Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Why Didn't the POGO Special Work?

I originally didn't see Mark Mayerson's post from last year on the Walt Kelly/Chuck Jones "Pogo Special Birthday Special" from 1969. Fortunately the special still seems to be available on YouTube. Unfortunately, it's not a whole lot better than I remembered it being.

I saw the Pogo special when I was quite young, before I had ever read a Pogo strip. It was available on VHS at the time, and my Dad, a big fan of the strip, saw it in a video store and advised me to rent it to get acquainted with Pogo. But the special was so dull that I couldn't get through it, and it probably turned me off from seeking out the strip (though I eventually did, and it was great).

Kelly blamed the failure of the special on Jones, telling his ex-Disney colleague Ward Kimball that "the son-of-a-bitch changed it after our last meeting!" I don't fully buy this. Jones certainly made some mistakes that Kelly did not approve or approve of, particularly giving Mam'zelle Hepzibah the Skunk a new, human face. (Why he would do that when he'd already spent years successfully drawing a skunk -- who probably influenced the character of Mam'zelle Hepzibah in the first place -- is beyond me.) But Kelly wrote the script and did some of the voices, and it doesn't seem to me that he's blameless for the weaknesses of the film; the lines the characters are saying are less funny than a typical week of Pogo strips, even circa 1969 when the strip was not as great as it had once been (but still funny).

Jones and Kelly undoubtedly were hoping that The Pogo Special Birthday Special would do for Pogo what another half-hour prime-time special had done for Peanuts. But A Charlie Brown Christmas preserved the tone of the strip, in part by lifting large chunks of dialogue directly from the daily strips. The Pogo special doesn't feel the same as the strip, not even the Sunday strips where Kelly deliberately toned down the political content. (Kelly saw the Sunday page as essentially a separate strip with a separate, younger audience than the weekday strips.) Some of that is Kelly's writing, and some of it is Jones' slow pacing.

There's a pacing problem built into any adaptation of Pogo, which is that the pacing of the strip doesn't match the setting. The Pogo strip moved pretty fast, even in the strips where Pogo and the gang were just lazing around the swamp. It moved fast because the panels were crammed full of dialogue and there was always some piece of background action to keep your attention. Translate that to animation and you've just got cute animal characters lazing around a swamp, and it instantly feels too slow and soft for Pogo. That's one problem Jones didn't solve. But he compounded it with the pacing issues that plague all his work from the early '60s on.

Watching it, I tried to figure out why Jones's later stuff feels so slow. There are a bunch of contributing factors, like the musical score (when it was up to him to dictate what kind of music he got, he tended to favor scores that didn't really push the action along) and the tendency to linger on his favorite poses, but what strikes me most is that these late Jones cartoons have a "show-offy" feel as regards their full animation -- that is, there's a lot of time taken on in-betweens and fluid movement, too much time taken between funny poses. (Remember what Michael Lah said about animating for Tex Avery, that the'd always find themselves taking out in-betweens because they found that the pose reels had sharper timing.) At some point he seemed to lose track of what all great comedy animation directors know, that if the animation is too full, you lose the timing. I don't know if that was related to his admirable determination to continue with full animation at a time nobody else was; but it does seem like his later stuff has a tendency to call attention to the full animation, whereas when full animation was taken for granted, he was more willing to pop characters from pose to pose in a funny, snappy way.


Thad said...

Interesting insights. And besides, how 'out of the loop' could Kelly be if he was doing a ton of the voices?

What went wrong with this Pogo special is similar to what went wrong with Jones' Tom and Jerry's. They're over-directed, especially when characters like T&J don't require a lot of acting and nuance like Bugs, Daffy, or the Coyote do. H-B were really in the "Jules White" camp of directors, substituting noise and violence for substance. It's at least admirable he tried to do more with them, but they just don't work.

(I am not saying Walt Kelly's work was 'beneath' Jones. Kelly's comic strip doesn't translate well into the kind of animation Jones specialized in. That's the problem. Horrifyingly, it might work better as an H-B type sitcom.)

Edward Hegstrom said...

Maybe the problem was that Kelly's work was uniquely suited to its medium, and probably wouldn't have survived the translation to animation in any event.

Having said that, it is true Jones was probably not the guy to do it. The notion that he may have been attempting to capture the success of the Peanuts adaptations is particularly thought-provoking. If Jones had been the first to attempt an adaptation of Schulz's work, he would have redesigned the characters to suit his style, hired Dean Elliot to write the music and probably had Dick Beals or someone as the voice of Charlie Brown.

Anonymous said...

