The mere mention of Chuck Jones’ name in animation circles generates a unique mixture of reverence, nostalgia and joy. No wonder the “Great Performances” profile of the toon master is packed with praise from helmers, thesps and experts whose lives and art have been influenced by his genius.
“Chuck Jones: Extremes and In-Betweens” takes an informative tour of the animator’s career, from his early days as a cel washer, to his first attempts at creating original characters such as the Disney-influenced Sniffles the Mouse, to his handling of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, and helming of masterpieces such as “Duck Dodgers in the 24-1/2th Century” and “What’s Opera, Doc?” and the Oscar-winning short “The Dot and the Line.”
Documentarian Margaret Selby is fortunate enough to have Jones’ full cooperation, and the profile is helped enormously by the animator’s direct personal accounts.
To hear “the Michaelangelo of cartoons,” talk about how he wanted to be like Bugs Bunny, but ended up being more like Daffy Duck, is as thrilling as revisiting the famous clips from “Rabbit of Seville” and “Duck Amuck.”
Without a central narrator, Selby employs a nice selection of talking heads, including Steven Spielberg, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, June Foray, Matt Groening, Joe Dante, Roger Ebert, Ron Howard, Leonard Maltin, Lorne Michaels, Andre Previn and Eric Goldberg, to illustrate major themes and chapters in Jones’ world. Although some of the more famous interviewees serve up the usual platitudes about imagination and humor, directors Lasseter (“Toy Story”) and Dante (“Gremlins”) come across as the ones who can speak most passionately and knowledgeably about the subject matter.
Docu also does a clean job of dissecting Jones’ toons under different headings such as timing, background art, voice talent, facial expressions, camera angles, etc. There’s also a healthy amount of time devoted to the important role of classical music in the Jones oeuvre.
Of course, in the end, it’s the classic clips that are perfect reminders of the artist’s greatness. To revisit gems such as “Feed the Kitty” and the 1955 short “One Froggy Morning” is to recognize that none of the razzle-dazzle CGI-assisted work of recent years can hold a candle to the sight of M.J. Frog singing “Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gal.”
Fortunately, that’s not all folks. The 88-year-old master is currently working on a new character called Timber Wolf for an animated series on Warner Bros. Online and Entertaindom. Here’s to many more zany adventures and sublime scenarios from a truly American original.