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A really interesting bit of animation history appeared over at Thad Komorowski’s blog: the infamous “Jones-Avery letter.” It is an open letter written by Chuck Jones (and annotated by Tex Avery) angrily denouncing Clampett’s attempts to “claim” the history of Warner Bros. cartoons. Michael Barrier adds his commentary from an old essay on the letter here; the letter also provides interesting background to this essay by Milton Gray here.
It’s one of the great stories of animation: the three best directors at Warner Bros., and I think arguably the three greatest figures – outside of Disney – of animation’s Golden Age, start as collaborators and finish in their twilight years bickering over their legacy. Jones, in particular, would barely acknowledge Clampett’s existence when he talked about the studio.
Horton Hears a Who! (Jimmy Hayward & Steve Martino, 2008)
We’ve entered the second decade of computer-animated movies (Toy Story having come out way back in 1995), and we are now starting to see the really interesting things that can be done visually with the medium. When I wrote about Ratatouille, I remarked upon the fantastic look it had, which seemed to me a leap ahead of other such films I’d seen; now the new film from animation studio Blue Sky, Horton Hears a Who!, pushes the medium in a different way by adapting the distinctive visual look of Dr Seuss to computer animation. They do a good job: the film has some really exciting visual moments. Yet it’s hamstrung by the accumulated bad habits of a decade of these kinds of films.
The success of the Blue Sky studios’ visual translation of Seuss’ art isn’t apparent until a little way into the film. The opening sequences, set in the jungle and featuring the Jim Carrey voiced Horton, show only a light Seuss influence in the visuals and character design. Only the distinct Seussian rhyming in the narration (and the story itself) point to the Seuss source. However, once Horton hears the Who – a tiny being on a speck of dust that floats past Horton – and we enter the world of Whoville, the visuals pick up considerably. One of the opening shots of Whoville is a giddy flying shot over the town, and its great to see the world of Dr Seuss brought to life like this, complete with its rounded architecture and elaborate stairs and ramps. It’s a really good moment, and is at least a part pay-off of the admirable ambition of Blue Sky in adapting such classic material. For all the fuss about Pixar – whose work generally remains far superior to Blue Sky’s – they haven’t attempted to take on a source so well loved, or so distinctive.
The site has had, until yesterday, another quiet few weeks, what with one thing another. Whenever I go through one of these periods where I don’t have time to get something substantial up (or where, as was the was the case over the last week or so, I’m labouring over something that starts as a short post and ends as a great big one) the temptation is always to keep the page ticking over by posting the various silly things and rumours on this page. But then I get self-conscious about how lightweight some of this stuff is.
After I’ve just published a “proper” article or post, though, I’ve got no such qualms. So on the coat-tails of my piece on Film Theory, it’s time to catch up on the frivolous stuff from the internet.
My contribution to the Friz Freleng blog-a-thon organised by Brian of Hell on Frisco Bay.
Let’s deal with the hard part up front and get it of the way. Friz Freleng will always suffer by comparison with his more prodigiously gifted colleagues: Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, and Chuck Jones. I’m not going to shy away from the fact that he wasn’t as good as those three illustrious directors. But that’s okay. Avery, Clampett and Jones are pretty far clear of the pack when it comes to the great Hollywood cartoon directors. Noting that Freleng wasn’t their equal doesn’t get you anywhere: it’s just what happens when you make comparisons to the incomparable. Freleng deserves to be acknowledged for what he did, not downplayed because of the exceptional company he kept.
Noted animation historian Michael Barrier has posted a couple of pieces by his long time collaborator Milt Gray on his website. One is a piece on Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs which is merely okay (it gets too distracted by the whole argument about the film’s racism, or lack of it, while adding too little to that discussion), but the other is a fantastic essay about Bob Clampett, which you can read here. Gray’s essay – informed by his encounters with Clampett and other figures from animation’s golden age – is the most illuminating piece I’ve read about the long time feud between the two great Warner Bros. cartoon directors, Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones. (My own piece on Clampett is here).
Jerry Beck, co-author of the site Cartoon Brew and one of the most knowledgeable people on animation around, has let slip on the Golden Age Cartoon Forums that a collection of Tex Avery cartoons is potentially on the way:
At this time, there are no plans to release any MGM cartoons as collections on DVD – except for the TEX AVERY cartoons, which will hopefully be restored in time for release NEXT year (no promises however)…
Unlike the Tom & Jerry sets, George Feltenstein is personally overseeing this one.
Beck is in a position to know, being “in” with Warner Bros., who own the MGM cartoon library, so this is great news. (The significance of the reference to Feltenstein is that he oversees Warner Home Video’s classics division: if he is in charge, it means the DVDs are being given a respectful treatment, as happened for the Looney Tunes, rather than the more slapdash release given to the Tom and Jerry series. This is crucial not just for the quality of prints and extra features, but for the chances of seeing the cartoons uncut).
The second wave of Looney Tunes DVDs – consisting of The Best of Bugs Bunny Volume 2, All Stars Volume 3, The Best of Tweety and Sylvester Volume 1, and The Best of the Road Runner Volume 1 – is now in Australian stores. The documentaries in these are much better than the first round, and the best of them is a solid twenty minute documentary on Bob Clampett. This, and the inclusion in this wave of several of Clampett’s best cartoons (including Porky in Wackyland, Kitty Kornered, The Great Piggy Bank Robbery, and A Corny Concerto) should help raise awareness of Clampett’s work. Clampett is much better known than he used to be, but there remains, I think, a huge discrepancy in the way in which his reputation has grown. Amongst animation buffs he now rivals Tex Avery and Chuck Jones as the most revered American animator outside of Disney, and yet he has never become a household name in the way that Jones, Avery or Friz Freleng have. In the wider popular consciousness, fate has conspired to leave one of the major Warner directors a relative unknown, and it’s well past time for a more widespread rediscovery of his work.