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Duck Amuck

Duck Amuck

1953. Warner Brothers (Looney Tunes). Directed by Chuck Jones. Story by Michael Maltese. With Mel Blanc.

Chuck Jones takes a page—I guess it's a cel—from Dave Fleischer. 25 years after the "Out of the Inkwell" series, people had probably forgotten the tricks that animator Dave played on his Koko the Clown, and found this Looney Tunes deconstruction of an animated character avant garde.

In Duck Amuck Daffy Duck starts out in what looks to be a standard Three Musketeers cartoon, but the animator's evil intentions are quickly revealed. Suddenly the background disappears. When Daffy protests, he gets a farm, an arctic wilderness, and a tropical island in quick succession (shades of Sherlock, Jr.). For a while the background is only sketched in, and when Daffy calls for color a paintbrush comes into the frame and turns Daffy himself garishly polka dotted and striped.

There are jokes with the sound track as well. The sound goes off completely even though Daffy's mouth keeps moving. After a while he catches on, stops talking, and glares at the camera. The sound starts up again: machine-gun fire, rooster crows, and other highlights of the sound effects library.

As the antagonism ratchets up, a pencil eraser wielded by the offscreen artist removes parts of Daffy's body and eventually obliterates him entirely. For a few seconds we're looking at a blank white screen. Then a brush reconstitutes Daffy (moving up and down in a way completely unrelated to the drawing that emerges), this time in a sailor suit. It may be a reference to that other Duck, Donald, but Daffy will give no satisfaction. "I always wanted to do a sea picture," he lisps. Exiled to a tiny island far in the background, Daffy turns hostile: "How about a close-up, you jerk!"

At another point, the film goes out of frame, cutting Daffy in half (shades of Hellzapoppin'); then there are suddenly two of him standing side by side.

It's when the unseen animator substitutes an anvil for a parachute, and then tricks Daffy into igniting an explosion that blows him sky-high, that we begin to guess at the sensibility behind the mayhem. Sure enough, the scene pulls back to reveal Bugs Bunny at the animation board, chortling as the cartoon closes.

Duck Amuck plays some funny variations on the theme of animator/animatee antagonism, but unfortunately it confines itself to the drawn world. Bugs is, after all, an animated character just like Daffy, even though he is shown in a real environment (the cartoonist's room at Warner Brothers). Perhaps it had gotten too expensive to coordinate real pens and brushes with the drawn lines supposedly emerging from them. But there's no getting around it—a drawn pencil erasing a drawn character just looks like clever drawing. A real pencil erasing a drawn character looks like universes interacting.

Duck Amuck is plenty self-aware ("Buddy," explains Daffy, "this is an animated cartoon, and animated cartoons have scenery!"). but there's a lot more self-referential fun in the 1940 Daffy cartoon You Ought to Be in Pictures, where you actually see photographed humans and drawn animals jostling for space.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein