Cartoon Network, a cable-TV channel owned by Turner Broadcasting, shows animated cartoons around the clock. In 1992, when the channel was launched, its programming consisted solely of old-fashioned short subjects that featured such cartoon characters of the Hollywood studio era as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Wile E. Coyote. Today, though, the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts produced by Warner Bros. between 1933 and 1963 have mostly been supplanted by more contemporary fare, just as their once ubiquitous characters are no longer on view at such pop-culture events as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which now gives pride of place to the likes of SpongeBob Square-Pants. The caravan of popular taste has moved on.
For those baby boomers who grew up watching Warner Bros. cartoons on television every Saturday morning, the inexorable demise of Bugs and his friends has been a source of nostalgic dismay. But for critics and scholars who believe that the best studio-era animated cartoons are comparable in quality to the best live-action screen comedies of the 1930s and 40s, it is a catastrophe.
Fortunately, the past quarter-century has seen the publication of several penetrating studies of golden-age animation, foremost among them Michael Barrier’s Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age (1999), as well as biographies and monographs about such key figures as Tex Avery, Walt Disney, and Chuck Jones. Even more important, many studio-era animated shorts have been transferred to DVD, and some of them can also be viewed on YouTube. As a result, it is now possible to study the Warner cartoons with the close attention that they deserve—and to understand what made them so good.
Even at the height of the studio era, it was uncommon for serious film critics to write about animated cartoons other than in passing. Those who did, like Otis Ferguson, focused on the output of the Disney studio, and in particular on its pioneering full-length feature films. Indeed, Ferguson went so far as to rank Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the first American animated feature, “among the genuine artistic achievements of this country.”
Short subjects, on the other hand, were generally dismissed as purely commercial undertakings, cranked out by the animation units of the major studios in order to fill out the two-features-and-a-short mixed bills that were customarily presented by American movie theaters well into the 1950s. For the most part, the only people who took them seriously were the artists and writers who made them, and even at Disney, whose early shorts had set the standard for the rest of the industry, they came to be increasingly regarded as a backwater.
Not, however, at the Warner Bros. animation unit, which never tried to compete with Disney by making feature films, sticking instead to gag-based seven-minute shorts that made their comic points with masterly economy. The studio’s four key directors, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng, and Chuck Jones, soon developed styles of their own that owed little to Disney’s genteel whimsy. What resulted was a house style that mated silent-movie slapstick with the high-speed repartee of screwball comedy to inspired effect.*
The unit’s principal “star,” Bugs Bunny, who made his screen debut in 1940, was a distinctively urban-sounding rabbit modeled after James Cagney, Warner’s best-loved real-life screen hero. Like Cagney—and unlike the sputteringly hapless Daffy Duck, Warner’s second-most popular cartoon character—the wisecracking, preternaturally self-assured Bugs was omnicompetent in the face of disaster. Between them, Bugs and Daffy neatly symbolized the limits of human aspiration. As Chuck Jones explained: “Bugs is who we want to be. Daffy is who we are.”
Much of the brilliance of the Warner Bros. shorts was a simple matter of superior comedic craftsmanship. Voiced with panache by the radio comedian Mel Blanc and accompanied by the zany, collage-like musical scores of Carl Stalling, they were consistently funnier than Disney’s cartoons, in part because they were designed to appeal to adults as well as children. This helps to explain why they remain so watchable today. As Jones put it in a 1988 interview:
We never made films for adults, and we never made films for children….We made pictures for ourselves, and we were lucky because the producers never knew exactly what we were doing.
In addition, Disney’s animators, for all their matchless technical virtuosity, also made a fundamental aesthetic mistake that would cost them dearly. Artist for artist, the Disney team packed a greater technical punch than any animation shop in history, but its product grew duller and duller, while the Warner cartoons of the same period became wittier and more vivid. Why? Because Disney’s creative team was fixated on the chimerical goal of what its animators called “the illusion of life,” whereas Clampett, Freleng, and Jones understood that no matter how well you drew it, a cartoon was bound to look like a sequence of two-dimensional drawings of talking animals. By renouncing Disney-style hyperrealism and accepting the inherent limitations of their medium, these men freed their imaginations to run rampant within those limitations. Not so Disney, whose goal was to make his studio’s cartoons look as lifelike as possible,
thus stultifying the creativity of his collaborators.
