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Cartoon Network’s new The Looney Tunes Show

Lord knows I had my reservations about the entire affair. Trying to do something with these characters outside of the short cartoon format where they were at their best has always been risky; with one or two exceptions (like say, Taz-mania), the less said about efforts like Loonatics Unleashed, Space Jam or Looney Tunes: Back in Action, the better. But in brief, my personal reaction to the first episode… The Looney Tunes show works. I like this show – a lot, as a matter of fact.

Ever hear of the kid in a candy store? That’s me.

The candy store was the one in Brooklyn my parents ran, the one I grew up in. My favorite part of the store was the wall holding shelf after shelf of comic books. Other kids bought the things, but those shelves were my personal lending library. I must’ve read every comic that came through the store (save the romance books and I even gave them an occasional glance) before returning them to the shelves.

This was back in the day when almost every high-profile cartoon character had their own comic book, courtesy of Dell Comics and later on Gold Key. Carl Barks’ tales of Donald, his nephews (ever wonder who their parents are?) and Scrooge McDuck’s globe-trotting adventures are fondly remembered, but the Looney Tunes characters’ comic books are pretty much forgotten. (Did you know the Road Runner had three kids and a wife? And the clan spoke in rhyme/Indeed they did, all the time.) And not unlike Donald and company, Bugs broke out of his seven-minute cartoon mode to star in more narrative-driven tales. My youthful, precocious mind saw no conflict between the two versions: they went on adventures in the comics and indulged in slapstick gags in the cartoons

DC relaunched a Looney Tunes comic book in the mid-90 that gave up on the Barksian adventures and instead tried to replicate the cartoons’ wacky sensibility. After 15-plus years it’s still going strong, but after a couple of issues I started getting that same déjà vu feeling I experienced when watching Tiny Toons or the less creative Disney direct-to-video sequels: favorite moments shuffled, repackaged and quoted – which were better the first time around.

All of which is a roundabout way of getting to the subject at hand: Cartoon Network’s re-introduction of Bugs and company in The Looney Tunes Show.

Lord knows I had my reservations about the entire affair. Trying to do something with these characters outside of the short cartoon format where they were at their best has always been risky; with one or two exceptions (like say, Taz-mania), the less said about efforts like Loonatics Unleashed, Space Jam or Looney Tunes: Back in Action, the better.

But in brief, my personal reaction to the first episode… The Looney Tunes show works. I like this show – a lot, as a matter of fact.

First, let’s get their new look out of the way: Meet Bugs and Daffy, 21st-century style. They’ve been redesigned with an angular look and now sport oversized heads and feet as large as their small torsos. Purists may complain, but there have been any number of iterations of these guys since the 1930s, and there’s more than enough continuity between their 1960’s appearance and today’s to leave no doubt as to whom you’re watching.

The series’ premise (smoothly introduced in the first segment without screaming backstory!) reminded me of those narrative-driven Dell and Gold Key comics stories: Bugs has moved out of his hole in the ground and into a comfy suburban house, with the other WB characters as his neighbors and co-star Daffy as his permanent houseguest. (“I’m just crashing here until I get back on my feet,” he tells Speedy Gonzales who pops in for a first episode cameo. “FYI,” the mouse responds, “when you crash somewhere for five years - you live there.”) In the first episode at least Bugs is surprisingly subdued, more the straight man reacting to Daffy’s would-be finaglings than the ‘wascawy miscweant’ of his theatrical cartoon days. He’s no long Chuck Jones’ neurotic loser (a persona I was never too fond of, to tell the truth) and has become, in Bugs’ words “a mean-spirited, self-absorbed, disturbed little weirdo – but for whatever reason, you’re my best friend.”

To prove he’s not all that self-absorbed Daffy talks Bugs into appearing on a game show where best friends reveal how well they know each other. The answer for Daffy of course, is not all that well. Their opponents: Mac and Tosh, the no-longer-so-ambiguously gay gophers who own the local antiques shop. (“I must say, I’m a fan of cruising.” “Oh yes, we’re cruisers now” – but don’t worry about corrupting the kiddies; they’re actually talking about ocean liners.)

The second segment introduces the show’s version of Lola Bunny, who’s been reimagined as an airheaded chatterbox who drives the usually unflappable Bugs (or “Bun-bun” as she calls him) up the wall, across the ceiling and down the other wall. Before he knows it she’s talked him into marriage, the ceremony arranged by wedding planner –wait for it – Pepe Le Pew.

I really appreciate how story editor Hugh Davidson, exec producer Sam Register and company have reimagined the skunk. Pepe’s one of my favorite WB characters even though I long ago tired of his cartoons’ unvarying plot: stinky skunk who finds himself irresistible relentlessly pursues cat with painted-on stripe who abhors him. They’ve ditched all that, along with the stalking and sexual harassment that are no longer the laff riot they were in the 1950s – but kept and updated the core of his personality: the romantic, self-infatuated ladies’ man. As he tells Lola (who calls him ‘Peppers’!), “your wedding day is the single most important day of your life. I should know – I’ve been married seven times.”

Just about the entire classic WB menagerie is back as well, their basic personalities intact but with more detailed backstories. (Marvin’s now a foreign exchange student who went to Daffy’s high school and Foghorn Leghorn’s become “a rich entrepreneur and adventurer.” I have to confess though, I’m not quite sure about the Tasmanian Devil reimagined as Bugs’ dog.)

They’ve made some surprising choices for back-up characters too: among the neighbors are Witch Hazel and Gossamer (“an awkward yet sweet middle school kid”), and Pete Puma, one of the least known of Bugs’ adversaries. The show’s one new character: Tina Russo, Daffy’s “street-smart, no-nonsense, gum-smacking girlfriend.” (I’m not 100% certain, but Tina may be the first cartoon animal in animation history with a real-world last name.)

I haven’t even mentioned the (conceptually, visually and musically) bizarre ‘Merrie Melodies’ music videos that pop up during the show, like Elmer Fudd’s impassioned ode to grilled cheese sandwiches, or Marvin the Martian’s rap number. (If you’ve ever wondered what’s under his metal skirt, the answer is ‘briefs.’) And then there’s the computer-animated Road Runner segments, visually quite different from last year’s CGI theatrical shorts that faithfully recreated the bird and Wile E.’s 2D designs; if I had to compare these new efforts to anything, it would be the old-time Viewmaster reels that used 3D photographs of sculpted figures instead of cartoon art.

A lot packed into a 22-minute show, and I hope they’re able to sustain it. A few years back I was watching one of my Looney Tunes “Golden Collection” DVDs and for the first time in my life it struck me that these were not just classic cartoons, they were also really old cartoons. It’ll be nice to see the gang using Email and smart phones instead of receiving “Western Onion” telegrams.