Thursday, July 07, 2005

“Suspended Animation”

from Kolchak:

It could’ve been a funeral, but it felt like a reunion instead.

For the last few months the James A. Michener Art Museum in suburban Philadelphia has been featuring “That’s All Folks,” an exhibit of original art used in Warner Brothers cartoons.

Between the belief that computer-generated imagery (CGI) is going to supplant traditional animation and the tendency to make cartoons simply to promote toys, I wasn’t sure how much interest Bugs Bunny and company would generate. The last attempt to highlight Bugs, Daffy Duck and the others -- Looney Tunes:Back In Action-- was better than many critics made itout to be, but it didn’t make any real impact at the box office.

As it turns out, there was nothing to be concerned about. There was interest in the exhibit, and that interest was in the best place possible. The exhibit itself consisted of over 160 pieces, including such drool-producing items as background paintings from “Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century” and a model sheet from “Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarfs,” a notorious cartoon that it is rarely seen today, because of its extreme use of racial stereotypes.

Most of the interest though seemed to be centered on a television running the cartoons produced from these components. Both children and adults were laughing at the antics of Bugs and his posse.

What keeps the Warner Brothers cartoons fresh? According to Eric Goldberg, one reason is the well-defined personalities of the characters. Goldberg, who was the animation director for “Back In Action” and animator for the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin, made these comments at a panel discussion called “The Legacy of Warner Bros. Cartoons” at the museum.

Bugs and Daffy have been developed through roughly 30 years of stories, Goldberg said, but even characters who appeared only a few times are memorable. He noted that the Tasmanian Devil appears in only five theatrical cartoons. In addition, Goldberg said, Bugs and Daffy are archetypal characters. Bugs is the Trickster, with the ability to extricate himself from tough situations through fast-talking and crossdressing. Daffy is Everyman, with his ambitions constantly frustrated.

Warner Brothers cartoons are hard to find on television these days, and when you do, they’re usually edited, to one degree or another. However, the Looney Tunes Golden Collection contains the original versions of nearly all the toons that are considered classic. There are two volumes in the series, on DVD.When I went to the exhibit, and put together this article, I started thinking about my favorite Looney Tunes. Finding the titles I wanted was a little harder than I expected.

Toons were remade and bits were recycled, so the first time I encountered a story may not have been the first time it appeared. Still, here are a few of my choices which, by happy coincidence, are on the “Golden Collection” sets:

  • Duck Amuck” -- Warner Brothers characters regularly talk directly to the audience and acknowledge that they’re in a “picture.” “Duck Amuck,” however, takes that idea to the limit, as Daffy runs, sorry...of an animator who gives him a new shape--and a new reality--every few seconds. This one is almost a perfect match of main character and subject. Director Chuck Jones re-made this cartoon as “Rabbit Rampage,” with Bugs in the starring role, but it’s simply not as funny.

  • Hair-Raising Hare”-- An Evil Scientist lures Bugs to his castle, with the intention of feeding the rabbit to his monster. The monster--who looks like a orange haystack with arms and tennis shoes--chases Bugs around the castle, but all he gets for his trouble is a nice manicure. This cartoon is one of the best examples of Bugs as fast-talking scam artist, throwing trick after trick at the monster without a pause. There’s no cross-dressing per se in “Hair-Raising Hare,” but Bugs does assume an effeminate persona while giving the monster his manicure. (“I bet you monsters lead such interesting lives.”)

  • Porky In Wackyland”-- Even the notoriously fluid laws of cartoon physics go out the window in this one, as Porky searches for the elusive Do-Do Bird. This cartoon is filled with visual non-sequiturs, like a rabbit sitting on a swing that’s attached to his own ears. “Wackyland” provides an example of how the Warner Brothers animators reused ideas. It was produced in black-and-white, but a color version, called “Dough for the Do-Do” was produced roughly 10 years later. The title card on one of these toons had a drawing of Dali-esque melting watches, hanging on a clothesline, but I haven’t been able to determine which one used it, or if both did.

  • Rabbit of Seville, The” -- This is one of two Warner Brothers cartoons inspired by famous operas. “What’s Opera, Doc?,” the other one in this pair, is probably better regarded by critics, but I’m going to put “The Rabbit of Seville” on this list because I think it’s funnier, and the animators seem less impressed by the fact that they’re using operatic music.

  • Rabbit Seasoning”-- There are lots of cartoons that feature Elmer Fudd hunting Bugs Bunny, but only three in which Bugs and Daffy try to manipulate Elmer intoshooting the other one. (Hardcore fans sometimes refer to these cartoons as the Hunters Trilogy. Yes, really.) This one includes a funny cross-dressing sequence, and a piece of verbal humor that deserves to be ranked with classic comedy routines like Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First.” (It’s the bit that starts with the question “Do you want to shoot me now, or wait ‘til you get home?”). “Rabbit Seasoning” was written by Michael Maltese and directed by Jones.

And here’s a favorite that apparently didn’t make it into the Golden Collection:
  • Falling Hare”-- Bugs Bunny encounters the Gremlin, in this World War II offering,directed by Bob Clampett (who went on to create Beany & Cecil). Bugs and the Gremlin perform some real mayhem on each other, but this is still a good example a wartime cartoon, with lightning-fast pacing.

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