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Chuck JonesMeetings With An Animation Master

Plus: Will There Finally be a Justice League Series?

By Steve Fritz     November 20, 2000

It was the 68th Annual Academy Awards and the Academy of Motion Pictures was about to give out its Lifetime Achievement Oscar. Robin Williams gave the opening address, and it wasn't one of his most inspired. After the mandatory segment of clips, Williams finally announced, 'And now ladies and gentlemen, the hardest drawing man in the industry!' and the entire audience stood up en masse to salute the honoree. Quentin Tarantino pulled the coolest move by waiving a lighter in the air.

The winner ambled over to center stage. Even though his movement was restricted by age and a walking cane, it was obvious he still had some spring left in his feet. 'The evidence is before you, and I guess by this,' Chuck Jones held up the Oscar, 'you've judged me guilty. Thank you.'

In the near decade I've had the pleasure of knowing Chuck Jones, no memory comes closer to catching his spirit, warmth, humor and out-and-out plain genius than those few words. The next best example will be coming to your local PBS station over the next few weeks as another one of the august network's Great Performance series.

I had already interviewed such notable animation people as Matt Groening, John Kricfalusi, and the late greats Friz Freling and Mae Questel, when I had my first meeting with Jones ten years back. It was that conversation that convinced me that while I'd always write about entertainment as a living, animation would be my specialty. I had never before met a man so incredibly witty, willing to talk about the craft or just so wonderfully warm in my life.

At the time, Jones was truly excited about what was happening around him. Enthralled by Disney's The Little Mermaid, which he felt, accurately, was setting all-new standards for the industry. He also was quite aware that it did killer business at the box office.

Then I got the first shock of my life. Fox Kids and Warners Animation had just launched it's revisionist look at the Looney Tunes world in the form of the Steven Spielberg Presents Tiny Toons series. At first Jones tried to duck the matter. Persistent questioning would finally get him to admit that he couldn't stand the antics of Buster and Babs Bunny. 'The people doing that series,' he told me, 'they just don't get it.'

That point would be driven home all the more the next time I met Jones. This time, New York's American Museum of Moving Images was doing a retrospective of his Looney Tunes work, and Jones actually flew in from his home in Orange County, Calif., to moderate the affair. I was fortunate enough to cop a press pass to cover the totally sold-out event.

As a special treat, Jones brought along a totally new Roadrunner and Coyote theatrical short he just directed called 'Chariots of Fur.' Even though it had been 50 years since he had created the pair (their first short debuted in 1949), the short had the entire audience rolling on the floor. It made Tiny Toons look like pablum in comparison.

It was then that Jones announced he was directing a series of new shorts for Warner's theatrical division. Jones announced his real motives to me later. 'I'm training a bunch of promising young animators on how to do it right,' he declared. 'I'm giving myself two-three years and then I'm going to call it quits. Animation is a young man's game and I'm afraid I have to admit I don't have quite the energy I used to.'

Still, in that short period of time, Jones' team produced a number of truly wonderful shorts. The only problem they faced is that they were usually put in front of such total duds as The Panda Movie and other such similar treacle. If you look around you can now find them on video tape.

My final interview with Jones was conducted two years back when this column was part of Another Universe/Mania. The interview had been held up for several weeks because Jones' had suffered a flu and it had taken a savage toll on him. Even though the eventual phoner was marked by Jones having a quite notable wheeze, the wit and warmth was still there, as was the intelligence.

For the record, the New York City-based PBS wanted to bring Jones back to the East Coast for another retrospective and to discuss this special. It looks like it will never happen. As this mini-documentary proves, the now 88 years-old Jones may be too feeble to leave the greater Los Angeles area these days, but he still has his wits about him. So I'm willing to give the man some slack.

In fact, if you are even the slightest fan of animation, you should check out this documentary. There were things about it that even I didn't know. For starters, producer/director Margaret Selby uncovered that Jones spent a major portion of his youth living on Hollywood's infamous Sunset Boulevard. The house he lived in was literally a stone's throw away from where Charlie Chaplin shot his unforgettable early silent films. The documentary then shows a series of clips showing Jones characters pulling Chaplin moves.

Another important influence was Jones' indirect relationship with Disney. As the documentary points out, Jones was an art school graduate. Even though he could drawan unusual talent in animation at the timethe first full-time job he would get in the industry was as a cel washer for Ub Iwerk's studio. For the record, Iwerksalong with Rudy Ising and Hugh Harmonwas one of the original team Walt Disney put together when he formed his legendary studio. No doubt that had its effect on the young Jones.

Selby then displays Jones' first directorial work for Leon Schlesinger's Looney Tunes, which was in the late 1930s. To call it watered-down Disney is saying it nicely. At the time, Jones loved to work with Sniffles The Mouse, a character even the hardest of hardcore Looney Tunes fans have a hard time warming up to.

Fortunately for Jones, his new series of influences would soon have their effect. For starters, Freling was already an established senior director at Looney Tunes. Also already there was musical arranger Carl Stallings. In my interviews with Jones, both men gave him an education in the critical animation science of timing. Also around that time Jones got a chance to employ two more of his own self-created characters, the Two Pups, on another character everyone at Looney Tunes was having their share of time playing with.

