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Dr. Toon: Revisiting Barbera's Swan Song

Dr. Toon analyzes Joe Barbera's final Tom and Jerry short, The KarateGuard.

The KarateGuard was Joe Barbera's swan song. Tom and Jerry images courtesy of Warner Bros.

Throughout animation's long history there have been a few select figures who managed to endure in the business for 60 years. Most of them are duly famous and have compiled a manifest of innovative and enduring animated shorts, characters, and features. One such person was Joseph Barbera, who managed to do all of the above while sharing the limelight with equally talented partner William Hanna.

It is unusual for these veterans to revisit old turf. They typically go on to create new characters and series or turn the reins over to new blood. Joseph Barbera did both. After he was released by MGM his multi-Academy Award champs Tom and Jerry were handed over to Gene Deitch and Chuck Jones, respectively. Joe Barbera never really looked back, creating an animated television cartoon empire with Bill Hanna. He did serve as executive producer on several mediocre television series featuring the cat and mouse, but for Barbera, the book basically closed in 1958 after the theatrical short Tot Watchers. Tom and Jerry went on through several permutations and dozens of directors, but until 2005 Joe Barbera was not among them.

In that year Joseph Barbera returned to the creative forefront for one of the last times in his life; he would pass away in 2006. Fittingly, his final short would feature Tom and Jerry. The KarateGuard, a special short that was actually released under the Warner Bros. studio, gave us a rare glimpse of what a famed director might do after a 40-year hiatus from his iconic characters. For this reason alone, The KarateGuard is a cartoon worth study.

Barbera did not play it alone. Bill Hanna died in 2001 but Barbera was assisted by Spike Brandt, late of Duck Dodgers. Barbera no longer had the experienced and brilliant animation team responsible for T&J's finest cartoons; Irv Spence, Ray Patterson, and Ken Muse had all gone to that Great Inkwell in the Sky by 2005. Brandt, Tony Cervone, and Darlie Brewster were now on board, assisted by veteran animator Wendy Perdue. All three do a very fine job approximating the classic characters in full animation. Since Barbera worked on the storyboard (with HB legend Iwao Takamoto) and co-directed, however, it is mostly his effort that will command our attention for the purpose of this column.

Barbera gonged some gags from Fit to Be Tied.

The cartoon opens in conventional fashion; Jerry is practicing karate with a cat-shaped punching bag, ostensibly to better defend himself from Tom. Even though he's flattened by the dummy, he is encouraged to go to battle by the Ancient One (1:07 into the film). This Yoda-like figure is the first hint that Brandt integrated his style into the cartoon; the character does not look like one that might have been designed in the 1950s; in fact, he might have appeared in Duck Dodgers without raising an eyebrow in the audience.

Barbera takes over again at 1:26 when Jerry does a fear-filled take reminiscent of the time that Tex Avery's influence was being felt at MGM. Jerry's eyes bug out and his ears detach from his skull. Even more reminiscent of the classic Barbera style is Tom's exaggerated mocking of Jerry's karate moves, complete with derisive laughter. (1:29-1:35).

The film then features Barbera going from channeling his old cartoons to borrowing from them. The Ancient One, surveying Jerry's defeat, provides him with a gong that will summon a protector (2:12). The same device was used in both The Bodyguard (1944) and Fit to be Tied (1952), and both times the protector was Spike the Bulldog. It makes sense that when the gong is struck, Spike shows up as a six-foot-tall armored samurai, since that is consistent with his role in past cartoons (and because Spike had to appear in this classic reunion). Still, one wishes Barbera could have come up with a new twist on his old routine, or that Brandt could have inserted some of his and Cervone's more modern sensibilities.

There are several nods to the late Chuck Jones in the film (he directed the series from 1963-1967 and was an influence on Brandt). After receiving the precious gong, Jerry mischievously waggles his eyebrows at the audience (2:37), a move not seen in HB's cartoons but typical of Jones. Barbera's style takes over during the first violent encounter between Samurai Spike and Tom, but then the inconsistency between the two directors rears its head again.

Barbera channeled ghosts from the past like Jerry's Cousin.

We see Jerry happily munching on cheese in front of a window just before Tom reaches in and grabs him. Jerry squirms in his paw before freeing the gong, and the film jumps to a cut of Spike outside the house regarding Tom's rear end. Cut back inside just as we see a sword flash downward behind Tom. There is a very disturbing squishy plop on the soundtrack, and we see Tom's face freeze in horrified bewilderment. He gently puts Jerry down, hands him his morsel of cheese, and keels over backwards away from the camera.

