The Return of the Return of the Return of Looney Tunes

Lots of TV stuff going on: Like, what’s happening on Lost? Answer: I honestly have no idea, but I’m having fun watching it happen. (One TV Trope I was particularly aware of last night is the rule that if Guy X is about to kill another character, and the scene cuts away before the shooting takes place, and Guy later says he carried out the killing, no such killing actually took place. If Lost really wanted to surprise us they’d reveal that the guy really is dead.) Does the increased sophistication of the musical numbers on Glee make up for the continually unsophisticated plots? Did South Park just bring back the Mohammed thing because nothing else they did was getting them into the news lately?

And in the “future shows that don’t sound like very good ideas” category, there’s this bit of news from Cartoon Network’s development slate. I guess the fact that they’re actually still producing cartoons, after a period when it looked like they were going to re-brand as something else, is mildly surprising, but the big news is that they are going to produce shows based on two collapsing franchises. One is an animated sketch comedy based on characters from Mad magazine — if they have a Dave Berg “Lighter Side” segment you will hear the sound of channels being changed all over the world — and the other is the latest in a literally endless line of attempts to revive the Looney Tunes franchise. At least it sounds like a relatively harmless attempt, certainly nothing to compare in horror with Baby Looney Tunes or Loonatics.

‘Looney Tunes’ will present a digital age spin on such decades-old characters as Bugs, Daffy, Tweety, Sylvester and Yosemite Sam, who will now all be suburban neighbors. Instead of the traditional seven-minute ‘Looney Tunes’ shorts that were a staple of movie theater programming and Saturday morning television for generations, the new episodes will be half-hour-long stories, though they’ll be interrupted by cartoons within the cartoon. There will be two-minute ‘Merrie Melodies’ music videos — original songs sung by such characters as the Tasmanian Devil, Speedy Gonzalez, and Marvin the Martian – and two and a half minute Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote shorts, which will be computer-animated.

Nearly all new Looney Tunes projects turn out to be bad, and this doesn’t sound very different, but at least it sounds bad in a traditional sort of way: putting these characters into longer formats, making them do “hip” music videos, computer-animating them; all of these are the normal things that companies do with old cartoon characters. It does strike me that Warners should have learned by now that putting these characters together, making them act like some kind of extended family, is not a very good idea. When these cartoons were being made, there were a select few characters who teamed up regularly (Daffy and Porky), an occasional Daffy-Bugs crossover, and other than that, most of these characters stayed in their separate series, except for the purposes of quick cameo jokes.


Putting all the characters in the same neighbourhood is kind of pointless. This isn’t Tiny Toons, where the characters were written and created to be at the same school and complement each other. These characters were created to star in cartoons which, due to budgetary issues, weren’t usually supposed to have more than two or three major characters in them. That’s how the classic format of predator vs. prey developed; the typical cartoon has predator, prey, and maybe one other character like Tweety’s owner Granny, plus a few very minor characters. Tweety was never meant to interact with a wide range of characters; his only clear relationships are with the cats who are trying to eat him. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t fun to watch Daffy Duck meet Foghorn Leghorn — but it was fun because it only happened once.

Well, Warner Brothers has been making bad new Looney Tunes projects literally since the original cartoon studio shut down in 1964. Their degree of badness ranges from the depths of Daffy/Speedy and the Larry Doyle shorts to the merely mediocre, like Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng’s returns to the franchise. (And there have been a few, very few, cartoons that weren’t bad, like “Blooper Bunny,” which the company refused to release to theatres.) Almost 50 years of terrible cartoons haven’t ruined the reputation of the original studio’s products, so I doubt if this show will; it should be considered pointless, but harmless.

As to why WB keeps making new cartoons when there is a huge library of great old cartoons that are better than any new show they could make, the answer is simple: the public is more interested in new stuff. To keep characters in the public eye, the company has to come up with new cartoons, no matter how little they add to the original. With Looney Tunes, there was a period when this wasn’t the case, when the studio could re-package the original cartoons and sell them to TV, though even then, the demand for something new was always strong. (Hence the bad linking material in the specials and feature films, when aesthetically, a festival of uncut original cartoons would have been far more satisfying.) There were several reasons they can no longer do that, one of which is that the new cartoons on the schedule don’t look anything like the classics, whereas in the ’70s and ’80s, they were simply better-drawn, better-made versions of the same “look” that many Saturday Morning cartoon makers were going for. (The look of Hanna-Barbera cartoons obviously had things in common with their classic Tom and Jerry cartoons, so a package of Tom and Jerry cartoons would not instantly scream “old” to a little kid, until he or she noticed how much better they were than new material.) Things have changed, meaning that the marketability of the characters depends on their having new content, even though nobody — I hope — thinks that the new content is a better viewing experience than a half-hour’s worth of the originals. Such is life, I guess.

Speaking of disguising old cartoons as new product, this has been going on almost as long as animation has existed; the “cheater” short film (bits of new animation linking clips from old cartoons) was the predecessor of the TV clip show. On the bright side, the WB “cheaters” were — back when the cartoon library was owned by two different companies — our only chance to see bits of the pre-1948 cartoons on Saturday morning.

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