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As you may have heard, the fine folks over Warner Brothers came out with a new Space Jam movie. You may have also heard it’s not especially good, much to the surprise of me… well, most everybody. The original Space Jam is an equally cynical marketing effort that highlighted both mid 1990s basketball and classic Looney Tunes animation in a pop cultural moment where both felt oddly inescapable. By contrast, A New Legacy simply seems to exist as a means for Warner Brothers to attempt to establish their bonafides as a legitimate purveyor of significant popular culture, which causes the end result of appearing desperate. It’s sad and depressing.
But you know what’s not sad and depressing? Looney Tunes. And yes, they can also often be cynical in their own way, but in such a way that allows you in on the joke. (I recognize A New Legacy makes gestures towards this level of self-awareness, but it’s all so handwavey and self-satisfied that it’s hard to appreciate on any genuine level.) And luckily for you, if you have an HBO Max account, you can enjoy a lot of classic Looney Tunes cartoons. Several several hours. And while they’re not all winners (after all, a few of them feature Cool Cat,) there is more than enough to create a curated list of worthwhile Looney entertainment you don’t even need to worry about any Jams in Space. (You might want want to stop by and check out Joe Dante’s imperfect but at least considerate attempt at a Looney Tunes movie in Back in Action, also available on Max.)
Below is a series of curated groups of cartoons that if watched together would take you about two hours, approximating the run time of watching Space Jam: A New Legacy in its entirety. We humbly submit they are a better use of your time. They are broken into four helpful categories: The Early Years, The Bugs Cartoons, The Daffy Cartoons, and The Other Stuff.
The Early Years
I HAVEN’T GOT A HAT
Early on, the crew at Termite Terrace realized they needed their own Mickey Mouse, a central character who, while not appearing in every one of their cartoons would anchor the whole enterprise as a whole. Thus, they used this short, directed by early studio head Friz Freling, as a shotgun blast of new characters, centered around Beans the Cat. But it’s the stuttering ursine in a sweater brute forcing his way through the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere that makes the biggest impression. Porky Pig would go on to be the initial central figure of the Termite Terrace brand for several years, going through multiple renovations before finally landing onto his form we know today. Beyond just that historical significance however, “I Haven’t Got a Hat” is chock full of charming music-centric gags, set against the backdrop of a school talent show that doesn’t so much go off the rails as never settles onto the track.
THE PHANTOM SHIP
Another attempt at making Beans a thing, along with Ham and Ex, this short even more closely models the early Mickey Mouse formula, featuring Beans as an intrepid adventurer going to explore treasure aboard a supposedly haunted ship. There are plenty of 1930s animation rubberband logic sequences however that will delight fans of this era of anarchic cartooning. It is easy to see why Beans never took off as a mascot (he’s fairly flat, and what is there is so derivative of Mickey to feel dispensable) but this short is chock full of good gags that fully utilize it’s moderately creepy premise. It has a sense of adventure that later Looney Tunes abandoned, mixing silliness with genuine swashbuckling.
YOU OUGHT TO BE IN PICTURES
Ever since their earliest days, Termite Terrace animators played with the loose sense of reality surrounding cartoon logic. This short pushes that envelope to its logical point, mixing real world and cartoon elements to suggest that Porky Pig and Daffy Duck are employees on the Warner Brother’s lot. Daffy attempts to convince Porky he should move to major motion picture leading man roles, but only because he wants to take over his spot as the top attraction in Looney Tunes shorts. This is especially relevant to our list here as it takes a lot of the intended self-awareness of the Space Jam films, but executes them with so much more confidence and wit. By far the longest of our shorts covered here at a whopping 9 minutes long, “You Ought To Be in Pictures” stands as a loving, ribbing look at the world of late 1930s Hollywood.
The Bugs Cartoons
A WILD HARE
Directed by legendary cartoon helmsman Tex Avery, this is the easily recognizable start of Bugs Bunny as we know him today. From his leisurely demeanor, aggressive carrot munching (a trait borrowed from Clark Gable’s character in It Happened One Night) and of course his opening line of “What’s up, Doc?”, Bugs makes an immediate impact as a different kind of character from the earlier hectic brand of Looney Tune hero. Paired with his forever nemesis in mild-mannered, rotund hunter Elmer Fudd, it is easy to see why Bugs immediately stood out as the benchmark for Looney Tunes characters going forward.
