Much has been made about the Disney Renaissance, that period of creative rejuvenation and storytelling prowess that defined Walt Disney Animation Studios from the late ’80s to late ’90s. But an equally revolutionary period, masterminded by many of the same participants, was taking place on the small screen at the same time. And the biggest example of this revolution was The Disney Afternoon, a hugely influential two-hour original animated programming block that ran in syndication from 1990-1997 (Disney animation would still exist in this time slot, but without the name, until 1999).
This is that story.
It began in the early ‘80s, when a regime change at Disney meant big changes for the studio’s creative endeavors. As D23 recounts, “When new Disney CEO and Chairman, Michael Eisner, and President Frank Wells arrived in 1984, an early priority was setting up a division to produce television animation. Eisner had once overseen Saturday morning children’s television at ABC, and on his first day at Disney he mandated that the company have at least one animated series on the air by the fall of 1985. He called a small group of executives and creative personnel to his house the next Sunday morning, and they brainstormed ideas for the first wave of animated programs.”
Yes, this is true: At the time there was no Disney animation exclusively made for television airing on a regular basis. It’s almost unfathomable to think about this now, given how much quality Disney animation is on television these days (including the “Mickey Mouse” shorts and series like Gravity Falls, Wander Over Yonder, and Star Wars Rebels), but it really was the case: Disney animation was not on the small screen in 1984. (The Disney Channel had launched in 1983 and had yet to create original animated programs.)
If there’s one thing Michael Eisner knew how to do, it was get results quickly, and in the fall of 1985, a pair of shows aired on Saturday morning: Disney’s The Wuzzles (about a pack of creatures made of mismatched animal parts) was on CBS, while Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears, a surprisingly rich fantasy adventure series partially inspired by Eisner’s son’s love of the chewy candy, aired on NBC. While The Wuzzles lasted a single, well-remembered season, Adventures of the Gummi Bears ran for five seasons, first on NBC and then on ABC.
In the years that followed these initial shows, more series would debut–DuckTales premiered in syndication in 1987 and was an immediate smash. It was based, in part, on the popular and hugely influential Carl Barks Donald Duck comic books, adding mystery and adventure on top of a central comedic conceit. The series ran for 100 episodes and inspired (amongst other things) a theatrically released animated movie, DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp. And 1989 saw the premiere of Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, which revived classic Disney chipmunks Chip and Dale (now modeled after the lead characters from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Magnum, P.I.–yes, seriously, just look at their costumes—and placed them into a more outwardly adventurous narrative framework.
But 1990 was when it happened, when The Disney Afternoon was born.
The initial lineup of The Disney Afternoon would package the previous successes of Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers, Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears, and DuckTales, with a brand new show: TaleSpin. TaleSpin followed a formula often employed in these early Disney animated series: take established characters and re-contextualize them in another genre/form. (Hence Chip ‘n Dale’s new mystery adventure trappings.) For TaleSpin, characters from 1967’s The Jungle Book (which had been theatrically re-released that summer) were slapped into a high-flying period adventure that borrowed liberally from both Cheers (one of the most popular television comedies at the time) and Casablanca.
The following season, Gummi Bears was out, with a new show being added to the lineup: Darkwing Duck. Initially developed as a DuckTales spin-off (it shares the character of Launchpad McQuack), it’s ostensibly a spoof of superhero stories, although owes more of a debt to noir-y radio dramas like The Shadow than anything else. It also featured more original characters than most of the other Disney Afternoon series, save for a single episode that hosted a number of Carl Barks characters. Like TaleSpin, it was introduced on The Disney Channel before moving to The Disney Afternoon, and proved insanely popular.
It’s important to take a moment to note how well-animated these series were. Television animation, up until this point, had a reputation for being shoddy, cheap, and quickly produced. But these series were gorgeously rendered creations, and while they didn’t have the budgets of their big screen counterparts, they were positively overflowing with visual nuance, hidden references, and wonderful characterizations. Per D23, this was one of Eisner’s edicts—he reportedly said, “We can’t go on and look like trash.”
The third season saw another new series added to the lineup: DuckTales was gone and in its place was Goof Troop, which saw classic Disney character, Goofy, attempting to raise his rebellious teenage son, Max (a concept borrowed from a series of 1950’s shorts that starred Goofy and a young son). It struck a chord, inspiring a pair of feature films: 1995’s A Goofy Movie and 2000’s direct-to-video follow-up An Extremely Goofy Movie.
