“Woo-Who am I?: Ducktales & Identity

In my sophomore year high-school yearbook, there is an inscription “keep watching DuckTales.” The person who wrote it sat behind me in geometry class. He had long hair, wore heavy metal band T-shirts and sleeveless jean jackets. He would watch the show, too, when looking after his younger brother and respected that I found my own connection to it. As a quiet kid who dealt with depression, sophomore year was a time when I came out of my shell. Back then, geek culture was not on the front lines like it is today. Watching shows like the original DuckTales—and vocally defending it—helped me find my identity in high school. I loved the fact that the original DuckTales celebrated animation in all its forms and history. Leaning harder into animation, I thought I was finding myself at the time. In actuality, I was painting a protective view of the world and avoiding true self-discovery. Later, I would find out that this was a manic stage of what would be officially diagnosed as bipolar disorder. Given my recent work in therapy, viewing the reboot in 2017 on the Disney XD channel through a new lens thrilled me. This new perspective does not mean that I watch animation to wall off reality but instead allows me to appreciate how the DuckTales reboot goes into longer season-spanning storylines, facilitating deeper dives into the characters of Huey, Dewey, and Louie and the mentorship of Uncle Scrooge McDuck. Looking at the season-long storyline approach of the DuckTales reboot—as well as what I personally took away from each Duck triplet regarding my own mental health awareness—I found a lot to be said on individual adversity and how it relates to developing self-identity.

The Disney comic book work of Carl Barks is the basis for both DuckTales cartoons, original and reboot. Barks created the character of Scrooge McDuck, the settings, and many of Scrooge’s allies and adversaries that both cartoon adaptations pull from. In the cartoon, Scrooge McDuck goes on globe-hopping adventures with Donald Duck and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie. The only way to tell the difference between the Duck nephews, since they are triplets in the original series, was that they wore matching red, blue, and green hats and shirts. And it’s that feeling of indistinguishability that I wish to focus on.

At the time I was watching the original DuckTales, I was living with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. The feeling of being animated/manic freed me in high school from feeling powerless and indistinguishable in the hallways. I did not know who I was, and since I wasn’t in therapy at the time, this mindset helped bandage my mental health. At this age, the stigma around reaching out for mental health therapy kept me from accessing the help I needed. Before my need for help outgrew that mindset, I found myself without a map for a few years, wondering who I was and my place in the world—which brings me back to the reboot of DuckTales.

The first difference we see and hear in the reboot is that the Duck nephews all have individual actors voicing them, while in the original cartoon, they were all voiced by Russi Taylor (who voices young Donald Duck in the reboot). By having different actors as the Duck nephews in the reboot, DuckTales makes an effort to distinguish and develop the individuality of Huey, Dewey, and Louie through its three seasons. The reboot brings characters, not caricatures, to the Duck family. Even Donald Duck’s famous temper is not a defining personality trait in the reboot, but through a number of season-long arcing storylines, we see that Donald (voiced by Tony Anselmo in both DuckTales series) struggles with anger management and learn more about why he does so in the episode “What Ever Happened to Donald Duck?!” From the very first episode, the Duck nephews recharge a set-in-his-ways Uncle Scrooge (voiced by David Tennant) back to the great adventurer he once was when he built his fortune. In turn, Uncle Scrooge guides them in their individual skills and interests to build them into a family of adventurers. 

Going in naming order, Huey (voiced by Danny Pudi) at first glance seems the most by the book of the Duck nephews in the new series. That book is the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook, which Carl Barks created in the comics as a version of the Boy Scout Handbook. Huey is extremely left-brained and logical, happiest when the mysteries found on adventures have an explanation, and finds that the Junior Woodchuck Guidebook is chock-full of answers for every situation. Huey falls at the feet of the scientist characters who work for Uncle Scrooge McDuck. Some of these characters are not the best people, and the show has a running theme of logic and science trying to control the chaos of emotion and magic of adventure.

Logic trying to control chaos is something I can appreciate. In fact, my O.C.D. (obsessive-compulsive disorder) flaring up—when I need to repeatedly check and double-check everything—is a warning sign of my bipolar disorder. For me, this “by the book” trial and error affirmation process moves past thinking logically. It feels like writing out all the computer code in your head before leaving the house but mistyping something so the program doesn’t process. I know what needs to happen next but am stuck on a previous step in the process for minutes to half an hour. After hospitalization, trusted family and friends helped me slowly get back to living a grounded life through exposure therapy, which allowed me to move past a loop of reassuring behaviors and to start living in the real world.

In the episode “Astro B.O.Y.D.!”, fellow Junior Woodchuck B.O.Y.D. tests Huey’s ability to not live by logic. After finding out B.O.Y.D. is a robot, Huey helps him tap into the personal experiences he has had in order to prevent B.O.Y.D. from being turned into a weapon by his former creator. B.O.Y.D. succeeds because of his time with Huey, taking in and appreciating the small personal moments. In turn, Huey’s character growth throughout the seasons is about seeing people as they are and not the science they are working on. Over time, Huey learns to not be ruled by logic but to use it as a guide for living off-book.

Dewey (voiced by Ben Schwartz), on the other hand, shoots from the right side of the brain. He is the type who uses his name as a verb as he tries accomplishing things, or “Dew-ing it.” Where Huey filters everything through facts, wild possibilities blind Dewey’s efforts regardless of his training. Dewey’s positivity is a mask at times. In the episode “Last Christmas!” Dewey goes back in time to meet their mother, Della Duck (voiced by Paget Brewster). At the beginning of the episode, we see that Dewey is hit the hardest by the loss of their mother as he feels he is the only one who still misses her.

 I will admit that I have a sweet spot for Dewey. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and get the manic version of myself grounded earlier. Then, I center myself and realize it’s all part of my ongoing process. Every step leads to a place of getting help. The manic high schooler was once the depressed middle schooler, and the pendulum swung wildly as my teenage brain was developing into an adult with an undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Eventually, I stopped trying to chase the bliss of manic swings and found out why I act the way I do. The important thing was that I got help and didn’t stop looking for answers.

Della Duck provides guardrail guidance for Dewey’s can-do-anything attitude, helping him not only focus on one interest but to learn focus at all. As much as I enjoy Dewey’s talk show Dewey Dew-Night and his yo-yo tricks, those moments help pay off in his character arc when he finds a true talent in airplane piloting, as seen in the episode “The Lost Cargo of Kit Cloudkicker!” The manic mindset is put to the side and Dewey succeeds by focusing on flying steady. He learns he doesn’t have to be a jack-of-all-trades to stand out in a famous family and lands his place while honoring his mother, who is also a pilot. Dewey’s character journey is one I personally appreciate since I started making true progress in therapy when I stopped thinking about what I missed or what I could have been and instead learned to steady myself and focus on where I presently landed.

Louie Duck (voiced by Bobby Moynihan) is different from his two brothers. Unlike Huey, he has a calming center—to the point of being lazy at times—and unlike Dewey, he has one focus—making money. The show makes a point of saying his gift is “seeing all the angles.” I appreciate Louie for having something that centers him. For myself, it has been developing my awareness of my mental health. In the beginning stages of therapy, I learned to see the angles of the triangular relationship between behavior, thoughts, and feelings. Learning the difference between these three reactions helped set the groundwork for my ongoing work in therapy. It also helped me gain foresight about the outside influences that others, who weren’t part of my recovery team, may have on me.

Out of the three nephews, Scrooge McDuck takes Louie the closest under his wing. Uncle Scrooge, being the “richest duck in the world,” earned his fortune from nothing. In fact, the reboot carries over the Carl Barks mythos of Scrooge’s number one dime—the first dime he actually earned through hard work. From there, Scrooge McDuck built a fortune fair and square by “being tougher than the toughies, and smarter than the smarties!” Scrooge sees Louie is on a path to make money without breaking a sweat, even if it isn’t through the most honest of means. Because of this, Uncle Scrooge sees sparks in Louie like his longtime adversary Goldie O’Gill (voiced by Allison Janney), so he sits Louie down to hear about an old adventure in the episode “The Outlaw Scrooge McDuck!” Instead, Louie seeks out Goldie O’Gill to learn from her. The two pull a con together in “Happy Birthday, Doofus Drake!”, trying to steal all the spoiled rich kid’s gold and jewel filled party gift bags for his guests. Louie’s actions cause Doofus Drake (voiced by John Gemberling) to return in one of the final episodes of the series in “The Life and Crimes of Scrooge McDuck!” In this episode, Doofus Drake recruits all of Uncle Scrooge’s rivals to weigh against the Hall of Two Truths from Egyptian mythology, on the charge that Scrooge McDuck turned them all evil. Viewing moments of Uncle Scrooge’s past, Louie sees his own path before him defending Scrooge McDuck against his rivals in cosmic karmic court. With Uncle Scrooge’s eternal fate in the literal balance, Louie learns that he can’t talk his way out of some problems and learns to apologize to the one person at the court that he personally wronged, Doofus Drake.

As someone who works daily on their own mental health awareness, I can appreciate that the DuckTales reboot shows characters finding their individuality. So, I have developed the anagram Q.U.A.C.K. as part of my mental health toolbelt. Donald works on his anger management to stay “Quiet” in his thoughts. Huey learns that there is a difference between “Understanding” meaning the noun (comprehension) as compared to the adjective (sympathetically aware). Dewey finds “Attention” and focus to obtain his goals. Louie learns “Caring” and empathy, because if he spends a life watching his back, he’ll miss what’s waiting up ahead. And Uncle Scrooge realizes he needs to rely on his “Kin” McDuck and not turn his back on family.

Through all the hurricanes of adventures, the central theme of the DuckTales reboot is the individual members of this family. That is the biggest difference between the original and the reboot. In my twenties, as I was eating in the cafeteria at the corporate job, I ran into the old DuckTales fan from geometry class. He gave me his card, and I called him that weekend to see if he wanted to grab a drink and catch up. We didn’t hang out in high school, so he declined. I guess I was looking for a magic relic at the time, like in the episodes from the original DuckTales, a touchstone to help me find myself in my new corporate setting. But there is no instant change, as I am still learning through my years of therapy, and progress didn’t happen until I stopped waiting for magic, science, or a rich uncle to fix my problems. So, I appreciate the growth individual characters have in the DuckTales reboot. With season-long storylines, the reboot can focus on the Duck family, and we have time to watch them grow, where the original just focused on their adventures each episode. Each season ends with a finale in which the Duck family goes against what has been building against them all season, which makes for a more successful conclusion. The Ducks succeed because they flock together and put their individual selves and growth in motion as a solid family unit. As the show says perfectly “family is the greatest adventure of all,” and it’s been my experience that the most adventurous family experiences are full of birds of a different feather.

Dominic Loise

Dominic Loise is a writer and bookseller living in Chicago. He is open about and advocates for mental health awareness. His work has appeared in Alchemic Gold Poetry SocietyAnalogies & AllegoriesAlt.Ctrl.JpgCalm DownClementine ZineCollective RealmsEmotional AlchemyInnsaeiMulberry Literary, October HillPush up Daisies!Raven Review, as well as Refresh and Silent Auctions. He was a finalist in Short Editions' "America: Color it in" contest. Dominic can also be found on Instagram