ANNECY ANIMATION FESTIVAL 2019: THE NEW LOONEY TUNES CARTOONS
During The Annecy Film Festival we were presented with 10 of the new Looney Tunes shorts, as well as some work-in-progress sneak-peaks from the new creators Audrey Diehl, Peter Browngardt and Alex Kirwan. The new Bugs Bunny cartoons may not sound like something to be wowed about, as these characters have never exactly been gone from the public eye, but it’s been awhile since they were prominently featured in new content. For the last few decades Warner Bros. were experimenting with different ways to resurrect the brand, from TV shows like “Duck Dodgers”, “The Looney Tunes Show” and “Wabbit”, to full movies like “Space Jam” and “Looney Tunes Back in Action”, or even desperate spin-offs like “Baby Looney Tunes” and the horrid superhero reincarnation “Loonatic Unleashed”. While there were certainly some fans of these, no self-respecting Looney Tunes lover would dare to put them on par with the original classics. These shorts were created for the cinema and there was real theatrical quality to the animations. But where Disney decidedly focused on making their theatrical animations feel artistic, Looney Tunes directors like Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, and Chuck Jones put their artistry in slapstick, comedic timing and the zany energy of the characters. If you watch the shorts from the 30’s it’s clear that the cartoonists had the freedom to go as far as possible with the comedy resulting in some of the most memorable and beloved animated shorts ever made. Finally, after over half a century, Warner Bros. decided to create some new Looney Tunes that could be shown next to the classic cartoons. I’m happy to report they didn’t disappoint.
It’s not clear if Warner Bros. is planning to release these cinematically or simply on a streaming service. No discussion on this topic was breached. However, if the option were available to watch these on a big screen, I’d jump at the chance. Much like the originals, the animation simply jumps out of the screen, with plenty of clever details as well as terrific backgrounds and at points, truly cinematic storytelling. In fact, the artists stayed so true to the originals that they made a rule of never reusing the same backgrounds, creating each new short entirely from scratch. Porky and Daffy’s homes are different in each short, character designs had small alterations each time and even the color palettes are different, all in the name of treating each one as its own mini-movie. Much like with the originals there are no scripts. The process of making each new short starts with the cartoonists making a bunch of drawings until the idea is funny enough and after figuring out the most insane jokes they can, they storyboard the plot. There’s also not a set running time to the shorts. Some will take seven minutes, others three or four. These are cartoons made by artists who want to produce timeless entrainment and not a bunch of studio executives who are only interested in what’s ‘hot’ at the moment.
The million-dollar question is, are the shorts funny? I can’t remember laughing this hard at anything Bugs Bunny-related in a very long time. In one of the first presented shorts, Bugs Bunny gets captured by Elmer. In order to save his skin, the wrascally wabbit pretends to be sick, forcing the hunter to take care of him and nursing his future meal to get back into shape. The premise is simple enough but everything from the over the top expressions of “dying” Bugs, to the tempo of the slapstick, to Elmer slowly losing his sanity all felt like something Avery or Clampett would have made back in the day. The most pleasant surprise was that the cartoon violence didn’t felt toned down in any manner. Characters would chase each other with axes, get hit on the head or get their bones broken in imaginatively painful manners, quite literally at points. In one scene something hits Elmer’s spine and there is a quick X-ray showcasing how the pain affects his body.
All the other Bugs cartoons continue this manic energy. In another short, Bugs Bunny is going to have a vacation in Las Vegas but by mistake goes to Egypt (that stupid left turn at Albuquerque!) where he mistakes an ancient pyramid for a luxury hotel-casino and the angry, just-woken mummy for the service. The slapstick set up once again is simple, perhaps reminiscent of Bugs Bunny’s visit to Transylvania in one of the old Chuck Jones episodes, and the humor goes to surprisingly dark places. In one scene Bugs mistakes a bunch of organ-stuffed funeral urns for a buffet and starts making a plate. Later, he sees some horrifically brutal ceremonies depicted on hieroglyphs to which he comments, “Meh, these comic strips aren’t what they used to be”. A different short features Bugs trying to outwit amusement park employee Yosemite Sam who is preventing rabbits from riding the rollercoaster. At one point Sam rescues a baby and after that he turns to the audience, “What? I may like to harm rabbits but I would NEVER hurt a baby… Oh, yeah? I’ll prove it to you!” and then runs to a random woman in the street and asks if he can he kiss her baby, much to the woman’s confusion. It’s such a random non-sequitur but that’s the level of trademark insanity I haven’t seen from these characters since the ’40s.