In the late 40s, Friz Freleng felt that Bugs Bunny needed a shake up and created Yosemite Sam as a new adversary. Diminutive and filled with rage, he served as a stark contrast to the softly spoke Elmer Fudd. “Buccaneer Bunny”, only his third appearance, is peak Sam, cast as a pirate who is overwhelmed by rage as he attempts to run Bugs throughout. Chockful of charming visual gags and manic energy, it crescendos to a perfect Bugs Bunny ending.
While Fudd (and later Yosemite Sam) serve as the primary foils for Bugs, he generally has a structure to his most iconic cartoon outings that follow a certain format: a brutish, often physically overwhelming bullies who Bugs puts in their place through confident antics that appropriately put the heavy in their place. “Baseball Bugs” is an archetypical version of this buoyed by the inherent comedy from sports parodies. Here Bugs dismantles not just one bully, but a whole team of them as he takes on the Gashouse Gorillas, a team of towering, cigar-chomping sluggers, single-handedly. And while it has some non-traditional play around the edges, it still resembles a madcap take on the game of baseball that will appeal to even modern fans of the sport.
THE OLD GREY HARE
In one of his final cartoons for Warner Bros., Bob Clampett calls his shot in regards to the Bugs/Elmer dynamic: this pairing was elemental enough to stand the long haul. This is all the more impressive given this was mere four years after “A Wild Hare”. Thus he casts his view forward towards the distant year 2000, showing an aged Bugs and Elmer in their supposed final confrontation. But midway through the cartoon, Clampett takes a sharp left turn into infantilizing the pair instead, creating a small tableau within his larger story. The point seems to be that the archetypes can be tinkered with endlessly and hold the same integrity. Thus Clampett creates simultaneously the first and final Bugs and Elmer story.
As discussed earlier, the Bugs Bunny formula was fairly standardized from the very beginning: Bugs was the calm customer who dealt with the turbulent forces around him. Occasionally though format would be broken, which leads to cartoons like “Rhapsody Rabbit,” where Bugs is cast as a classic concert pianist who has to deal with mischievous mouse attempting to disrupt his concert. Potentially out of character, but the gags are strong enough and Bugs is cool enough to still be likeable despite being the ostensible heavy of the story. In addition to be an amusing divergence, “Rhapsody Rabbit” is of interest due to it being the cartoon that caused MGM to sue for plagiarism (as well as enact a counter-suit from Warner Bros.) for the striking similarities to their Academy Award winning short, “The Cat Concerto” that came out the same year.
WHAT’S OPERA DOC?
If “Old Grey Hair” serves as the definitive take on the “classic” Bugs cartoon, “What’s Opera Doc?” is Chuck Jones spinning that formula out to its logical conclusion, reimagining the Looney as the literally operatic. While the end result is at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it also serves as a height of creativity for Jones, who uses Wagner’s Ring Cycle as the base for his overblown take on “Hunter chases down rabbit.” He hits several of the highlights of the formula: a crossdressing Bugs, Fudd’s impotent fury, and Jones’ love for expressionistic settings that make things feel both universal and otherworldly. It’s tragi-comic ending, well known by this point, was likely true shock to its original audience, but with it’s final winking nod it reminds you to not take this silliness all that seriously.
The Daffy Cartoons
RABBIT FIRE/RABBIT SEASON
Before transferring into the Daffy-centric content, I have to shout out these two pieces of “The Hunter Trilogy”, also referred to as the Rabbit Season/Duck Season cartoons. The interplay of Bugs and Daffy here so perfectly encapsulates their dynamic and cements what their personality would be for the next sixty years. Rabbit Fire is the likely the best of the trio, and it is annoying that “Duck! Rabbit, Duck!” Is missing, but both the entries that are available are top shelf examples of when Jones had instinctual understanding of who these characters are.
