I was more skeptical than Yosemite Sam on a riverboat when I heard the recently launched streaming service HBO Max was offering a new generation of Warner Bros. cartoons. Having grown up on a steady diet of original, theatrical Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, a staple of children’s viewing on television in the ’60s and beyond, I was ready to dismiss any cheap knock offs as the work of complete nin-cow-poop.
Having finlly gotten around to watching a few, however, I find that they are faithful to the spirit and design of the originals while, so far at least, not sacrificing any of the eccentricities or cheek.
First a little background. The great Warner Bros. cartoons were made in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s and were shown before feature films in cinemas. They were never intended as kiddie fare on Saturday morning television. They were made for adults.
Watching The Bugs Bunny- Road Runner Show on TV in the ’60s was one of the best comedy educations you could get from TV as a child. Top vocal performers, such as Mel Blanc and June Foray, and top animation directors such as Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett and Friz Freleng, brought Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and others vividly to life. Add Carl Stalling’s scores, Maurice Nobles backgrounds and writing from the likes of Michael Maltese and it was like being bombarded by mid-century masters.
As a teenager, the experience was greatly enhanced thanks to Reg Hartt, Toronto’s semi-underground curator of cartoon classics. Reg would thread his projectors and run 16mm prints of the Warners wonders but also the best of the Max Fleischer gems such as Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons. He also went way off road and showed what TV wouldn’t in terms of the Warners fare, including the early, bizarre goodies from Tex Avery and Clampett and the darker World War II parodies that played to the fear and loathing — and prejudice — found in cinema audiences of the day.
What pleased me about this new, digital, 4K generation of Warners wonders was that the people behind them clearly were also raised on the classics. While speeding things up a notch to match today’s attendtion spans, great care was made to keep an early ’40s feel to the character designs, with Bugs and Porky and Daffy springing to life straight off a Bob Clampett-era character model sheet.
Besides the main WB stars, a few key recurring players, such as the big red furry “Gossamer” monster (and his mad scientist creator) are revived and fitted for a new pair of kicks.
Then there’s finding voice artists who can come close to the master, Mel Blanc, who died in 1989. One who does is Toronto-born Eric Bauza, a stand-up comedian/animation artist who is bang-on as Daffy and Bugs and not bad as Marvin the Martian. Bauza also sspeaks for such legacy ‘toon stars as Pepe Le Pew, Tweety and even Woody Woodpecker. On these new Warners’ ‘toons, Bob Bergen sounds a lot like the Porky Pig I remember. Not quite there is Fred Tatasciore’s Yosemite Sam, but close enough considering the character basically gets blown up every 15 seconds.
The new cartoons start with the familiar red and orange rings circling the WB shield so things get off on the right foot. Carl Johnson and Joshua Moshier evidently went to school on Stalling’s original scores which take on a new clarity.
Hats off, as well, to Pete Browngardt and others here in doing what Jones, Freleng and Clampett did in terms of direction and timing. Of the cartoons I watched, “Curse of the Monkeybird” is as much a parody of “Indiana Jones” as it is any Warners’ ‘toon. The visual energy is all there and so are the gags, with Porky getting glazed like a ham amid other indignities thank’s to Daffy’s blundering. Another Porky & Daffy ‘toon, “Firehouse Frenzy,” had a surreal, fire pole slide to Hell that was very Clampett.
What’s new and welcome are the jokes from today’s world, such as a playful reference to the photo op monitor walls that greet theme park visitors at the end of a ride. Those moments remind me in a positive way of the last time Warners successfully re-booted its animation legacy with Animaniacs.
Time will tell whether any one cartoon will ever become the next “What’s Opera Doc?” or “One Froggy Evening.” As a revival of a classic brand, however, three fingers and one thumb way up from me, doc.
The Looney Tunes Cartoons can be seen exclusively on HBO Max. Bell has Canadian rights to HBO Max content in Canada; however, so far, Looney Tunes are not on the Crave schedule.