If any one thing unites different fandoms, it’s the tendency to react strongly to any hint of change in the things they love. And while vocal backlash against a favorite franchise evolving has become something of a cultural joke, there’s some reasoning behind it. Changing characters’ design aesthetics, voice actors, or personalities can leave the people who’ve grown to love them feeling disrespected or left out. But change is often necessary for old properties to feel relevant to new audiences. Like the people who watch them and the cultures that produce them, these characters and properties evolve.
When HBO Max launched in May, its original content roster included Looney Tunes Cartoons, a new series produced by Warner Bros. Animation, paying homage to the classic Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoon series. But while the new series kept the familiar characters’ designs and vocal styles, something was missing: they took away the guns. Specifically, Elmer Fudd is missing his shotgun, and Yosemite Sam has lost his pistols.
Why remove iconic weapons from characters who have been around for more than 70 years? The only official answer came from a New York Times interview with showrunner Peter Browngardt. “We’re not doing guns, but we can do cartoony violence — TNT, the Acme stuff,” he says. “All that was kind of grandfathered in.” But an educated guess is that the people behind Looney Tunes Cartoons don’t want their cartoon characters associated with the rise in mass shootings in America.
HBO Max is streaming the original cartoon series and several spinoffs. So even though Looney Tunes Cartoons has gone gunless, you can still watch gun-heavy classic episodes like the hunting trilogy “Rabbit Fire,” “Rabbit Seasoning,” and “Duck! Rabbit, Duck!”, three shorts featuring Elmer Fudd, Bugs Bunny, and Daffy Duck. These shorts were the first to pit Daffy and Bugs against each other, and to change Daffy’s original personality from a screwball to an egotistical schemer.
Before we get up in arms about gun-shy snowflakes and start blaming cancel culture for ruining a classic American cartoon series, let’s ask the question, “Do guns in any way define these characters?” Looney Tunes Cartoons makes it clear that they don’t. The new shorts still capture the witty essence of the original series. Each episode is brimming with wacky, unpredictable cartoon violence, delivered with remarkable simplicity by lovable, familiar characters. Even the iconic voices have been reproduced startlingly well, by a talented voiceover cast including Eric Bauza (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tweety), Bob Bergen (Porky Pig), and Jeff Bergman (Sylvester, Elmer Fudd, Foghorn Leghorn). And for fans who are worried that the disappearance of guns means a move away from cartoon comedy violence, Warner Bros provided several clips and episodes for free on YouTube, one of which clearly shows Bugs has no difficulties blasting Elmer Fudd without a rifle in hand.
In fact, Looney Tunes Cartoons is so true to the original series that it can be jarring at first to people unfamiliar with the classics, because this new series isn’t a reboot or spinoff, but a continuation of the original series that ran from 1930 to 1969. Once upon a time in Hollywood, in an effort to compete with Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse short cartoons, Warner Bros. made a deal with Leon Schlesinger to produce a new series of cartoons. Schlesinger hired animators Rudolf Ising and Hugh Harman to make those cartoons. Thus, with a name inspired by Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies animated musical shorts, Looney Tunes’ Silly Symphony was created. But in 1933, Ising and Harman left Warner Bros. over a budget dispute, taking with them their characters and cartoons, and leaving Warner Bros. with only one original character, Buddy.
But with every dark cloud comes a silver lining. When Ising and Harman left, Warner Bros. hired and promoted three new directors — Tex Avery, Friz Freleng, and Bob Clampett — to work with the animators in the Schlesinger studio. The three made their debut in 1935 with “I Haven’t Got a Hat,” featuring the first appearance of Porky Pig and Beans the Cat. Other iconic characters soon followed, including Daffy Duck (1937), Elmer Fudd (1940), and their most popular character to this day: Bugs Bunny (1940).
And before Schlesinger sold his interest in Looney Tunes to Warner Bros in 1944, he phased color into the production in 1942, further increasing the series’ popularity, and adding the last essential component to the cartoons. At this point, Warner Bros’ Looney Tunes was the most popular animated comedy series at the time, standing atop of what would be later recognized as the Golden Age of American Animation between 1944-1964. At this point, the future for Warner Bros. Animation was bright.
Over the next several decades, Looney Tunes continued its success, cementing itself as one of the most popular cartoons not just in America, but in the world. And with that success came spinoffs and movies, beginning in 1990 with Tiny Toon Adventures and continuing until now. Most of the spinoffs were successful to varying degrees, and to some younger viewers, they became the de facto Looney Tunes, like Space Jam, the 1996 cult classic film where Micheal Jordan teams up with characters like Bugs, Daffy, Sylvester the Cat, and Tweety Bird to defeat invading aliens in a game of basketball. But the more spinoffs and reboots Warner Bros. released, the more it became obvious that the series had an identity crisis.
Each spinoff attempted something different to appeal to its fanbase and newcomers, and each one failed to fully live up to the glory of the original series, barely lasting a few short years before cancelation. One recent example: The Looney Tunes Show (2011-2014), which attempted to reboot the series into a sitcom similar to Seinfield, Friends, and Fraiser. It became clear over time that the Looney Tunes series was riding on the coattails of former glory, particularly the nostalgia for the iconic characters who have become deeply rooted in fans’ memories. The strong storyboards and storytelling that would have made the series stand on its own weren’t there.
Which brings us back to why the new Looney Tunes Cartoons are great: they’re simple. Instead of trying to reinvent the famous characters, or venture into different genres, Browngardt and his creative team take fans and newcomers back to the good ol’ days of Looney Tunes animation while still adapting to societal changes. The episodes are short. They feature fan-favorite characters in plots that can be described in a single sentence. They come with the classic intro and ending animation that accompanied the original series. And like the original series, Looney Tunes Cartoons are imbued with a timeless element that was missing in the countless spinoffs and reboots: a manic energy that makes for quick gags and quicker reversals. The endlessly quick-paced, quick-witted visual jokes are what will keep fans and newcomers coming back, whether they’re tuning in for the unpredictability of silly, harmless cartoon violence, or the catharsis it can provide.
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