I knew Chuck Jones and once asked him about the Pogo special. He agreed that it didn't work, but he had nothing but nice things to say about Walt Kelly and Pogo. I find it hard to believe that Jones wanted to use Pogo as a franchise. He honestly loved the strip and I believe his motives were pure, whatever the outcome. My feeling is that this was a case of two strong independent talents who were used to running their own worlds and couldn't find a meeting place in the middle.

J Lee said...

It's also worth noting that the ultra-cute type of cartoons Chuck tended towards when he first became a director were curbed at the Schlesinger studio by the success of the Avery style, and Jones moved his cartoons in that direction while Leon and Eddie Seltzer were his bosses. But as the 60s dawned, and both Chuck and Friz were given more control within the animation studio, Chuck started to veer back towards the types of stories he had been enamoured with 20 years earlier.

Bugs still had to be Bugs and Daffy still had to be Daffy to a certain extent, and there was more dialogue in many the 60s shorts. But there was that same trending towards slower-paced cuteness, now combined with trying to impress the audience with the cartoon's intellgence in a coy manner. And the same held true at MGM, where Jones was his own producer and really didn't have to answer to anyone as long as MGM was willing to foot the bill for the shorts.

That type of cute stuff didn't hurt Chuck's collaberation with Ted Guisel, possibly because he had worked with him back in the 40s and stayed truer to the source material than he did with Pogo, but also because Christmas and the Whos were supposed to be cute, which fit in better with where Chuck was going, as opposed to Kelly's world, where the intellegent dialogue wasn't supposed to be coy.

As much as Jones said he hated Schlesinger and Seltzer, it may have been Leon's threat to demote him if he didn't start making funny cartoon that forced Chuck Jones to become Chuck Jones, while Seltzer's interference may have actually kept Chuck focused and limited the worst excesses that came out almost immediately after Eddie left the studio.

Neal said...

I believe this translation fared poorly for the same reason any would, and why even Kelly's own "We Have Met the Enemy" did to some degree: hearing the wordplay-laden dialog is vastly different than reading it. True, good performances can enrich it, but it plays much better, and can be better appreciated, when one can read (and re-read) it. Also, I believe Kimball was unfamiliar with how Hepzibah had evolved in the strip over the years (I suspect he was more familiar with Kelly's earliest version of her, when the strip first began) when he claimed to have asked Kelly, "Who the hell humanized the skunk?!" Well, Kelly himself had; she is no more off-model in Jones's special than any other character from the strip at the time.

Anonymous said...

Kelly's own animation, in the demo reel for "We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us", is beautiful, with solidly constructed, masterfully inked characters. But it is slower than molasses, even moreso than the Jones special. Not even Kelly could lick translating "Pogo" to film.

Michael Sporn said...

I don't think Jones was suited to adapt another's work. His ego forced him to change everything he touched to make it his. Pogo should have been Walt Kelly's and no one else's. The same could be said for Frank Tashlin's The Bear That Wasn't of Norton Juster's Phantom Tollbooth. Adapting another artist's style is hard to do, and Jones didn't have the temperament for it.

KJ said...

I disagree with your views I think it was a nice speicial it got a few chuckles from me, but I do agree it is rather tame and unmemorable for the most part and I don't know much about Pogo to be fully invested in the special like a Charlie Brown special would do for me (although I have read a few strips of Pogo to know that Pogo WAS the Doonesbury and Boondocks of the day, although not as controversial as the other previous strips mentioned.)

If there was one thing memorable for me at least and that was Miss Mam'selle Hepzibah. Chuck's interpretation was so brilliant because he doesn't do sexy women a lot of cartoons so more love to the man for doing that (and I have a sneaky suspicion he modeled her after Marylin Monroe) and I keep thinking that Walt was a major prick for not liking her! Me and a friend of mine both agree that she is HOT with a capital H! In my opinion she almost rivals Jessica Rabbit and ever since I saw the special on Youtube I just fell head over heels in love with her. What also helps is June Foray's really sexy french accent which is feat for herself because she either does grotesque women (witch Hazel), sappy women (like Nell), or convincing little boys (Rocky)so I was surprise for her to do something very senusual and sexy that it nearly intimidates because its so hot. Knowing she did the voice makes me want the treasure her autograph even more! I even did little tributes about her on Youtube, here's one I did:

I wish there was a TV show about Pogo with Chuck still directing, it could at least pump out a season or two. Mainly I wish that because of Sexy Miss Hepzibah. If I remember anything from this little seen special I will definitely remember Miss Hepzibah.