The Looney Tunes have had an identity crisis over time. In between playing basketball with Michael Jordan and the occasional cameo, there have been multiple attempts to reboot the Looney Tunes for modern audiences. An easy example would be the edgy cartoon Loonatics Unleashed (2005-2007) — yeah, did you want to forget that? Too bad — or perhaps the slightly more successful The Looney Tunes Show (2011-2014), which sought to place the extensive cast in a sitcom style show. It was Seinfeld, but with Bugs and Daffy instead of Jerry and George.
The crisis in relevancy has been forever present, but this new series debuting on the HBO MAX streaming service seeks to reclaim some sort of semblance of glory. It’s not revising the Looney Tunes or updating them; instead, it’s bringing them back down to their roots.
And those roots may actually confuse some viewers that aren’t necessarily clued in. First, most of the shorts in the season are kept simple. Most of the cast in the series stays the same throughout, so you can enjoy the dynamics and let them breathe on their own. Most of the shorts are of Bugs and Elmer Fudd/ Yosemite Sam, Daffy and Porky, and some of the more vignette-based duos when need be (Roadrunner, Sam the Sheepdog, and Tweety make few but notable appearances).
The stories feel familiar. The dynamics are never too far from ordinary, even if what happens in the story is anything but. We are retreating to formula for the concepts here, to remind everyone what made them good in the first place.
If the stories are familiar, then what’s new? Well, look at the characters: they look traditional. The redesign of these characters feels like more traditional designs of these characters. That carries over into every other design decision, too. To get a little into animation history without diving too deep today, I would say this season seeks to disregard the idolization of famous animation director Chuck Jones (who has made some of the best cartoons ever), for older famous animation director Bob Clampett (who has ALSO made some of the best cartoons ever). Looking into the differences between those two, you’ll see that Clampett cartoons were visual exercises firstly, and the jokes felt spontaneous and alive. Less smart, not very creative, but always unexpected. The fluid animation and strength in the storyboards are what define these cartoons. Chuck Jones’ contribution to the later half of the Looney Tunes legacy wasn’t about animation quality, — though to be fair Jones cartoons were also visually stunning at point — but instead it was on the writing. The jokes and situations in a Clampett cartoon were the main appeal, articulated perfectly, and the animation was given most detail to grounded reactions in the face. Wackiness in animation and walk cycles were what took a hit. The life and personality came from everything except how they moved, even if they still were leagues above stuff like Hanna-Barbera cartoons.
A core example of this is Daffy Duck. Daffy is an ever changing cartoon character, always slightly different depending on the animation director at the helm. Clampett’s Daffy vs Jones’s Daffy make the difference clear. Jones’s Daffy (the one most of us I imagine are familiar with) is sarcastic, angry, and an egotistical foil to Bugs. Wabbit season. Duck season. Duck season. Wabbit season. Fire. This has defined Daffy’s character for decades now. Clampett’s Daffy? It’s Id. It’s wacky. It’s screwball. Daffy isn’t a foil, Porky is. Daffy can be anything and anywhere from one frame to the next. His motivation is never clear, he’s a pure cartoon.
This return to the Clampett style was the new cartoon’s answer for those tired situations. Yes, you’re gonna get Bugs and Elmer in the woods again, but now they’re going to be bold and expressive and unpredictable during it. The animators and storyboard artists are given keys to the kingdom, and you can even see further remnants of the Clampett legacy in other modern inheritors influencing here. Ren and Stimpy by John Kricfalusi, for instance, was strongly inspired by Clampett, and if you are familiar with the cartoon you will see Ren and Stimpy‘s finger prints all over this new series.
To actually talk specifically on the new episodes, they’re hit or miss depending on the episode. I found myself falling in love with every Porky and Daffy episode, found mixed results with the Bugs episodes, and felt the most uninspired during the call backs to other characters. The notable exception to that being the Ralph and Sam short. My favorite short was probably the “Curse of the Monkey Bird” one, an early short in the season. I also tend to like Elmer more than Sam. Elmer’s redesign looks fantastic, and some of his bits were great. He makes a fantastic intewogatow. Sam has great moments, but I found every episode of his lacking as a whole. Maybe it’s just me in my old age, but I’ve grown a bit tired of how Tweety talks and how Sylvester hunts.
What I like about the episodes is they tried to maintain that original appeal. Even if they didn’t break the wall down and give 2020 something completely new, these episodes give us a taste of what Looney Tunes used to be like. They still have plenty of creativity and love poured into them even with the digital animation, and visually it’s fantastic. I miss cartoons like this. I miss Looney Tunes like this. I think I needed this show. HBO MAX certainly benefits from having a show like this. It might be what everyone else needs right now too.
Wait, sorry, it’s upside down.