Cinema: Magnificent Obsessives

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Directed by Chuck Jones

Screenplay by Michael Maltese and Chuck Jones

Outlandish as it may seem, it is possible that some day Animator Chuck Jones may come to be regarded as the American Buñuel. Like the Spanish master, Jones finds his great subject in obsession, and he understands that finally, all truly memorable comedy results from observing creatures caught helplessly in the grip of irrational, inexplicable passions. Buñuel's obsessives are all sexually motivated; Jones' great creation, Wile E. Coyote, has a loftier theme: the annihilation of that uncannily shrewd nemesis the Road Runner.

Like Laurel and Hardy (to invoke just two other great names), this team specializes in a comedy of severely limited means. There is basically only one gag: the Coyote thinks up ever more elaborate schemes to fell the bird that never wert, and the attempts always backfire. But what makes old Wile E. an immortal figure is what is known in the trade as "character animation"—those marvelously rendered expressions of confidence, cunning, determination, frustration and panic as he finds either the huge rock falling on him or himself falling off the cliff, while the bird scoots off across the desert landscape.

The subtlety of this work is much better appreciated on the large screen than it is on the small, and for this compilation, Jones has cut pieces from 16 Road Runners together into a seamless super-chase. It is reason enough to attend this movie, but there are others. Among them are two classic Jones-supervised shorts, What's Opera, Doc?, a send-up of Walt Disney's Fantasia in which Bugs Bunny makes a ravishing Brunhilde opposite Elmer Fudd's stalwart Wagnerian hero. In Duck Amuck, Daffy Duck, whose specialty is egocentricity, suffers the indignity of having his costumes and backgrounds constantly redrawn by a demented animator whose hand and brush become Daffy's antagonist in a brilliant bit of Pop surrealism. Almost as original are: a teaming of Duck and Bunny (representing greed and insouciance) pursued by the guardian of an Arab's treasure that they have stumbled across; the Duck impersonating Errol Flynn as Robin Hood; Bugs as a bullfighter.

There are a few less happy sequences, especially one involving Pepe le Pew, the amorous French-accented skunk, and it may be a mistake to use Bugs as a host-narrator. His specialty was one-liners, and a mouthful of words ill suits his style. But why quibble? Jones was a latecomer to the unpretentious, slam-bang Warner Bros, animation department, and if he did not invent most of the studio's great cartoon stars, he brought the house manner to its finest flowering, less elaborate than Disney's, but often far funnier. This modest retrospective provides a fine occasion to salute an American original working in a medium that will never get its critical due, but continues to exercise a mighty claim on affectionate memory. —Richard Schickel