Appellate Judge Michael Stailey finally confronts his childhood fears.
"The older I get, the more individuality I find in animals and the less I find in humans. Early experiences convinced me that animals can and do have quite distinct personalities."—Chuck Jones
Throughout our lives, there are a handful of experiences that leave indelible impressions, some more vividly recalled than others. For me, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi was one of those experiences.
The story is a simple one, a graphic retelling of Chapter 8 in Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. A brave young mongoose, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, fulfills a life purpose by defending his adoptive human family from two cobras determined to gain control of the family's garden and home to raise their offspring.
Experiencing Rikki-Tikki-Tavi at the tender age of seven, I was both mesmerized and terrified by what I saw. Even today, watching this classic short for the first time in many years, that sense memory is quickly recalled. The unforeseen attack of Karait the snakeling, the disturbingly fluid movement of Nag and Nagaina, and their conspiring moonlight plot to murder the humans in their sleep still sends a chill down one's spine.
The film itself is over in a blink of the eye, the quickest 28 minutes you'll ever experience. What's more, for some reason, my recall of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is tainted. First, I mistakenly remembered Nagaina biting Teddy, which is not the case. Second, I seem to remember the fight between Rikki and Nag being much more graphic, when in fact much of it is shown in silhouette. Apparently, my imagination filled in the blanks with more visuals than were actually displayed.
Enamored with the art of animation from a very young age, I consumed as much as time and my parents would allow. From classic Disney and Warner Brothers features, to '60s/'70s Americanized anime such as Battle of the Planets and Speed Racer, to groundbreaking Ralph Bakshi films like Lord of the Rings and Wizards, my appetite was insatiable. Of course, one of the biggest influences on this medium was the late Chuck Jones. How many can claim never to have seen a Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, or Road Runner cartoon, one his many Tom & Jerry shorts, or the perennial holiday favorite How the Grinch Stole Christmas? I had the pleasure of visiting one of the Jones family's galleries in Southern California several years ago. I wandered the vast space, from print to cel and painting to sketch, mouth agape, taking in every nuance.
One of the great things about Chuck's work is how well it stands the test of time. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, one of the first he shorts developed independently under the Chuck Jones Enterprises banner, is now 30 years old. And despite the classic '70s color palette—a spectrum of browns, oranges, reds, and greens—and Dean Elliott's genre-defining brassy underscore, these characters, their personalities, and their environment remain timeless. One need only observe the illustrative illusion of Rikki's speed—the contrail of his tail wrapping around every object in the house and garden—to see what a gifted visual storyteller he was.
In addition to his artistic innovations, Chuck also had a brilliant sense of humor, which is showcased in most of his work at Warner Brothers and MGM. In this particular double bill, Lions Gate provides us with Yankee Doodle Cricket, the second sequel to his underappreciated and often overlooked short A Cricket in Times Square. Here we find Tucker mouse boning up on history and discovering the real heroes behind America's independence from Great Britain. Wouldn't you know, they were a cat, a mouse, and a cricket. The mouse wrote the "Declaration of Inter-dependence" as a means of creating peace between cats and mice. Harry cat and his claws were the impetus behind Paul Revere's midnight ride. And Chester cricket composed the legendary tune "Yankee Doodle Dandee."
Deftly satirizing the politics and humor of the time, we see references to Stan Freberg ("John…Marsha…" and "SF Presents the United States of America"), as well as the arrogance and buffoonery of our political leaders. It helps that Chuck had the vocal talents of longtime friends and collaborators Mel Blanc, June Foray, and Les Tremayne to deliver the goods. Yankee Doodle Cricket is the perfect screwball adult version of the brilliant Schoolhouse Rock history series for kids. And much like the animation in both films, the jokes here hold up just as well. I don't know if that's a credit to Chuck's writing or a disturbing comment on the inability of American politicians to learn from past mistakes, ultimately leaving us no better off than we were 30 years ago.
Regardless of the reasoning, both films are tiny jewels in the crown of American animation history, and well worth the $9.98 investment. Enlighten your children and grandchildren with these classic tales and show them that "cartoons" can do so much more than just sell toys.
Presented in 1.33:1 full frame format, both shorts suffer an acceptable amount of source print degradation, with dirt and grain visible every so often. Not much was done in the way of preservation during this time, and many of the animated films I remember have experienced a similar fate. However, Lions Gate is credited for amping up the colors so as to appear brighter and bolder than I remember. The Dolby 2.0 stereo is clear and acceptable for a standard televised presentation. Little was done back then in the way of directional effects, so there is no call for a more powerful track.
If you were hoping for bonus materials, you will be sorely disappointed. Nothing of any value here, only a handful of studio trailers hardwired into the DVD authoring. This is a newer "enhancement" showing up on recent releases, in which the menu button is temporarily disabled, forcing the un-savvy viewer to sit through five minutes of advertising dreck before reaching the index screen. In this case, you can escape by using the chapter advance (fast-forward) button, but for many that discovery will arrive too late. Note to the studios: There are better ways to promote your products without angering your consumer base.
The next time you're online or out at the neighborhood video retailer, take a quick look for this and the other two Lions Gate Chuck Jones releases—The White Seal / A Cricket in Times Square and Mowgli's Brothers / A Very Merry Cricket. When the kids have grown tired of Calliou and Winnie the Pooh, put in one of these discs and watch their eyes light up.
Any and all charges against Rikki-Tikki-Tavi are hereby dropped. All involved are free to go. However, Lions Gate's marketing team is forewarned about possible future charges stemming from obtrusive promotional practices. Remember, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
This court is now adjourned.
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