Ah, Tom and Jerry. They’re arguably the first duo to spring to mind when one mentions “cat and mouse” cartoons. Audiences across the world love them, and they’ve been seen on TV for many decades now. However, even the most casual of cartoon viewers must notice a difference in Tom and Jerry cartoons while watching them on TV. Certain cartoons look different, sound different, and contain an alternate opening sequence, showcasing a Tom who apparently has a nervous twitch, and a Jerry who sits snugly in the “Y” of his name. In case you weren’t already aware, these cartoons were by none other than the Looney Tunes master, Chuck Jones!
In 1963, Chuck Jones, who was recently laid off at Warner Bros., was brought in to helm new shorts with most of his old WB crew, replacing the ill-fated and short-lived Gene Deitch team (1961-1962). To be sure, Chuck’s cartoons were more professional and true to the basic tone of Tom and Jerry than Deitch’s were, while still having their own identity. But Tom and Jerry‘s Chuck Jones era was, in some ways, a victim of the limitations of the times. I can imagine these cartoons coming out much more successfully had they been done a decade earlier. But it was the ’60s, when theatrical cartoons were on the outs, budgets were slimmer, and the desire to stay contemporary got in the way of staying completely true to the originals.
In fairness, Chuck Jones, a staunch advocate of full animation in his work, did his best to keep the same quality he had for his work on Looney Tunes at Warner Bros., but that only held true for a little while. For instance, the 1963-1964 shorts, all directed by Chuck himself (as well as many co-directed by renowned layout artist Maurice Noble), displayed the same kind of expertise for specific facial expressions, appropriate squash and stretch animation, and smooth movements that permeated Chuck’s work at WB. The framerates weren’t as consistently high as Hanna Barbera, but considering the era, the animation was actually quite good in comparison to much of the rest, even compared to other theatrical cartoons.
But later on, when he handed directorial duties over to long-time animators Abe Levitow and Ben Washam, things took a turn for the more pedestrian, with less engaging character animation, not to mention less uniform artwork. Though throughout all the cartoons, Tom’s overly thick eyebrows were a downside. I was never a fan of that new design choice.
The music also took a hit in these cartoons. Gone were the lavish melodies from a full-fledged orchestra that weaved in numerous popular tunes of the day with original melodies, masterfully done by Scott Bradley, like the one below.
With a smaller budget, the score had a sparser sound to it, tried too hard to sound hip and contemporary, and what’s worse, most of the scores by Eugene Poddany, Carl Brandt, and Dean Elliot didn’t even contain melodies, but more like “musical sound effects.”
It was in time with the events on-screen, yes, but they distracted more than enhanced the action. Add to that the frequently dissonant atonality of the “music”, and the scores definitely leave something to be desired. It’s a shame that one of the best aspects of Tom and Jerry (and indeed, a large part of what made the cartoons so appealing) became one of the worst.
In terms of the shorts themselves, they’re a very mixed bag. The comic violence that Tom and Jerry is known for isn’t quite as potent or frequent here, which means that there isn’t quite as much of an intensity to many shorts. A couple of cartoons are highly reminiscent of old Looney Tunes shorts; for example, “The Year of the Mouse” is essentially a remake of the far superior “Mouse Wreckers”, where a pair of mice play mind games on a cat. I’m also not a fan of three shorts which take place in outer space for some inexplicable reason; they stray a bit far from the domestic nature of the Hanna Barbera shorts. There’s even a short, “Surf-Bored Cat”, where Tom barely chases Jerry at all! Finally, there are two “clip show” cartoons in the batch, both of which awkwardly mix far better footage with less impressive linking material (not to mention new music that’s rather jarring when played over the classic cartoons).
|Video clip courtesy of WarnerBrosOnline on YouTube|
There are some genuine successes in the set, though. “Pent-house Mouse” is an impressive debut, despite a couple bits of repeated animation. “Is There a Doctor in the Mouse?” is a funny entry where Jerry is able to speed himself up to a blur, and uses that ability to mess with the clueless Tom. Watching the cat try to catch lightning fast Jerry is quite amusing, such as when he records him taking some cheese and slows down the tape. “The Cat Above and the Mouse Below” is like an MGM successor to shorts like “Rabbit of Seville” and “What’s Opera, Doc?”, which time famous music (in this case, opera) to gags, which also helps the comic timing. “Much Ado About Mousing” succeeds largely due to its inclusion of a dog, whose dry facial expressions when Tom accidentally interrupts his naps while chasing Jerry on a dock may be old hat, but are executed well. Speaking of dogs, “The Cat’s Me-Ouch” has a nice twist in the form of a Jerry-sized bulldog that still packs a whallop. And “The Mouse From H.U.N.G.E.R.” contains a lot of creativity in its spy show spoof.
All cartoons are presented in a widescreen aspect ratio. The video is free of DVNR (the accidental erasing of picture in the process of cleaning the image), though it does look less crisp than, say, the Looney Tunes Golden Collections.
Special features on this 2-disc DVD set include “Tom and Jerry… and Chuck”, a 20 minute behind-the-scenes look at Chuck Jones’s transition from WB to his own independent studio (Sib Tower 12), and how his distinctive style meshed with already-established characters. Narrated by June Foray, it’s a good history lesson, and covers a lot of ground, so it pleased me to see various events of that era highlighted. The second feature is a special called “Chuck Jones: Memories of a Childhood” and involves Chuck narrating over still pictures and animation. Most of the subjects involve his childhood. It’s a bit more free-wheeling and relaxed than the first feature; it wasn’t my cup of tea, but it does give an insight into Chuck’s life outside the cartoons he made (and, in some cases, how his childhood influenced his work).
While I don’t hold the Chuck Jones Tom and Jerry cartoons in as high of regard as the earlier Hanna Barbera versions, some of the 1963 and 1964 shorts do have the same kind of charm and comic expertise that Chuck Jones was known for. But there are also plenty of shorts where I found myself just staring at the screen, maybe smirking a couple times but not laughing out loud. That’s never a good thing for Tom and Jerry, which frequently got belly laughs for its well-executed comic violence. It’s just a shame that the batting average for the Chuck Jones Tom & Jerrys isn’t higher, or I’d give it a firm recommendation. As it stands, I’d say rent it first, unless you’re a die hard Chuck Jones fan who has to have everything he’s ever made.