Few sounds are as recognisable as the Looney Tunes theme tune – which is implanted into any kid who watched Saturday morning cartoons. With an array of quirky characters and limitless skits, the toon squad have become icons in the world of animation. Whilst they may often fall into the shadows thanks to their noisy neighbours at Disney, Bugs Bunny and co. are still responsible for the some of the greatest animated shorts of all time.
Unlike Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney, the creation of the Looney Tunes was a more collaborative experience. Names like Tex Avery, Bob Clampett etc. all had a contribution into creating Warner Bros. leading cartoons during the golden age of American animation. But the director and cartoonist often discussed and recognised for the most memorable shorts would be that of Chuck Jones. Jones’ creativity for his work was recognised now and then, winning numerous awards and an Honorary Oscar in 1996.
The cartoon often synonymous as Looney Tunes’ Steamboat Willie would be the 1957 short What’s Opera Doc?, a short that took the standard formula of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd and elevated it to new ground. If you’re unaware of these characters, Bugs is a sarcastic rabbit normally playing pranks on Elmer Fudd, a clueless hunter who’s always on the lookout for rabbits. Whilst Bugs usually prevails, What’s Opera Doc? would be one of the few times when Fudd would best Bugs. The seven-minute short has Elmer chase Bugs through numerous parodies of 19thCentury composer Richard Wagner’s operas with Fudd dressed in oversized Viking attire. As always, Bugs plays into the role, dressing as a Valkyrie to swoon Elmer over before he rightfully escapes. But unlike anything in a Looney Tunes cartoon before, Jones gives us a wider landscape using a mixture of shadows, animation and music that rivals Walt Disney’s mantelpiece film Fantasia (1940). Commanding lightning, hurricanes and earthquakes, Elmer wins and regrets his wrath when faced with Bugs’ seemingly lifeless body. Like any of the Toons’ cartoons though, Bugs gets the last word in his typical manner asking “well, what did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?”
Whilst Jones perfected the character of Bugs and demonstrated the high-profile animation that Looney Tunes could achieve, he also stripped the ideas of character and animation in general back in 1953 with Duck Amuck. Now focusing on Bugs’ competitive rival Daffy Duck, Daffy gets into a spirited argument with the cartoonist of the short after a mixture in scenery and costume leaves Daffy skiing in springtime or playing ‘Aloha Oe’ on the ukulele to a white, plain background. Jones asks what makes these characters recognisable? If you remove the setting, who is Daffy Duck? And then if you further, changed his appearance, voice or even removed him completely, would he still be recognisable? The joke continues with Daffy’s voice being replaced by a car horn and morphed into a four-legged flower head to then be cut off with a ‘The End’ title card. But Daffy refuses to end that way and carries on fighting, but his demands fall short as he’s locked away by a door drawn from the revealed cartoonist of Bugs Bunny.
Rivalry is good for any business, Pepsi have Coke, Nike have Adidas and, in a sense, Disney had Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes. Even in 2020, the Toon Squad have shown their importance still with an acclaimed reboot on HBO Max and a Space Jam 2 on the way. Jones and his shorts had inspired the likes of Robin Williams and will forever have a legacy in the world of animation and comedy.
Header Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures