The Looney Tunes Show, premiering in May, is Warner Brothers’ last hope of reviving the value of Bugs Bunny and friends. Old cartoons are no longer widely shown on TV, and kids can’t buy Daffy Duck merchandise if they don’t know who he is. That means the new show, which already has many segments online, is an attempt to “reinvigorate the brand with the best possible execution,” as WB TV president Peter Roth put it. Blogger Amid Amidi of Cartoon Brew saw it differently after viewing the clips: “I’ll comment at a later date…after I’ve stopped vomiting.”
This time around, Bugs and Daffy have been rebooted into sitcom characters, living in the suburbs in what Ad Week magazine described as a “Desperate Housewives/Odd Couple mash-up.” There will also be stand-alone musical segments, and CGI Road Runner cartoons parodying movies like The Matrix. None of this is ideal for fans of the original cartoons, who make unfavourable comparisons between the wild, violent, unpredictable Bugs Bunny of the ’40s and the more sedate character who appears in these shorts. “The problem isn’t that the WB characters aren’t the same,” explains Canadian animator Mark Mayerson. “It’s that however they are now is inferior to their former selves.”
But by the standards of past Looney Tunes reboots, The Looney Tunes Show may wind up looking almost brilliant. Ever since the original WB cartoon studio shut down in 1963, the company has churned out one unsatisfying new version after another, starting with an infamous series of cartoons where Daffy Duck chased Speedy Gonzales (no one ever explained why a duck would chase a mouse), culminating in disastrous shows in the last decade like Baby Looney Tunes. Other classic characters have been reintroduced to new audiences: James Bond or Batman came back in vehicles that many fans thought were better than the originals. But the standards of Looney Tunes revivals are so poor that fans may not even mind that Yosemite Sam is doing a rap number in the new show; at least his ornery personality hasn’t been changed.
Why can’t Bugs and Daffy be rebooted like other characters? Part of it may be about money. The original cartoons, made for theatres, had access to top animators; The Looney Tunes Show has better animation than most TV cartoons, but not compared to the originals. Yet these characters are defined by physical acting: “They need to move,” Mayerson explains, “and TV budgets don’t allow for enough movement.” What’s more, the old cartoons became famous because of their slapstick comedy, influenced by silent movies. Not only is that comedy too expensive to animate for TV, but it’s difficult to write: “TV is dialogue-driven and TV comedy writers have a sitcom mentality,” Mayerson says.
With some classic characters, their appealing personalities can help them survive even a bad reboot, like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. But Bugs Bunny or Foghorn Leghorn may not have that kind of appeal. Animation historian Michael Barrier, author of the book Hollywood Cartoons, told Maclean’s that “most cartoon characters are tissue-thin conceptions to begin with: a design, a voice, a few distinct tics or habits.” The only thing that made Bugs or Donald Duck great, Barrier continues, was that “some great creator fills that empty shell with complex and fascinating life.” It could be that reboots fail simply because, as Barrier says, “there are damned few geniuses working in kiddie TV these days,” and without geniuses, these characters aren’t inherently interesting.
That could mean that The Looney Tunes Show is taking the only approach that works for a TV revival: keeping the characters fairly close to their original look (in new, streamlined designs by Canadian Jessica Borutski), but with a different type of humour. When a judge asks Porky Pig why he’s not wearing pants, it might invite comparisons to the style of Family Guy, but at least it won’t seem like a copy of the old cartoons. And thanks to the other reboots, the show has one more advantage: as Warner’s head of animation Sam Register told the New York Times, “The bar had gone so low that we could only go up.”