, in which he argued: “Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us.” He observed that they tap into primal human archetypes and so into primal natural truths.
Gargoyles resembles the mythologies it draws upon by presenting good and evil as real, but showing that persons cannot be limited to such categories.
In the real world, people do good for evil motives, or evil out of noble ones; or they may even act without any discernible motive. No one is simply good or bad, but this doesn’t mean that good and evil don’t exist.
The series is available on DVD and is well worth watching, for both children and their parents. My father, for one, has fond memories of it. It teaches the importance of taking responsibility for one’s life, the need to understand others before judging them, but also the need to act for what is right.
Gargoyles is a rollicking good yarn that shows that heroism is an exciting and multi-faceted thing.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).