Marvel Animation Chief on Studio’s Pure-Comedy Play ‘Rocket & Groot’

Marvel has long been established as an action-adventure brand in television and film. But pure comedy is a genre that the studio rarely plays in. One of its few efforts in the space, the “Rocket & Groot” series of shorts produced for Disney XD, yielded an Emmy nomination for Marvel’s animation division. “Space Walk,” a 105-second short featuring the “Guardians of the Galaxy” duo, is up next month for an award in the outstanding short-form animation category.

Cort Lane, Marvel’s head of animation, spoke with Variety about the short.

How did this series of shorts come about?
The folks at Disney XD, in particular Jermaine Turner and Mark Buhaj, approached us about wanting to do some short-form with Marvel characters. We came back to them with a strong desire to do Ant-Man and Rocket and Groot. In particular, we liked the execution in publishing from the creator Skottie Young, who had been doing a book in a certain very cartoony style called “Rocket Raccoon and Groot.” We knew we were allowed to do something really comedic with these characters. We looked at a variety of studios and had them pitch.

How did you end up settling on Passion Pictures?
We met Passion about a year and a half before, and they were also suggested by the folks at XD. They’re a really creative studio. When they came to pitch, they actually had something really remarkable — they recommended that we work with Arnaud Delord, who directed the Gorillaz music videos. And they presented an animation test that just blew us away. It was actually a pretty easy decision.

Where did the idea for “Space Walk” come from?
We had these story summits with our writers, Kevin Burke and Chris Wyatt. Arnaud came out from France. So Jermaine Turner and I and one of our executives, Steve Wacker, sat in a room with them and we broke the stories. We settled on the 12 that felt strongest to us. It was one of our writers who suggested a simple episode where they’re just outside in space about to die. There’s comedy in that, and desperation. The ongoing story is that they need a new ship, and this episode really demonstrates that. I suggested “Blue Danube” as the music. There is also a feel of classic animation from the ’40s and ’50s with the classical music playing in the background. I admit that we were trying to capture a classic Looney Tunes thing that we never get to do with Marvel content. We do straight-ahead action-adventure with comedy and some interesting character flaws mixed in. But pushing ourselves that far was fresh and new.

What is it about Rocket and Groot as characters that allows you to flex that pure comedy muscle?
They’re both really funny characters. There just such strange, odd characters. Rocket has such a temper. And because they’re not human, we don’t have to go as heroic with them. But there’s something likeable about them and their emotions are relatable. One of the throughlines in this series of shorts is that Groot will try to get Rocket to do the right thing, and inevitably they usually do the right thing, given the circumstances.

Has the success of the “Guardians” franchise surprised you? It’s so big now, but at the time that the first live-action movie was greenlit, it felt like a lot of people went “Huh?”
Comic-book fans were like, “Really? A movie about Rocket Raccoon and Groot, a tree who only says one sentence?” But we understood what the comic book had been doing in terms of story and how interesting these characters were. When we started on our animated series, it was even a year before the movie was going to be released. So I’m going to hand it to Marvel for taking a risk with something that was extremely unconventional in the action-adventure space and the superhero space and delivering something really fresh and funny.

Watch the “Rocket & Groot” shorts below:

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