Mike Flaherty
March 01, 2002 AT 05:00 AM EST

As animated concepts go, it was not the most promising of ideas: a meditative epic starring a laconic hero owing more to Homer’s Odyssey than Hanna-Barbera, featuring minimal comedy and a near-complete absence of dialogue. Well, short attention spans be damned, because Samurai Jack — the lushly animated tale of a time- and-space-traveling hero who battles a shape-shifting nemesis named Aku — has become an unlikely breakout hit for kiddie cabler the Cartoon Network.

Despite the show’s out-there premise, Cartoon’s head of programming Mike Lazzo jumped at creator Genndy Tartakovsky’s brief proposal. ”He said, ‘Hey, remember David Carradine in Kung Fu? Wasn’t that cool?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s really cool.’ That was literally the pitch,” says Lazzo, who admits that selling a skeptical Turner Entertainment Networks prez Brad Siegel on the idea was a challenge. ”The first thing he said was ‘It’s a little slow, isn’t it?’ Then he showed it to his kids. He walked in the next day and said, ‘Never mind.”’

Since debuting last August, Jack has chalked up double-digit rating increases in its Friday-at-7 p.m. slot among kids and triple-digit improvement among adults. The series attracts an average of nearly half a million grown-ups and 1.1 million kids (with a two-to-one boy/girl ratio). With new episodes debuting March 1 (as well as a March 19 video release of its 90-minute premiere), Jack appears poised to slice and dice its way into the animated pantheon alongside Cartoon’s other crossover phenom The Powerpuff Girls.

Jack came about when 31-year-old Tartakovsky, creator of Cartoon’s boy-genius smash Dexter’s Laboratory and a onetime producer-director of Powerpuff, decided he was ”burned out” on comedy and disenchanted with cliched action fare. ”I’d always complained about action cartoons, so I thought I’d better walk the walk,” he says. ”I thought, What do I want to see? And samurais are one of my favorite things.”

Who better to turn to, he thought, than director Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai), another of his personal favorites? ”He knew exactly what he was doing, and all the samurai stuff feels really sincere and cool,” says Tartakovsky. In crafting the eye-popping landscapes that frame Jack’s journey, Tartakovsky says he channeled the grandeur of David Lean: ”The environment was always a character in his films — like the desert in Lawrence of Arabia and Russia in Doctor Zhivago.”

Jack’s big-screen aesthetic has led to not one, but two feature-film projects, including a live-action version from the producer/director team of Jay Stern and Brett Ratner (Rush Hour). ”I have the good fortune to have a 5-year-old son with impeccable taste,” says Stern. ”We sat there during the premiere mesmerized, and from that point on it was must-see TV.” By the show’s second airing, Stern and Ratner were knocking on Cartoon’s door to secure the film for New Line Cinema. Both the live-action adventure and an animated, Cartoon Network-produced Jack feature are being prepped for a 2004 release.

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