The colorful animation work of Chuck Jones, the creative genius behind the popular Looney Tunes cartoons, is now on display at the Minnesota History Center (MHC) in St. Paul.
Jones (1912-2002) “brought an unparalleled talent for comic invention and a flair for creating distinctive, memorable characters to the art of film animation,” said the MHC press release on “What’s Up, Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones,” which opened April 30, and runs through August 14. It is one of two Smithsonian traveling exhibits at the MHC.
The late award-winning artist-director, whose careers spanned seven decades, was trained as an artist and graduated from a Los Angeles art school in 1931. Two years after graduation, he was working for Warner Bros. making cartoons; he created over 300 animated films until he left in 1962.
After leaving, Jones continued making animated films through his own production company and collaborated with author Theodore Geisel on two Dr. Seuss television specials, including Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
“We’re really excited to have the exhibit here,” exclaimed MHC Program Manager Annie Johnson before the MSR took a pre-opening private tour of the exhibit. The exhibit contains 136 original sketches and drawings, storyboards, production backgrounds, animation cels and photographs. “Having been a Looney Tunes fan from the time I was a child…now that I am an adult, I am really struck by how much better they are,” said Johnson.
Jones employed a “clearly defined set of rules” or “disciplines” for his characters: Bugs Bunny could never initiate aggression, and Sylvester the Cat could never catch Tweety Bird. Listed among Jones’ nine ironclad rules on the Road Runner and the Coyote: no dialogue except “Beep-Beep” (No. 4), use only ACME made products (No. 7) and the Coyote never eat his nemesis (No. 1).
“These rules were fascinating,” said Johnson. “Chuck Jones in his autobiography talks about [how] he and the other animators working at Warner Bros. were making cartoons for themselves.”
This reporter also is a longtime Looney Tunes fan. My first binge-watching experience came years ago when Boomerang ran June Bugs for two consecutive years (June 2003 and June 2004), a Bugs Bunny 72-hour marathon, showing all 160 shorts in alphabetical order.
I also know the words to “This is It,” the opening theme song for the Bugs Bunny Show, led by Bugs and Daffy who co-sang it, while fellow Looney Tunes mates line-stepped behind them. These cartoons are just as fresh today as they were when first created decades ago.
“All the Looney Tunes films were originally screened in movie theatres before feature films, before they became mainstays of those Saturday morning cartoons shows for children,” noted Johnson. They “were really intended for the big screen…for all ages,” she pointed out.
We took our time exploring the exhibit. There are monitors that show snippets of several classics, including Michigan J. Frog in One Froggy Evening (1955) — Director Steven Spielberg called it “the Citizen Kane of the animated short” and What’s Opera, Doc? (1957).
There are also video testimonies by Pixar co-founder John Lasseter, who introduces several of Jones’ greatest films, including “Beep Beep” and an interactive station where visitors can create their own animated cartoon.
Were Jones’ characters, including headliners Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Wile E. Coyote, Road Runner and Pepe LePew, among so many others, for kids or adults? His cartoons “are funny for everyone,” stated Johnson. “Even characters we consider as supporting characters had their chances to shine in some films. Even Bugs at times was a bit player in other characters’ [films].”
When asked her favorite, “That’s so hard,” responded Johnson. “One of my favorites is Witch Hazel, who is in some great Bugs Bunny cartoons.” She also pointed out that perhaps the exhibit’s most intriguing character is the Road Runner’s main nemesis: “I think the character that I was surprised had the most depth is the Coyote. I was really surprised looking at that character deeper. He takes on these mythical proportions.”
There are also other related programs that are scheduled during the Jones exhibit at MHC, including a May 14 Family Day, 12-4 pm, in conjunction with the second Smithsonian exhibit at MHC, “Beyond Bollywood.”
Finally, Johnson said that she hopes visitors to the exhibit will “appreciate the simplicity of the storytelling” because Jones and his group “had to produce these cartoons at such a quick rate. [They] were really thoughtful about how these characters were created, and their range of expressions.
“He was channeling, telling their stories and not creating their stories,” said Johnson of Jones. “I think he really believed in the power of these characters.”
“What’s Up, Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones,” runs from April 30 to August 14, at the Minnesota History Center, 345 W. Kellogg Blvd. in St. Paul. For more information call 651-259-3000 or visit www.mnhs.org.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.