Jones, the most imaginative of Warner’s animation directors, was also the first to move decisively toward an explicitly surrealistic approach that had always been implicit in the studio’s renunciation of conventional realism. While cartoon slapstick usually exceeds the boundaries of the physically possible, it is almost always rooted in and recognizably related to reality. But in Duck Amuck (1953), the most radical of Jones’s cinematic experiments, an offscreen animator (who turns out to be Bugs Bunny) torments Daffy by constantly redrawing the world around him, thus loosening the viewer’s grasp on what is “real.” Similarly original are the cartoons in which Wile E. Coyote fanatically pursues the Road Runner through a sparsely drawn desert, violating along the way most of the laws of physics.
Unlike his colleagues, Jones was no less adept at creating memorable cartoons that dispensed with the now-familiar Warner characters. Perhaps the best of them is One Froggy Evening (1955), a dialogue-free, unsettlingly dark parable of obsession in which a demolition worker discovers a singing frog in a musty cornerstone and resolves to make him a star—only to learn to his horror that the stubborn frog will not sing for more than one person at a time.
What made it possible for golden-age animation to flourish well into the 50s was the fact that cartoon shorts, like bottom-of-the-bill Westerns and film noir B-movies, were seen by Hollywood executives as fungible commodities, by-products of the studio system whose creators were left alone by their employers so long as they stayed within their budgets and finished their films on time. Only in retrospect did the artistry of cartoons like Duck Amuck and One Froggy Evening come to be widely acknowledged—and once the studio system collapsed, there was no longer any cost-effective way to produce them.
By the late 60s, animated shorts had ceased to be produced for theatrical release, and full-length features were few and far between. Then, in 1988, Disney released Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a dual homage to golden-age cartoons and film noir that combined animation with live action to spectacular effect. The success of Roger Rabbit inspired the studio to make The Little Mermaid, a 1989 feature-length adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale. These immensely popular films triggered a cartoon revival in Hollywood, one that was facilitated by the introduction in 1990 of computer animation, which was well suited to the hyper-realistic drawing style for which the Disney studios had long been famous and which soon supplanted traditional ink-and-paint animation. For the first time since the demise of the studio system, it was possible for cartoons to turn a profit.
Many, if not most, of the post–Little Mermaid features that have done well at the box office, however, are child-oriented films whose coarsely knowing scripts emulate the reflexively sarcastic manner of the postmodern TV sitcoms on which they are based. They are also often sanctimonious exercises in political correctness that preach the paramount virtue of tolerance (their plots usually hinge on the “difference” of their principal characters), reaching predictable and enervating ends.
The promise of animation as an adult form of entertainment, by contrast, remains bright, if not yet fully realized. In addition to such deservedly admired animated TV sitcoms as The Simpsons (1989–), Daria (1997–2002), and King of the Hill (1997–2010), a handful of first-rate animated feature films, most of them produced by Pixar, have managed to break free from the rigid stereotypes of neo-Disney animation. Brad Bird’s The Incredibles (2004) and Ratatouille (2007), like Who Framed Roger Rabbit before them, are intelligently written adult comedies in which computer animation serves the director’s will rather than subverting it.
But there can be little doubt that the old-fashioned animated short is gone for good, henceforth destined to be remembered and enjoyed only by connoisseurs. Not only is its format unsuited to the needs of film distributors, but most modern-day moviegoers seem incapable of making the imaginative leap necessary to appreciate hand-drawn cartoons whose humor relies not on media-savvy pseudo-irony but on a clear-eyed understanding of human nature. Unlike today’s crassly jeering cartoon characters, Bugs and Daffy know that nothing is funnier than the truth—augmented by a strategically placed banana peel on which to slip.