Talk about a movie that works on multiple levels. Both a striking science fiction vision and a cleverly crafted comedy, Chuck Jones’ Duck Dodgers in the 24th ½ Century is rightly considered a masterpiece of animation.
“Duck Dodgers was Warner’s principal entry in the science fiction sweepstakes of the 1950s, and I daresay it’s as great as any of the bigger, more ambitious live-action films of the period,” noted Leonard Maltin in Jerry Beck’s book, The 50 Greatest Cartoons as Selected by 1,000 Animation Professionals, where Duck Dodgers came in at number four.
Celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, Duck Dodgers in the 24th ½ Century is both a send-up and celebration of science fiction, (the title itself is a sly take on Buck Rogers). The short tells of the title character (played by the only duck who could have portrayed him, Daffy), who is sent to Planet X, to locate “Illudium Phosdex,” better known as “the shaving cream atom.”
With his sidekick, the “Space Cadet,” Porky Pig, they blast off and find Planet X by following the other planets, starting with “Planet A.”
Once they arrive on Planet X, Daffy claims it in the name of Earth but is soon challenged by Marvin the Martian, who arrives to claim it in the name of Mars. This starts a battle between them that culminates in each deploying weapons that obliterate everything, save for a small divot that Daffy can stand on to still claim the planet, while Marvin and Porky hang on by a root below.
Duck Dodgers contains Jones’ trademark clever, literal humor. As Marvin points his “ACME disintegration pistol” at Daffy, the duck declares that he is wearing his disintegration-proof vest. Marvin fires and Daffy completely disintegrates into black ash, with only the vest left standing. Later, Daffy counters with his own disintegration pistol, which disintegrates in his hand.
Adding to this exaggerated comedy is the character of Marvin the Martian (who had made his debut in 1948’s Haredevil Hare). With his lack of features set between a Roman helmet and oversized sneakers, he is a most outlandishly designed character, with a soft-spoken, polite voice, provided here by the legendary Mel Blanc, who does his trademark brilliant work with the entire cast.
Tying the tone of Duck Dodgers together are the layouts by Maurice Noble and Philip DeGuard. The two artists were Jones’ regular collaborators, here providing over-the-top science fiction visions that are equal parts parody and wonder as they appear on the screen. Most impressive is the space station that serves as the headquarters of “Dr. I.Q. Hi” at the start of the film, which is a dramatic, cavernous, futuristic locale featuring a giant blinking eye that watches Duck Dodgers as he approaches.
In the seven decades since its debut on July 25th, 1953, Duck Dodgers in the 24th ½ Century would spawn a belated sequel, Duck Dodgers and the Return of the 24th ½ Century in 1980, as well as a TV series that aired on Cartoon Network from 2003-2005.
The original Duck Dodgers would also generate continued popularity for Marvin the Martian through the years. The character would be featured in two more shorts, Hare-Way to the Stars (1958) and Mad as a Mars Hare (1963). His appearances on several TV shows, such as Baby Looney Tunes and Animaniacs, as well as the wildly popular Nike commercials with Michael Jordan, in the 1990s, endeared him to new generations.
The character and Duck Dodgers in the 24th ½ Century have been a favorite of many, particularly two filmmakers who would re-design audience expectations around science fiction and bring Duck Dodgers along for the ride.
One was George Lucas, who was such a fan of the short subject that he had it play before Star Wars, during its initial theatrical run in 1977, and another was Steven Spielberg, who featured the short playing on a TV in a sequence of 1978’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
For seventy years, Duck Dodgers in the 24th1/2 Century has remained a shining jewel in the Warner Bros. crown and a gleaming comic star in our cartoon galaxy.