It is difficult to believe this scene is the work of Barbera, who had no problem with graphic, painful violence in his T&J cartoons. Dismemberment was regularly shown on-screen with little regard for audience sensibilities. Since storyboarder Takamoto worked extensively within HB's avowedly non-violent TV manifest, Brandt may have influenced this action. Again, this is far more similar to how Chuck Jones might have (under) played this scene. Moments like this make The Karate Guard an interesting but uneven ride for the audience, especially one that is familiar with Barbera's earlier work.

Not that Brandt and his animators were deficient in any way; they just differ from Barbera's traditional style. One place where this works well occurs 5:31into the film when Tom is skinned alive by a toy airplane propeller. The denuded cat is nothing like the one Barbera would have depicted; he usually had a pair of silly underwear appear beneath Tom's dermis.  The version presented in this short had more in common with something that might have come out of Spumco studio rather than classic MGM, and it somehow works.

Barbera summons up the Ghost of Cartoons Past for the film's final scenes. In desperation Tom dials up "Bad Boy Exterminators" (led by Butch the cat) in the hopes of destroying the all-powerful samurai (6:12 – 6:28). This is a direct steal from Barbera's own Jerry's Cousin (1951) in which Tom calls "Dirty Work, Inc." to deal with a seemingly super mouse. The feline hit squads in their respective cartoons have identical, coordinated walks, both appeared to win the first round, and both meet the same disastrous fate.

Barbera came out of retirement to consult on A Nutcracker Tale.

Barbera continues his nod to Jerry's Cousin through to the end of the film. Butch and Jerry are relaxing on a couch with a tub of popcorn watching The KarateGuard on TV. They laugh at Butch's defeat as the popcorn runs out, and Jerry uses the gong to summon Tom, who appears in a concessionaire's cap with a new tub of popcorn. After handing it over he hits the floor to repeatedly kiss Spike's feet (7:38), recalling the exact ending of Jerry's Cousin. The film concludes at 7:54, leaving us to ponder what we have seen.

There are two possibilities for the critic/analyst to consider: First, Barbera purposely replayed some of his favorite scenes for nostalgia's sake and did not care much whether he taught an old cat and mouse new tricks. The film's title shot plainly states the film is named The KarateGuard, implying a single word like "Bodyguard." Might it be that Barbera was simply presenting a remake of his 1944 film with a 2005 twist?

The other possibility is a bit dampening to fans: Joseph Barbera simply could not adapt to cartoons or audiences as they existed in 2005. It was far more comfortable and much easier to simply go back to a well-established bag of tricks for the grand finale. After all, at age 94 it was probably no easy feat to storyboard and direct much of anything, much less a cartoon appealing to the wired generation.

After reviewing the short dozens of times, I come down in favor of the former possibility. Age was no impediment to Barbera; had it been, it's unlikely he would even have taken oversight and creative control of the project in the first place. There are those to whom retirement holds no appeal, and Joe Barbera proved to be one of them. In fact, The KarateGuard was not even Barbera's final turn with T&J. He served duty on Tom and Jerry: a Nutcracker Tale, which appeared as a direct-to-video release in 2007. It is difficult to accept that Barbera never adapted to the changing world of cartoons; he was the executive producer for dozens of shorts and series that premiered under the Cartoon Network aegis.

Joseph Roland Barbera made the last Tom and Jerry short as a nostalgic piece, one that replayed some favorite scenes and put the characters through their well-developed paces. There is enough modern styling by Brandt, Cervone, and Brewster to make us believe that a 1944 cartoon could be made in 2005 (Brandt would receive an Annie nomination for Best Character Animation). While Michael Giacchio is less theatrical than Scott Bradley, the score is fine indeed. In the final analysis, Barbera had earned the right to direct any sort of cartoon he wished, even if it meant borrowing from his own past ideas for the fun of it.  While I found myself wishing he had pushed the envelope at times, The KarateGuard leaves little to be disappointed about. If this film has a place in the Tom and Jerry pantheon, it should most probably be filed after the 1952 short The Dog House, one of the funniest imbroglios featuring Tom, Jerry and Spike. Never mind the chronology; Joseph Barbera wouldn't have. 

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.