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They dare to 'Duck'

It's a daring and Daffy idea: Chuck Jones' classic 1953 cartoon inspires a weekly animated series.

August 22, 2003|Michael Mallory | Special to The Times

Turning any classic Hollywood film into a television series is not a challenge for the faint of heart. But when the film in question is one of the best-loved short cartoons of all time, it takes the most determined artisans who are willing to face the wrath of unforgiving toon-heads.

Even so, Warner Bros. Animation and Cartoon Network are launching "Duck Dodgers," a series inspired by the classic 1953 Chuck Jones cartoon "Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century," which starred Daffy Duck as the egomaniacal space protector, Porky Pig as his Eager Young Space Cadet and Marvin the Martian as their nemesis.

Although the original "Duck Dodgers" clearly drew its own inspiration from "Buck Rogers" and such then-popular TV space operas as "Rocky Jones, Space Ranger," the result was not just another parody cartoon. "The original really does stand apart from many other cartoons," says Jerry Beck, author of "The 50 Greatest Cartoons." "It is a classic, like episodes of 'I Love Lucy' and movies like 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'Gone With the Wind.' "

Fans of the short are not simply your basic toon junkies, either. They include George Lucas, who insisted that the original "Dodgers" short run in front of "Star Wars" for its San Francisco premiere in 1977, and Steven Spielberg, who included clips of the cartoon in his "E.T. the Extra Terrestrial," five years later.

Did this intimidate the executives at Cartoon Network? You bet it did.

"The trepidation was huge, even after we saw the animatic [the rough story reel of the pilot episode]," says Sam Register, vice president of original programming for Cartoon Network. "It was like, 'Listen, do we want to put our name and logo and our good standing in the animation world on doing something that could kill one of the best characters ever?' "

The premise of the new series suggests Inspector Clouseau, or Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean and Johnny English, as well as the original "Duck Dodgers" cartoon. Daffy Duck as the lead character is as dim and lazy as he is self-loving, the villains as devious as they are unsuccessful.

Supervising producers and writer-directors Spike Brandt and Tony Cervone had ample Looney Tunes experience by the time they hatched the series idea in 1997. Cervone directed the animation for 1996's "Space Jam" and Brandt has done several commercials featuring the classic characters. Cervone says that although virtually everyone at the Warner Bros. toon shop, and some outside, weighed in on the direction the show should take, it was Chuck Jones' daughter, Linda, who truly pointed the way. "One day Linda Jones appeared in our office," Cervone relates. "We showed her some of our preliminary artwork and talked about it, and on the way out of the office she said: 'Remember, my father didn't make these cartoons for anyone but himself. Make these things for yourself.' That sounded like the best advice we could ever get."

The "Duck Dodgers" team, which includes veteran cartoon writers Tom Minton and Paul Dini, approach the process in the typical manner of working up storyboards with the dialogue jotted on yellow Post-it notes, rather than writing a script. But although "Duck Dodgers" was a seven-minute gag-fest, the new series' 11- or 22-minute format offers more of a narrative framework.

The show also employs computer-animated spaceships and action scenes that are played straight -- sort of. "For the most part, they're played as big, real spaceships," says Brandt, "but its fun to think, 'Hey, here's this big Enterprise-sized ship that should have a crew of 400, and it's manned by a duck and a pig.' "

Perhaps the biggest, if subtlest, difference is that "Duck Dodgers" the series creates a definite and consistent world in which the characters exist, but in the classic cartoons, the characters existed in any and all worlds, at least for seven minutes.

Only the pickiest of ears will be able to tell the difference between Mel Blanc's original character voices and those provided for the series by Joe Alaskey, who does Daffy and Marvin, and Bob Bergen, who voices Porky. (Tia Carrera and Michael Dorn are also in the regular voice cast). The voice singing the theme song, though, is not an impersonation; it is the real Tom Jones.

In other words, "Duck Dodgers" went from Rocky Jones to Chuck Jones to Tom Jones.

Rather than use the kind of bouncy, wacky theme song that often graces cartoons, (or disrupts them, depending on one's viewpoint), the "Dodgers" team wanted something more befitting a James Bond film. The alternative rock group the Flaming Lips was engaged to provide the song, with the Welsh pop icon laying in the vocals. "This is the song that Duck Dodgers would write for himself," says Cervone. "When it went over to Tom Jones, he sang it from the heart, with such sincerity, and it happens to be about a duck."

Cartoon Network has enough confidence that "Duck Dodgers" will fly that it has ordered two seasons. The cartoonists, meanwhile, continue to follow the Jones philosophy. "We're really trying to stick to our guns and make cartoons that we're happy with," Cervone says.

*

'Duck Dodgers'

Where: Cartoon Network.

When: 11:30 a.m. Saturdays.

Rating: The network has rated the series TVY7-FV (may not be suitable for children under the age of 7, with advisory for fantasy violence).

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