Archive for Chuck Jones

Pygmy Ignorant

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2015 by dcairns


My delightful French box set of Tex Avery films is, in some ways, all the more delightful for excluding a couple of controversial titles, UNCLE TOM’S CABANA, and HALF-PINT PYGMY. These films are likely to remain problematic for as long as there are animation fans, ethnicities, and sense.

HALF-PINT PYGMY actually plays like a parody of a racist cartoon, and a parody of a Tex Avery cartoon, confusing us by trying to do both at once. The title is atypically lame, since it’s a pleonasm, lacking the built-in surprise of KING-SIZED CANARY, a brilliant cartoon and a strong title, carrying within it a contradiction which intrigues. KING-SIZED PYGMY might have made a better title and a more interesting cartoon.

Avery’s two bear characters, George and Junior, read an ad in the paper and immediately head for Darkest Cartoon Africa —


George and Junior, being ursine parodies of George and Lenny from OF MICE AND MEN, ought by rights to be controversial too, since Avery is lampooning the learning-disabled, but nobody seems to mind, and saying cartoons can’t use dim-witted characters may be a step too far — political correctness gone mentally ill. Anyway, the idea that pygmies can be hunted and captured for display in zoos is an immediate signal that something is very wrong with this cartoon — something which just gets worse when you ponder the logic that makes bears volunteer for pygmy-hunting. This is a cartoon in which the animals are anthropomorphized and the human characters — the pygmies — are treated like animals.

It only gets worse when we meet the pygmies. The village is a nice touch –let’s say for argument’s sake we’re not too worried about the film being unfair to actual pygmies, whose legendary short stature is exaggerated to Lilliputian proportions. But then the little fellows show up. The difference in scale forces Avery to cut to closer angles on them, and most of us will wince whenever he does.


Chasing the pygmy, the bears ask directions from a goofy squid, who points in all directions. Again, logic seems lacking. Usually, abandonment of all sense takes a little longer in an Avery toon, and we arrive at lunacy via gentle stages — remind me to analyse the gradual disintegration of reason in BAD LUCK BLACKIE sometime. Maybe the whacked-out octopus is a reference to something we don’t understand anymore, but his presence in the jungle troubles me. He’s also making fun of people with psychiatric problems but Tex gets a free pass on that because there’s a limit to how many things I can be worried about in a single six minute and thirty-two second cartoon.


OH GOD NO — Junior tempts the pygmy — who is hiding in a knothole like Screwy Squirrel, because this is just a Screwy Squirrel film in blackface — with a slice of watermelon. The squirrel pygmy drools, and eats the watermelon and also Junior’s arms. Getting angry about the racist assumptions also causes me to notice how oddly OFF everything is — more bad stuff is happening to the hapless Junior, whereas these films usually work on the principle that George, the organizer, gets it in the neck because Junior isn’t good at following his instructions. While it’s a small mercy that the pygmy is defeating his would-be enslavers at every turn, Junior isn’t a very satisfying character to mistreat.

The characters each jump into one kangaroo’s pouch and emerge from another. OK, the dumbness of the octopus appearance is now beginning to form a pattern that kind of works — I never objected to the kangaroo in SLAP-HAPPY LION (who dives into his own pouch and vanishes into a point, an ourbouros-singularity on the wrong continent).


The pygmy is also cunning — he inflates a huge balloon with his tiny yet powerful lungs, then uses that to inflate himself to giant size, so that the pursuers don’t recognize him. He’s now an even creepier looking racial stereotype than before. I will admit that the in-between drawings when he allows himself to deflate are interesting and disturbing in a comparatively innocent way.


Then there’s a huge number of gags about decapitation and displacement of heads — a giraffe with two bodies and no head, just a conjoined, mile-long neck — a lollobrigidian array of camel-humps with a camel head at either end — an alligator handbag emerging from itself… Freudian analysis of Avery toons is both unavoidable — those flaccid shotgun barrels! — and pointless, because all the work is done for you — your role is to laugh — but I start to wonder what the hell is going on with the filmmaker’s own head, The movie does seem pretty desperate and last-gasp, but it occurs in the middle of Avery’s most productive, inventive and hilarious period.


