Disney Nearly Built a Cinematic Universe from a Bunch of ‘Gargoyles.’

We return to the early nineties and revel in the unapologetically strange and wonderful ‘Gargoyles’ cartoon series.
Gargoyles Cartoon
Walt Disney Television
By  · Published on September 12th, 2020

Welcome to Saturday Morning Cartoons, our weekly column where we continue the animated boob tube ritual of yesteryear. Our lives may no longer be scheduled around small screen programming, but that doesn’t mean we should forget the necessary sanctuary of Saturday ‘toons. In this entry, we reflect on the mad wonder that was Disney’s Gargoyles cartoon series.

A massive skyscraper juts forth from the city, cracking the skyline, penetrating the clouds. The Eyrie Building scoffs at the architectural pretenders looming far below. She was built for magic, and the inevitable power she’ll grant the conniving billionaire who dreamed her into being. What does the Empire State building have on her? A pretty shine? Naw, nothing.

Crowning the titanic structure is a cursed Scottish castle ripped from its roots. When the sun sets on the Eyrie, its true masters come to life. The Gargoyles damned to slumber more than a thousand years earlier, betrayed by the wretched greed of man, smash free from their stone prisons, and let their rage roar into action.

The city and its population are strangers to them. The castle, while their home, was also their jail, and its embrace is not as warm as it once was. These fanged, winged, and frustrated creatures would be happy to transform their anger into revenge if not for a few impossibly kind humans willing to lend aid.

Gargoyles was unlike — and it remains unlike — any other Walt Disney animated series. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the mouse house dominated the small screen while they struggled in theaters (their cinematic renaissance just got off the ground with The Little Mermaid). Shows like Adventures of the Gummi Bears, DuckTales, TaleSpin, Darkwing Duck, and Goof Troop were sweet, silly, and colorfully absurd.

At the same time, Warner Bros. Animation snatched a serious chunk of their market with Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, and Batman: The Animated Series. The Dark Knight Detective, in particular, stole the eyes of not just children, but teenagers and adults alike. Artist and series co-creator Bruce Timm made an icon out of an already existing icon. What the what? How could Disney compete?

Gargoyles started as a series that would very much fall in line with Disney’s other comedic cartoons. Show creator Greg Weisman originally envisioned the concept as Gummi Bears with a little bit of an edge. Thanks to Timm’s Batman series, they knew kids could handle grit, and parents were willing to go along with a darker tone as long as quality followed.

However, the comedic pitch underwhelmed Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Gargoyles did not spring out of an existing intellectual property. There was no proven market. That made it a tremendous risk, but there was also a potentially massive reward on the other side. Weisman went back to the drawing board, this time leaning even further into the Batman inspirations and pulling forth a real-deal superhero reimagining.

With the help of artist Greg Guler, Weisman created a new hero to lead a justice league of Gargoyles. Goliath would be their Superman, Hudson their Martian Manhunter, Brooklyn their Green Lantern, Lexington their Cyborg and Flash combined, Broadway their Shazam, and Bronx their Krypto.

Their Wonder Woman was Demona, a gargoyle who did not suffer the same curse as the rest, thanks to the meddling of Macbeth and his three witches. Under the guidance of Goliath, she could have grown into a significant ally, but hundreds of years observing the failings of humanity soured her soul. Demona’s hatred of the flesh-bags served as an example for the others: do not succumb to such bottomless disgust.

It took two years of development and multiple pitches, but Eisner finally granted the Gargoyles life with a little encouragement from Jeffery Katzenberg, the executive responsible for the dramatic shift in quality regarding Disney’s cinematic efforts. The series had a toyetic vibe, and as more and more characters started to form, the executives saw the aisles of Toys R Us filling.

To match the action figures, they needed action voices. Many actors were mined from the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Assigned to the morally questionable villains of Demona and the billionaire Xanatos were Enterprise lovebirds Marina Sirtis and Jonathan Frakes. For the cyborg Coldstone, Michael Dorn brought the gravitas of a Klingon. Popping up frequently as well were Nichelle Nichols, Kate Mulgrew, Colm Meaney, Brent Spiner, and Avery Brooks.

However, the final frontier is not where they went to find Goliath. Instead, they recruited one of the most magnificent badasses ever to brawl his way through the movies: Keith David. The actor got his start as one of two survivors from John Carpenter’s delectably gooey adaptation of The Thing. From there, he smashed his way through They Live, Missing in Action III, Road House, and Men at Work. He’s the kind of character actor who immediately elevates the quality of any frame of film he finds himself within.

Goliath is definitely a bruiser, but he’s also a brooder. Gargoyles required a voice that could live in the growl and sorrow equally. The series reached for the mythological and the Shakespearan, and they proudly put the Bard’s characters on display. Close your eyes during any episode and you will imagine David on a stage, addressing an audience as boldly and as passionately as anything found on the theater in the round.

Gargoyles was an unapologetically unusual series. Once the suits accepted the premise, the creators let it all hang out there. Their weird gamble paid off. The first season scored plenty of viewers, and more importantly, plenty of toy sales.

Eisner envisioned a whole universe branching from its body. If Warner Bros. could do it with DC Comics, Disney could do it with Gargoyles (this was many years before their purchase of Marvel Comics, and actually a few years after Eisner passed on an acquisition of the comic book company). Unfortunately, when Disney president Frank Wells tragically died in a helicopter accident, and Eisner did not appoint Katzenberg to his position, their friendly partnership deteriorated. When Katzenberg left for DreamWorks, several other Gargoyles supporters left with him.

The series reigned for one season and sputtered for two more. The arrival of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and the frequent broadcast interruptions of the O.J. Simpson trial did not help matters. Attention waned, and Gargoyles returned to their slumber.

In the years after it aired, the Gargoyles cult solidified. VHS tapes were passed from hand to hand, and it became the go-to series for geeks looking to one-up each other in their celebration of all things animated. “Yeah, yeah, yeah – Batman: The Animated Series is cool and all, but have you seen Gargoyles?”

Now that it’s found a home on Disney+, an entirely new crowd of animaniacs await its discovery. Superhero mythology has taken hold of the culture. We understand this world better today than yesterday. Keith David and Marina Sirtis may not have the spandex, but they got the wings and the muscles. Even better, they have the internal battles that frequently trump the external ones.

Gargoyles was a saga that placed the human race under the crosshairs of justifiable rage. We’re a greedy, selfish nation that will happily dismantle others if it means a stronger foundation for ourselves and our family. We offered plenty of motivation for Goliath to soar the same destiny as Demona. His refusal to stoop to our morality reflected a higher plane of thought for his audience to reach.

Related Topics:

Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)