After Warner Bros. terminated his long-term contract in 1962, Chuck Jones moved on to MGM, producing a series of cartoons featuring that studio’s famed pair, Tom and Jerry. Jones’ time wasn’t completely consumed by the antics of the cat and mouse, however; the animator/director worked on several other projects for the studio, one of which–The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (1965)–won Jones his only competitive Academy Award as a producer.
The Dot and the Line, as its full title indicates, tells of the romance between a dilettante dot and the straight line that loves her. While the dot is initially enamored of a “wild and unkempt squiggle” (whose wildness is underscored by a clamorous rock-and-roll tune that sounds every time it is onscreen), the “stiff as a board” straight line tries to adapt himself into something else in order to entice the dot back to his side. After struggling a long time, the line finally learns to form himself into an angle, which then allows him to form an unending series of increasingly complex shapes that, in the end, are much more appealing to the dot than the “chaos” presented by the squiggle. The cartoon concludes with the tongue-in-cheek moral: “To the vector belong the spoils.”
Norton Juster, the author of the book on which the short is based, also wrote the screenplay for the cartoon. The short is narrated by English actor Robert Morley (whom some might best remember as Katharine Hepburn’s ill-fated brother in 1951’s The African Queen), who gives an appropriately lively voice-over performance. It’s somewhat lengthy for a cartoon short–at ten minutes long, it’s about three minutes longer than the typical Jones cartoon–but the cartoon hardly drags, for the animation, marked by a multitude of colors, shapes, and intriguing visuals, is simply too engaging.
The cartoon is somewhat similar to the Walt Disney production Donald in Mathmagic Land (1959) in that it attempts to present mathematics–specifically the art of shapes–in an interesting and entertaining way, and indeed, The Dot and the Line accomplishes this handily (and in much less time than its Disney counterpart–although, granted, Donald’s journey into mathematics is much more detailed than that of the latter cartoon). But The Dot and the Line is also more than a “math cartoon”: it’s also a grand vocabulary lesson. For example, after his success, the narrator tells us, the line becomes “dazzling, clever, mysterious, versatile, erudite, eloquent, profound, enigmatic, complex, and compelling”–and when’s the last time you heard some of those words used in a children’s cartoon?
The language and wordplay in The Dot and the Line owes something of a debt to the playful sing-song rhythms of Dr. Seuss. And there’s no shortage of puns in the cartoon; for instance, when the line becomes despondent at having been ignored by the dot, his friends, worried about “how thin and drawn” he is, try to lighten the mood, proclaiming, “She lacks depth!” This type of math-related humor is far from heavy-handed, however; it’s supplemented by topical humor, particularly one gag that is my favorite moment in the cartoon: the morning after the line has finally discovered the trick to forming into an angle, he’s bent himself in such a fervor of movement that he has the nerd equivalent of a hangover. “Freedom,” the line admits, “is not a license for chaos.”
Though the language and the concepts may be a little “above” younger viewers, The Dot and the Line succeeds in making a sometimes unpopular subject (ugh, math, yuck!) a rather absorbing one. Incidentally, this would not be the only collaboration between Jones and Juster–five years later, Jones adapted Juster’s popular children’s novel, The Phantom Tollbooth, into a live-action/animated film for MGM. That movie would mark the final production of the studio, as MGM shuttered its animation unit soon after. Jones went on to found an independent production company, Chuck Jones Productions, and continued creating for another thirty years until he passed away in 2002. Still, his subsequent work never quite reached the peaks he had ascended during his days with Warner Bros. and MGM. With both of those studios’ animation divisions closed by 1970, it truly marked the end of an era in Hollywood animation.
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