In 1985 Michael Eisner had just taken over at Disney and was accelerating the production pace. Disney had not entered the children’s television market before, and the newly birthed TV animation division launched the initiative with two new concepts: Wuzzles, about a bunch of mixed-up animal species like “Butterbear” and “Bumbelion,” and Gummi Bears.
They actually had more confidence in the former than the latter. Wuzzles was seen as a can’t-miss hit in the 80s tradition of such cuddly, merchandisable fuzzies as The Smurfs. Disney shopped both show concepts to the networks that year, but Wuzzles was the critical one. The toys and books were already contracted for production!
Disney pitched its ideas to NBC first, and NBC took Gummi Bears but not Wuzzles, forcing Disney to offer the other show to a competing network. The company saw nothing unusual in this: for decades, Hanna-Barbera had produced for multiple networks and had often seen its cartoons airing against each other. But Disney didn’t expect Gummi Bears to take off and last a rare six seasons, while Wuzzles only got 13 episodes before being cancelled.
Gummi Bears thus became Disney’s first TV cartoon hit, and it was firing up the ratings charts in 1987 when DuckTales debuted. And that’s when things got ugly for the Gummis: Disney found greater success in the syndication market and produced fewer and fewer episodes per season of the network-originated Gummi Bears. As the oldest show in the Disney stable, it was often neglected. It got The Disney Afternoon’s (DA’s) 3:30pm slot during that bloc’s first year, but it took six seasons to reach the magical 65 episodes needed for syndication, a milestone DuckTales hit its first year out. When Darkwing Duck later debuted, Gummi Bears was bounced from the lineup. It appeared now and then on Disney’s cable networks, but never for long. In contrast, DuckTales remained in broadcast reruns nonstop for 20 years. As a result, most people think of Duck Tales as the first Disney cartoon series, not Gummi Bears (and most certainly not Wuzzles).
Given its past treatment, I never expected the show to be released on DVD, yet here it is. Now, keep in mind, I’m no nostalgic Gummi fan. As a kid I avoided the show completely, because it was about a bunch of “sissy bears.” And as I’ve grown older I’ve only seen a couple of episodes. Thus, I went into this DVD almost completely fresh.
So, does Gummi Bears hold up? Oh, yes it does. More than it has any right to.
Whenever I sit down to watch a cartoon from the 80s, there is a lot I’m willing to forgive. The animation, the plot, the story pacing, the voice acting: usually, I have to expect the worst. I was prepared for another dated train wreck, but Gummi Bears has none of those problems. The TMS animation (the earliest American use of TMS I’ve seen) is fluid and impressive, looking not only better than every other cartoon that came out that year but even better than some movies of the time. The voices are by veterans like June Foray and Paul Winchell. (The latter, with a little practice, was successfully able to differentiate his Gummi character from Tigger). The stories are interesting, gripping, and have a true feel of adventure. If I didn’t already know the date of production, I’d never believe it. Some shows from 1995 were impressive. Some shows from 1990 were trailblazing. But a quality cartoon from 1985? It’s unheard of!
Equally unheard of is the obvious effort that went into creating a deep mythology for the series. Greg Weisman claims this inspired him on Gargoyles, and I believe it now. In spirit and design, it resembles Disney’s box-office bomb The Black Cauldron (released in the same year), but is much more coherent. The show takes place in the medieval kingdom of Dunwyn, which has the obligatory knights, white-bearded king, spunky princess, dragons, ogres and what-have-you. Among the many mythical creatures that inhabit the land—or used to inhabit it—are Gummi Bears, who are down to a group of only six when the series starts. More are discovered as the series progresses, but mainly it’s these guys living underground in the ruins of what was once a great civilization. Only three humans know of the Gummis’ existence: Cavin, a castle page; Princess Calla, who has a thing for Cavin yet will not admit it; and Duke Igthorn, a former Dunwyn knight who was thrown out of the kingdom and became the apparent ruler of the nearby wasteland of Drekmore. Igthorn is the series’ villain, and is mainly after the Gummis for their secret recipe for Gummi Berry Juice, which gives them the power to bounce like rubber over great distances. This elixir bestows temporary super strength on humans, and Igthorn sees it as an unbeatable weapon he can use to conquer Dunwyn. Though often played for laughs, Igthorn’s a more competent threat than most other 80s cartoon villains.
On Gummi Bears, no character exists just for the sake of existing—everyone has a story, and the show’s world is a lot richer for it; at least, it’s richer than Smurfs ever was. The Gummis slightly resemble the Seven Dwarves (and the Smurfs) in that they are named after their chief quality—Sunni Gummi has an upbeat disposition, Tummi Gummi is a lazy glutton, and Gruffi Gummi is, well, gruff. As for Zummi Gummi, I don’t know what a “zummi” is, but he’s obviously the Doc of the bunch—he even spoonerizes his words sometimes.
One of the most remarkable things about the series is how it is able to keep a sense of adventure and danger while under tight censorship. In an era where everything had to be softened, Gummi Bears was entertaining and never condescended the way other 80s programs tended to. The bears never throw a punch, but boy, do they do get into spots. In “Gummi in a Strange Land,” a small, scared creature puts Gruffi under a sleep spell, so Grammi and Sunni must chase that creature (which is the only thing that can reverse the spell) through Dunwyn and into Drekmore, running into ogres and plants that explode when touched, all while keeping the sleepwalking Gruffi out of danger. The episode is far from offensive or edgy, yet it packs a lot of imagination into eleven minutes.
You get a lot of Gummi for your money with this set. During its years on Saturday morning, it would mix and match its eleven-minute stories so that there would seem to be more episodes than there actually were. Keep this in mind when you see the box for Volume 1 advertised as containing 47 episodes. But even then, this is the most screen footage ever packed into a Disney DVD. Previous TV cartoon releases have come nine episodes to a disc, yet each Gummi Bears disc technically has ten. There must have been a little compression required to achieve this, but it’s nothing I noticed on my hundred-buck standard-definition tube. They could complete the series in two sets if they put four discs onto the next volume, but that would raise the price five dollars higher, which might hurt sales. (If you don’t believe it, just ask the aforementioned Greg Weisman.)
This is the kind of rare series that stands the test of time and truly is fun for the whole family. You can plunk your three-year-old down in front of it and not worry about a thing, yet you can be wholly entertained by it yourself. You can’t go wrong with Gummi Bears.
Of course, I would have recommended DuckTales or Talespin as well: Don’t blame me for the Toon Zone reviews of those—I didn’t write ’em.