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"Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood" Tribute to One Who Grew Up But Never Grew Old

by on March 23, 2009

Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood is a charming introduction to the mind of the legendary director. Melding a live-action interview of Chuck Jones at his drafting table with some newly created animation, it is a quiet, meditative documentary featurette that gives the personal recollections of this famous animator visual expression.

If you are already familiar with the tales from Jones’s early life, it would be wise to approach Memories of Childhood without expecting to leave it with a wealth of gained knowledge. The documentary is short (less than thirty minutes long), and watching it is akin to picking up a fondly remembered book, whose story you enjoy as much the sixth time around as you did the first.

So we learn a little about his father—a “disillusioned intellectual” who encouraged his children to read by pointedly declining to read to them—and his mother, who encouraged Jones’s creativity by never asking what he was trying to draw. We hear about the uncle who taught Jones the proper way to eat a watermelon. (You drop it onto the hard ground and devour the smashed up chunks.) That fearsome cat with the name “JOHNSON” inscribed on a popsicle stick around its neck gets a long and loving description. Mary Pickford rides by Jones’s front porch on a white horse, and the Chaplin studios are just a few streets away.

We don’t hear much about his days at Schlesinger/Warner Bros., and Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny show up only insofar as Jones admits that he can identify better with the former than the latter. But of course, such characters appeared only much later, when his physical “childhood” was far behind.

Still, Jones’s child-like capacity to observe and appreciate the world never deserted him. The documentary opens with him describing how, as a boy, he would stand on the boardwalk and “conduct” the ocean waves; it ends with him sitting on a pier looking over the ocean, and remarking that he does not feel like an old man, only a young one who has something wrong with his body. That gentle rebuke of time may be one of the best self-bestowed epitaphs an artist of his talents and demeanor could deliver, inflecting as it does a sense of continuity with the acceptance of change and even decline.

The story is narrated by Jones himself, in live-action scenes to an unseen and never-heard interviewer and over archival photographs and films. There are, naturally, also many illustrations and bits of animation mixed in. Many are clips from his famous cartoons; many more are animations of elements from his own sketches or illustrations of childhood scenes he is describing. Oddly, these don’t work in context as well as one might think. The newer animations are charming, and they capture well the tone of melancholy whimsy that pervades the film. For all their simplicity, though, they are also a little too polished, and they seem to have too much of the touch of digital instruments to fit in easily with the grainy, sepia-tinged archival footage. The Looney Tunes footage, meanwhile, is sharply at odds with both the tone and look of everything else. They are far slicker than anything else in the picture; their anarchic violence clashes with an otherwise gentle tone; and Carl Stallings’ brutally funny scores intrude like trumpet fanfares into a lullaby.

Most of the pleasures of this film come from Jones himself and his enthusiasm in re-telling these stories; and any opportunity to watch Jones with a pencil is a great treat. Weaknesses aside, Chuck Jones: Memories of Childhood is a fine tribute to one of the leading lights of the golden age of cartoons, and connoisseurs and newbies alike will find much to admire in it. If nothing else, it will make a fine kick off to the tribute that Turner Classic Movies will give to Jones on Tuesday, March 24, beginning at 8:00pm.

8:30 pm “The Night Watchman” (1938)
8:40 pm “Prest-O, Change-O” (1939)
8:50 pm “Sniffles and the Bookworm” (1939)
9 pm “Elmer’s Candid Camera” (1940)
9:10 pm “Scent-imental Over You” (1947)
9:20 pm “Haredevil Hare” (1948)
9:30 pm “Duck Amuck” (1953)
9:40 pm “One Froggy Evening” (1955)
9:50 pm “What’s Opera, Doc?” (1957)
10 pm “The Dot and the Line” (1965)
10:15 pm “The Bear that Wasn’t” (1967)
11 pm The Phantom Tollbooth (1969)
12:30 am “The Night Watchman” (1938)
12:40 am “Prest-O, Change-O” (1939)
12:50 am “Sniffles and the Bookworm” (1939)
1 am “Elmer’s Candid Camera” (1940)
1:10 am “Scent-imental Over You” (1947)
1:20 am “Haredevil Hare” (1948)
1:30 am “Duck Amuck” (1953)
1:40 am “One Froggy Evening” (1955)
1:50 am “What’s Opera, Doc? ” (1957)
2 am “The Dot and the Line” (1965)
2:15 am “The Bear that Wasn’t” (1967)
3 am The Phantom Tollbooth (1969)

If you’d like to learn more about Chuck Jones, check out the following books available at Amazon.com:
Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist
Chuck Reducks: Drawing from the Fun Side of Life

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