It's no secret that Tom and Jerry is one of the cartoon world's most recognizable and enduring creations. The cat and mouse duo first appeared in 1940, immediately scoring big with audiences of all ages. Truth be told, Tom and Jerry had much in common with the other "big fish" in the animation pond, Looney Tunes: madcap comedy, violence, and even a fully orchestrated score. Additionally, the simple premise of pitting one character against another was hardly anything new, but it certainly proved to be a successful one. Created by the up-and-coming young team of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, Tom and Jerry would eventually be eventually be graced by the presence of Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, and Friz Freleng (of Looney Tunes fame). In true cartoon fashion, the violence in Tom and Jerry was over-the-top and had no lasting effects. Fur was shorn, eyeballs were poked and teeth were broken, but things would be back to normal soon enough. Although most cartoons of today would hardly be able to get away with this on a regular basis, it was Tom and Jerry's calling card.
The Chuck Jones era (1963-67), as it's come to be called, occurred roughly five years after the closing of MGM's animation studio in 1957 and the short tenure of Gene Deitch from 1960-62. This would be the third official incarnation of Tom and Jerry---and at the hands of such a well-known animator (who had just been fired by Warner Bros. after a legendary run), it seemed like a sure fit. In hindsight, though, this relatively brief era didn't mark a high point for the franchise. Though Jones' trademark style was on display in just about every frame, it didn't quite gel with the slapstick-oriented antics of our favorite cat-and-mouse duo. Vocal effects were often handled by the capable team of Mel Blanc and June Foray ---and while they don't necessarily detract from the Tom and Jerry experience, they weren't always necessary, either. Worst of all, the comedic timing just wasn't as sharp. Overall, though, even halfway-decent Tom and Jerry is still a fairly good time.
During Jones' five-year run, 34 cartoons were created for theatrical distribution---and also during his tenure, our favorite cat and mouse's popularity grew even more, thanks to the growing popularity of television. Tom and Jerry: The Chuck Jones Collection, Warner Bros.' new two-disc collection that celebrates this era, includes the following shorts:
(34 Cartoons on 2 single-sided discs)
"I'm Just Wild About Jerry" and "O-Solar-Meow" are two quality cartoons that I remembered vividly, mostly due to their unique locales: a nighttime department store and a roulette wheel-shaped space station, respectively ("Guided Mouse-ille" and "Advance And Be Mechanized" keep the sci-fi theme going, albeit with lesser degrees of success). "Jerry-Go-Round" is a fun, circus-themed short with a very protective elephant, while "The Cat's Me-ouch" and "Purr-chance To Dream" offer two tales involving Jerry and his new friend, a miniature dog with extremely sharp teeth. "Love Me, Love My Mouse" is another easy favorite, in which Tom's female friend protects Jerry as her own...until her feline instincts kick in.
Others like "The Cat Above, The Mouse Below" and "Much Ado About Mousing" are decent enough and instantly recognizable, but they're somewhat off-putting in one sense: they completely recycle old Tom and Jerry plots, simply updating them with Chuck Jones' tradition of using less dialogue. An accompanying behind-the-scenes featurette praises both as tributes to the original cartoons, but they seem more like lazy updates and somewhat disrespectful of Hanna-Barbera's efforts.
Others aren't impressive for more conventional reasons. Some, like "Duel Personality" and "Jerry, Jerry, Quite Contrary" are even less story-driven than others, employing an odd psychedelic vibe that doesn't feel natural at all. "Matinee Mouse" and "Shutter Bugged Cat" are cheap highlight reels of earlier Hanna-Barbera shorts with newer animation and re-dubbed sound. For the most part, though, most of these cartoons are simply middle-of-the-road, with interchangeable locales and odd half-endings. Like Hanna-Barbera's original shorts, some are rooted deeply in pop culture from the era ("The Mouse From H.U.N.G.E.R.", for example) and don't exactly suffer for it...but it doesn't help their case, either. As stated earlier, others are highly reminiscent of Jones' own work on Looney Tunes, especially his Road Runner / Coyote shorts. This isn't necessarily a criticism, but it's still distracting more often than not.
Regardless, there's still a decent amount of content here that most Tom and Jerry disciples should enjoy---and if nothing else, at least the visual presentation makes these polished cartoons sparkle. Warner Bros.' two-disc set also includes a pair of modern featurettes, combining a short visual history of Tom and Jerry with a look at Jones' early life and historic career.
Presented in a matted 1.78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16:9 displays, Tom and Jerry: The Chuck Jones Collection looks excellent from start to finish. First things first: these cartoons were originally animated in 1.33:1 format and cropped for theatrical viewing, which is how they're presented here. In most cases (Comp #1 - "Pent-House Mouse Title Card"), such cropping doesn't affect the compositions a great deal...but during other sequences (Comp #2 - "Jerry's Daydream" and Comp #3 - "The Fly-Swatter"), things get a bit more crowded. I would've preferred an open-matte presentation in this case, but I respect Warner Bros.' decision to preserve the theatrical presentation format. As a sidenote, title cards and opening credits are often window-boxed at roughly 1.66:1 for obvious reasons, but they switch back to 1.78:1 soon after.
As for the picture itself, it's practically flawless. These cartoons absolutely sparkle with clarity, featuring bold colors and only a few minor instances of dirt and debris. Digital issues are also virtually nonexistent, though a few compression artifacts can be spotted along the way. It's a shame that most of the Hanna-Barbera Tom and Jerry shorts don't look this good (aside from the Cinemascope editions, of course), but we should be happy either way.
The audio is also right on par, featuring a Dolby Digital Mono mix (also available in French and Portuguese) that gets the job done without resorting to artificial gimmicks. Music and sound effects rarely fight for attention, creating a limited but solid soundstage that preserves the atmosphere nicely. Optional English and Portuguese subtitles are included during the shorts, but there's not enough dialogue to make them feel very useful.
Luckily, Jones redeems himself on Disc 2's "Chuck Jones: Memory of a Childhood" (26:12, below right), a broader featurette about the cartoonist's life and accomplishments. This leans heavily towards his early years and work on Looney Tunes (Tom and Jerry isn't mentioned once), featuring comments about Jones' family life, trouble in school, early love of art, a rather influential stray cat and more. It's a fitting tribute to such an accomplished animator; Jones seems in good spirits and speaks candidly on a variety of subjects, taking time to sketch a few personal illustrations along the way. Highly recommended for fans of the animator, but strict Tom and Jerry fanatics may feel a bit disappointed.
Both featurettes are presented in 1.33:1 and look relatively good, though no optional subtitles or Closed Captions are provided (even though they're offered during the cartoons, which aren't exactly dialogue-heavy). Overall, this is nowhere near as exhaustive as Looney Tunes collections and the like, but these featurettes round out the two-disc set nicely.
The Chuck Jones Collection isn't exactly the highest point in Tom and Jerry history, but a handful of hidden gems elevate this two-disc set to moderate heights. Those unfamiliar with the Jones-era shorts may have trouble adjusting, mostly due to déjà vu from Jones' own work on Looney Tunes. Even at their best, these 34 shorts aren't up to par with the classic Hanna-Barbera originals, but their polished visuals and distinct style offer a decidedly different experience. The visuals are aided by a top-tier effort from Warner Bros., pairing a solid technical presentation with an aspect ratio faithful to their theatrical roots. Casual fans should be satisfied with a rental, but Tom and Jerry: The Chuck Jones Collection is Recommended for purchase at such a low price point.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.