Digital Polyphony

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Liquid Nostalgia #28

Talespin: A Look Back

I can't imagine the development meetings and pitches that went on when TaleSpin was just getting started. 

"Let's take the Jungle Book characters and re-imagine them into a whole new world!"

"Ok."

"And...they all fly planes! And dress circa 1935."

"Well..."

"And Baloo is a pilot."

"Now you're just talking crazy."

Crazy? Yes. Genius? Absolutely. On paper, this probably made little sense. In execution, it ended up being one of the best shows Disney ever produced. Forget Jungle Book because, as classic as that story and animated film is, TaleSpin is what brought the likes of Baloo, Louie and Shere Khan to popularity on a new level for a new generation - and is probably a million times more inventive than the Disney film before (and I would go as so far to say on par with the Kipling Jungle Book stories before that as this new identity retains the characters yet reinvents them at the same time). The world was this strange blend of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki industrial wonder meets Indiana Jones adventure with a plane-based culture, floating cities, air pirates, blimps and mysteries into the great unknown that was that ever-present horizon.

TaleSpin really came down to one major thing, something that I can't say for a lot of the Disney Afternoon programs: the characters were absolutely fantastic. They had depth and histories and personalities that worked seamlessly with each other that it helped show a living/breathing world that much more believably.

What really grabs you, though, is the sincerity in a lot of the episodes. The show really has a lot of heart going for it as every character is tied together as a family yet nobody is related. Baloo is the father, Rebecca the mother, Molly and Kit siblings and Wildcat that weird uncle that mumbles to himself and tells inappropriate stories at dinner. Ducktales and Rescue Rangers had some spots here and there, but TaleSpin really took that notion and ran with it by delivering emotion on a pretty consistent basis. Numerous spots tested Kit and Baloo's friendship, Kit and Molly had quite a few moments and Rebecca one of the best written female characters of the entire Disney Afternoon history.

Yes, the design and world might be what I visualize when I think of TaleSpin, but I feel something a little deeper than just that and the adventures the characters would go on. For a children's show that didn't even hit 100 episodes, it really tugged at those heartstrings - putting that depth of character on a higher shelf than simple plane-flying adventure and talking animals. It's that purposeful sentiment that defined TaleSpin and why it's one of the best children's programs of all time (and probably still under-appreciated for that on top of it all).


 

A Brief History of Talespin

Unlike a lot of histories in this section, TaleSpin is pretty straightforward. Believe it or not, the entire show was a rush-job. The Disney Afternoon was already a brand and success so there's no "founding" story...it ws just a damn good show.

In an attempt to expand the Disney Afternoon brand, Disney Afternoon producers/writers and creators Mark Zaslove (who was a staff writer for Disney Animation) and Jymn Magon (who had been part of the Disney Afternoon brand since the beginning) worked on filling holes by throwing out ideas together. After three days, the conception of Talespin was born: a high-adventure series based on characters from the Jungle Book.

The early concept designs showed notable differences (one image seen to the right, here).  Baloo was relatively unchanged, other than removing claws that some early art shows. The Sea Duck, Baloo's plane, is more round as the air pirate design shows sails rather than propellers. Notably, Kit looks older and has different clothes, other images of Rebecca and Molly show slight changes (mainly hair) as well. Wildcat looks pretty much the same. Still, even the early art shows the high-flying adventure of Baloo and Co.

Magon and Zaslove helped develop a two-hour pilot (which was nominated for an Emmy once aired). Baloo (now a pilot), Louie (a bar owner and Baloo's best friend) and Shere Kahn (a rich industrialist and tycoon)  are the notable characters from the Jungle Book re-imagined into a world of planes, flight and adventure centered on the island city of Cape Suzette in a period that best resembles the 1930s. Additional characters help roundout the cast, such as Kit Cloudkicker, who quickly becomes Baloo's surrogate son, Rebecca Cunningham, the owner of Higher for Hire and Baloo's employer, and Don Karnage, the air pirate captain that loves a good song from time to time. Smaller characters included Molly, Wildcat and Don Karnage's henchmen who were almost as inept as the Don himself in their attempts to plunder the skies.

Legendary voice actor Jim Cummings did nearly 40 various voices for the show, notably Louie and Don Karnage. Ed Gilbert voiced Baloo, Alan Roberts and/or RJ Williams as Kit, Tony Jay as Shere Kahn and Sally Struthers as Rebecca. 

After the success, Disney greenlighted the idea of Talespin into a series. During it's run, only 65 episodes, four production teams were created to keep the episodes coming out on a consistent basis. Both Zaslove and Magon oversaw the show.

TaleSpin ran from 1990 to 1994 as a part of the Disney Afternoon syndicated block and produced 65 episodes. The show flourished in the syndication market, however the series itself didn't receive many awards or nominations outside of its Emmy-nominated pilot and an Annie Award for best series in 1992. As always with the Disney shows, the show was promoted and marketed with various toys, games and continued to find a place in reruns for years to come.


