By Paulo Camacho
It’s this time of year — when the weather gets cooler, the leaves turn red, and school starts for millions of young people — that actually takes me back to my own childhood. And, in the days when I was in elementary school, one of the memories that always stood out came after I came home from class — spending weekday afternoons watching cartoons with my brother — in particular, shows from the famed 90s cartoon block, “Disney Afternoon.”
The Disney Afternoon was a beloved two-hour syndicated cartoons that aired between 1990 and 1997. It featured four animated series that cycled out every year, along with unique animated segments that established it as its own entity.
But what made the programming so memorable were probably their nostalgic themes — ones that those who grew up in the 80s and 90s could probably instantly recognize if they heard a few seconds of it. In fact, their inaugural lineup of shows featured some of the most memorable theme songs of the 1990s. After all, 90s internet nostalgia and the decade’s cartoon themes seem to go hand in hand, more often than not.
We have covered my favorite theme songs from superhero cartoons in the 1990s — so why not continue the trend with a beloved staple to millions of 90s kids, and discuss the theme songs of the premiere lineup to “The Disney Afternoon”? In this case, we will talk about the theme songs to “Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears,” “Duck Tales,” “Chip ’N’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers” and “TaleSpin.”
Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears
Inspired by Disney CEO Michael Eisner’s son’s request for candy (that’s not even a joke), Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears follows the exploits of a group of Medieval-era anthropomorphic bears that live in hiding from humans in an underground complex, the entrance of which is a giant, hollowed-out tree known as Gummi-Glen. They are known to create a concoction from a plant they grow themselves, known as “gummiberries.” this “gummiberry juice” grants the gummi bears abilities such as bouncing from great heights, while it grants humans and ogres superhuman strength.
Aside from the main plot, the whole show gave off a vibe that screamed a combination of “Robin Hood and his merry men” and “King Arthur” — a hearty, ragtag group of reluctant heroes that live in the forest, in the time of knights, dragons and warlocks. The theme song (as seen above) mirrors that motif brilliantly — a playful, merry tune that speaks of “high adventure that’s beyond compare.”
It’s no surprise, then, that this was the deliberate choice of songwriters Patty and Michael Silversher — though it wasn’t easy for them in reaching this conclusion. When they were hired by President of Disney Television Animation, Gary Kriesel, they spent months coming up with at least three different drafts of the theme, all of which Kriesel thought they could do better.
After four months, and a face-to-face meeting with Kriesel, they got their inspiration for the final theme. Said Michael Silversher of the encounter:
The rest is Disney animation history. Its “ye olde tyme” feel and heroic melodies, sung dutifully by Joe Williams — incidentally, son of John Williams — make it a classic cartoon theme song.
Quite possibly the most famous of the original Disney Afternoon lineup, “DuckTales” remains, to this day, a beloved staple to the 90s-nostalgic crowd. It’s so adored, in fact, that a reboot starring David Tennant is currently airing on Disney XD — 30 years after the original premiered in syndication. The premise is fairly straight-forward — it follows the adventures of Scrooge McDuck, the wealthiest duck in the world, and his three hyperactive nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie. The show usually revolves around one of two central themes — hunting for treasure, or thwarting villains’ attempts to take McDuck’s fortune.
But when songwriter Mark Mueller was tasked with writing the theme for the series back in 1986, none of that mattered: all he thought about was ducks. According to an article from Vanity Fair, executives gave Mueller the following instructions:
His mallard inspiration eventually hit, and the lyrics came pouring from it. Reportedly, Mueller had the song written in 45 minutes, using as much imagery as he could from Scrooge McDuck’s comics, and injecting it into the lyrics. Mueller then delivered the demo tape personally to Disney music executives, who were impressed enough to use it as the series theme song, from a batch of song candidates. The rest, as they say, is history.
Interestingly enough, there are apparently four distinct versions of the song — the longest of which, you can listen to by clicking here. It further expounds on the main theme of the show — an audio-visual adventure with Scrooge McDuck and his three nephews.
Chip ’N’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers
This classic cartoon looked much different in its development stage. In fact, the original series didn’t involve the titular chipmunks Chip and Dale, at all — the series was meant to be about a mouse named Kit Colby who led a ragtag bunch of rescuers, including a chameleon. It was then-CEO Michael Eisner who nixed the idea, not wanting a main character the company “[didn’t] feel anything for.”
Instead, they inserted mainstay Disney characters Chip & Dale, two squirrels with clashing personalities. Set as a couple of animal sleuths, the pair’s personality traits — and wardrobe — were apparently based on two famous fictional characters: Chip, the logical, no-nonsense one, with the fedora and bomber jacket, was based on Indiana Jones. Dale, the humorous yet dim-witted and impulsive one, with the red-and-yellow Hawaiian shirt, was based on Tom Selleck’s titular detective, Magnum P.I.
Their sleuthing, crime-fighting adventures were encapsulated with their theme song, which was also penned by Mark Mueller. The song gives a classic ’80s mystery-adventure feel, complete with synthesizers and a strong bass line, while the lyrics really hit the message home, embodying what you will come to expect from the show — an element of danger, suspense, and mystery-solving.
The feel of the song is amplified with the studio release of the song, performed by The Jets — not only does it have additional lyrics, but its use of instrumentation and visuals scream a combination of mystery, suspense, and pure 1980s pop culture:
Much like “DuckTales” and “Chip N Dale’s Rescue Rangers” before it, the concept of this Disney cartoon was based on the idea of taking a known character from a classic film and placing them in a completely different situation. This time, writers Jymn Magon and Mark Zaslove, tasked with drumming up an idea for a new show, plucked Baloo, the memorable talking bear from “The Jungle Book,” and placed him in the fictional city of Cape Suzette, at around the 1930s, as a service pilot for an air delivery service called “Higher for Hire.” Such was the kind of “Fever dream” kind of ideas that came out of the late 1980s.
In fact, other main characters were taken from “Jungle Book” lore — take the main villain of the film, Bengal Tiger Shere Khan, for example: in the series, he plays a ruthless, successful businessman, and head of Khan Industries. Orangutan King Louie plays the fun-loving, laid-back owner of island nightclub Louie’s Place.
Not much is known about the origin of its theme song, “Spin It” — the only one of the four themes in the original Disney Afternoon lineup to have a proper name, it seems. It was penned by Patty and Michael Silversher, the same duo behind the “Gummi Bears” theme.
Judging from one listen of the theme, however, the Silvershers were likely trying to capture the adventurous, fun-loving spirit of the show — one that features an orphan boy who literally surfs on clouds named Kit Cloudkicker — with a tune that has clear influences from music of the Caribbean. They also capture the overall ambiance of daring pilotry in a bygone era of World War I aviator heroism, while keeping a childlike, carefree sense of spirit.