Jaime Weinman is the author of Anvils, Mallets & Dynamite: The Unauthorized Biography of Looney Tunes, which was published this week.
Earlier this year, Space Jam: A New Legacy proved what the original Space Jam proved 25 years ago: The Looney Tunes characters – Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and all the other talking animals – have trouble breaking through to mainstream popularity without LeBron James or Michael Jordan to help them. It raises a question I’ve been thinking about for a long time: Why is it that it’s so hard to produce new Looney Tunes content to revive the franchise for a new generation? Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, the flagship characters of Warner Bros.’s rival Disney, have remained popular, but since the original Warner Bros. cartoon studio shut down in the early 1960s, Bugs Bunny has struggled to remain relevant – unless basketball is somehow involved.
Some of this is just a matter of money. The original Looney Tunes cartoons were made to play in movie theatres, and while not lavishly budgeted, they used what came to be known as “full animation,” where there are enough drawings to make characters move fluidly and act with their entire body. The Road Runner cartoons, which used the same basic gags over and over again, remained consistently funny until forced to switch to low-budget limited animation in the 1960s; it turned out that what we were really laughing at wasn’t the umpteenth shot of the coyote falling off a cliff, but the precision of the timing and his beautifully animated reactions to his latest failure.
No wonder Chuck Jones, the creator of the Road Runner series, wrote in 1959 that this series was “only possible with full animation. It is just about as sensible to think of these characters in any other way as it would be to think of Charlie Chaplin in a series of poses.” More than 60 years later, no one has found a way to make good Looney Tunes cartoons on a tight budget, and the characters are so defined by movement that they’ve never done particularly well in comics.
Even with a good budget, though, coming up with a new story for Looney Tunes characters can be a challenge, because they go against a lot of what we’ve come to think of as good storytelling. For example, any screenwriter can tell you that a hero should have a worthy opponent and face obstacles on the way to victory. And for most franchises, they’d be right. But in Bugs Bunny cartoons, his villains are usually total idiots like Yosemite Sam and Marvin the Martian, and the story consists of him winning at everything, sometimes even yawning at how easy it is.
That’s not all, folks (sorry, I couldn’t resist): Most writers today will also say that the characters in a series should have consistent personalities, histories and relationships. And for most series, they’re right. But in classic Looney Tunes, there is no continuity at all. The reason Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd almost never address each other by name, with Bugs choosing from his vast store of insults and Elmer going with “Mr. Wabbit,” is that there is never any suggestion that they’ve even met before. Sometimes Sylvester is an alley cat trying to break into Tweety’s home; sometimes he’s owned by Tweety’s owner, Granny, only sometimes Tweety has no owner. Even character traits can change seemingly at random. During the Second World War, the studio put out a cartoon where Daffy Duck is a commando who whacks Hitler with a mallet, and a cartoon where he’s a cowardly suburban homeowner attempting to murder the man who brings him his draft notice.
The models for Looney Tunes were the great comedians of silent and early sound movies, who created iconic characters but never treated them as part of any kind of continuing storyline. Groucho Marx, the biggest influence on Bugs Bunny, has a different name and job in every movie. So it’s not a surprise that Elmer Fudd can be a vegetarian in one cartoon and hunting for rabbit stew in another. But even while Looney Tunes were still ongoing, this approach started to fall out of favour. Radio and especially television move toward the situation comedy, where characters always live in the same place, at the same time, with the same families and if anything changes without explanation, it’s probably a dream sequence.
It’s not surprising, then, that many attempts at reimagining the Looney Tunes stable of characters have involved trying to give them fixed relationships, jobs, locations. In the Space Jam movies, characters who never met each other in the original series (which is to say, most of them) all share a homeland and shoot hoops together. The Looney Tunes Show tried to reimagine them as sitcom characters, with Daffy and Speedy Gonzales as Bugs’s wacky housemates. The most recent TV version, Looney Tunes Cartoons, where Canadian actor Eric Bauza won acclaim as the voice of both Bugs and Daffy, uses a more classic format but cleverly arranges things to have a tiny bit more continuity than before. Characters on the show are often portrayed as longtime friends or enemies, where in the old days they were usually total strangers.
That’s a good adjustment to the Looney Tunes formula, but the franchise may need bigger adjustments to truly move forward. Daffy Duck’s original cartoon series was saved in the 1950s when he was changed from a self-described “screwball” to an angry loser, but Warner Bros. executives kept him frozen in that characterization for decades, long after it had stopped being funny. It’s not impossible to make new Looney Tunes projects that are just as good as the originals – but they’ll have to be just as good in a different way. What could today’s creators do with Daffy that’s new and fresh? How can you feature Bugs Bunny in a cartoon that follows modern storytelling conventions, but is still recognizably about Bugs? It can happen if Warner Bros. gives creators enough time and resources. If not, well, at least they’ll have permanent jobs as mascots for the NBA.
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