By Scott Ross
As the cost of animation began to outweigh the returns in the mid-to-late ’50s, more and more studios shut down their cartoon departments. And as the animators themselves aged and adapted to the harsher economic realities, their work suffered correspondingly. While Chuck Jones was always — and quite correctly — dismissive of what he called the “illustrated radio” school of “limited animation” for television, without a strong personality such as Michael Maltese to reign him in, his own work became more discursive, less action-oriented, more design-oriented, more labored in the drawing style — and, consequently, less funny. But that was in the future.
Key animation drawing from Robin Hood Daffy. The Disney animators often complained that too much soul was lost between art and completed product (which was why the old-timers were so thrilled when the Xerox system came in, allowing them to retain a sketchy quality to the finished movie.) When you look at something like this, you may think they had a point.
Images from The Dot and the Line (1965) Jones’ and his designer and co-director Maurice Noble’s superb adaptation of the Norton Juster’s jape, subtitled A romance in lower mathematics. Drolly narrated by Robert Morley, this was one Academy Award winner that actually deserved to be.
After his Warner contract expired and the studio closed the animation unit, Jones was uneasily paired at MGM with Tom & Jerry. It wasn’t a pretty sight. He later admitted they weren’t his characters, that he “didn’t understand them” and that he had essentially made the pair a road runner and coyote “in cat and a mouse drag.”
Jones fared much better collaborating with his old Snafu cohort Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, on a television adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It was an instant classic in 1965. It’s become a perennial.
Jones’ 1969 Walt Kelly adaptation, The Pogo Special Birthday Special did not please its originator; Kelly, a former animator himself, reportedly hated it, But the character designs are true to the subject, just as Kelly’s comic-strip mode of whimsical satire certainly seemed to suit Jones.
Jones attempted an ambitious live action/animation project in adapting Norton Juster’s novel for children, The Phantom Tollbooth (Completed in 1968; unreleased until 1970.) It was not a success, commercially or artistically. Jones directed, and co-authored the screenplay. Butch Patrick was Milo, and the voices included Mel Blanc, Daws Butler, Candy Candido, Hans Conried and June Foray. The songs — which Leonard Maltin correctly termed “icky” — were perpetrated by Dean Elliott. After the retirement of the great Carl Stalling from Warner, Jones only ever had one good musical collaborator: The Broadway composer Albert Hague, who wrote the Grinch songs.
Juster said recently he avoided the movie for years. When he finally saw it, he couldn’t finish watching it. I know how he felt.
A 1973 Chuck Jones adaptation of the great George Selden novel A Cricket in Times Square. Shortened to fit a 30-minute time-slot, it was less than ideal. Nor could Jones’ character designs rival the charming drawings Gareth Williams created for the book. But Jones churned out two sequels.
Perhaps archy and mehitabel would have proven a closer match to his sensibilities?
I sent Chuck Jones a fan letter, accompanied by my printed college newspaper review of Chuck Amuck, and received a very nice note from his daughter, telling me that he was too busy to answer personally, was pleased with my note, and that she was enclosing a copy of Chuck Reducks, autographed — which she emphasized was not something her father did often. I cherish it beyond price.
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross