Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Why a Looney Tunes Movie Can't Work

In further news of classic cartoon properties being developed into flashy motion pictures, film sites are reporting that there is another Looney Tunes movie in the works to be written by X-Men: First Class writers Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz with Steve Carell supposedly attached to star. Details about the film, ostensibly titled Acme, are sparse, but it is hinted that it will be a "spin-off" film and will not focus on the main roster of Warner Bros. cartoon characters. It is presumed however that they will make an appearance.

Acme is just the latest movie to feature Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the rest of the Looney Tunes roster. Who can forget the stinking pile of nostalgia that is Space Jam and who can actually remember Looney Tunes: Back in Action? Neither of these movies succeeded in capturing the true essence and magic of these characters for various reasons.

Aside from perhaps the complete lobotomy that Disney gave to Mickey Mouse fifty years ago, no animated character has been as cruelly subjected to the world of pop marketing like Bugs and the gang. You couldn't walk ten feet in the '90s without seeing someone wearing a shirt with the Tasmanian Devil or a smug looking Bugs Bunny or Wile E. Coyote.

Never forget.

What many people see as the Looney Tunes brand is just a derivation of the cartoon shorts directed by Chuck Jones and Isadore "Friz" Freling in the later (and frankly lackluster) period of the Warner Bros. studio in the late fifties and sixties. They hung on longer than the other unit directors, and as the last men standing, they got to literally write the book on Looney Tunes. Since then, that one vision has been watered down and distorted into one-dimensional versions of what were originally some of the most vibrant personalities ever animated.

Case in point:  when he was created by Tex Avery, Daffy Duck was the epitome of the screwball character. Under the direction of Bob Clampett in the '40s, the character reached his peak as an unrestrained id, causing chaos for its own sake and hooting maniacally the entire time. Under Chuck Jones however, the character was changed to be the greedy, jealous asshole that most people know today. It's a cheapening of the character and central to why Looney Tunes movies don't work.

The sad matter of fact is that the Looney Tunes have lost their looney-ness. Today we have The Looney Tunes Show on Cartoon Network that is essentially Seinfeld but with talking animals. And even though that particular program has been recently discontinued, CN is quick to come back with Wabbit, a series that sounds like it will focus primarily on Bugs Bunny and will feature some new original characters. While these shows pale in comparison to the original shorts, I do appreciate that they did not try to replicate them exactly.

The original theatrical shorts were lightning in a bottle. They were created by some of the finest animators to ever pick up a pencil, and given the freedom to express themselves in unprecedented ways. The screen was barely able to contain the sheer amount of energy that was in a scant seven minutes. This highlights the other problem with movies:  they're too long for that kind of sustained action. A feature-length Looney Tunes short would be exhausting to watch. It would be like trying to eat a bowl full of candy. Sure it sounds fun, but once you dive in you (and your pancreas) start to see the error of your ways.

This does not mean all hope is lost.  In the past few years, there have been some incredible shorts that combine old sound recordings of Mel Blanc's voice and Carl Stalling's music with modern CGI tools, and the results are astounding.  Here's one from 2013 that does Sylvester and Tweety more justice than Friz Freling ever did:

The resources are out there, it's just a matter of harnessing them properly.  We shouldn't take Bugs, Daffy and the rest and put them on the shelf to gather dust and enjoy as museum pieces. These characters by their very nature are meant to be enjoyed.  Reinvention is all part of the game, but not at the expense of what made them appealing in the first place.  In short, keep the shorts short.

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