Thursday, August 2, 2012

Animated Short of the Day: "The Bear That Wasn't" (Chuck Jones, 1967)

Animated Short of the Day is an ongoing series showcasing short cartoons from every possible genre, era, and format. For an archive of the films previously featured, click here. To suggest cartoons for future installments, email me or contact me on Twitter.

If you're reading a blog post about short cartoons, you almost certainly know who Chuck Jones is. He directed dozens of the funniest and most famous Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, not to mention a couple of very well-regarded Dr. Seuss adaptations.

It's also quite likely that you know who Frank Tashlin is. He too was an animation director at Warner Brothers, for two separate stints in the late 1930s and early 1940s. After he left he moved into live-action, where he had a long and successful career directing films starring the likes of Tony Randall, Jerry Lewis, and Bob Hope.
The two were co-workers at Warner Brothers for years, where they were both heading their own units. They both made a whole bunch of hilarious cartoons with Daffy Duck in them. But "The Bear That Wasn't" is the only time the two of them ever collaborated in the production of a film. It was made at MGM in 1967, twenty-three years after Tashlin left WB to begin his live-action career.

And it really was a true collaboration. The short is adapted from Tashlin's 1946 children's book of the same name, and it follows the book's story almost exactly. If a viewer didn't know better, he or she could easily mistake Paul Frees' narration for a segment from Reading Rainbow. This is a good thing, because it means that the cartoon retains the book's sharp satire of those who lets others to define their identity.

But the visual style is pure Jones - it hardly resembles the book. Jones's figures grew most distinct over the course of his career. By 1967, they had become instantly recognizable. One look at the bear and you know instantly that this is from the same man who, just the previous year, had reshaped Dr. Seuss's Grinch in his own image.

Jones is aided immensely by his frequent production designer Maurice Noble, whose backgrounds are so striking that he receives a co-director credit on the cartoon. I've always been especially impressed with the way that Noble makes the corporation settings seem just as vast as the outdoor ones. This really seems like a place where the bear could get lost and never escape.

The cartoon is also hilarious, albeit in a very different way from the fast-and-frantic cartoons the two gentlemen had made at WB. This is a very low-key, almost wistful cartoon, with most of the laughs coming from details (the image of a cigarette hanging out of the bear's mouth) or the repetition of the phrase "You are not a bear. You are a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat," which gets funnier to me every single time it's said. It's a far cry from "Duck Amuck" or "Porky Pig's Feat."

"The Bear That Wasn't" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, both of which are a lot prettier than this YouTube video.


Ryan Roe said...

This is a cool piece of animation history. And it needs a shave.

How did it end up on a Looney Tunes collection if it was produced as an MGM short, anyway?

Anthony Strand said...

The answer is a simple one - Time Warner owns the pre-1986 MGM catalog. It's the same reason that your DVD copy of Singin' in the Rain has a WB logo on the side.