Fast and Furry-ous

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 31, 2015

The first Roadrunner/Coyote cartoon! Director Chuck Jones says that in the beginning the coyote actually wanted to eat the roadrunner. Later that would change, as his hunting gave way to pure conflict, for its own sake. (Even later pure conflict will approach a remarkable near-abstraction, as the cartoons almost become studies in trajectory, velocity, geometry.) Pure absurdity too, a definite demonstration of the points Martin Esslin would later make about that kind of modern, anxious, often quite comic theatre (1960). Look: the protagonist’s clear and simple objective is repetitively pursued to the point of madness. Too heavy? Well, alternatively, here are theme and variations, a very basic scenario with infinite permutations, or perhaps, practically endless possibility within accepted limitations.

These limitations are, as Jones described them, as follows: always a South West desert setting, the roadrunner only ever gets one line of dialogue (kind of dialogue, anyway), he always has to stay on the road, and never hurts the coyote except by startling him. Also, ACME. Those are pretty bare bones, pretty stringent restrictions. But look what they did with them! In fact, we’ll go on to see that the more the narrowing, the better the series gets.

Have you noticed yourself while you watch these? There’s an accumulating feeling of inevitability to them. We know that the Coyote will fail, though we don’t necessarily know how. In this Absurdism slips into cruelty, not only toward the character, but to the audience as well. Too heavy, part two? Okay. The second track commentary tells us that Maurice Noble’s Roadrunner designs started with Utah’s—or is that John Ford’s?—Monument Valley, and then end with the practical abstraction we got enthusiastic about just up above.

On top of all that here, in the very first of the series, we have the apotheosis of cartoon gagsmanship. You could certainly describe the whole series that way. There are simple ones, double ones, compounded ones—their comic invention appears to be endless, and all in the service of this tragic, poignant scenario.

Painting that road into the rock is also an excellent demonstration of perspective. Love the baggy suit! This is what you would look like, kids, if you tried any of that superhero nonsense. Or, cf. the great Wm. Macy/sort-of-superhero in Mystery Men, this is what you hard working, ineffectual, down-trodden parents actually look like to your children. Not very inspiring! So beaten bloodied and even bowed. And so very worthy of love and honour.

Too heavy again? Not a bit of it! Jones and Maltese and their great collaborators get off on the right foot here, and they’re about to embark upon one of film history’s deepest and most rewarding patents. Bless ’em!