Requiem for a Wiseguy

OC Weekly photoIf all creators of animation labor in the long shadow cast by Walt Disney, Chuck Jones is the one who came closest to equalling Disney in artistic achievement and popular acclaim. But Jones did it with the merest fraction of Disney's cash or manpower, and he was one hell of a lot funnier.

In recent years, Jones has been awarded more than his fair share of the acclaim for the greatness of the Looney Tunes shorts. In truth, Jones did not invent the most endearing, enduring Warner Bros. characters—Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, et al. What he did was refine these characters, streamlining them visually and sharpening their personalities, adapting, adopting and improving them into the icons now beloved all over the globe. Other Looney Tunes directors were loonier (Tex Avery, for instance, had an unparalleled gift for surreal hilarity), but the best Jones cartoons were perfect gems, elegant in a way that nobody else on the lot even attempted.

Jones was among the most cerebral and daringly experimental of mainstream animation creators; in Duck Amok, he stranded Daffy in a vast wasteland, waiting for the action to get started and tormented by the whims of his unseen, all-powerful animator. In The Dot and the Line, Jones told a love story entirely through geometric shapes, and only a master of his craft could make such a rigidly formal exercise as touching as Jones did.

As the years went on, Jones honed his style to such a degree that he became trapped in it, and some of his later work became self-parody. With the notable exception of the How the Grinch Stole Christmas TV special, Jones produced little of value after he left the Warner Bros. lot. He spent the last few decades of his life directing the occasional dispiriting bit of animation, being feted at awards ceremonies and on talk shows, and selling high-priced doodles to collectors through his Laguna Beach and since-shuttered Corona del Mar galleries.

Nothing from Jones' final years will be remembered, but we shall never forget his Grinch, or Daffy Duck as Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century, or Bugs and Daffy's hilarious “shoot me now” debates with Elmer Fudd. He has influenced filmmakers as disparate as Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg, and the spirit of his ironic, postmodern humor was carried on by Saturday Night Live, David Letterman and The Simpsons. The 20th century is simply unimaginable without him, and his cartoon cats and pigs and rabbits and ducks and grinches and mice and men will be entertaining our children long after we are gone.

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