Bugs here is not the wisecracking heroic character that he evolved into, but his original trickster persona. He isn’t there to save the day but to screw with people for the sheer pleasure of it. This is especially evident in one short that almost feels like a middle finger to Space Jam. One of Chuck Jones’ key complaints about that movie was that Bugs Bunny would NEVER ask an NBA player for help, he would outsmart his opponents on his own. Here, Bugs challenges a gigantic, muscular, and down-right monstrous bully to a basketball game and tricks the guy so much you can almost hear Chuck yelling from the grave “YES! THANK YOU! THAT’S HOW BUGS WOULD DO IT!” Bugs even destroys his new Jordans, which may have been a tad too on the nose.
The Bugs cartoons are fantastic but my favorite shorts featured Daffy. There have always been two different versions of the character. The later Daffy is the greedy loser whose entire existence seems to be centered around being humiliated by Bugs, Speedy Gonzales, or whichever other of the Looney Tunes happens to be there. For some reason, this is the version they’ve stuck to for the last few decades. All but forgotten is early Daffy, the zany ball of looniness who exists to spread madcap chaos, usually with Porky as his unfortunate victim. Once again, the new Looney Tunes decided to revert the character to the earlier version and it’s very refreshing. A fantastic bit features Porky trying to prevent Daffy from making footsteps on wet cement which goes on for a good four minutes and is all done in one shot. There is also a fun and action-packed story about the two taking a trip to the jungle looking for “The Treasure of The Monkey Bird”.
The best of the shorts involved the two playing baseball. Not only is it a hilarious set-up, with Porky breaking his arm and Daffy hiding under his t-shirt to pitch for him, but the Daffy in the short, while still wacky, is also incredibly helpful and nice. There’s one brilliant joke after another and even an appearance by the Gas-House Gorillas, the baseball team Bugs played against in the Friz Freleng classic “Baseball Bugs”. I certainly hope that in a future short trickster Bugs and zany Daffy clash. For once the two would be equally matched in their bags of tricks and unpredictability.
Road Runner also got a cartoon, which was, of course, a collection of Willie Coyote failures, and a Sylvester and Tweety episode set during the winter. While I enjoyed them and there were some clever bits, they didn’t feel as creative as the Bugs and Daffy efforts. The main complaint some have always had about the Road Runner and the Tweety cartoons is they never stray very far from the formula, so in that regard, I suppose this felt true to the predecessors. These two not being as memorable as the rest is the closest thing I have to a complaint. I guess some purists might be bothered that the humor at times is too Ren and Stimpy. There are the strange close-up shots or jokes that have a character’s skeleton jumping out of their bodies, but I didn’t find it discordant. Comedy has evolved quite a bit since the original Looney Tunes were created; new cartoons had to up the zaniness. John Kricfalusi, the creator of Ren and Stimpy, never hid how much he was strongly influenced by Bob Clampett so this felt like a natural progression. However, it was impossible to miss that the creators didn’t feel the need to make the settings or the humor overly modern. Bugs making a jab about Elmer “body shaming him” is the closest moment I can think of that counts as modern commentary.
The best news is that these are only 10 shorts out of 200 that are set to be produced! If this is just the first sample, I can’t imagine how much more goodness the future holds. The creators already promised the return of such classic characters like the Tasmanian Devil, Marvin The Martian, the somewhat obscure Pete Puma, Beaky Buzzard, Gossamer, Hubie and Bertie, and even from way back in the black and white shorts, Petunia Pig and Porky’s troublemaking nephew Cicero Pig. The character designs often took inspiration from their oldest appearances and at the Annecy presentation, we were shown animatics and storyboards promising some fun future scenarios like Elmer trying to finally grow hair, Bugs fighting the Tasmanian Devil at the Roman Coliseum, or trying to teach Beaky Buzzard how to hunt for rabbits.
Warner Bros should be proud of themselves. While only time will tell if these shorts will become classics, they decidedly will be seen as a noble attempt to bring the “Looney” back into Looney tunes. The cartoons are manic, beautifully animated, and feature amazing voice acting. Even the music tries to recapture the spirit of the originals. However, I do hope that the creators won’t be afraid to try new things rather than being nothing but slavish to the old shorts. From what we’ve seen so far, this may well be the case. In that spirit, unlike a lot of modern reboots of old shows and cartoons, there’s no bombardment of Easter-egg references; if they were any at all, they were very subtle. As long as there is imagination there will always be wacky scenarios for these characters to have adventures in. I hope the first 200 shorts are only the beginning.
THAT’S ALL FOLKS!
Check out the first of the new Looney Tunes, Dynamite Dance!