Junior gets hit on the head with an outsize claw hammer and his face falls off, feature by feature. Very strangely, this action is preceded by a line-cross, in which Junior flips from left-facing to right-facing (to no-facing). If Avery films always feel like nervous breakdowns in cel form, this one seems to be disintegrating formally as well as conceptually.

OK — the punchline made me laugh. The bears think they’ve finally caught “the world’s smallest pygmy,” but no — in a deep and guttural voice, he says, “Uh-uh, sorry boys — Uncle Louis!” and an even tinier pygmy emerges from a hut, so small the bone knotted in his hair dwarfs him, making him seem like an ant carrying a leaf.


I guess the conflating of offensive stereotypes about African-Americans with offensive stereotypes about Africans makes everything slightly worse, though the technique of folding together two things which don’t really belong together is central to Avery’s gag-making, and is essentially morally neutral. The problem is with what he’s actually folding together. Avery was, by all accounts, a sweet man, but “product of his time” is a useful phrase here and he came by his first name honestly, so there’s “place” too. It should be admitted that the repulsive yet indomitable little pygmy is not really worse than the cutesy stereotyping of Chuck Jones’ pickaninny character, the lamentable Inki. And that Walter Lantz’s SCRUB ME MAMA WITH A BOOGIE BEAT makes HALF-PINT PYGMY, deeply regrettable though it is, look like LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS.



Math Appeal

Posted in FILM, literature, Science with tags , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2012 by dcairns

Chuck Jones’ skilled and witty film of Norton Juster’s script of his own short story.

It should have been un-adaptable, like Gogol’s The Nose, but everything works, except maybe the social attitudes. Stuff like “didn’t know what to do with her hands” is just delightful, because it sets up just the kind of cognitive dissonance (“WHAT hands?”) that laughter is made of — when two irreconcilable concepts forcibly co-exist, the brain can only escape a Robbie the Robot short circuit by bolting through the escape hatch marked GIGGLE.

The Dot is a really horrible character. There’s a real “Hero of the Beach” muscle-mag attitude that women are passive objects to be competed over by men. While the Line and the Squiggle enter into this honestly and without actually being mean to each other, the Dot is a spoilt, malicious creature who abuses anyone who doesn’t satisfy her incessant demands for novelty. I hope the poor Squiggle finds somebody more his own speed and settles down into a life of creative anarchy.

Apparently this is available on a DVD of Frank Tashlin’s THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT, which is vaguely apt, but it should really be an extra with VERTIGO. Both because of the ways in which Jones’s visuals approach Saul Bass’s (the YouTuber who posted it apparently thinks it’s by Norman McLaren — a fair guess, but WRONG), and in the way the short reverses the sympathies engendered in Hitchcock’s film — a woman trapped and torn and manipulated and molded between two horrible men is replaced by a female manipulator who remodels the men in her life, rejecting the less adaptable model in favour of the one who can literally be bent to her will.

A small contribution to the short animation blogathon hosted by Pussy Goes Grrr.

Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Pain

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2012 by dcairns

Man oh man! — or pig oh pig! — there’s plenty to enjoy in Disney’s THREE LITTLE PIGS.

What I Knew Going In:

Well, I’d seen the film two or three times, probably on Wonderful World of Disney TV specials as a kid. Then I’d seen, more recently, Tex Avery’s savage take-down, BLITZ WOLF, a WWII propaganda short made a decade later, which arguably does more violence to Disney than it does to Hitler. Being the product of more sophisticated animation (techniques really had advanced, in part thanks to Disney himself), and being the product of a more sophisticated sensibility, it made the earlier film look crude and childish, and it mercilessly ripped the piss out of Disney’s fairytale world-view.

