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Jonny Quest Taking On New Life

“Cartoons,” said animation executive Joseph Barbera, “have no lifespan. They live forever.”

Case in point: Sunday night Jonny Quest returns with a two-hour animated movie on Turner Network Television.

Jonny Quest, that globe-trotting adventurer from the ‘60s? Shouldn’t he have stopped all the world’s evil-doers by now?

Actually, scowling arch-villain Dr. Zin, making good on his MacArthur-like promise, has returned with another scheme to bring civilization to its knees.

In “Jonny Quest vs. the Cyber Insects,” the Quest team has a final showdown with Zin, who this time makes use of weather-altering satellites and cloned killer insects.

And though Quest may rid himself of Zin, we still haven’t seen the last of Jonny Quest.

Next fall, TNT, TBS and the Cartoon Network will combine to air a new animated series, “The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest” 21 times a week. Further, director Richard Donner has optioned the rights for a live-action movie.

“I never thought the cartoon industry would boom and explode like it has,” said Barbera. In the 1950s, “the conversation every day was that the cartoon business was not going to last, that there was no future in the animation business. None of them would have dreamed … what’s going on today.”

While “Jonny Quest” was a trailblazer in 1964 - HannaBarbera’s fourth prime-time cartoon series, following “The Flintstones,” “The Jetsons” and “Top Cat” - the animation field is now much more crowded.

There are dozens of network and syndicated cartoon shows. Old series play continuously on Cartoon Network. And, Barbera noted, nearly every motion picture studio wants to produce an animated feature each year.

“You can get all the channels you want. But you have to have something to run on them,” said Barbera, whose studio and 3,000-show library were acquired by Turner in 1991.

The new, 65-episode “Quest” series, featuring George Segal as the voice of Benton Quest and J.D. Roth as the teenage Jonny, promises film-quality animation with a three-dimensional effect. The show will be produced using facilities in the United States, Japan and France.

The TNT movie, on the other hand, features the same style of animation “Quest” has had for three decades. It may not seem as fresh as the original 26 shows (which cost $64,000 per episode), but the story does recall a simpler time, with a straightforward good-vs.-evil storyline.

“Jonny Quest” always has been spiced up with futuristic vehicles and gadgetry borrowed from the pages of scientific magazines. Though it was based more on the “Jack Armstrong” radio show, the first realistic action-adventure cartoon series definitely pays homage to James Bond (the show originally was to be called “Quest File 037”).

And though the Quest Team is apolitical, the show’s message is politically correct: Team members don’t argue among themselves; they respect the environment; they use violence and weapons only when they can’t outsmart their foes. Even then, enemies are dispersed in creative ways, with almost no bloodshed, wounds or death on screen.

And there’s always time for levity, usually in the form of hokey jokes.

“When we burst on the scene with ‘Jonny Quest,’ it was new, innovative, and there was nothing like it,” Barbera said. “… Now people come up to me and say, ‘I was raised on your cartoon, and I enjoy it again with my kids.”’