Chuck Jones leaves a legacy of the illogical

Chuck Jones Sheepdog

Chuck Jones leaves
legacy of the illogical

The comic-book fan recognizes several comic gods. There is Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman. There is Jack Kirby, artist by whom all others are measured. There is Stan Lee, writer extraordinaire.

If you go wander outside the comic-book loop, you’ll find other people we worship: George Lucas, Jedi master supreme. Gene Roddenberry, the man who created Star Trek. Mel Brooks. Matt Groening. The Monty Python comedy troupe. The guy who thought up the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. The list of our heroes goes on and on. However, at the top of the lists sits Chuck Jones, one of the best cartoon directors ever — and now he’s gone. He died of congestive heart failure on Feb. 22.

Chuck Jones

Chuck Jones died Feb. 22, 2002.

Chuck Jones: Animator was among best in the business

Jones was an animator for Warner Bros., MGM, and later at his own studio. Those cartoons he created were universally admired by comic-book fans and Joe Sixpack alike. The characters he worked on, from Bugs Bunny to Tom & Jerry to Wile E. Coyote to the Grinch, had all the subtleties of a real person, and all the humor of 100 Bob Hopes packed into one six-minute skit.

Jones’ grasp of those subtleties made on the film industry an impact as deep as any the Coyote left in the desert dust. Just look at some recent tributes to Jones:

  • He was honored by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (the folks that give out the Oscars) in 1995.
  • His half-hour holiday classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” was transformed into a live-action movie starring Jim Carrey.
  • The movie “Monsters, Inc.” has a sequence paying tribute to Jones’ cartoon, “Feed the Kitty.”
  • The WB Network based its mascot (The Frog) on his creation, Michigan J. Frog.
  • His cartoons “What’s Opera, Doc?” and “Duck Amuck” are in the U.S. National Film Registry.
  • He was lauded with numerous lifetime achievement awards, including prizes from the Directors Guild of America, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and dozens of other tributes.

Tributes and awards are nice, but the way to truly celebrate Jones’ expertise is by watching his work, which spanned a period of 60 years. I have to mention a few of his best. Jones’ most acclaimed cartoon has to be “What’s Opera Doc,” in which Bugs Bunny dresses up as a valkyrie, to escape the savage Elmer Fudd. Another top-notch Looney Tune is “Bully for Bugs,” where the rabbit takes a “wrong turn at Albuquerque,” and ends up sparring with a big black bull.

Chuck Jones Amok

Chuck Jones and Cartoon Logic

What really gets me, personally, about Looney Tunes cartoons is their bizarre logic. Watching them is like getting a physics lesson from Jerry Lewis or watching a debate moderated by Groucho Marx. How could a wrong turn at Albuquerque land you in a bull ring in Spain? Why couldn’t Elmer Fudd figure out that it wasn’t really duck season? I’ll tell you why. Because Chuck Jones was all about logic — or at least making the illogical seem logical.

Probably my favorite of all of Jones’ work is the relatively obscure short called “Roughly Squeaking,” in which two mice, Hubie and Bertie, convince a cat that he’s the natural predator of a moose. Why? Because if he’s a cat, and he eats mice, then he’d naturally want to eat a really big mouse, which, of course, is a moose.

In another cartoon, “Often an Orphan,” the orphaned mutt Charlie Dog explains that he’s part Labrador Retriever. Porky Pig, Charlie’s potential master, asks for proof.

Charlie says if Porky’s got a Labrador, he’ll retrieve it.

Then there’s the eternal struggle between Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. Frankly, I’ve always wondered who the “bad guy” is in these.

The Coyote just wants to get something to eat. The Road Runner is just there to harass the Coyote. Really, think about it: If the Road Runner is so fast and so clever, why does he always come back to “coyote territory?” I’ll tell you why — because he just wants to twist the knife a little more. He wants to inflict a little more mental anguish on the Coyote.

Chuck Jones at work

In fact, the only semi-logical cartoons from the Looney Tunes stable occurred later on in the Coyote’s career, when he gained a new adversary, Sam the Sheepdog. The bits with the sheepdog were always the best because the Coyote (renamed Ralph) and the sheepdog were portrayed as regular working stiffs, just like the rest of us, just putting in their time. Once the lunch bell rang, Sam stopped clobbering the sheep-stealing Coyote, then they clocked out, had lunch, clocked back in and resumed the pummeling. Now that makes sense.

In Jones’ autobiography, “Chuck Amuck,” he wrote about a bizarre encounter he had with his one-time boss, Leon Schlesinger, who burst in on a group of animators as they chuckled about their latest gag. This infuriated Schlesinger, who screamed, “What’s all this laughing got to do with making cartoons?!?”

Chuck knew what laughing had to do with cartoons. It was about strapping coyotes to giant slingshots. It was about skunks who fell in love with cats. It was about a disfunctional family of bears who couldn’t figure out how they fit into a fairy tale.

Most importantly, Chuck knew it about all of us. The laughing was something we all needed. Something we all wanted.

Now he’s gone. He won’t get any more awards. No one else can pat him on the back and say “Thanks for making my childhood so much fun.”





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