Before Warner Bros. animation director Chuck Jones became renowned for slapstick timing and general smart-aleck-ry, he found his footing as the studio’s resident specialist in cute. Looking to compete with Walt Disney Studios’ softer Silly Symphonies cartoons, Jones proposed a new Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies character: Sniffles The Mouse, an “aw shucks” naïf who’d stumble into trouble and then get back out, thanks to a combination of pluck and luck. The first disc of the double-disc Blu-ray set Looney Tunes Mouse Chronicles: The Chuck Jones Collection contains all 12 of the Sniffles cartoons that Jones directed, from 1939’s “Naughty But Mice” to 1946’s “Hush, My Mouse,” and they reveal some of the evolution in Jones’ style. The earliest Sniffles shorts are sugary sweet and dreamy, with a rounded-off design that looks like something that could be found on the wall of a pre-WWII nursery. They’re lovely to look at—especially 1940’s “Sniffles Takes A Trip,” which is downright lavish in its depiction of the wonders of the great outdoors—but aside from the odd bit of surrealism or sly in-joke in the background, there’s nothing the least bit edgy from the man who’d go on to create the Road Runner and Pepé Le Pew.
That all begins to change with 1943’s “The Unbearable Bear,” which marks a shift in personality for Sniffles, from wide-eyed little kid to bothersome blabbermouth, and also marks a shift in approach for Jones and writer Michael Maltese, who threw in more characters and more overall rowdiness. One year earlier, Jones had a creative breakthrough with “The Dover Boys,” a Tedd Pierce-penned parody of turn-of-the-century juvenile fiction, featuring abstracted character designs accentuated by the modernist backgrounds of artist John McGrew. “The Unbearable Bear” continued Jones’ experiments with a decidedly non-Disney look and feel, and is the first Sniffles cartoon that’s actually funny, not just pretty. Jones, though, was more or less done with the chirpy little rodent after that; he only made two more shorts with the character.
The same year that Jones directed “The Unbearable Bear,” he also helmed “The Aristo-Cat,” written by Pierce, with more of those crazy-looking McGrew backgrounds. The cartoon followed a pampered feline who pushes his butler too far and has to fend for himself, with the help of two streetwise mice who feed him bad information and ultimately drive him crazy. The mice were named Hubie and Bertie, and were loosely modeled on the fast-talking, rough-and-tumble antics of The Bowery Boys and other savvy operators from old movies. They’d go on to star in six more Chuck Jones shorts, all of which are included on the second disc of Looney Tunes Mouse Chronicles, and all of which follow roughly the same plot: Hubie and Bertie find a new place they want to live, but first they have to oust the cat by driving the poor kitty bonkers. (The major exceptions to this formula are 1945’s “Trap Happy Porky,” in which Hubie and Bertie barely appear, and 1947’s hilarious “House Hunting Mice,” where they do battle with a robot in an automated “house of the future.”)
But while there’s never much of an arc to any Hubie and Bertie cartoon, they’re some of Jones’ most purely comedic work, from the period in the late ’40s when he was starting to loosen up in preparation for his run of ’50s classics. In 1949’s Oscar-nominated “Mouse Wreckers,” for example, Jones gets as much comic mileage out of the neurotic Claude Cat’s reactions to Hubie and Bertie’s torture as he does from his miniature anti-heroes. From his Sniffles days, Jones already knew how to make creatures look adorable. His new trick was to take their cute, twitchy little features and surround them with falling anvils and exploding dynamite. History was about to be made.
Key features: Commentary tracks by noted animation scholars on five of the cartoons, an eight-minute Maurice LaMarche-narrated featurette situating Sniffles and Hubie and Bernie in the history of animated mice, and 11 bonus shorts featuring other, non-Chuck-Jones-associated Looney Tunes rodents (including Speedy Gonzales).