DAFFY DUCK AND THE DINOSAUR
An example of early Daffy before his personality as the vainglorious manipulator was nailed down, this early Chuck Jones cartoon is an amusing exploration of Daffy as the agent of pure chaos. Set against Casper Caveman, a short-tempered…well, caveman that inexplicably talks like Jack Benny, Daffy hoots and bounces his way at a higher octane than modern viewers may assume he operates at. With an explosive ending that mostly amuses in just how far it goes, this will give a good sense of what Daffy’s early persona was.
DUCK DODGERS IN THE 24th ½ CENTURY
By contrast, this is a more familiar example of the Daffy cartoon modern viewers will be familiar with: overconfident Daffy, with Porky as his straight man, finds himself thrown into a increasingly unlikely scenario and finds himself out of his league. I debated between including this or “Robin Hood Daffy”, but this has the benefit of having good Marvin the Martian bits in it, and the joke hit ratio is slightly higher in my opinion. But either or is an excellent example of the form.
This is a stranger version of the Daffy/Porky dynamic: Daffy as the sadistic tormentor of mild-mannered Porky. This episode specifically is a parody of the popular quiz program “Truth or Consequences”, here represented as “Truth or AHHHHH!”, with Daffy as quiz host asking Porky increasingly impossible quiz questions, and Porky receiving increasingly aggressive “penalty” for not being able to answer them. It is surprisingly nasty, but with a clever enough twist in its final moments that it earns some of that darker turn for Daffy.
Full disclosure: “Duck Amuck” is my favorite Looney Tunes cartoon. An experiment on Chuck Jones’ part to see how far he could take away elements from Daffy and maintain his personality, Jones strips him from everything: his voice, his body and of course his dignity. A sly commentary on the inherent cruelty in cartooning, especially of the Looney variety, the short is the height of the Looney legacy of 4th wall shattering commentary, and one that will shift your perspective on cartoons as an artform.
The Other Stuff
The first Warner Brothers cartoon to win the Academy Award for animated short, and the first to feature Sylvester and Tweetie Bird as a comedic pair, this riff on the Tom and Jerry cartoon formula (replacing a mouse with a bird) is mainly buoyed by it’s energetic pacing and relentless comedic sadism. Sylvesters (called “Thomas” here) is an especially interesting presence here, as he fights between his desire to hunt Tweetie, but also knows that even if he were successful, it might mean he would be out on the street. This conflict between nature and shelter propells his actions throughout, and is a surprisingly complex series of motivations that predator cartoon cats are rarely afforded.
THREE LITTLE POPS
By 1957, cartoon versions of the tale of the Three Little Pigs were fairly common place; this wasn’t even Looney Tunes first crack at the story. Thus director Freleng has to bring a new energy to this take, and utilizes 12-bar blues-jazz as his medium. The central joke of the cartoon is that the wolf doesn’t want to eat the bigs, but just join their jazz band, but is labeled too corny. The lengths to which he goes to be worth in their eyes, however, are fairly amusing and a little bit grim when you consider it. With a fun soundtrack and some genuinely laugh out moments, this retelling has a very infectious verve that’s fairly unique.
DEEP IN THE SHEEP
This is a potential controversial opinion: I think there are far too many Coyote and Road Runner cartoons, and far too few Ralph Wolf and Sam the Sheepdogs, with only six. The construct of predator and prey signing in every day to do their endless cat and mouse chase remain unchanged across the cartoons, but the gag simply works throughout the run. This is the best take on their bit, especially with its escalating madcap ending that pushes the audience expectations to absurdity. But this list could come with an addendum of “just watch all of them” !
ONE FROGGY EVENING
On some level, it’s strange that Michigan J. Frog didn’t become a more central and re-used character in the Warner Bros. roster. But it is likely because this cartoon, one Chuck Jones’ finest, is so perfect that it would be hard to imagine where else to go with the character. Expertly timed, hilariously animated and chock-full of catchy vaudeville tunes, this stands a truly inspired six minutes of comic storytelling, simply fun through joyful absurdity.
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