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DVD Review: Tom and Jerry – Chuck Jones Collection

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Written by Musgo Del Jefe

Tom and Jerry – Chuck Jones Collection is another case of pop culture perfect timing. Tom and Jerry, created in 1940, already had 114 shorts (and seven Oscars for Best Short Subject) under their belt from creators Hanna-Barbera when MGM closed their animation studios in 1957. From 1960 – 1962, a Czech-based company picked up the series for only 13 shorts. The director, Gene Deitch hadn't seen many of the previous cartoons and didn't have an understanding of the series. After the bizarre episodes from Eastern Europe, MGM was looking for another studio to take over their beloved franchise.

Chuck Jones started with Warner Bros. Animation in the mid-1930s working with Tex Avery (who would do some of his own best work at MGM from 1942 to 1952).  His first stint as a director was "The Night Watchman" featuring a cat that would later become Sniffles the Mouse. Chuck and his team would work on some of the best known cartoons for characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and his own characters – realizing his best work from the late '40s through the early '50s. He's best regarded for his work on the Coyote and Road Runner cartoons in this period. But much like MGM, Warner Bros. was forced to cut their Animation Department in 1962.

MGM wanted someone to take over the Tom and Jerry cartoons, and Chuck Jones had just started his Sib Tower 12 Productions. He brought with him most of the key members of his team from Warner Bros. including brilliant writer and director Michael Maltese and genius set designer Maurice Noble among others. The 34 shorts they would produce between 1963 and 1967 are included on this newly remastered two-disc set.

In many ways, the Tom and Jerry cartoons on this set represent a continuation of the creative work that was going on at the end of the Warner-era. But they also show the transformation that would lead to The Phantom Tollbooth, How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), and Horton Hears A Who! (1970). Tom and Jerry have survived the decades because of their adaptability. There are many types of stories that can come out of the cat-and-mouse dynamic. Chuck Jones keeps the stories fresh by continually changing the settings and plots. With no set rules, Tom can be the aggressor or the victim in the chase. Jerry can be the one being chased or he can just get in the way of Tom trying to chase another animal. Chuck's experiences from Warner Bros. color the characterizations and stories here – many feel like extensions of the Road Runner and Coyote shorts he did earlier. But there are also traces of Bugs Bunny ("The Cat Above, The Mouse Below" is essentially a retelling of the Bugs Bunny short with the opera singer, "Long-Haired Hare"), Sylvester and Tweety, the Tasmanian Devil, and even the Speedy Gonzales shorts.

Here are a few of the highlights:

"Is There A Doctor In The Mouse" – This familiar retelling of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that quickly devolves into a Road Runner and Coyote type of episode. This theme is very common for the first few shorts. Tom is usually trying to set a trap for Jerry that ends up backfiring on him. This short is remarkable in that you start to see facial expression on Tom that will make him look more and more like The Grinch as the series progresses. I love the clever use of sizes here. The Jekyll and Hyde bit lets Jones use all the different combinations of big/small cats and big/small mice.

Some of these shorts will feel repetitive. Both "Pent House Mouse" and "Bad Day at Cat Rock" take place on a construction site. "Ah Sweet Mouse – Story Of Life" and "Tom-ic Energy" both are set in a high rise building. Remember, these were theatrical shorts, so they were not being viewed like we are seeing them today. The moviegoer may not see every MGM film release and would miss some of these or see them over the span of months.

"Snowbody Loves Me" – This is the first short where I realized the quality of the music in these shorts. Being made for the theaters, the music is worthy of both the swinging time of the mid-'60s and of the MGM films that it would be playing in front of. This short is set in the snow with a frozen Jerry wanting cheese inside the warm house. And the reversal with Tom. When we see Tom going down the chimney, it is a direct antecedent of what will be The Grinch's trip down a chimney a few years later.

"The Brothers Carry-Mouse Off" – About a third of the way through the shorts and Jerry starts to get a little more malicious in these episodes. This has the feel of the later Speedy Gonzales and Daffy Duck shorts at Warners. But what really comes to mind are the "Itchy and Scratchy" shorts from "The Simpsons". Here, Tom gets deformed, flattened, and elongated throughout. That's almost a trademark of these Tom and Jerry cartoons from Chuck Jones, the characters are almost always getting deformed by explosions or heavy things falling on them.

"I'm Just Wild About Jerry" – I consider this the high point of the shorts on these discs. In six and a half minutes, Jones and Maltese tell a complete story that surprises and delights. The cartoon has a city setting with beautiful backgrounds by Maurice Noble and a properly film noir-ish jazzy soundtrack. At the end of a chase behind the credits, Tom is drawn out onto the train tracks and hit by a train. The short continues with each getting the better of each other. Even Jerry takes his lumps from Tom. Just when you think you know how the gags are going, then they start to have them backfire on the characters and blow themselves up. The long chase continues through a department store and eventually back into the city ending on a train track again with a train approaching. But this time, Jerry switches the track and the train avoids the cat. It's a simple twist and yet the story feels complete. Rarely do short subject cartoons have the pure physical humor of this short along with the classic storytelling and heart at the end.

"The Year Of The Mouse" – Here's the complete reversal of the series. In this and the following "The Cat's Me-Ouch", Tom will be the one terrorized by Jerry. Tom easily becomes a sympathetic character. In the first, Jerry works with another mouse to continually hurt Tom. In the second, Jerry gets a "tiny" dog who, like the Tasmanian Devil, will eat up Tom for multiple shorts.

The last third of the shorts start to show a lack of budget. There are two episodes "Matinee Mouse" and "Shutter Bugged Cat" that recycle footage from old Hanna-Barbera shorts. Three of the later shorts are set in space (a nod I'm sure to the Apollo missions) but their plots are all similar – including robot versions of both cat and mouse – and there is exact footage shared in all three.

"Cannery Rodent" is the last of the shorts to actually be directed by Chuck Jones. It's also the last in the series to really play with the conventions of the cat-and-mouse story. Set at a cannery, Tom ends up dealing with a very angry purple shark (the same shark will later be blue during "Surf-Bored Cat"). The episode has nice pacing as Tom has to balance chasing Jerry with being chased himself by the shark. It surprisingly ends with Jerry stepping in to save Tom from the shark. Both Tom and Jerry break the fourth wall by looking at the camera in the last sequence as both debate their good deeds towards each other versus ultimately going back to being enemies. There is only one answer to that question, but it's fun again to see Chuck Jones deal with it in a unique manner.

Money for such theatrical animation would run out again at MGM and Chuck Jones was already moving in a different direction creatively. These 34 shorts are a fun document of those times. And a worthy addition to any basic animation collection. There are two new special features on the disc. Both are great insights into the times and the creative mind of Chuck Jones – "Tom and Jerry . . . and Chuck" and "Chuck Jones: Memories Of A Childhood"

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