Animators often get less respect than people who work in live action even though making animated films is a lot more complicated and requires even more technical skills. Animation directors are the orchestrators who often have the toughest jobs in animation, which is why the people in the film industry who I tend to respect the most are the people responsible for this medium. It stands to reason then that the filmmaker who I respect the most would have to be my favorite animation director Chuck Jones.
Chuck Jones was born in Spokane, Washington in 1912 and later moved to Los Angeles, California. Jones and his siblings had a large supply of stationery and pencils at their house (left over from their father when he had a failed business venture that left him with a lot of useless office supplies). As a result, several of the Jones kids would grow up drawing a lot and become artists.
Chuck Jones studied at the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts) and upon graduating received a phone call invitation to work at Ub Iwerks’ animation studio where Jones worked his way up from cel washer to cel painter to in-betweener.
In 1933, he joined Leon Schlesinger Productions as an assistant animator on the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. He became a full-time animator in 1935 when he was assigned to Tex Avery’s unit, followed by a brief stint in Bob Clampett’s unit in 1937 before being promoted to director himself in 1938 following the departure of Frank Tashlin.
His first major contribution to the Looney Tunes legacy was the character of Sniffles the mouse, created by Jones in 1939. The Disney-like Sniffles was designed by Silly Symphonies veteran Charles Thorson and was seen as a potential new star for WB. He first appeared in Naughty but Mice (1939) and would star in eleven more cartoons eventually morphing from a cute and naive character to an incessant chatterbox as Jones shifted the sensibility of his humor from gentle to more manic beginning in the early forties to more closely follow the shifting tastes of audiences following the introduction of Tex Avery’s brand of humor.
Once Jones embraced the looneyness of the Looney Tunes, he started directing some of the funniest cartoons in the forties, with his absolute best work coming after he teamed up with writer Michael Maltese in 1948 and built his team of talented artists which included co-director Abe Levitow, layout and background artist Maurice Noble and animators Ken Harris and Ben Washam.
During his time at WB, Chuck Jones would create popular cartoon characters such as Pepé Le Pew, Wile E. Coyote, Road Runner, Marvin the Martian and Michigan J. Frog, as well as Gossamer, Witch Hazel, Charlie Dog, Marc Antony, Pussyfoot, Claude Cat, Hubie and Bertie and the Three Bears.
As for his filmography, most film historians agree that Chuck Jones was not only the director responsible for the best WB cartoons but also the best animation director in Hollywood, Jerry Beck ranking ten of his cartoons among the 50 greatest cartoons of all time (including 4 of the top 5), and it is not hard to see why if you compare the animated films of Chuck Jones to those of his peers.
All the WB cartoon directors made funny and sophisticated cartoons with gags that were timed to perfection, which is why it is such a colossal feat that Jones was able to stand out. His style of humor, artistic talent and uncanny ability to make you laugh with a single drawing was unmatched, and were elevated even further by the talents of those around him like voice actor Mel Blanc and composer Carl Stalling.
It would be difficult for me to single out my favorite WB cartoons directed by Chuck Jones without listing half of his filmography but if I had to point out the ones near the top of the list that I absolutely loved the most, I would say The Dover Boys at Pimento University (1942), A Pest in the House (1947), Rabbit Hood (1949), Long-Haired Hare (1949), Fast and Furry-ous (1949), Rabbit of Seville (1950), A Bear for Punishment (1951), Operation: Rabbit (1952), Feed the Kitty (1952), Duck Amuck (1953), Bully for Bugs (1953), One Froggy Evening (1955), What’s Opera, Doc? (1957), Robin Hood Daffy (1958) and Now Hear This (1962) to name a few.
Chuck Jones worked at WB until the sixties. His employment got terminated after WB found out that he violated his contract to work on the UPA feature film Gay Pur-ee (1962). In 1963, Jones started an independent animation studio called Sib Tower 12 Productions with business partner Les Goldman where Jones continued working with his former WB staff.
That year, MGM hired Sib Tower 12 to produce new Tom and Jerry cartoons which Chuck Jones would direct. Completely different from the Tom and Jerry cartoons of Hanna and Barbera but overall not bad. There were even a few real gems included in this batch, and they of course included Jones’ masterful comedic timing.
In 1964, MGM bought out Sib Tower 12 and renamed it MGM Animation/Visual Arts.
Some of the best films Chuck Jones ever directed came out in this period. One of my favorites of his and one of my favorite animated films in general was The Dot and the Line, released in 1965 by MGM, followed by the first of Jones’ television specials an adaptation of the Dr. Seuss book How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966), which was highly entertaining and still ranks among the best Christmas specials ever made, and Chuck Jones’ first feature film The Phantom Tollbooth (1970).
Unfortunately the same year MGM released The Phantom Tollbooth they closed their animation division (if the movie had done better at the box office they might have reconsidered that decision), and Chuck Jones started Chuck Jones Enterprises and continued working in television. In addition to the 1970 adaptation of the Dr. Seuss book Horton Hears a Who!, in the seventies Chuck Jones directed other book-based animated TV specials like A Cricket in Times Square (1973) and its two sequels, plus a series of animated TV adaptations of books by Rudyard Kipling which are all entertaining and include The White Seal (1975), Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (1975) and Mowgli’s Brothers (1976).
He also produced the DePatie-Freleng 1971 TV adaptation of The Cat in the Hat and the Richard Williams directed animated adaptation of A Christmas Carol which came out the same year. Over the next few decades, Jones would produce several animated projects including a couple of Raggedy Ann specials, a 1981 Christmas special starring Alvin and the Chipmunks and an adaptation of Peter and the Wolf in the nineties.
He would often come back to WB to work with the Looney Tunes characters again in projects such as the 1976 TV special Bugs and Daffy’s Carnival of the Animals, the compilation feature The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie (1979) and new Looney cartoons from the eighties and nineties such as Chariots of Fur (1994), Another Froggy Evening (1995) and From Hare to Eternity (1997).
He also contributed new animation to the live-action feature films Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), Stay Tuned (1992) and Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) and one of his final animated projects was a series of flash-animated shorts released in 2000 starring a character named Thomas Timber Wolf who Jones created in the sixties.
Jones died in 2002 at the age of 89 due to heart failure, leaving behind a legacy as one of the most gifted and influential figures in film and animation history. He achieved a standard that remains untouched by every other animator and he made it look effortless. I doubt anyone else on the planet could have achieved everything that he achieved in animation and done it as well, which is why I think he might be an actual genius.
He may have an even sharper sense of how to entertain an audience than Walt Disney, Steve Jobs and John Lennon and a sharper sense of humor than all three of those people combined.