“It is one of a handful of animation masterpieces and likely the most cerebral of them. Daffy makes the most of his opportunity for a definitive solo tour de force. It is at once a laugh riot and an essay by demonstration on the nature and condition of the animated film and the mechanics of film in general.”
So said Richard Thompson of Duck Amuck in Film Comment in 1975. Ranked at number two in Jerry Beck’s book, The 50 Greatest Cartoons as Selected by 1,000 Animation Professionals (Bugs Bunny’s What’s Opera, Doc? was just a “hare” above it at number one), Duck Amuck encapsulates all that we love about animation.
Sharp, creative, true to its main character, and “meta,”; Duck Amuck is most deserving of its ranking among cartoons, as well as the additional accolades and praise heaped upon this Warner Bros. Daffy Duck short since its debut.
It is no surprise that Duck Amuck came to us from the genius of Chuck Jones. An animation director who brought perfect comic timing to his films and was also unafraid to stretch expectations for cartoons beyond their limits.
In addition to What’s Opera, Doc?, some of his other grand experiments include 1942’s The Dover Boys at Pimento University; or the Rivals of Roquefort Hall, and 1965’s The Dot and The Line.
Duck Amuck plays with the main character’s and the audience’s expectations for the entire short subject.
The short begins with a sleight of hand, featuring credits and an opening that makes us think we are about to see Daffy in a swashbuckling musketeer short. As Daffy brandishes his sword, he suddenly runs out of backgrounds (by two more legends, Philip DeGuard, and Maurice Noble) and finds himself bewildered in front of a white screen.
“Psst, Hey,” whispers Daffy to the camera, “whoever is in charge here. The scenery! Where’s the scenery?”
A paintbrush appears and creates a barnyard backdrop. Daffy begrudgingly pops off the screen and changes into a farmer’s outfit. He sings a modified version of “Old MacDonald,” but then he comes across a wintry scene with an igloo. Growing frustrated, he changes outfits again and begins singing “Jingle Bells.” But then, the background changes again to a Polynesian theme. So, Daffy sports a sarong and begins singing “Farwell to Thee.”
And then, the backdrop tapers away, and we return to a white screen. Daffy turns his slow burn to the camera, lecturing the cartoon’s creator about how the scenery is needed. A giant pencil and eraser appear, quickly erasing Daffy off the screen.
“Alright, wise guy! Where am I?!” demands disembodied Daffy, after which he is re-drawn and painted as a cowboy with a guitar. When Daffy attempts to strum the guitar, nothing happens. He holds up a sign that reads: “Sound, Please!” When he tries to play again, the guitar sounds like a machine gun and a car horn. Daffy smashes the guitar, but random bird sounds come out of his mouth when he tries to protest.
In true Daffy style, he then says to whoever is doing this to him, “Listen, Mac, what’s going on around here? Let’s get organized, hmm? How about some scenery.”
The creator obliges, scribbling backgrounds that look like a child scrawled them, and when Daffy asks for color, he gets painted with a paintbrush. When Daffy loses it, an eraser appears and erases all but his eyes and bill and re-paints a new body for him: a flower-like head, a polka-dot, platypus body, bird-like rear legs, and a tail with a flag on it. And on that flag? A picture of a “screw” and a “ball.”
When Daffy gets a look at himself, he demands to be re-drawn, and when he is, it’s as a sailor. He’s excited to be in a “sea picture” until the background of water and an island is painted without a boat!
Beyond exasperated, Daffy tries to reason with the person behind this, but the scenery collapses. He then, once again, completely loses it, and tears the scenery apart.
A “The End” title card then appears. Daffy screams, “No! No,” and pushes it out of the way, attempting to reason with whoever is in charge. He then tries a soft shoe number but soon finds himself arguing with his double and as a pilot in a plane that crashes into the side of a mountain.
As he tries to parachute to safety, his parachute is erased and replaced with an anvil, which is then replaced with a bomb, which, of course, explodes.
Daffy then attempts the last plea, asking, “Who is responsible for this?!?” A door is drawn in front of Daffy and closes. As the camera pulls out, we see an animator’s desk, and the person responsible sitting at it is…
…Bugs Bunny, who laughs and declares, “Ain’t I a stinker?” before the credits roll.
In less than seven minutes, Duck Amuck packs in everything we have come to expect from Warner Bros. cartoons (and cartoons, in general), in addition to being an innovative twist on the classic Bugs and Daffy rivalry.
Released on February 28th, 1953, Duck Amuck, celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, deserves the admiration and praise it has received as one of the pinnacles of Warner Bros. Animation and of the medium.
As author Charles Solomon noted in his book, Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation, the short has been studied in depth by many throughout the years. Charles wrote: “Duck Amuck has been widely discussed by critics, who see it as an existential parable, open to interpretation on many levels.”
The director of Duck Amuck, Chuck Jones, and his team of artists crafted such a masterful cartoon because they knew the main character so well. In his book Chuck Reducks, he noted: “The more you know Daffy, the better you like him because you are going to recognize yourself.”