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"Looney Tunes Super Stars": Getting It With the Bottom of Both Barrels

by on August 20, 2010

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably at one time or another fantasized about running a big-time Hollywood cartoon studio or network. And after you’ve run through the usual fantasies about embezzling millions and squirreling off to a country without an extradition treaty—or I am the only one with such fantasies?—you naturally start pondering what kinds of cartoons you’d order up, which directors and artists you’d hire, and how you’d start getting your company’s classic backlog into the hands of bona fide toon fans like yourself.

But if you’ve actually troubled to think through the possibilities, you’ve likely confronted a serious problem for any kind of library release. The sad fact is that unless your fantasy company is very small and specialized—or unless it is named “Pixar”—then not everything in your company’s library is going to be, well, good. This is true of even the big guys: Disney and MGM’s animation houses produced their share of boring or badly made cartoons, and so did Warner Bros.

So, Mr. Fantasy Big-Time Studio Chief, what do you do with the unpopular cartoons in your library? What do you do with the Boskos and the Buddies and the awful, awful post-1963 Coyote and Road Runner cartoons? Do you outrage the hard-core animation fans by keeping them in the vault, because no one but a handful of hard-core animation fans would seek them out? Do you lard up otherwise excellent DVDs with a couple of the bad ones? Do you release them anyway but ghettoize them onto a few discs, on the assumption that few parents will know enough to stay away from any DVD heavy with DePatie-Freleng productions, ?

Probably there isn’t a wrong answer to any of these questions, because probably there isn’t a right answer. But you may now have some sense of the problems faced by the guys at Warner Bros. charged with putting the Looney Tunes out on home video. And these are problems that would confront even the best-intentioned and devoted cartoon fan.

Now, the new line of “Looney Tunes Super Stars” has me playing with these rather depressing thoughts, because, frankly, the first two DVDs in the series (Bugs Bunny: Hare Extraordinaire and Daffy Duck: Frustrated Fowl) won’t do much to set aflutter the hearts of the average Termite Terrace fan. So far as I can tell, the thirty cartoons here collected are mostly new to DVD—none have been released on the “Golden Collection” sets—and there are some very good toons in the mix. But they are a very mixed bag indeed. They collect too many dull cartoons, grouped with no discernable theme, and supported by no extras whatsoever. They are discs for completists, who will welcome the chance to get some rarer cartoons in digital form, but that’s all.

I’ll give a full list of cartoon shorts at the end. For now, here are the highlights:

I hope you like Friz Freleng and Robert McKimson cartoons, because these sets are replete with shorts by those two very conservative directors. (Eleven come from Freleng; McKimson is represented with thirteen.) Chuck Jones, who more than any other Warners director shaped the post-war Daffy and Bugs represented on these discs, is represented with only three cartoons: “Daffy Dilly”, “Mad as a Mars Hare” and “Lumber Jack-Rabbit.” Bob Clampett and Frank Tashlin get only one apiece (“Tick Tock Tuckered” and “Nasty Quacks,” respectively). Phil Monroe can claim credit to the very late “The Iceman Ducketh.”

Now, there is nothing very much wrong with McKimson and Freleng. The latter could squeeze more laughs out of stale and unpromising situations than any other director at Warner Bros., and when he was at the top of his game even the repetitive vaudeville routines of “Mutiny on the Bunny”, “Hare Trimmed” and “Foxy by Proxy” can be riotously fun. McKimson made a run of dazzling shorts in the late 1940s and early 1950s, which are nicely represented by “Hare We Go,” “Bushy Hare,” and “The Prize Pest.” But most of the shorts on these sets come from the mid to late 50s, after budgets had begun to shrink and the directors (Jones excepted) had ceased to push the boundaries. There are only four pre-1950 shorts on these two DVDs (“Tick Tock Tuckered”, “Nasty Quacks”, “Daffy Dilly” and “Wise Quackers”) and only six from 1950-1953. By contrast there are ten shorts from 1954-1959 (after the studio temporarily shut down and then reopened) and a further ten from 1960-1965.

The concentration on Freleng and McKimson cartoons, and on the late run of theatrical shorts, means that these discs don’t provide a cross-section of Bugs and Daffy cartoons. But the selections are also “lumpy” in the way they seem to circle back to a handful of themes and motifs. There are no fewer than four cartoons that parody or strongly reference contemporary TV (“This Is a Life?”, “People Are Bunny”, “Person to Bunny”; “The Million Hare”). Yosemite Sam shows up as Bugs’ main protagonist in “Mutiny on the Bounty”, “Hare Trimmed”, “From Hare to Heir”, “Lighter Than Hare”); the Tasmanian Devil (who wasn’t in as many cartoons as you might think) shows up in three shorts (“Bedevilled Hare”, “Ducking the Devil” and “Dr. Devil and Mr. Hare”). Elmer Fudd, though, only has glorified walk-on appearances in “This Is a Life?” and “Person to Bunny”, while getting significantly more screen time in the Daffy Duck shorts “Design for Leaving” and “Wise Quackers.”

Daffy’s set, meanwhile, showcases just how much he functioned as a co-star rather than a solo act. “Nasty Quacks,” “Daffy Dilly”, “Stork Naked”, “Wise Quackers”, “Design for Leaving” and “Suppressed Duck” are the only cartoons that really put him at the center. In the others he depends on his co-stars to establish and exploit situations. Usually this means he is paired with Porky, but an inordinate number of shorts on his disc actually feature Bugs as his rival: “The Iceman Ducketh”, “People are Bunny”, “Person to Bunny”, and “This Is a Life?” Any of these would make as much sense, if not more, on a Bugs set.

The DVDs progress more or less chronologically, which doesn’t matter a whole lot when you have a chapter select button, but it reinforces how thin the laughs get toward the end. Hare Extraordinaire, for instance, opens with the belly-laugher “Mutiny on the Bunny” and closes with the utterly mirthless and final theatrical Bugs short, “False Hare.” A late-imperial Roman reading the annals of Caesar while the Huns howled outside the walls would know how cartoon fans will feel when they get to the end of each disc.

The cartoons look very good, but Warners has not done itself any favors by imposing a faux-widescreen format on the late cartoons. It’s a profitless debate and I’m not going to dive into it, but the studio’s reasoning is that cropping the tops and bottoms of these cartoons (which were made in standard ratio) actually presents the cartoons as they would have been seen by contemporary audiences, when new, wide screens perforce imposed a similar cropping. Did the Warner Bros. directors know and anticipate this at the time, and accordingly block out their compositions so that no gags or visual information would be lost? Maybe, but it’s hard to believe they always remembered to do so.

There are no extras on these discs.

If you can find these discs for a respectable price, you can probably justify purchasing them for the handful of excellent cartoons that are pristinely presented. Completists, and those with very little faith that Warner Bros. will ever re-release these cartoons in a non-controversial format, will probably have to purchase them anyway. The best I can do is warn you what you are getting in to, and to temper your emotions and expectations accordingly.

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