Case Study 55: TaleSpin, Episode 46–“Flight School Confidential”

Original Airdate: January 10th, 1991 on first-run syndication

Hey, a crappy kids’ cartoon that I remember from my actual childhood! The concept of Baloo (Ed Gilbert) from The Jungle Book delivering airmail was introduced on Disney’s first syndicated cartoon, DuckTales. DuckTales was enough of a hit for Disney that it launched a whole stable of early 90s syndicated animated programming for the studio. In addition to TaleSpin, my fellow snake people will probably remember Darkwing Duck and Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers. DuckTales also triggered a boom in innovative afternoon cartoons, demonstrating to studios like Warners Brothers and Fox that there was money to be made in developing high-quality animated fare like The Animaniacs or Batman: The Animated Series. It also led to a lot of garbage. TaleSpin isn’t nearly that bad, but let’s just say revisiting it tarnished a few childhood memories.

Strengths

  • A strong, relatable premise. The hook of this episode’s plot is simple: Baloo’s 12 year old navigator and apprentice Kit (R.J. Williams, Wake, Rattle and Roll) feels like he’s ready to fly a plane after extensive experience riding shotgun, but everyone thinks he’s way too young. Who hasn’t been in a position where they’ve been told they’re not old enough to do something they feel confident they can handle? Ultimately, this episode is about the relationship between Kit and Baloo, but as you’ll see, we get distracted by a whole different pile of much less compelling bullshit. If they had focused on that core relationship—on Kit trying to convince Baloo, on Baloo addressing his fears over Kit’s independence, on Kit trying to win Baloo’s trust in spite of his naturally unhinged inclinations—it could have been a great story.

Weaknesses

  • Jingoistic bullshit. Hey, you know what this kids’ show about a sloth bear flying a cargo plane needs? Cold War geopolitics! Much of this episode takes place in Thembria, which is populated by a bunch of authoritarian warthogs with cheesy Russian accents. Thembria is characterized by incompetent militarism, tyrannical rulers and austere radish-centric cuisine. Was any of this necessary? It was 1991. The Wall came down, guys. You won. Maybe there was a fear that this state of affairs was tenuous and we still needed to indoctrinate our children with unthinking contempt for commies. I don’t know. As it stands, it makes a godawful mess out of the plot. We go from Kit chafing under Baloo’s authority to Kit chafing under the authority of a bunch of Thembrians we’ll never see again to him getting rescued by Baloo. So is he going to teach Kit to fly, then? No. “You’ll make a great pilot someday,” he says. Kit is mollified. So the moral here is do what Baloo says or you’ll fly your plane into a mountain and die a fiery death in a foreign country. GREAT STORY BRO
  • Kit. I wanted to relate to Kit so badly. But there’s a difference between being prevented from doing something you know how to do based on arbitrary ageism and being cocky and stupid. Every time the kid tries to fly a plane it ends in a disaster. In the opening scenes, he crashes Baloo’s plane into some rocks. He steals a plane from the Thembrians under the cover of darkness, never manages to close the landing gear and crashes it into a wall. In the grand finale he takes control of a plane yet again and nearly runs into a goddamned mountain. And I get that he’s rebelling against the authority of the adults and/or the Soviet government, but it would have made for a better story if he tried to work with that authority instead of against it, since he’s clearly not equipped to do the latter with any kind of competence or affability.

Final Judgment: 4/10. Mostly inoffensive and not actively stupid, TaleSpin clears a lot of the low bars set by the children’s programming previously discussed here, but it hardly rises to the level of anything I’d actually recommend. By the way, I never thought I’d compliment Angelina Ballerina, but at least their Russia stand-in isn’t straight out of a fucking propaganda poster.

NEXT TIME: I cover the British political sitcom The New Statesman!

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Case Study 55: TaleSpin, Episode 46–“Flight School Confidential”