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The big cheese of animation!
Despite the frequent complaints people make about the glut of remakes and sequels in the modern era, it's worth remembering that originality has never been held in particularly high regard in Hollywood. Since the early days of cinema, filmmakers have been attempting to mimic the success of others in shamefully obvious ways. It even extended to the realm of animation: when Walt Disney had a huge success with Mickey Mouse and "Steamboat Willie," other studios eagerly attempted to create their own cartoons centered on lovable rodents. Among them was up-and-coming animation wizard Chuck Jones, whose early mouse-themed shorts have been highlighted in an appealing new collection from the fine folks at Warner Bros.
To be sure, Jones never stooped to actually imitating Disney's beloved icon. His mice are distinctive comic creations in their own right, and Looney Tunes Mouse Chronicles: Chuck Jones Collection gives viewers a welcome opportunity to examine some of the man's oft-neglected earlier work. The most fascinating thing about the collection is the manner in which it allows the viewer to trace the evolution of Jones as an artist. It's almost hard to believe that the gentle short which opens the collection (the sweet-natured "Naughty But Mice") is directed by the same guy responsible for the manic cartoon which closes out the set (the rowdy "Cheese Chasers"). It's a fun journey from point A to point Acme.
The shorts have been neatly divided on two discs. The first disc spotlights Sniffles; an innocent, child-like mouse who finds himself caught up in a series of humorous misadventures. There's a breezy, laid-back quality to many of these shorts and a Disney-esque sentimentality in terms of tone. They're easily digested thanks to the strong technical qualities of the animation, but most of them are also a little forgettable. There's a reason Sniffles isn't as well-remembered as Mickey, Jerry or Speedy. However, there's a fascinating change-of-pace which takes place near the end of Sniffles' run. In a short entitled "The Brave Little Bat," (Jones' ninth Sniffles cartoon), Sniffles finds himself teaming up with the titular character: a cheerful, incessantly chatty, insatiably curious little bat. It's easily the first laugh-out-loud funny installment the set has to offer. Then comes the curveball: Jones was so clearly enamored with the bat's personality that he simply gave Sniffles an image transplant. For the remaining three shorts, Sniffles transforms into a frenzied comic force who makes life rather trying for everyone he comes in contact with.
Those last of the Sniffles shorts are a lot of fun, but Jones really hit his stride when he abandoned the character altogether in favor of focusing on two new mice: Hubie and Bertie, a pair of wisecracking rodents from Brooklyn who take great pleasure in tormenting a psychologically confused cat. Identity-blurring head games are a common theme in the seven Hubie and Bertie shorts Jones directed, with the mice leaping upon any opportunity to persuade a cat that it's a lion or a bulldog that it's a gazelle. They're friskier, wittier and…well, more cartoonish than the Sniffles shorts, and it's fair to say that there are more than a few moments when Hubie and Bertie hit greatness. It's a kick to watch Jones discover his voice and his strengths as an animator, and watching that happen piece by piece over the course of nineteen shorts is an immensely satisfying experience.
While the remastered shorts featured in Looney Tunes Mouse Chronicles: Chuck Jones Collection (Blu-ray) aren't quite stunning, the 1080p/1.33:1 transfer provided for each of them is satisfying enough. The shorts are crisp, clean and free of scratches, flecks, dirt and grime. Honestly, it's pretty comparable to the treatment most of the shorts in the Looney Tunes Platinum Collection received. Sure, it's a little tempting to complain that they haven't been scrubbed within an inch of their lives, but the shorts have retained an appealing filmic quality which is sometimes lost in otherwise-excellent presentations of older animated efforts. Slightly more disappointing is the lossy Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono track, which is clean and clear but a little underwhelming. It gets the job done, but it certainly doesn't have a whole lot of kick. Still, I suppose it's enough the dialogue is never muffled, the musical scores sound crisp (if a little pinched on occasion) and the sound design is well-preserved.
The supplemental package kicks off with five audio commentaries featuring animation historians Jerry Beck and Greg Ford, cartoonist Eddie Fitzgerald and even an archival recording of Chuck Jones. Collectively, the commentaries offer some interesting insights into this phase of Jones' career. You also get eleven bonus shorts, but unfortunately most of them look pretty crummy (they haven't been remastered and they're all in standard-def): "Country Mouse," "The Lyin' Mouse," "The Mice Will Play," "Little Blabbermouse," "Shop Look & Listen," "Mouse Mazurka," "Mouse-Warming," "Mouse-Taken Identity," "Mice Follies," "It's Nice to Have a Mouse Around the House" and "Merlin the Magic Mouse." My favorite bonus is an all-too-brief featurette entitled "Of Mice and Pens" (8 minutes), which offers a quick history of the animated mice featured in this collection and is narrated by Maurice LaMarche (Pinky and the Brain). Finally, you get a story reel for "The Hypo-Chondri Cat."
Looney Tunes Mouse Chronicles: Chuck Jones Collection might initially seem like a "for animation junkies only" sort of release, but there's more than enough genuine entertainment offered up to justify a purchase by the more casual consumer. I'm happy to be able to give Sniffles, Hubie and Bertie a place on the shelf next to Tom, Jerry, Bugs, Daffy, Mickey, Donald and the rest of my hand-drawn pals.
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