Warner Bros. Cartoons, Inc–the production studio responsible for creating the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies theatrical shorts that became such an iconic symbol of American animation and humor–closed its doors in 1963. The proliferation of television over the previous decade put the continued production of animated shorts into a dubious position and, after a Supreme Court ruling that banned movie studios from forcing theaters to buy movies and cartoons in block purchases, Warner Bros. simply saw no reason to keep making new cartoons. There was some subcontracting through the independent studios of ex-directors and a failed reboot in 1967, but for all intents and purposes, the golden age of the theatrical short–and, more specifically, Looney Tunes–had come to an end. That Bugs and Co. have remained such a consistent staple of American popular culture then seems strange. How exactly do we explain the existence of successful contemporary LT reboots like Tiny Toon Adventures, Baby Looney Tunes or Duck Dodgers (there’s even a new series, Wabbit, which is slated for an early 2015 premiere). How is Six Flags a thing? And of course there’s 1996’s cinematic masterpiece Space Jam which grossed over $230 million worldwide.
Part of the answer is Warner’s aggressive and frequently maniacal attempts to not only make sure LT is a thriving and relevant canon, but also to become the dominant owner and distributor of animated programming. Over the last half of the twentieth century, Warner made a series of convoluted corporate power plays and mergers that earned them control of both MGM and Hanna-Barbera’s catalog of animated work. While many of these cartoons aired on television intermittently as reruns during the last decades of the century, Time Warner’s acquisition of Turner Broadcasting’s Cartoon Network in 1996 provided them with the perfect platform to air their gargantuan catalog all at once. This of course sparked something of a renaissance for the Looney Tunes brand, coinciding with the premiere of Space Jam and, two years later, the purchasing of Six Flags and its conversion into a theme park filled to the brim WB trademarks. But television would prove to be the medium that kept the Looney Tunes alive. Over the next decade, countless Warner subsidiary networks sprung up, most notably Boomerang, which focused on honoring animation’s golden age, and The WB, whose afternoon programming block, Kid’s WB, turned the iconic Warner Bros. studio lot into a vibrant backdrop for a host of new shows and characters (Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, Freakazoid!) whose animation and humor were derived from the self-aware slapstick of veteran LT directors Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. Thus, television, which signaled the end of the Looney Tunes in 1963, guaranteed its survival in the living rooms of a new generation thirty-three years later.
Of course, none of this would have come to anything if the original Looney Tunes themselves weren’t so indelible in the first place. For many, that these cartoons have appealed to generations upwards of sixty years removed from their creation speaks to a classic, timeless quality that they share with such works as Disney’s feature animated films from the same era. Warner Bros. has of course been quick to capitalize on said qualities by compiling classic Looney Tunes shorts through their Golden Collection (2003 – 2008) composed of six four-disc DVD box sets each containing somewhere around sixty shorts each. Other compilations created for home consumption include the Spotlight Collection (run concurrently with the Golden Collection as a more affordable option) and the Looney Tunes Super Stars (2010 – 2013). Warner’s newest collection, made specifically for Blu-ray release, is the sexily titled Looney Tunes Platinum Collection which has recently released its third volume and boasts not only fifty seven-minute shorts (clocking in at a little over five and a half hours) but an additional six hours of documentaries, commentaries, storyboards and highlight reels. That only four of the fifty cartoons collected here are new to disc should come as no surprise; considering Warner Bros.’ extensive work done on previous home video collections, they would have to do some serious barrel scraping in order to put together a must-have collector’s item on the basis of exclusivity. One might then presume that the Platinum Collection would be Warner Bros.’ chance to curate a more discriminating selection of the best of their classic offerings. Instead, what we get is a strange hodgepodge of cartoons without a discernible theme other than a (likely unintentional) attempt to upset the notion that Looney Tunes have ever been timeless. Rather, they appear as patently rooted in their time and place–namely wartime and post-war America replete with casual racism, topical satire, and of course the irreverent, zaney humor that have made Looney Tunes so quintessential.
Volume three is divided into two discs the first of which is devoted almost entirely to Bugs Bunny and the second to pretty much everyone else. That Bugs takes up the whole first disc is in line with past collections and volumes and is to be expected considering he takes up the majority of the catalog and is, frankly, the greatest Looney Tunes character. While everyone has a personal favorite (mine is definitely Daffy), Bugs occupies an entirely separate space in the LT universe–more specifically he wields the most power in it. Although Bugs is ostensibly the victim in his shorts, his blasé approach to self-defense obviously shows that any provocation on the part of his legion of dopey foes is merely an excuse for him to exercise his immense influence over his world. He moves his rabbit holes so that others crash into the ground when chasing after him, he changes his appearance and gender at will, inverts gravity, and can create any object of his choosing simply by pulling it from off screen. Of course, it’s not just his abilities that set him apart, abilities many other characters also share, but the nonchalance with which he wields them. He has the unique talent of gracefully navigating between casually toying with his foes and manically tormenting them, sometimes violently, before settling back down to munch a carrot while delivering the catch phrase “Ain’t I a stinker?”
