TV Reviews : Cartoon King Tex Avery Honored in Documentary

Hilarious and poignant, “The King of Cartoons: Tex Avery,” John Needham’s hourlong documentary (airing Sunday at 8 p.m. on KCET Channel 28), pays tribute to one of the great directors of American animation--and American film.

The work of Frederick (Tex) Avery (1908-1980) profoundly affected the development of animation and helped establish the Hollywood cartoon.

During the late ‘30s, the Disney style--which emphasized realistic motion, appealing characters and wholesome fun--dominated the cartoon industry. Avery stirred up the pallid imitations of Disney being produced at the Leon Schlesinger (later Warner Bros.) Studio and MGM, like a racing outboard motor dropped into a tranquil lily pond.


He introduced breakneck pacing, sexual innuendo, wildly exaggerated “takes” and a freewheeling insanity that suggested anarchy but was actually planned down to the individual frame. If a character in an Avery cartoon is surprised, he doesn’t just goggle or gape--his eyes swell to the size of hula hoops and fly across the room, while his jaw hits the floor with a resounding crash.

In addition to clips from numerous classic shorts, “King of the Cartoons” includes rare footage from a live-action film Avery and his animators made for a studio party, original sketches and some animation pencil tests. Oscar-winning Warners director Chuck Jones, veteran animators Mike Lah and Ed Love, voice actress June Foray and writer Heck Allen recall the pleasures and trials of working with Avery. They and two young artists--Disney animator Mark Kausler and author Joe Adamson--pay tribute to his extraordinary talent and diffidence.

Despite the significance of his work, Avery received little recognition during his lifetime. He never won an Oscar and did not lead a particularly happy life. Like the many recent tributes and the affectionate hommage to his work in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” Needham’s documentary comes too late for Avery to enjoy. But it’s an hour of uproarious entertainment that every cartoon fan will want to tape.