I’d also heard Chuck Jones speak about the history of animation, and he credited this particular cartoon with a far-reaching innovation. Being a relatively early sound cartoon, he reckoned it was the first to truly exploit the possibilities of speech, characterizing the pigs, who all look alike, by their voices. In fact, their contrasting preferences in construction material are their main traits, and this is conveyed visually, but they also talk about it.

The pigs are all differently uniformed, with the two foolish pigs dressed somewhat like schoolkids. They also have a fife and a fiddle and high, feminine voices, whereas Practical Pig pounds a piano and has a rasping, hectoring adult voice provided by Pinto Colvig, the voice of Goofy. So much for characterization.

But beyond this crude stereotyping, Jones claimed the film pointed towards a new possibility — if voices could reinforce behavioral differences, then it was no longer necessary to use character design so crudely. “Previously, bad characters were ugly and good characters were cute,” he observed. Well, this still holds true in 3LP —

The wolf is grotesque, black, slavering and, most strikingly, attired as a hobo. This seems like Disney’s familiar social conservatism in full swing. I guess I see the logic: the wolf is an itinerant, rapacious character (whereas the pigs are domestic, middle-class homeowners) and so in anthropomorphizing him one looks for a human equivalent. For Tex Avery, it had to be Hitler, the brutal invader, for Disney it was the peripatetic outsider.

But I guess I take the point — once the idea of characterization by voice took hold, possibilities opened up. Chuck Jones’s villains tend to look somewhat grotesque and ragged (Yosemite Sam, the coyote) but so do his heroes (Bugs, the roadrunner). Cuteness and lovability were modulated into more abrasive virtues like pluck and defiance. And Disney’s SNOW WHITE could have a heroine and a villainess who were competitors in beauty (even though it’s pretty clear which one’s evil, even without speech… even without movement).

But moving beyond Jones’ analysis… THREE LITTLE PIGS offers still more interest…

Extremely twisted humour. Note the family portrait on the wall. Unexpected! As is the brick piano, which must surely have a magnificent timbre.

A few shots which go beyond the flat, theatrical staging, where characters break out of traveling a straight line from screen left to screen right… and…

Racial stereotyping! In order to pad the story out, uncredited writer Boris V. Morkovin and director Burt Gillett have the Big Bad Wolf disguise himself, first as a little lamb, then as “the fuller brush man,” a blatant Jewish caricature. What this is about, I’m not sure. Since the lamb is an innocent disguise, we can’t be sure Disney is equating Jews with wolfishness. Or saying anything bad about traveling salesmen. Probably the connection is simply “People who come to the door.” And possibly somebody was amused by the idea of the wolf assuming semitic guise to pursue his secret goal of eating pork. But it’s certainly a highly questionable image, much more shocking if not actually worse, to my way of thinking, than the African-American crows in DUMBO. (The crows tease Dumbo, but they’re actually quite appealing characters, and they unintentionally inspire him with self-belief and set him on the road to victory. The first “magic negroes”?)

Anyhow, the Jewolf took me completely by surprise — I’m sure some commentators must have spoken of it, but I’d obviously missed the debate. And again, as a kid, it would’ve meant nothing to me, as I never read Die Sturmer as a lad.

And then there’s the song, “Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” which has its own discrete hold on the culture. Again, the author is uncredited, but the IMDb tells us that Frank Churchill scored the film and Carl Stalling, later of Loony Toon fame, arranged the music. Or did the song already exist as part of the story?

Finally, the story allows Disney to explore a favourite theme — arse abuse. From the spanking automaton in Gepetto’s workshop, to the many gags about injury to the buttocks in his films, it’s an unending and obsessional motif. One wonders about Disney’s own upbringing. Here, the BBW (Big Bad Wolf) is dropped into boiling turpentine (I don’t have a clear idea of what that would DO, apart from the obvious scalding, but I’m sure it’s unpleasant). This leads to this image —

Behaviour we have seen in dogs, and which would convulse little kids with laughter if they were familiar with how a hound rids itself of a particularly tenacious poop. This kind of vulgarity isn’t commonly thought of as a Disney quality. But then, this is pre-code Disney.


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