I’ve had HBO Max for a few months now, and I have mentioned this in passing before, but today, since they’re dropping a batch of new episodes on the service, I want to praise Looney Tunes Cartoons, the latest revival of the classic Warner Brothers cartoon characters, and the first to get it right in decades.
Since they were created under the absent management of Leon Schlesinger, the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons produced at “Termite Terrace” at the Warner Brothers Studio have been the gold standard of animated shorts. Only MGM and Max Fleisher came close to the chaos and hilarity of Looney Tunes. The other studio’s cartoons, expecially Disney’s, pale in comparison.
With animation legends Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng at the helm, Warner Brothers led the pack with a roster of animation superstars like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Tweety Bird and more. Even with top directors, Avery and Clampett, moving on after WWII, the Warner Brothers cartoons still cranked more hits than misses until around 1960.
After the animation unit was shut down in 1965, there have been attempts to revive the Looney Tunes characters at least once a decade, with mixed results. Some of the revivals have been commercially successful, and some get credit for trying, but none of the revivals have come close to matching the comedic craft and anarchy of the classic Looney Tunes of 1935 to 1945. In fact, a lot of the attempted revivals were downright horrid.
My expectations were low, going in. I did not bother to even read up on the creative teams producing the new shorts for HBO Max. In fact, before I watched the new shorts, billed as “Looney Tunes Cartoons,” I went back and watched a bunch of the classic Looney Tunes and a few of the less-than-stellar revivals.
When I settled in to watch Looney Tunes Cartoons, I was stunned. The animation was lush and easily as good as the golden age. The character designs skipped over the last few decades of ill-advised “updates” and returned to the classic looks. And the cartoons are funny as hell. There was none of that limited animation and angular design crap.
These were like finding freshly-discovered artifacts, unseen since the 1940s. If it weren’t for the occasional contemporary reference (flat screen TVs and smartphones), these would pass for vintage Looney Tunes gold.
Even more shocking to me was the credits. The producer of Looney Tunes Cartoons is Pete Browngardt, the creator of Uncle Grandpa. I loved Uncle Grandpa on Cartoon Network, but I never got any indication from the show that the same producer could make classic-style Looney Tunes cartoons. The show had more of a modern, Cal-Arts style to it.
Yet even way more shocking to me was the discovery that Johnny Ryan was one of the writers and story editors. I’ve been a fan of Ryan’s since Fantagraphics started publishing his underground comic, Angry Youth Comix, back in the 1990s, and with his extreme and obscene take on the world he is probably the last person on the planet that I would have pegged as ever working on a mainstream animated property. (I was unaware of work he had done previously for Nickelodeon Magazine under a pen name).
I cannot stress how pleasant a surprise it is to see new Looney Tunes that are so faithful to the source material. The character designs harken back to the designs of Bob Clampett, Tex Avery and a young Chuck Jones. The Bugs Bunny you see in Looney Tunes Cartoons is primal Bugs. He’s not even the refined Bugs that we saw in the 1950s. This is pure, uncut Bugs Bunny.
Daffy Duck is the insane Bob Clampett Daffy, not the lame egotistical Daffy of the post-war era. This is manna from heaven for fans of classic animation.
Much has been made of the fact that, in the new cartoons, Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam have had their guns taken away. That actually happened decades ago. What Looney Tunes Cartoons does is to arm Elmer with large axes and scythes and the occasional giant robot or batch of explosives.
Other Looney Tunes characters are revived as well. Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote return in new cartoons which are as funny as the three good ones that Chuck Jones made back in the 1950s. We get to see classic renditions of Marvin the Martian, Gossamer, Foghorn Leghorn, Tweety and Sylvester, Beaky Buzzard, Taz, Porky Pig and others. In the new batch that drops today we get a new cartoon with Gremlins, and the first ever Petunia Pig star vehicle.
The Voice work is great. The direction and tone is perfect, and the animation is amazing. Check out HBO Max for the best Looney Tunes Cartoons in 75 years.
And yes, I decided to revive the old “Animated Discussions” name for this post. Folks with long, long memories may recall that, with Mel Larch, I wrote the Animated Discussions column for The Charleston Gazette from 1991 until 2005. Mel and I have talked about reviving it as a radio show for The AIR, and I had continued it in the early days of PopCult, so it fit the bill for this.