Like any child in the pre-internet era, I spent an awful lot of time watching cartoons. I watched the good, the bad and the ugly.
I’d watch Flintstones and Jetsons, Woody Woodpecker and G.I. Joe, Super Friends and Yogi Bear. A lot of the worst featured sub-par animation where only characters’ mouths moved jerkily, or backgrounds that appeared to be made on a rusty photocopier.
Always in the top tier, of course, were Disney and Warner Brothers. Disney made some ground-breaking, amazing animation, and set the standard. But when it comes to the best – the toons that make you feel glad to be on this planet, the ones you’d watch again and again – I’m a Looney Tunes man through and through.
Even as a kid, I knew that the half-hour or so of vintage Looney Tunes cartoons that played weekday afternoons were something special.
As I limp my way into mid-middle age, I still find comfort in binging a handful of Warner Bros’ seven-minute gems, still as hilarious and free-wheeling as they were decades ago. Time has rubbed some of that rebellious edge off the Looney Tunes – I know there have been cartoons starring them since the original run ended in 1969, but watching Bugs play basketball with NBA stars just ain’t the same to me as having him run rings around Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck in the “rabbit season” trilogy. The originals remain the peak of the animation form and a showcase for sheer mad creativity.
Bugs is always funny, Daffy is reliably explosive, Porky amiably daft, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner Shakespearean in their eternal struggle, and even Foghorn Leghorn’s blowhard act raises a chuckle from me. (Let’s not talk too much about Speedy Gonzales or Pepe Le Pew, though.) There’s a lot of formula and a few bucketloads of caffeinated frenzy over the 900 or so Looney Tunes, of course, and I heartily recommend only watching a half-dozen or so in one sitting lest all the ACME equipment and carrot-chewing permanently liquify your brain.
But watching some of these cartoons for the 10th or 20th time in my life, I’m struck the most these days by the sheer hand-hewn artistry of them all. Pixar and its computer-generated toon spawn have entertained and delighted us all too, but there is something tangible and awe-inspiring about watching the OG toons, where every single line was drawn by a probably chain-smoking, squinting human being.
Animation is a form where innovation led to an explosion of energy, Reid Mitenbuler writes in his highly entertaining recent history of the early years of the form, Wild Minds.
Walt Disney became the biggest household name, but the likes of Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Mel Blanc, Frank Tashlin and many more shaped the anarchic spirit of animation and shook up Disney’s tendency for stuffiness. The Looney Tunes may have been repetitive – coyote chases road runner, hunter chases duck, cat chases bird – but it was the ceaseless creative invention around the margins of these blueprints that still amuses today.
To get a real feeling for the artistry of these gents, watch some of a Looney Tunes cartoon some time frame by frame. (You can pull one up on YouTube and pause it, then press the “.” key to do just that.)
It’s astonishing to watch the carefully hand-drawn antic life in these drawings, more than 50 years on. No short-cuts, none of that partial animation that made my childhood “Super Friends” toons seem so static. In motion, these moments sometimes pass so quickly they’re as zippy as the Tasmanian Devil.
That didn’t stop the geniuses from labouring over every single line and contorted facial expression. Frozen in time, you see the craft that went into it all. That’s what makes them art.