Monday, December 6, 2010

The 100 Greatest Looney Tunes Cartoons edited by Jerry Beck

It's probably not shocking to you to learn that I grew up at Bugs Bunny's knee, with additional lessons from Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote, and a touch of Foghorn Leghorn. I'm even about as effective a hunter as Elmer Fudd. Never a big Disney person (and really only Donald Duck, at that), I took to the Looney Tunes gang like nobody's business.

As Leonard Maltin notes in the introduction, Warner Brothers cartoons have influenced multiple generations (though I fear the one after mine, those turning 25 or older right about now, might be the last) with their manic antics, verbal wordplay, and refusal to give up just because authority tells them to. An amazing gathering of talent, from Tex Avery to Friz Freeling to my personal favorite, Chuck Jones, all worked at "The Termite Terrace" to turn the idea of "cute" cartoons on its ear, and we are blessed by their legacy.

Like Maltin, I'm probably more affected by the Warner Brothers cartoons than your average person. I can recite almost the entire Rabbit of Seville script, I frequently try to confuse people by arguing quickly and getting them to accidentally change their opinion (it even works once in awhile!), and I still do a quick-stepping foot dance then run that mimics the roadrunner.

All that is to say that a book like this is a trip down memory lane for me, as I found myself leaping from page to page to see what they had to say about my favorite shorts, from Rabbit of Seville to the Duck Season-Rabbit Season trilogy to even the little-seen Russian Rhapsody, where a pre-Cold War studio gleefully uses communist sentiment to sink Adolph Hitler, fighter pilot. (This short contains one of the best Warner Brother original songs, too.) For me, it was a chance to peek into the minds of experts, ranging from the usual animation historians to people I defer to in comedy expertise, such as Mark Evanier (a veteran of writing Looney Tunes comics, which the book sadly fails to mention) and TV's Frank (of MST3K fame). A brilliant choice was Stephan Pastis, one of the few Sunday cartoonists whose characters can match Bugs Bunny and company gag for gag.

Unsurprisingly, most of the shorts focus on some combination of Bugs, Daffy, and Porky. I was a bit shocked to see how many later shorts were included. I know that animation was more modern and the characters more nuanced, but at the same time, the sense of total insanity which I love comes a lot from the older shorts and I thought more would share that enthusiasm. I also was surprised to see that many of the other primary characters were slighted, particularly the Road Runner. Heck, Pepe Le Pew's only mark on the list is in a cameo role. There's almost a bias towards the more obscure characters, like the 3 Bears or shorts that had none of the usual cast at all. I gotta admit, those are the ones I tend to like least. I'm a character man by heart, and for a Looney Tune to really sing, it needs one of my favorite characters to drive the plot.

In terms of the foils, Elmer is by far the number one suspect, with Yosemite Sam (his louder, less sympathetic clone) a distant second. Oddly, it seemed like the commentators preferred Sam because of his primal evil. Neither seem to get a lot of respect from the writers here, which is a shame. Had they been real people, I think a lot of folks would eulogize Fudd as being one of the overlooked supporting characters of the age.

There are the usual pitfalls in a book of this nature. Some of the commentators overreach in their attempt to analyze the characters, particularly the "almost competence" of Porky Pig as compared to Daffy. Others seem to feel like they have to drag Chuck Jones down in order to bring other, lesser-known directors up. I found the need to try and figure out just which cartoon was the most manic (here there is absolutely no agreement) a bit puzzling, almost as much as I found the reduction of some ideas to repetitive gags annoying. (If you have to be told why it's funny that certain jokes get repeated over and over again, you're watching the wrong set of cartoons, folks.)

The biggest mistake, however, was in the inclusion of a grossly offensive cartoon that stands out because none of other other offensive cartoons (and they are legion, let me tell you, having been born early enough to see some before they were banned) are included here. A "great but flawed" section, with appropriate context would have been fine with me, but to say that because they used black voice actors, they were "in on the joke" is just about as offensive to me as the original short. With so many good cartoons to choose from, and given that stereotypes of Mexicans are completely ignored in the Speedy Gonzales short chosen as well, I'm afraid that this book had a tin ear when it comes to valid criticisms of some of the Warner cartoons.

I am a huge fan of Looney Tunes, but we also need to acknowledge that some of what they did just isn't funny, when it comes to portrayals of race. (I don't think I'd mind if most DVDs of Duck Soup took out its completely inappropriate racial joke, for that matter.) If you are going to include offensive things, and I am fine with that, it needs to have solid context. This book did not, and that's a mark against it.

That doesn't mean I'd recommend against reading this love story to classic animation, however. The solid choices far outweigh the questionable ones, and I'd have a hard time quibbling with 90% of these selections. The book handily avoids the mistake of ranking the cartoons, which I thought was both appropriate and clever. There are plenty of stills from the shorts, along with a few sketches and promo materials that add to its value for the amateur animation historian. Learning that most people don't like how they changed Daffy Duck was refreshing, and I liked the varying takes on how Bugs was portrayed by different directors.

Overall, 100 Greatest Looney Tunes is a wonderful pickup for the classic animation fan on your gift list, assuming they don't already own it. Just be prepared to listen as they argue with you (whether you want to be part of the argument or not) about the selections or remarks by the commentators. I can assure you that *I* of course would never do such a thing. Oh no.

No comments:

Post a Comment