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Drawing Strength

Remembering Chuck Jones, the genius who helped make Warner Bros. ‘toons Looney.

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Calling Chuck Jones an animator is like calling Gregor Mendel a pea farmer: It hardly tells the whole story. Jones, who died of congestive heart failure Feb. 22 in Corona Del Mar, Calif., at 89, was the father of such immortals as Road Runner — and the longtime guiding inspiration behind Bugs Bunny and other beloved ‘toons. But Jones wasn’t content to simply string pictures together; he wanted his characters to act. ”These cartoons were never made for children, nor were they made for adults,” he once said. ”They were made for me.”

When Charles Martin Jones went to work in 1933 for Leon Schlesinger’s studio (later bought by Warner Bros.), he joined the era’s masters — Tex Avery, Friz Freleng, and Bob Clampett — who had begun populating the Looney Tunes stable. Early inventions of the ”Termite Terrace” team (their HQ was a dilapidated building) included Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, and Bugs, whose coolly executed revenge strategies were among Jones’ contributions.

”He had the greatest comic timing in all of cinema history,” says Pixar Animation Studios exec John Lasseter, whom Jones considered a protege, ”an ability to know just how long to hold something, from Wile E. Coyote falling [off a cliff] to the look on Daffy’s face.” Jones outlined his stories in detail and personally drew key images. ”Every time an expression changed, it would be one of his drawings,” explains Genndy Tartakovsky, creator of the Cartoon Network’s Dexter’s Laboratory.

The meticulous approach paid off. Jones’ Pepe Le Pew farce ”For Scent-imental Reasons” and a public-health cartoon called ”So Much for So Little” won Oscars in 1950 but earned him little respect from the studio brass. (Jack Warner purportedly congratulated his animators on their ”Mickey Mouses.”) Jones left Warner in 1958 for a short stint at Disney; in 1963, he joined MGM, where he juiced up the Tom & Jerry franchise — and won an Oscar, for 1965’s ”The Dot and the Line,” a love story between geometric shapes. In ’66 he collaborated with Theodore ”Dr. Seuss” Geisel on How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

In later years, Jones returned to Warner to head up his shingle, Chuck Jones Film Productions. He was honored with a lifetime-achievement Oscar in 1996.

”He looked at life and did his own version,” says Tartakovsky. ”That’s what a great director does, like a Coppola or Scorsese. They have signatures. You can watch a cartoon, and halfway through you’ll realize: This is a Chuck Jones picture.”

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PRIME CHUCK

— FEED THE KITTY (1952) Conflicted bulldog Marc Anthony weeps over the loss of a kitten, inspiring an homage in Monsters, Inc.

— RABBIT SEASONING (1952) The apotheosis of the Bugs-Daffy-Elmer triad: Daffy tries to convince hunter Fudd it’s rabbit — not duck — season.

— THE RABBIT OF SEVILLE (1950), WHAT’S OPERA, DOC? (1957) Jones worked overtime to create opera-inspired snorts. ”Most Warner Bros. films had 60 shots. [‘Opera’] had, like, 110,” says Lasseter.