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A different 'toon

'Gadget' is the latest in a long line of cartoon characters to go live action

Friday, July 23, 1999

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Not so long ago, before the advent of computer animation, you might have needed an Inspector Gadget to make a live-action film featuring cartoon characters, especially those with unusual powers.

On his TV series, Inspector Gadget had merely to utter the words "Go Go Gadget Copter" and a rotor would sprout from his hat, enabling him to fly. If Matthew Broderick tried that in the live-action "Gadget" movie opening today, we might be calling for the Go Go Gadget Guillotine Bucket.

But that's what special effects are for. When Broderick calls for Go Go Gadget Arms, we see computer graphics or we see actual steel extension or both. That's what producer Jordan Kerner said during the three weeks that "Inspector Gadget" filmed in Pittsburgh last fall.

He vowed that Inspector Gadget wouldn't be stupid, as he was in the cartoon series, so much as naive. A live-action character couldn't be that stupid -- unless someone like Jim Carrey was playing him.

Maybe that's why Carrey keeps turning up in movies that later get made into TV cartoons, like "Ace Ventura" and "The Mask."

But Carrey is also slated to star in a live-action film based on a cartoon, Ron Howard's movie of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," slated for release next year.

It's part of a rapidly growing genre that also includes projected live-action big-screen versions of "Rocky and Bullwinkle," "Spiderman" and even "Scooby-Doo."

Here are some of the other notable cartoon favorites who have been turned into real people in recent years (I'm not counting Batman and Superman, who have had various reincarnations in both genres):

"Popeye" (1980): One of the earliest of the current run of cartoon translations starred Robin Williams as the spinach-loving sailor and Shelley Duvall as his anorexic girlfriend Olive Oyl. Robert Altman directed a screenplay by Jules Feiffer, a cartoonist of an entirely different stripe, giving this film more of a pedigree than the results would indicate.

"Masters of the Universe" (1987): TV's "He-Man" cartoon existed primarily to sell action figures, which may explain the casting of Dolph Lundgren as the good guy. Frank Langella played his nemesis, Skeletor, and a pre-"Friends" Courtney Cox also shows up in a film the Washington Post panned by suggesting "kids at play have come up with craftier plots, better characterization and conceivably more spectacular effects ... "

"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (1990): The heroes in a half-shell, wisecracking reptiles who live in a sewer and are masters of martial arts, spawned not one but three live-action films in which they try to stop their enemy, a metal-clad nasty called Shredder, from succeeding in his plans to take over the world.

"The Flintstones" (1994): Admit it. When you first saw John Goodman on "Roseanne," couldn't you just imagine him in a tiger skin, swaggering into a house carved out of a giant rock and yelling, "Wil-l-l-l-ma"? TV's modern Stone Age family, which owes a lot to the thought of Jackie Gleason's "Honeymooners" moving to the suburbs, returns in a sequel next year, with Mark Addy (the fat guy in "The Full Monty") playing Fred.

"Richie Rich" (1994): OK, so once Macaulay Culkin was cast in the title role of the world's wealthiest kid, you might have thought it was a documentary. But in spite of such sturdy adult actors as Edward Herrmann, Christine Ebersole and John Larroquette in supporting roles, this one didn't prove to be as popular as a carefully aimed brick at Joe Pesci's head.

"Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book" (1994): One reason there are more live-action films based on cartoons is that Disney is trying to find new ways to exploit its old films. Hence, this movie based on the enjoyable 1967 cartoon about a boy and a bruin lazing through life on the bare necessities. Jason Scott Lee plays an older Mowgli here, with Cary Elwes as the bad guy.

"Casper" (1995): Can it only be four years ago that teen-age sexpot Christina Ricci was young enough to star in this family film, playing the daughter of a man hired to exorcise a pack of ghosts in an old mansion? But that's before Ricci meets Casper, the friendly ghost. Unfortunately, his uncles Stretch, Fatso and Stinkie aren't so nice.

"101 Dalmatians" (1996): Another Disney remake, based on the cartoon about a couple who owns more dogs than you can shake a stick at, if that's your idea of a good time. Believe me, drawing 101 mutts is a whole lot easier than making a movie with the genuine articles, Glenn Close as villainess Cruella DeVille notwithstanding.

"Pinocchio" (1996): Disney did an animated version, but New Line produced this live-action version with Martin Landau as the toymaker Geppetto and Jonathan Taylor Thomas as the voice (and, briefly, the human embodiment) of the puppet. Special effects include turning the Lost Boys into donkeys and Geppetto and Pinocchio in the belly of a whale.

"Mr. Magoo" (1997): It was one thing to find out Leslie Nielsen could do hilarious deadpan comedy in movies like "Airplane" and "The Naked Gun." It's excruciating to watch him trying oh, so hard in politically incorrect movies like "Mr. Magoo," a cartoon based on a man being so nearsighted that he mistakes everything he sees for something else.

"George of the Jungle" (1997): Watch out for that tree! Actually, TV's clutziest Tarzan wannabe turned out to be reasonably amusing in this juvenile romp starring Brendan Fraser as George, Leslie Mann ("Big Daddy") as his beloved Ursula and John Cleese as the voice of George's best friend, an ape named Ape.

"Dudley Do-Right" (1999): Brendan Fraser seems to have found his niche. Yeah, he was surprisingly good in his dramatic supporting role in "Gods and Monsters." But now he's back portraying yet another character from the Jay Ward cartoon stable: Dudley Do-Right, the impossibly pure Canadian Mountie who never does anything right but still manages to get his man. The movie is slated to arrive in theaters next month.

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