TV

Losing Our Hare

Adam Williams

With its futuristic Loonatics, Warner Bros. buries an American icon under comic-book bluster and video-gamey gunk, driving an unapologetic final nail into Bugs Bunny's cartoon coffin.

Listening to Warner Bros. executives tout their recent brainchild Loonatics, purists must have been infuriated by the collective lack of respect shown Bugs Bunny and his animated compatriots. Using the slick development-speak term of re-imagined to justify their heresy, these white-collar corporate cretins are perpetwating the ultimate wuse on generations of fans who grew up with classic Looney Tunes as a morning-television staple.

Set seven hundred years in the future, Loonatics features grotesque stick-figure derivatives of Warners' beloved Looney Tunes characters, all designed to carry the franchise into the new millennium. Gone are the beautifully crafted nuances that defined Bugs, Daffy and their cartoon brethren, replaced instead with quasi-superhero powers more consistent with graphic novels. As unappealing as the program's five stars appear -- I refuse to acknowledge the absurd inclusion of the gratuitous female rabbit heroine -- the company claims that fresh futuristic interpretation were initiated to make the characters "more hip" and attractive. Such reasoning rings hollow though, as I recall the future being successfully visited long before the advent of manned spaceflight in uproarious shorts such as Haredevil Hare (1948) and Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century (1953). And the animation industry's definitive statement of hip? Well sufferin' succotash, that occurred half a century ago when Marvin Martian first appeared with a bristle brush topped helmet and matching gym sneakers.

With its futuristic Loonatics, Warner Bros. buries an American icon under comic-book bluster and video-gamey gunk, driving an unapologetic final nail into Bugs Bunny's cartoon coffin.

From his official introduction in 1941's A Wild Hare, Bugs embodied all the elements of style necessary to become one of Hollywood's most endearing stars. Quick witted and brash, what Bugs lacked in sheer physicality he made up for in guile and a wicked sense of humor as he left a memorable collection of vanquished and heckled foes in his wake. Without the aid of steroids or a megabucks salary, our cotton-tailed hero stared down every one of his adversaries and emerged victorious; whether challenging fictional literary scoundrels (Rabbit Hood 1949), gargantuan brutes (Baseball Bugs 1946, Gorilla My Dreams 1948, Bunny Hugged 1951), intimidating floor walkers (Hair Conditioned 1945), robust opera singers (Long-Haired Hare 1949), feisty Aboriginal warriors (Bushy Hare 1950), and mad scientists (Hair-Raising Hare 1946), to Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam and the usual pack of animal kingdom rivals, Bugs Bunny enchanted viewers with his wise-cracking charms and never-give-in determination. From cross-dressing his way out a predicament to taking the wheel of a speeding B-17 bomber, the wascally wabbit made fools of his pursuers and brought joy to millions.

But the decline of Bugs Bunny has been an excruciatingly drawn-out process, one made more painful with the recent bastardization of his impressive career achievements via Tiny Toons and various blasphemous full-length movies. In actuality the death knell for Bugs and friends sounded at the first appearance of the television thought- police, a fanatical faction of do-gooders who deemed it necessary to edit out questionable scenes from vintage Looney Toonies so as to protect our nation's impressionable youngsters from, gasp, gratuitous violence. In retrospect, the knee-jerk reaction to such animated hijinks is as laughable as it is ironic; the Warner Bros. behemoth continues to market films with potentially disturbing imagery, (you think Harry Potter is entirely suitable for adolescent viewers? It's about…sorcery), yet it trembles in fear at the thought of Bugs dispatching a nemesis with a well placed falling anvil, poke in the eye or frying pan to the head. Lest we not forget that extensive government-funded research conducted since the mid 1970s has failed to produce a single account citing Wile E. Coyote's use of Acme explosive products as the catalyst for violent criminal behavior. (Speaking from personal experience, I was raised on a steady diet of Bugs Bunny and never showed one whit of cartoon-affected behavior, although frequently pinching my little sister's cheeks and referring to her as a "ta-ra-ra-goon-dee-ay" was not always viewed as normal conduct for a three-year-old.)

In addition to unceremoniously relegating scenes of perceived violence to the cutting room floor, the quavering studio's reign of terror also produced a second example of shameless capitulation: Deleting images from Looney Tunes films that selected (see thin-skinned and humorless) groups might find objectionable. Were there frequent uses of political and ethnic stereotypes in the pre- and post-war Looney offerings? Of course, and all were crafted with a sly wink, tongue planted firmly in cheek. The Warner's crew from the 1940s was a brilliant collection of artistic geniuses and rebels, laboring under the radar with minimal budgets as they took on the industry giant known as Disney. Much of their work mirrored the country's socio-political attitudes (particularly the prominent fear and loathing of the German and Japanese military machines). The comically thematic characterizations they indulged in were accurate reflections of the time. Erasing such material from film reels does not eliminate its existence or the rationale behind it, nor does it maintain the integrity of Warner's cartoon catalogue. Sadly, wartime classics designed to boost morale through outlandish animated depictions such as Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips and Russian Rhapsody (both 1944) have long since been relegated to the censored heap. These are but two exquisite time-capsule relics that decades of studio executives failed to appreciate the grander scope of, as they disregarded the vintage animation process and its importance to the historical (and hysterical) record.

Perhaps the introduction of Loonatics would be less troubling if Warner Bros. was honest with the public instead of trying to cloak its new program in a veil of forced enthusiasm and backslapping ingenuity. Let's be frank: This is not about taking beloved characters to the next level for the sake of creative evolution, but rather establishing a competitive toe-hold in the lucrative toy and video game arena. Cute and cuddly action figures do not garner significant market share as they once did, nor do they dominate the electronic shoot-'em-up circuit. Loonatics is an amalgamation of a trusted commodity with advanced weaponry and skill sets, specifically positioned to compete with a litany of similarly equipped entrants, ranging from Spawn's sci-fi creatures to Marvel's comic book alumni.

So now, more than sixty years after Bugs Bunny manned the helm of Warner's cavalcade of animated stars, he and four of his original cohorts are laid to rest. Oh, studio execs will continue to wax poetic about Bugs' glory days (what they actually know of them) while pumping up Loonatics, but the new program and its re-imagined cast have closed the curtain on an incredible cinematic career, thus marking the end of an era.

Sadly, Wabbit Season is now officially closed... That's all folks…

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