The short was called 'Hocus Pocus' and it's still aired regularly on Cartoon Network. The character was simply called 'That Rabbit.' A year later animator Bugs Hardaway and director Tex Avery would take a shot at the rabbit, in a short called 'A Wild Hare.' In their work 'that rabbit' became Bugs (as a tribute to Hardaway) Bunny. Jones was an animator on the short. Jones and fellow directors Freling and Bob Clampett would pick up the baton after Avery split for MGM, perfecting the old grey hare into one of the greatest cartoon icons of all time.

Still, it would take World War II before Jones came into his own. One key fact the documentary barely touches on is Jones got his first true team together at that time. Among the people under his employ was one gentlemen then going under his real name of Ted Geisel. These days we know him better as Dr. Seuss. Together, Jones and Geisel would produce the infamous Private Snafu series of World War II shorts.

While Clampett was the first to recognize the genius of Seuss and turned 'Horton Hears a Who' into the first of a series of shorts based on the author's works--and it would take the UPA Studio to shoot Seuss into superstardom with their 'Gerald McBoing Boing'Jones would eventually have the final laugh. He was the director who did the ultimate Seuss short when he had left Warner Bros. for MGM and did the television version of How The Grinch Stole Christmas. I don't know how Selby managed this one, but she managed to get Ron Howard to sit down and admit that his latest version of Grinch, the one that just came out and stars Jim Carrey, can't touch the Jones version.

What's impressive about the documentary is that, along with more than its share of quotes from the master himself, it rounded up a stellar roster of Jones apostles. Jones' fellow Termite Terrace veterans include the likes of his brother, Richard Kent Jones (no slouch of an animator himself), voice actor superstar June Foray and background artist extraordinary Maurice Noble. Among the animators willing to cop to being influenced by Jones are a ton of Disney veterans, including Beauty & The Beast and Stuart Little director Rob Minkoff, Tarzan lead animator Glen Keane and Fantasia 2000 senior director Eric Minkoff. Still, it's Groening who gives Jones the highest kudos when he admits the master created the first truly dysfunctional animated family when he spawned his Three Bears, beating Groening's The Simpsons by decades.

If that isn't enough, other star celebrities the documentary gets to testify to the genius of Jones include Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Leonard Maltin, Roger Ebert, Joe Dante and Steven Spielberg. While I'm sure Spielberg would take Jones' comments about Tiny Toons with a grain of salt, he still had the time to call Jones' 'One Froggy Notion' the 'Citizen Kane of animated shorts.' Spielberg also said he one day has to get his pal George Lucas to admit that Darth Vader is based in part on another Jones creation, Marvin The Martian.

Besides 'Froggy Notion,' the documentary spends a considerable amount of time on two other Jones classics, and 'Duck Amuck.' As Jones wryly quips on making the 'What's Opera, Doc?' short, he never knew anyone who sat threw the entire Ring of the Nebelung opera cycle and lived to tell the tale. As such, Jones decided to cut it all down to a classic 6 1/2 minute short featuring his ultimate star tandem, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. Coupled by some of the most immaculate work ever done by both music arranger Carl Stallings and Maurice Noble, the short still packs a ton of power.

Still, it should be known that when I personally measure any animation short, I use Jones' 'Duck Amok' as my yardstick. Pitting Daffy Duck against an unknown animator who can't help but mess with the little black duck's karma. By the time the animator is done with him, Daffy has lost what little composure he ever had and has been reduced to a screaming lunatic. What's so gut-wrenching and groundbreaking is how Jones doesn't just breach the 'fourth wall,' but utterly destroys it. The documentary walks us through the creation process of this and other major Jones shorts, and it's well worth watching just for those bits.

Like any great artist, Jones did have his failures. The documentary barely touches on his Tom & Jerry shorts for MGM or the two feature films he worked on, Gay Purree or The Phantom Tollbooth. When I spoke to him about those, he roundly defended his first two feature films and also added, 'I'd have loved to have seen Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera (T&J's creators) do the Roadrunner.' Point taken.

As for his future, Jones is back at it again, creating all new animation for the Internet. He's not going to that last goodnight too easily, and I'm personally glad to hear it. As this documentary and my personal encounters with Jones points out, there are too few people like him out there. We should be giving artists like him all the exposure they can get.

Check your local listings for this Great Performances piece on Jones. Nine will give you ten it will air during a pledge drive.

New Justice League Series?

The last time we saw anything resembling a cartoon series based on DC Comics Justice League, it was more appropriately called The Super Friends because it truly wasn't the JLA, but a very kids-oriented superhero series.

To be honest, I've been waiting for something like this ever since the original Batman: The Animated Series aired on Fox back in 1992. I had even seen test pilots featuring the likes of Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and two not-seen-before 'new' characters: a very Wolverine-like Hawkman and, of course, J'ohn Jonzz/Martian Manhunter.

As for the reason why the series never materialized, the best answer came from Batman co-creator Paul Dini and one of his former directors, Boyd Kirkland: because there were no kids in the series, Kids WB felt it wouldn't catch on with the Saturday morning viewers. They thought the series was 'too old' for the format.

That seemed to be ignoring the fact that Justice League was one of DC's best-selling comic book titles. Also, it seems the Batman Beyond episodes featuring the JL of the future, the Justice League Unlimited, have scored exceptionally high ratings. Anyway, word circulating along various sources says that Cartoon Network just greenlit a Justice League series. Heading production is fellow Batman: The Animated Series creator Bruce Timm.

I find all this quite interesting. Cartoon Network and Warners Animation are neither confirming or denying the rumor. As I write this, I'm also scheduled to interview Timm in less than 24 hours. You can bet I'll have plenty to talk about with him in next week's column.

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