No, they weren’t always PC (especially during the war years) and some of the characters wouldn’t fly today, but audiences were a lot less uptight about such things back then. People knew how to laugh at themselves without getting butthurt, unlike today.
I’m more convinced than ever that we as a society have lost something precious because of this. In the early weeks of the quarantine, once some of the early Virus-related memes and jokes surfaced, I couldn’t laugh at them. Even now, I find it difficult to do so, but the fact that some people can find humor in something as deadly serious as the pandemic is pretty remarkable—but we’re getting off-topic.
The Looney Tunes are not the only representatives of WB’s stable of cartoon characters by any means, but they are the best, and they have a long and proud history.
Daffy Duck followed in 1937, then Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny in 1940, all under the guidance of Freleng, Avery, Robert Clampett, Chuck Jones, Robert McKimson and others. By 1942, LSP was bigger than Disney in the field of animated shorts. In 1944, Schlesinger sold the studio to WB and it was renamed Warner Bros. Cartoons.
The roster of characters expanded and the studio moved to a new location, but by 1953, WB shut the operation down. 3D was in and the powers that were thought 3D cartoons would be too expensive. The shutdown was only temporary though; they reopened five months later once 3D fell out of style.
Two years later, the black-and-white shorts were sold and appeared on TV. In 1960, a new TV show combined theatrical shorts with new material. With The Bugs Bunny Show, generations of young people discovered Looney Tunes for the first time.
Bugs and company appeared all over the dial, but I followed them wherever they went, because they were always a highlight of my Saturday morning lineup. Bugs was the animated version of Groucho Marx: brandishing his carrot like a cigar, quick with the one-liners, always the hippest person in the room and eager to take down the uptight antagonists ready to shoot him or eat him or what have you.
Often, he paired with Daffy, and they were explosive. Daffy, being older, probably felt entitled to the lion’s share of the spotlight, and he got it when he teamed up with Porky, but he needn’t have worried. Bugs and him were more like 1 and 1A, and like many great comedy teams, they complimented each other well.
One way was through a partnership with Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment, who already had success in animation with the feature films An American Tail and The Land Before Time (not to mention the animation/live-action hybrid Who Framed Roger Rabbit, in which the Looney Tunes characters appeared).
The result was 1990’s Tiny Toon Adventures, an afterschool cartoon series in which the Looney Tunes acted as mentors to a new generation of younger toons, who also happened to be kiddie versions of the Looney Tunes themselves. (Kid versions of “adult” cartoon characters were popular at the time.) I had started college around this time, but I watched it, and loved it...
WB water tower, this show spawned completely original characters influenced by their predecessors only in spirit, such as the laboratory mice Pinky and the Brain, who eventually got their own series.
These shows were as gonzo as the original Looney Tunes, with humor that adults could get as well as kids, excellent voice actors, rock-solid animation, good music (especially the theme songs) and an anarchic sense of fun that was infectious. Spielberg was executive producer and the creator was Tom Ruegger. His prior experience was with Filmation and Hanna-Barbera before joining WB in 1989. The shows combined for a whopping fifteen Emmy awards.
Also part of the Time merger was the acquisition of DC Comics. In 1992, WBA, in the wake of the Batman movies’ phenomenal success, launched the afterschool Batman: The Animated Series, and it was almost as big of a thunderbolt.
Heavily influenced by the Burton films, which in turn were inspired by the landmark graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, BTAS was dramatic action-adventure in the superhero vein, but it wasn’t dark for the sake of being dark, like far too many Dark Knight imitators in comics were. BTAS was serious, but not drenched in a grim-and-gritty aesthetic, and the animation style reflected that: crisp and streamlined, stylized and cartoonish yet believable. Did I mention it won four Emmys?
BTAS was created for television by Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm, and within the comics fandom, animator/producer/director Timm became something of a god to many of us (only a slight exaggeration, I assure you), along with writer/producer Paul Dini.
The importance of this show cannot be understated. It came at a time when the top-selling superhero comic books looked like this, and those of us in school who were trying to break into the industry were revolted that stuff like that was what sold, in huge numbers. BTAS presented another possibility, one that found a place within mainstream superhero comics in time.
a line of multicultural (but mostly black) superheroes distributed by DC Comics.
WBA was and is behind a whole lotta direct-to-video and theatrical movies and TV specials. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm came out theatrically in 1993 (I went to see it), a better-than-average feature based on BTAS. In 1996, the live-action/animation hybrid Space Jam came out, starring basketball god Michael Jordan in an adventure with the Looney Tunes characters. It might’ve been more entertaining if Bugs didn’t act out of character and job to Jordan, but it’s not like the concept was that great to begin with.
Here’s a Brad Bird interview from last year on the movie.
There are way too many DTV films from WBA for me to talk about, but as for the theatrical movies, the LEGO Movies have done surprisingly well. Some shared-universe stuff with the HB characters is on tap, beginning with the CGI Scoob!, which came out earlier this year via streaming. A Space Jam sequel was in the works pre-pandemic, as was a Tom and Jerry reboot, combining animation with live action.
Basically, Warner Brothers Animation has experienced a ton of growth in the past thirty years and will no doubt continue to do so.