Wednesday, May 10, 2006

REVIEW: "Duck Dodgers": New Series Brilliantly Updates Classic Toon

[Review for Toon Zone News: 9th August 2003 - Screener]

It’s been fifty years since the memorable Chuck Jones' short "Duck Dodgers In The 24th and 1/2 Century." It may have been a long time ago, but Daffy Duck’s intrusion into outer space has never been forgotten.

Rightly so. Its tongue-in-cheek approach to the sci-fi genre of the time was unique. In fact, in most respects it was far better than the serious science fiction of the day.

And Warners look like they’re onto another winner with Duck Dodgers, an update of the short that just hurls globules of style at you. Just as our hero poked fun at fifties' sci-fi, Duck Dodgers is now having the chance to do it again to a new generation of science fiction. What a lucky fellow he is.

What makes this show so special is its style; from the opening credits to the final sequences you certainly can’t deny a lot of work has gone into it.. Yes, it is still "Duck Dodgers," with the retro space guns, evaporators (transporters) and big buzzing glass fuses, but it also feels distinctly modern. The humour, the music and visuals direction is that of a contemporary show. Plus, of course, we get all the visual and audio references to the more recent science fiction. Listen out for those Star Trek communicators! Keep an eye out for the rotating ends of the original Enterprise nacelles!

There is no real back story to the show, and what back story exists is recapped every week in the wonderfully Thunderball-esque opening credits (music by The Flaming Lips and melodramatic warbling by the inimitable Tom Jones), which tell us that Dodgers was frozen in time during a space mission gone wrong and reawakened in the 24th and ½ Century by Dr I.Q Hi. Otherwise, each episode stands alone. And what kind of adventures do we get?

Well, in "The Duck Deception" Dodgers has worn out his ship’s energy core in a typical feat of utter pointlessness and must steal a new one from a lurking Martian ship while the Eager Young Space Cadet—in drag—distracts the Commander It’s a good opener for the series, with lovely references to Babylon 5, Return of the Jedi, Star Trek and "Robin Hood Daffy"; we also get a good explanation for why spies shouldn't infiltrate enemy territory using the old ventilation duct cliché. Meanwhile, "The Spy Who Doesn't Love Me" has Dodgers escorting a special agent to a planet under Martian domination—here, the mood is closer to James Bond, adding another facet to Daffy's character. And in "The Fast and the Feathery" Dodgers must defend his reputation by racing against the Martian Commander in a death-defying competition of wits and skill that plays out very much in the traditional WB style of anarchic sight gags. It also introduces us to the Martian Queen and we see the beginnings of a great two-character dynamic.

But Dodgers character is on nastier display in "The Fowl Friend," where the our hero becomes insanely jealous of his android lackey "Roboto." It's a disturbing episode; expect to be shocked. And, it must be said, that has the potential to be the biggest weakness with the show. The fact is that Duck Dodgers is pretty damn unlikable.

Granted, he's meant to be. The problem is that you want to like him, but he just doesn’t let you. In a five-minute cartoon it’s not so much of an issue. But in a series, this can become frustrating. An unlikable character must engage the viewer on levels beyond empathy or respect. The writers have to look at other means to draw the viewer in. If not, the character’s consistently negative attributes will eventually become too predictable to be of interest. In essence, people need something that wants to bring them back week-by-week other than just watching an annoying character constantly fail.

From watching these four stories, I will hazard that this is not going to be much of a problem. They’ve managed to explore a variety of angles on Duck to keep him fresh while playing true to his character. At least he’s not predictable. For instance, he is incompetent most of the time—but not all the time. To our surprise, he does manage to succeed in his mission in “The Spy Who Doesn’t Love Me” with surprisingly little effort. He can fly the hot rod in “The Fast And The Feathery” (albeit not very well). He’s not totally reliant on the Space Cadet (although Porky does shine in the ways he did in the original). In other words, unlike older cartoons that featured the dense hero being saved by the unnoticed sidekick (Hong Kong Phooey, Inspector Gadget), we have a more nuanced approach here that should keep the character fresh and fun.

It looks to be a great series. Good blend of CG and traditional looking animation. Fantastic presentation. Lots of gags and in-jokes for all to enjoy. WB veteran Joe Alaskey is superb as Daffy and Marvin. And watch out for Michael Dorn as the Robot Centurion!

So what we have is a faithful restoration of an old tale updated for today’s market of kids and adults. Both will love it. And not once has he shouted "Duck Dodgers in the 24th and 1/2 century!" Don’t worry, you’ll be too engrossed to realize you missed it.

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