All right, this is cheating: including in this countdown a collection of shorts that (unlike Fantasia) were not made as part of an animated feature. Yet this feature-length medley of Chuck Jones cartoons from his postwar peak period at Warner Bros. has too much wit, melodrama and sheer delight not to be placed high on any list of animation achievements. Taken together, the 10 shorts compiled here — Hare-Way to the Stars, Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century, Robin Hood Daffy, Duck Amuck, Bully for Bugs, Ali Baba Bunny, Rabbit Fire, For Scent-imental Reasons, Long-Haired Hare, What’s Opera, Doc? and Operation Rabbit — could serve as a child’s finest introduction to the raucous rapture of the animated film.
Warner Bros. shorts always shamed Disney’s in the creation of memorable anthropomorphs. Jones and writer Michael Maltese turned Porky Pig, once just a cute piglet, into a harassed middle-management type. Elmer Fudd was the chronic, choleric dupe, Sylvester J. Pussycat a feline of sputtering theatrical bombast. Bugs became the cartoon Cagney — urban, crafty, pugnacious — and then the unflappable underhare who wins every battle without ever mussing his aplomb. And Daffy … ah, Daffy! Here was modern man (well, modern mallard) in all his epic scheming and human frustration. He would debate with Bugs on the time of year (“Rabbit season!” “Duck season!”) before a shooting accident would require reconstructive surgery, as his quacking bill was suddenly on the back on his head. Pleading or wheedling or just staring ahead with a mutely eloquent resignation, Daffy embraced multitudes — multitudes of losers, us on our worst day. Multitudes of Chuck too: Jones later said that Bugs was the person he wished he could be and that Daffy was the person he probably was.
A staple of 35 years of Saturday matinees, the Jones cartoons — and those of his cartoon compadres Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng and Robert McKimson — rarely got official notice, even in the Academy Award category for Animated Short. (Only “For Scent-imental Reasons” copped an Oscar for Jones.) Yet these films were more than amusing, more than an excuse to escape reality. They were reality, transformed into art: brutally true, honorably honest, like Samuel Beckett with the fun up front. Jones was a genius of comic movement and dialogue and a genuine animator — he breathed soul into his creatures. Maybe children were his raptest audience, but his films were not merely kids’ stuff. As Jones often said, “We weren’t making them for kids, or for adults. We were making them for ourselves.” And, a grateful viewer has to say, for the best part of our selves.
What’s art, Doc? This is.