 

Top Ten TaleSpin Episodes (To Get You Started)

There’s a lot of really, really good episodes. I had a ton that I could have put, so I ended up really trying to do ten to show variety. Some are funny, some are dead-serious, some are adventurous and so on. So, if you’ve never sat and watched a TaleSpin episode, here’s ten to get you started.


10) Flying Dupes

It’s a bit Laurel and Hardy / Crosby and Hope meets terrorism. So much so that the episode ended up being banned. It’s still one of the more humorous ones. 


9) The Idol Rich

This is one of many Indiana Jones-inspired episodes that showcased mysteries of another civilization or ancient artifacts. An early episode that is both strong in adventure but the Baloo-Kit relationship as well.



8) Flight of the Snow Duck

Really one of the most beautifully innocent episodes about dreams, imagination and childhood. The character of Molly, Rebecca's daughter (we never learn about the father, if I recall) doesn't get a whole lot of chances to shine. Truth is, she's often more an nuisance than anything. But here, the show really captured something really nice and sweet. Plus, this one is a good Wild
cat episode alongside that.


7) Last Horizons

When I think of TaleSpin, this is the first thing that comes to mind. You have all your troupes, but throw in a mystical land discovered by Baloo only to realize they’re going to trace him back to Cape Suzette to destroy it is just enough to make your head spin. Panda-La, a land of pandas, flying pagodas and rockets, is something that obviously took some time and thought to design (it’s a whole new culture into a world that’s already a unique culture).

 Apparently this episode is also banned, probably in its stereotyping of Asian culture, I'm guessing.


6) The Old Man and the Seaduck

One could easily call this a cheap episode. Usually, amnesia stories are. But this one does something really unique and gets into Baloo's head as to why he loves to fly and be a pilot. To see him suddenly "scared" is unique, and when he finally overcomes it really seemed to hit some strong story and emotional beats. Plus, Joe McGee is a really, really well-done character. 


5) Her Chance to Dream

No question that this is Rebecca best episode and probably one of the more emotional episodes of the series. She seeks love and thinks she found it, but the show, showing how smart it really was, doesn’t turn this into some comedic piece that would undermine the whole thing. It plays it pretty straight and ends up tugging the heartstrings as it closes out.


4)  Stormy Weather

One of the best Baloo/Kit episodes of the series. It shows Baloo truly caring a lot for Kit as Kit looks to set out on his own and not listening to "papa bear." More importantly, it shows us a lot about Kit away from the adult-figures in his life and a lot of kids, such as myself, related to his search for himself.



3) From  Whom the Bell Klangs (Pt 1 and 2)

Baloo, Louie, archeology, and a hot little archaeologist named Katie Dodd who’s a fox...literally she’s a fox. A bit on the nose but whatever. I really enjoyed seeing Baloo and Louie together here, showing their friendship as they go on vacation together. But what makes it great is the story of the whole Tinabula arc and concept.  I loved the story of the ancient city and how it was swallowed by the desert and, as is always with the series, the mysteries it may or may not possess.


2) Plunder and Lightening

The Emmy-nominated pilot movie (later put into four parts). It has everything that made the series great and laid the groundwork, not to mention having an incredibly story (with musical numbers) to boot. Superb animation here as well, showing that there was a time when Disney was damn ambitious with their animation department to make what was essentially a free made for TV movie



1) A Bad Reflection on You (Pt 1 and 2)

This one has everything, strange disappearances in the Master Run (a dangerous route), Shere Khan, mysteries of the air and maybe a little magic. But, like Stormy Weather,  it’s really Kit and Baloo that made this episode amazing. The strongest episodes of the series seem to mainly focus on their relationship – very father/son. This one has a great sense of intimidating mystery as well, even a bit scary at times, but really just an incredibly well-written one.

 

Honorable Mention: It Came From Beneath the Sea Duck.
This list was lacking some Kit-Molly episodes so here’s one in case you wanted to see what the surrogate brother-sisterly relationship often looked like. Plus, it’s a strong episode overall as well.

 

Honestly, out of all the Disney Afternoon shows, TaleSpin really had a quality over quantity approach to things. There weren't a ton of throwaway episodes, each one felt like it had some time and effort put into it and focused squarely on one major point (maybe the father/son relationship or unsaid romance of Baloo and Rebbecca) and each felt relevant to each other (even though there's really little connection, nearly all are standalone). It had a consistent cohesiveness and tone to its overarching themes and characters that made it, in my humble opinion, the most imaginative and fully-realized "world" of all the Disney Afternoon programs. That's saying a lot when you have the likes of Duckberg and the mythos of Gargoyles (the last great DA program) to go up against.

To think it was, at the time, only made to be a "filler." You would think a show like Darkwing Duck, which was more a spinoff, or the various movie-based shows off Aladdin and the Lion King would have been the "filler" shows. But no...and it ended up being one of the best.

 

 PS: For a Talespin fansite, of which there are quite a few, check out this one.

 

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