Live-action toon boom seems loony on surface

From “Flintstones” and “101 Dalmatians” to “The Mask,” studios are transforming the laughable 2-D heroes of cartoons and comic strips into real-life people and creatures of a zany, farcical 3-D world.

Why recycle these classic cartoon favorites?

There’s a ready-made audience of thirty-something adults out there who grew up with TV’s “George of the Jungle” and “The Flintstones,” and they’re willing and ready to revisit their childhood fantasies and pass them on to their kids.

But the pratfalls and antics of cartoon and comic strip characters and their live-action incarnations were around even before the movies first learned to talk. Back in the 1920s, Universal revived the “Buster Brown” comic strips and Columbia later spun off a string of features based upon “Blondie” and her married life to Dagwood Bumstead. The satiric “Lil Abner” hit the screen in both dramatic (1940) and musical versions (1959), while Harold Gray’s “Little Orphan Annie” hit the Broadway boards as “Annie” before springing to the big screen, as did Fleischer’s “Popeye” (bypassing the Great White Way) under the guidance of director Robert Altman.

“Animation seems to be a place where there are characters who are beloved,” says David Vogel, president of Walt Disney Pictures. “They already have a place in people’s hearts and minds.”

That’s certainly true for those “star” characters like Fred Flintstone and Cruella de Vil who reaped hefty profits — more than $130 million for “The Flintstones” and $132.3 million to date for “101 Dalmatians” — in three dimensional on-screen forms. But with “Mr. Magoo” currently in production at Disney (featuring Leslie Nielsen as that lovable near-sighted old codger), and “Dudley Do-Right” in development at Universal (based upon the TV cartoon about the bumbling Canadian Mountie), and “George of the Jungle” scheduled as Disney’s summer event picture (starring “Encino Man” Brendan Fraser in the title role), these less-than-household cartoon names are making a comeback in real-life for the movies.

More are on the way. A live-action “Beetle Bailey” is in development at Fox Family Films (with comedian Harland Williams pegged for the title role) and “Scooby-Doo” (that top-banana dog accompanied by a group of crime-solving teenagers) is in the initial writing stage for Warner Bros. Meanwhile, “Dalmatians” writer John Hughes is developing a script for a live-action “Peter Pan,” apparently convinced that Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” should not be the last word on Peter Pan’s live-action adventures.

Says Joe Singer, producer with John Davis and Jay Todd Harris for “Dudley Do-Right”: “You have a name brand and a name that is well known to the people over their entire life. They’re comfortable with the setting.”

But what makes today’s audiences relate to the minor cartoon characters, several of whom — “Dudley Do-Right,” “George of the Jungle,” and “Beetle Bailey” — enjoyed only a brief first run on television?

According to “George of the Jungle” director Sam Weisman, it’s timeliness.

“I think that Jay Ward (creator of the “Dudley Do-Right” and “George of the Jungle” TV cartoons) was kind of ahead of his time,” says Weisman. “His sensibility was sort of subversive. It bordered on satire.”

The movie also recreates the cartoon’s narrator voice, who actually interacts with the characters. “George is a kind of perfect hero but is aware of his foibles,” adds Weisman. “He speaks to the camera. He uses the audience as his confidante.”

” ‘George’ is easily adaptable because it has a Tarzan point-of-reference based on a Tarzan myth,” says the movie’s participating writer, Dana Olsen. (TV’s “George” was originally planned as a Tarzan parody with his mate Ursula to be named Jane. But Edgar Rice Burroughs’ estate didn’t find any humor in this.) In the movie, George saves Ursula from a lion attack and the pair’s dynamic becomes a “Western woman vs. jungle God,” as Olsen puts it.

Singer believes that “Dudley Do-Right’s” character of a bumbling hero shares a lot of comedic traits with “The Pink Panther’s” Inspector Clouseau. He looked at 36 Dudley TV episodes and notices that while Dudley appears funny, other characters are smart. Even Dudley’s own horse is smarter than he is.

“The sensibilities are very witty, very timely,” says Singer.

Disney’s “Mr. Magoo” also has qualities reminiscent of the comic greats. Pat Proft, a participating writer on the “Magoo” feature project, describes the little myopic fellow as “a kinder W.C. Fields character.”

“He is a little underdog guy with Victorian values,” says Proft. “He’s very passionate about everything he becomes involved with. Magoo has a heart.”

But George, Mr. Magoo, and Dudley Do-Right aren’t the only cartoon characters brought to life with a flair for the comic. Today’s technology can take cartoon’s four-legged creatures — like those adorable pups of “101 Dalmatians” and the playful dinosaurs of “The Flintstones” — into the live-action realm and make them funny.

Some even develop their own personality quirks. For “George of the Jungle,” Weisman explains that the pet elephant is a combination of the real animal (Tai from “Operation Dumbo Drop”) and a CGI creation. Tai was first scanned into a computer and then “morphed” into a 3-D image that could pant and roll over. Says Weisman, “George thinks his pet elephant is a dog. He calls him his faithful poochie.”

The movie’s talking ape is quite a contrast to the dull-witted George. Weisman describes the simian (a Jim Henson animatronic creature with a man inside) as sounding like a sophisticated Ronald Colman. “All the facial expressions are controlled by computer,” he adds.

It’s anyone’s guess what animated character will make the next live-action debut. MCA/Universal Merchandising has already licensed the hilarious Rocky and Bullwinkle classic TV cartoons for clothing, interactive games, books, and theme parks. Stay tuned.

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