The 1950s were arguably the most successful decade of animator/director/overall creative genius Chuck Jones’ career: he directed almost two dozen cartoons for the Warner Bros. studio during that period. Eight of these cartoons would eventually be voted to the Jerry Beck-curated 50 Greatest Cartoons list in 1994; four of them–What’s Opera, Doc; Duck Amuck; Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century; and One Froggy Evening–appear in the top five of that list. In fact, Jones is the most-represented animator on the list–with ten total entries, his work comprises a full TWENTY PERCENT of what is considered the “best” animation of all time.
No other artist comes close.
Jones was undoubtedly the biggest asset to the Warner Bros. animation empire, and he was locked into an exclusive contract with the studio. But in the early 1960s, Jones collaborated with animators from UPA to produce the feature Gay Purr-ee (1962), which he co-wrote with his wife, Dorothy. Ironically, Warner Bros. won the distribution rights for the film; when Jones’ role in its production was discovered, his now-violated contract with the studio was terminated in 1962. The Warner Bros. animation department was shut down the following year.
Jones subsequently formed his own animation studio, Sib Tower 12 Productions, and rehired his old unit from Warner Bros. (which had been disbanded after Jones was fired). The studio was contracted to create new cartoons for the Tom and Jerry series for MGM; two years later, Jones’ studio was purchased outright by MGM and renamed MGM Animation/Visual Arts. All in all, Jones produced nearly three dozen Tom and Jerry shorts throughout the 1960s.
But his time wasn’t completely consumed by the antics of the cat and mouse; he also worked on several other projects for the studio, one of which–The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (1965)–won Jones his only competitive Academy Award as a producer.
Norton Juster, the author of the book on which the short is based, also wrote the screenplay for the cartoon. The short is narrated by English actor Robert Morley (whom some might best remember as Katharine Hepburn’s ill-fated brother in 1951’s The African Queen), who gives an appropriately lively voice-over performance. It’s somewhat lengthy for a cartoon short–at ten minutes long, it’s about three minutes longer than the typical Jones cartoon–but the cartoon hardly drags, for the animation, marked by a multitude of colors, shapes, and intriguing visuals, is simply too engaging.
The cartoon is somewhat similar to the Walt Disney production Donald in Mathmagic Land (1959) in that it attempts to present mathematics–specifically the art of shapes–in an interesting and entertaining way, and indeed, The Dot and the Line accomplishes this handily (and in much less time than its Disney counterpart–although, granted, Donald’s journey into mathematics is much more detailed than that of the latter cartoon). But The Dot and the Line is also more than a “math cartoon”: it’s also a grand vocabulary lesson. For example, after his success, the narrator tells us, the line becomes “dazzling, clever, mysterious, versatile, erudite, eloquent, profound, enigmatic, complex, and compelling”–and when’s the last time you heard some of those words used in a children’s cartoon?
The language and wordplay in The Dot and the Line owes something of a debt to the playful sing-song rhythms of Dr. Seuss. And there’s no shortage of puns in the cartoon; for instance, when the line becomes despondent at having been ignored by the dot, his friends, worried about “how thin and drawn” he is, try to lighten the mood, proclaiming, “She lacks depth!” This type of math-related humor is far from heavy-handed, however; it’s supplemented by topical humor, particularly one gag that is my favorite moment in the cartoon: the morning after the line has finally discovered the trick to forming into an angle, he’s bent himself in such a fervor of movement that he has the nerd equivalent of a hangover. “Freedom,” the line admits, “is not a license for chaos.”
Though the language and the concepts may be a little “above” younger viewers, The Dot and the Line succeeds in making a sometimes unpopular subject (ugh, math, yuck!) a rather absorbing one. Incidentally, this would not be the only collaboration between Jones and Juster–five years later, Jones adapted Juster’s popular children’s novel, The Phantom Tollbooth, into a live-action/animated film for MGM (though in that case, Juster had little to do with the production of the film, and was less than enamored with the results). That movie would mark the final production of the studio, as MGM shuttered its animation unit soon after. Jones went on to found an independent production company, Chuck Jones Productions, and continued creating for another thirty years until he passed away in 2002. Still, his subsequent work never quite reached the peaks he had ascended during his days with Warner Bros. and MGM.
With both of those studios’ animation divisions closed by 1970, it truly marked the end of an era in Hollywood animation.