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  03-05-2008, 05:16 PM
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If you want nonsense and paradox, you can hardly do better than to schedule a consultation with Dr. Seuss. But there are paradoxes and there are paradoxes. So here's a Seussian riddle for the cartoon critics out there. (And I know who you are; I've got minutes of the last meeting we were all at.) How is it that other cartoonists can pick up and work in a style as strong and as idiosyncratic as Theodor Geisel's, and make it their own, and yet do so without overwriting or losing its essential "Seussian" quality? It's like mixing two colors (green and blue, say) and yet getting them both—complete and undiminished—back out again; not grue but green-and-blue-at-the-same-time.

Evidence for this remarkable phenomenon comes now on the just-released-to-DVD Horton Hears a Who! The title telefilm in question being too short to support a stand-alone DVD, Warner Home Video has rounded it out with three more Seuss adaptation. The results prove what I described above: that, strangely, you can put the Jones or the Clampett into the tale, without losing even a dollop of the original Seuss.

Take Horton Hears a Who! itself, for example. The characters—Horton (above, right), the Whos, the Wickersham brothers—are entirely Seussian, from the tips of their shaggy, mitten-like hands down to the bottoms of their floppy feet. They perform against a background of vivid, storybook colors and bulbous, non-geometric shapes. And yet they are also, unmistakably, products of Chuck Jones's imagination. More particularly, those who know their Jones can pinpoint them as the product of his twee, post-Warners twilight, when he fell hard for the big, expressive eyes and the slow, emphatic posing, and the acres and acres of Maurice Noble backgrounds. (It also features Jones's weakness for feel-good moralizing, but that was implicit in the original book itself, wasn't it?) But Jones—despite being one of the most strong-minded artists ever to work in cartoons—never smothers Seuss's own style and spirit. Instead, he seems to capture it exactly.

Now, there's nothing much remarkable about this: In How the Grinch Stole Christmas Jones had already married his style with Seuss's, and the results both there and here feel so natural that one might declare Jones the only animator capable of adapting Seuss to the moving image while preserving his essence.

But you can't really do that after watching another short on this disc, Bob Clampett's Looney Tunes adaptation of "Horton Hatches the Egg." Clampett was in many ways Jones's opposite, being all about outrageous, rubbery silliness and the expressiveness of motion rather than posing, and "Horton Hatches the Egg" shows this master of 1940s-style craziness at or near the top of his game. From Horton's two-camels-fighting-inside-an-elephant-suit walk (left) to Mayzie's flirtations, Clampett's cartoon is quick, energetic, and bursting with funny, detailed animation. It looks almost exactly like any other cartoon Clampett made during his brilliant streak in the early 40s—and yet it also manages to look almost exactly like what you'd imagine an animated Seuss comedy to look like, in shape and color and character.

It's not that Jones and Clampett, who are in temperament so different, were driven to a common point by the Seuss style. For if you put Who and "Egg" next to each other it is very hard to mistake them for each other, just as it is very hard to mistake any of Clampett cartoons for any of Jones's. Even the similarities latent in the Seuss style retreat when you juxtapose both cartoons, so that they each suddenly feel much more like a "Clampett" or a "Jones" special. But if you watch them again in isolation, that "Seuss" quality leaps out again.

The oddity doubles again when you consider another entry on this disc, Ralph Bakshi's 1989 adaptation of Butter Battle Book (below, right). It hasn't the smooth and powerful animation of the Clampett short or the stark, clean look of the Jones telefilm. The animation is herkier and jerkier than in either of those, and the line work is rougher and scratchier too. A
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