Season four saw Chip ‘n Dale removed, in favor of a new series: Bonkers. This was a series cultivated on Disney’s Raw Toonage, a kind of farm for future Disney television animation, and based loosely around the Who Framed Roger Rabbit?-ish concept of a hardboiled human detective having to team with a wacky cartoon character to solve crimes. Only … the entire series was animated, so human characters just had a slightly different stylization. Ultimately, a fractured production schedule led to huge differences in the design of the main character, as well as his relationship with a female partner.
The fifth season would see the block get a dramatic overhaul: its name was shortened to TDA, TaleSpin was gone, a television version of the hit animated film Aladdin was introduced (retaining a truly shocking amount of the feature’s cast, including leads Scott Weinger and Linda Larkin). But the biggest change of all was that there were now shows that rotated in throughout the week. The Shnookums and Meat Funny Cartoon Show, a spin-off of Marsupilami (which itself was a spin-off of Raw Toonage), a kind of “edgy” series in the spirit of Nickelodeon’s The Ren & Stimpy Show, was on Monday. Bonkers returned, but was only shown on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Which led to the introduction of Gargoyles, perhaps the most well-loved, groundbreaking, and influential series in the history of The Disney Afternoon.
By season six, Darkwing Duck and Shnookums and Meat were gone. Goof Troop remained. Bonkers returned to five days a week, and Gargoyles expanded to four days a week (much to my delight). On Friday, The Lion King’s Timon and Pumbaa, a spin-off of the insanely popular animated film, aired. By this point, The Disney Channel was attempting its own Disney Afternoon-like line-up, called Block Party, which played on weekdays around the same time and even included early Disney Afternoon series like TaleSpin and Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers.
For its seventh (and final) season, Darkwing Duck, Aladdin, and Gargoyles remained. Featured, was a rotating time slot that included The Lion King’s Timon and Pumbaa (Mondays), Quack Pack, a kind of “edgier” version of DuckTales, this time featuring human characters (Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays), and Mighty Ducks: The Animated Series (Fridays), which took the beloved family film about a misfit hockey team and turned it into a gleefully bizarre sci-fi spectacle that also serves as a true time capsule for the 1990’s (it featured a Jefferson Starship song as its theme and Ian Ziering was the lead). Righteous.
While a loose Disney-centered programming block would continue for the next couple of years, introducing small screen spin-offs of Hercules (amazingly featuring most of the cast from the animated film, including James Woods) and 101 Dalmatians, The Disney Afternoon as a named brand was kaput. But its legacy is huge.
It really cannot be overstated how big of a deal these shows were. They captured the zeitgeist in a real and profound way. Everyone knew the theme songs to the shows. There were countless pieces of merchandise based off of the series, including comic books, toys, fast food tie-ins and some very wonderful video games. It inspired a stage show at the then-recently opened Euro Disney (now Disneyland Paris), and characters were included in a stage show at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. At Disneyland in California, The Disney Afternoon inspired its own mini-land called Disney Afternoon Avenue, which stretched from Disneyland’s Motor Boat Cruise all the way to the construction walls for the then-under-construction Toontown. Disney Afternoon Avenue included a stage show, walk-around characters, and a “video game center” which premiered upcoming games based on the series. Two Disneyland attractions were re-themed, as well: the Motor Boat Cruise, which got a Gummi Bears overlay, while Autopia became the Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers Raceway. And while the “land” lasted for less than a year (back in 1991), it remains an utterly fascinating bit of Disneyland lore. (Gadget’s Go Coaster, a kiddie coaster based on Chip ‘n Dale, would open in Toontown at Disneyland in 1993 and in Tokyo Disneyland in 1996. It is still open today, long after the end of The Disney Afternoon.)
Also of note: All of these shows were airing on major networks (including NBC and ABC) at the same time. If you wanted to, six out of your seven days could have been filled with thrilling Disney animation. And for someone like myself, already under the medium’s spell, this was an embarrassment of riches. These series, which served as savvy introductions of beloved characters to modern audiences, also allowed a whole new generation of storytellers to grow and experiment. Just look at the shows and their concepts; some of them are off-the-wall. And yet they were produced gorgeously and fearlessly, and have remained favorites, inspiring even more comic books and reruns and new series. (DuckTales next year!)
If The Disney Afternoon was only meant to capture the imagination for a two-hour window every weekday afternoon, it has far exceeded those goals. It’s something that hit at the right time, really spoke to people, and is still analyzed (there are Disney Afternoon panels at major comic book conventions every year) and worshipped today. The Disney Afternoon is still going, in various forms. And maybe that’s the most magical thing about it: that it never ended.