Exhuming the 90s Chuck Jones Looney Tunes cartoons

It is the end of October, a time traditionally associated with spooky shenanigans and horrible happenings, and there are few things in this universe as spooky and horrible as Looney Tunes cartoons directed/produced by Chuck Jones in his later years. Although he made many classic toons in his prime, Jones was equally capable of putting out dreadful stuff as the 20th century rolled on (the 1976 TV special A Connecticut Rabbit In King Arthur’s Court is particularly heinous).

Among these supposedly are the cartoons handled by his Chuck Jones Productions studio in the mid-to-late 1990s, which he wrote and/or directed in some capacity. I’d never seen any of these until just the other day, and I was curious to know if they were indeed that terrible. After all, I used to be absolutely terrified of the Muppets as a kid until I worked up the nerve to watch Muppet Treasure Island, so there’s always the opportunity to be proven wrong.

Alas, that was not the case here. (Mostly.)

For the sake of fairness, they’re not incompetently made cartoons by any stretch. Most of them tend to have solid animation or character artwork (including Disney animators Eric Goldberg, Joe Haidar and Nik Ranieri appearing in various shorts under the respective pseudonyms of “Claude Raynes”, “Margaret Trudeaux”, and “Irene Arkin”). The background artwork by Jill Petrilak does a good job at emulating the art direction seen in Jones’ 50s/60s shorts, in part due to Maurice Noble returning to serve as art director on a few of these. Even the music by George Daugherty and Cameron Patrick, for indifferent as I am to it, occasionally creates some decent accompaniment to the action.

People did their best with these, and there’s something admirable about Jones still working on Looney Tunes and trying to make legit funny cartoons in his 80s. But even in spite of all that, these shorts aren’t very enjoyable. I wish they were technically bad, because that would at least be interesting or memorable to think about. Sadly, most of these shorts are just tragically mediocre.

I’ve not watched enough of Jones’ work to find the understanding to critically analyze his stuff, so the most I can say for a lot of these is that they didn’t make me laugh and try to dig into WHY they didn’t make me laugh. Often times characters will be talking to or glancing at the audience for extended periods of time, like a bad comic act mugging for attention in lieu of any decent gags. Although not directed by Jones, Father of the Bird is a notably egregious example, as Sylvester spends much of it yammering to himself about how he can’t be a parent to a newborn bird. It makes for a tedious cartoon only just made tolerable by Joe Alaskey’s vocal performance.

The sad thing is that Father of the Bird is one of the few cartoons that tries to do something new with the characters, which can’t be said for most of these shorts. Old premises are dug up from their graves, buried for so long that even the maggots have starved to death, and made to go through the same old motions with nothing new. Sometimes that can work out fine, such as the Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner short Chariots of Fur, which is by far the best of these Jones-helmed shorts.

Apart from the emphasis of on-screen text via onomatopoeia for off-screen sounds and the characters holding up more signs than usual for describing their predicament, it’s a pretty decent reprisal of those old shorts. There’s a good few enjoyable gags, though some of them suffer from the same sort of lethargic timing that infects the other shorts. The art direction blends in very well with the originals in terms of colouring, backgrounds, and even how the characters are drawn (which isn’t something you could say about many characters under Jones as his style shifted in the passing decades). Better yet, I can actually understand what Jones and co. found funny enough about these ideas to keep them in the short.

Unfortunately, that’s the one big exception. Another Froggy Evening is basically the 1955 short One Froggy Evening, but repeated in different time periods. Although there’s a couple of decent ideas making use of each point in time, such as the caveman building Stonehenge to serve as a prehistoric concert hall for the frog, it’s not a very funny short and it goes on forever. I got reminded way too much of Jones’ post-1949 Pepe Le Pew cartoons and how those constantly reused the basic premise and gags with only very slight variations.

Superior Duck has a somewhat neat idea, where Daffy tries to prove himself as a capable hero but is constantly undercut by everything before he’s allowed to even make a start of it. I quite enjoy Frank Gorshin’s more subdued bitter performance, especially in the scene when Daffy complains about his lot in life as a cartoon character, but it gets overswamped by a load of bizarre cameos from most of the Looney Tunes cast that take up time. It even kills the one decent cameo gag where Daffy finally gets started being a hero, only for Superman to appear and threaten Daffy not to muscling in on his territory before telling him to sod off.

From Hare To Eternity is pretty much just another Bugs vs Yosemite Sam cartoon, though it was made in memory of Friz Freleng who had passed away a couple years prior. In that sense, I understand why it’s intended as a throwback. Sadly, it’s a notably limp cartoon with weak gags and by far the weakest animation/artwork (barring Goldberg’s lengthy siren sequence for the climax), and one that comes across as worn out.

Worn out feels like the best way to describe much of these toons. Despite the good intentions and work put into these, they lack that spark of passion which could make for some of the best Looney Tunes. It feels like they’re running on fumes, with Jones out of ideas and anyone else seemingly unable or unwilling to argue with him to try something new. 

Perhaps it’s unreasonable to ask that of someone still working in his 80s. Maybe it should be enough for him to have still been around at all, and trying to make funny cartoons is just a bonus the world gets to have on top of that.

At the same time, I can’t help but feel bummed out considering other people at the time were trying to do something new. Famously, you have stuff like Greg Ford and Terry Lennon’s (Blooper) Bunny and Invasion of the Bunny Snatchers, which sought to subvert and mock how the characters had been portrayed in advertising for decades, and managed to do so with aplomb.

In fact, there’s one Chuck Jones Productions short that attempts to change things up. Directed by Darrell Van Citters, Pullet Surprise decides to pair Foghorn Leghorn with Pete Puma (voiced once again by Stan Freberg for the first time since Rabbit’s Kin over forty years previously). Sure, it’s a fairly standard Foghorn toon after a point, but having an adult instead of a kid like Henery Hawk for Foghorn to trick allows for some fun banter and situations you wouldn’t normally get.

It’s telling that this was the only one of the six shorts not to have any involvement from Jones other than as a producer. I sometimes wonder if maybe these shorts would’ve been better had Jones taken a more distant approach in general, and used whatever fame and leeway he was allowed to give others a platform to make their own Looney Tunes. It’s not as if there aren’t enough Chuck Jones cartoons to fill up an entire cemetery as is. If Pullet Surprise is anything to go by, it might’ve led to a few more interesting toons from others, rather than the last remains of whatever Jones could muster up from his mind.

Special thanks to SlamGrene, amicus, Miguel and CJM2 from the World Animation Discord for collectively bringing up how Goldberg, Haidan and Ranieri worked on these shorts.

FrDougal9000 writes for hardcoregaming101.net as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.

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