There are a few stellar Bugs shorts here–”Bully for Bugs,” “Operation: Rabbit,” “Bugs and Thugs,” and Oscar-winner “Knighty Knight Bugs” are all fantastic–but the volume is organized chronologically and getting through Bugs’ 40s cartoons can take a while as they are vastly overrepresented. Obviously there isn’t anything inherently wrong with the shorts from this decade, but fans who prefer the flatter, more angular animation style of the ’50s (myself included) to the soft, detailed portraiture of the ’40s will be somewhat disappointed. Director Friz Freleng is also overrepresented on Volume three and while his approach to carefully timed jokes can make for some great cartoons like “Slick Hare” and “Bugs and Thugs,” his offerings here are inconsistent and shorts like “A Hare Grows in Manhattan” seem slightly off in terms of motivation and pacing. Chuck Jones’ presence is sorely missed across both discs as his proclivity for high speed, madcap gags could have helped move things along instead of sifting through so much filler. Disc two brings along a decent selection of Sylvester and Tweety shorts, including other Oscar-winner “Birds Anonymous.” There’s also a healthy dose of Daffy Duck at the beginning of the disc, but, once again we only get to see Daffy in the ’40s when he was still just plain daffy, not the embittered egomaniac of the late ’50s and early ’60s.
Sylvester The Cat – (Ep. 66) – Birds Anonymous by cartoonNetworks
This disclaimer concisely responds to the bevy of ethical accusations leveled at Warner Bros. over the last forty years or so concerning not just a lack of diversity in programming both old and new, but for overt depictions of racism in their cartoons. Warner Bros.’ attempts to address these issues in the past–which usually took the form of editing certain offensive cartoons for broadcast or outright banning as with the infamous Censored 11–were met with outrage by fans who saw such acts as political correctness gone mad. Looney Tunes hasn’t been the only series to face such controversy either; earlier this year Amazon Prime and iTunes pegged a disclaimer about ethnic stereotypes to their offering of Hanna-Barbera’s much beloved Tom and Jerry cartoons (also owned by Warner), inducing a great deal of indignation from fans as well as mourning for their allegedly tarnished childhood memories. Of course, this all-or-nothing approach is a rather simplistic and reductive method of dealing with the complex ethical issue of ethnic representation–an issue that the disclaimer to Volume three of the Platinum Collection does an admirable job of addressing. But while it may be just a bit of progressive ass-covering meant to quickly acknowledge the issue before presenting some beloved cartoons, the disclaimer instead primes you for some of these cartoons more discomfiting moments.
(Ep. 09) – Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt by tranghuyen0213
The portrayal of women in these shorts also stands out in that almost every female who appears on screen prompts the male characters to either whistle luridly or transform into wolves who howl. In “Porky Pig’s Feat,” Daffy even defies gravity in order to hoot at a drawing of a woman on a piece of hotel stationery. The only exceptions to this rule are wives and spinsters who are always frumpy and annoying. Even male characters who dress in drag are subject to harassment as in “The Big Snooze” where, in a nightmare induced by Bugs (of course), Elmer finds himself in a shapely dress and brunette wig as he tries to outrun a pack of wolves in suits who chase him while howling and licking their chops. At one point Elmer turns to the camera and says “Have any of you giwls evew had an expewience wike this?” and it’s all a bit much to handle.
Even more jarring, however, are the three WWII centered episodes which appear on disc two. Referencing such a horrific event in a mass produced comedic short seems strange in its own right, but seeing it explicitly depicted is even stranger. Hitler himself gets parts in two episodes, “Scrap Happy Daffy” “Plane Daffy,” where he’s portrayed as a whiney and temperamental milquetoast. “Plane Daffy” is easily the most unsettling of the three and possibly of the entire volume. It features three suicides by gunshot, two from Goebbels and Göring after they accidentally insult Hitler and one from a carrier pigeon who shamefully divulges his country’s military secrets to the Nazi seductress Hatta Mari (also a pigeon). Self-proclaimed woman-hater Daffy Duck offers to deliver military messages in the dead pigeon’s place, claiming he can withstand the seductresses charms. Spoiler: he can’t. There is much mouth-on-mouth kissing, lascivious skirt lifting and other forms of overt seduction that seem oddly risque, even by Looney Tunes standards.
Daffy Duck – (Ep. 31) – Plane Daffy by cartoonNetworks
At a retail price of $44.98, the Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Vol. 3 simply won’t be of interest to anyone other than the most diehard of Looney Tunes fanatics. For interested parties, I would highly suggest looking into the Golden Collection which was released as a six-volume box set (24 discs with 60 shorts per disc) in 2011 and retails at around $100. While not an exhaustive omnibus by any means (no such release exists to my knowledge), it is the most comprehensive and economical Looney Tunes purchase currently available. For more casual fans, purchasing just the first volume of the Golden Collection will get you the most memorable shorts with more than enough quality bonus material.
Joshua Palmer is a writer, musician, and dilettante-about-town living in San Antonio, Texas. He graduated from Trinity University with a major in Wumbology, a minor in English, and did his Honors Thesis on the effects of listening to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds while crying in bed about stupid boys who don’t even deserve you. He does not have a twitter and apologizes to everyone for this.