In defense of Opera, Doc…

In America we’re all too quick to dismiss animation as something suitable only for children, and that frequently holds true in scholarly circles as well as the public at large.  I’ve always found that patently unfair, so I make sure to include a parallel history of animation in my introductory film course.  I trace the progress of the art right alongside the development of full-length feature films, starting with Otto Mesmer’s Felix in Hollywood and ending with Don Herzfeld’s Lily and Jim.  Most of these shorts are humorous because that’s the niche the domestic industry has staked out over the years, though I also show things like Winsor McKay’s Sinking of the Lusitania and a clip from Isao Takahata’s devastating Grave of the Fireflies, to demonstrate the range that animation could have if given half a chance.

As always, it’s interesting/slightly depressing to see which films are familiar to students and which draw blank stares, and that’s especially true when vacant eyes greet the mention of something like Chuck Jones What’s Opera, Doc?  In my family (and among many of my friends) we’re weaned on Looney Tunes, so any admission of unfamiliarity with the corpus is greeted not with stares of blankness, but horror.  That’s especially true of something as well-regarded as What’s Opera, Doc?, considered in some quarters to be the greatest cartoon of all time.  It should be clear by now that I put little stock in such rankings, but a discussion of the question in class this week provoked a fascinatingly mundane response from the students, who viewed the film as entertaining enough, without being especially noteworthy.  Either due to shock or to a pierced Wordsworthian haze, I thought it would be worthwhile to offer a brief defense of a fine piece of work, without inflaming passions further with grandiose claims of “bestness”.

Chuck Jones was, by all accounts, a very smart man, but one whose humor could be just as sophomoric as that of the next guy.  These two parts of his nature are revealed to their fullest extent in a film like Opera, part of the genius of which is that the plot is as simple as any Bugs Bunny cartoon (Elmer hunts Bugs) while also mercilessly parodying classical music, opera and ballet (including the entirety of Wagner’s fourteen hour long Ring cycle).  Like all of the greatest cartoons (and the greatest work of someone like Jim Henson), Opera functions perfectly well on multiple levels.  It’s funny, but it’s also very smart.  A cursory viewer doesn’t always glean the depth of this, but it’s apparent from the brilliant arrangement of the musical score (which still makes it difficult for me to listen to some Wagner selections objectively), to the tiniest details of visual design.  A few pertinent examples include the careful positioning of Elmer’s hands as he sings:

Or the body positioning of Bugs and Elmer as they dance (which was based on animation sketches of professional ballet stars who happened to be working for Warner Brothers at the time):

I’m also always amused by the carefully considered expressions on the faces of the characters in both instances.  Other specific jabs are taken at the Germanic-ness of Wagner (via the rotund horse):

And at the grandiloquence of the opera sets (both above and below):

And here:

Lastly, Jones shows that he’s entirely willing to send up more modern conceptions of design by being more than a little untraditional about his use of color and shadow:

And, one of my favorites:

Whether or not this adds up to “the greatest cartoon of all time” is open for debate, but what it very clearly demonstrates is that Jones and his team were up to a lot more than making a simple entertainment for children.  They were addressing a much larger demographic, and doing it in a way that packed a lot of very complex visual, aural and narrative jokes into a very short space of time.  And that’s the thing about animation.  The best of it (not all of it, but the best of it) works on multiple levels, and is just as likely to engage adults as children.  It deserves to be taken seriously (no matter how funny it is), and I hope we do a little of that in class.  If you haven’t spent any time lately watching Looney Tunes, Pinky and the Brain, Powerpuff Girls or Phineas and Ferb (among many others) do yourself a favor and re-arrange your schedule.  It’s not just for kids, though it might make it that much harder to keep a straight face when you listen to Wagner.

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