Nearly 20 months after AT&T’s WarnerMedia announced plans to meld content from its myriad brands into a streaming service, HBO Max is finally launching today. And one of its signature shows stars an 85-year-old, an 83-year-old, and an (almost) 80-year old—veteran entertainers who once starred in some of the greatest comedy films ever made.
I speak, of course, of Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, and Bugs Bunny.
On Looney Tunes Cartoons, whose first 10 episodes debut today, they’re joined by other iconic characters such as Tweety, Sylvester, Marvin Martian, the Road Runner, and Wile E. Coyote, all of whom themselves date to the 1940s and the golden age of theatrical animation.
The fact that the Looney Tunes crew is back isn’t exactly a massive whoop in itself. Actually, it would have been more surprising if new Warner Bros. cartoons of some sort weren’t part of the HBO Max mix. Though the original Warner cartoon studio closed in 1963, its characters have starred in countless revivals, reboots, and reimaginings ever since. Most recently, a Cartoon Network series called New Looney Tunes skewed toward aggressive modernization efforts such as depicting Daffy Duck drinking pumpkin-spice coffee and Elmer Fudd asking Bugs Bunny to “do me a solid.”
But like every new take on a venerable franchise—I hate that word when applied to works of creativity, and I promise not to use it again—Looney Tunes Cartoons sets up a complex challenge for itself. Fortunately, judging from the three episodes I previewed—and several additional cartoons already live on YouTube—it has an atypically strong sense of what it’s trying to accomplish.
Thanks to licensing, it isn’t hard to grind a profit out of a familiar face more or less forever: Even Felix the Cat, whose stardom faded when the silent era did, has an underwear deal with Benetton. What’s far tougher is keeping yesterday’s characters relevant through new movies and TV shows made without the brilliant minds and cultural moments that made them matter in the first place.
2016’s Peanuts Movie, for instance, was admirably true to Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and company, but didn’t lead to a permanent uptick of interest in Charles Schulz’s characters. Then there are Jim Henson’s Muppets, whose 16 years as a Disney property have been pockmarked with disappointment. (At least they’re getting a new Disney Plus show in July.)
Ultimately, the blander the source material, the easier it is to rehash it for new audiences. Which explains why we will always have Scooby-Doo with us.
Compared to many continuations, however, Looney Tunes Cartoons does start out with some advantages. For one thing, the Warner Bros. characters have never felt stuck in the particular era when they were created. Their jaunty irreverence helped shape American humor as we know it; from 1970s Saturday-morning reruns to 1996’s Space Jam, they have proven their ability to connect with new generations.
For another, the show’s format is the furthest thing from a big bet on one premise. Each episode—there will eventually be 80 in all—runs 11 minutes and includes multiple cartoons. Some run for around six minutes, just like the original Looney Tunes. Some are a bit shorter. And still others are just brief gags. If you don’t like one, there’s a decent chance you’ll find the next one more pleasing.
Over the years, many Looney revivals have aspired to reconstruct the sophisticated feel of the Warner cartoons of the 1950s, when Chuck Jones directed such masterpieces as What’s Opera, Doc?, Duck Amuck, and One Froggy Evening. To varying degrees, many of the HBO Max ones I watched reach back to the even loonier atmosphere of the studio’s 1940s work, typified by Bob Clampett gems such as A Corny Concerto and The Great Piggy Bank Robbery. The most obvious sign: Daffy Duck lives up to his name as an antic troublemaker paired with Porky Pig, rather than the sardonic foil to Bugs Bunny he became in Jones’s 50s cartoons.
Because this earlier period hasn’t been endlessly strip-mined for inspiration, the new cartoons feel unexpectedly fresh. As best I can tell, they aren’t set in any specific period, though Bugs Bunny shows off his 1964 arm-wrestling award in one, and in another his orange-furred monster nemesis Gossamer is crowned “Miss Gruesomeverse ’76.”
The Looney Tunes Cartoons that run the longest and model themselves closely on the vintage shorts have their moments: I’ve watched Yosemite Sam’s unexpectedly giggly reaction when Bugs tickles his palm in David Gemmill’s Harm Wrestling about 20 times, and it’s still delightful. But they’re also the ones most likely to fall back on tropes from the old days in ways that feel merely dutiful. (In Ryan Kramer’s Pest Coaster, Bugs appears in drag; in Pete Browngardt’s Curse of the Monkey Bird, Daffy and Porky do.)
Some of the best cartoons are short and stripped-down. Gemmill also directed Wet Cement, which is less than three almost dialogue-free minutes of Daffy Duck trampling through a sidewalk being laid by Porky Pig in increasingly kooky ways—on duck-footed stilts, via bobsled, in a chariot. Theoretically, this cartoon should begin with some plot providing Daffy with a rationale for ruining Porky’s work. But you know what? We already know what makes these characters tick. It’s possible to cut to the chase—literally!—and pull it off.
Most TV animation has always consisted of what Chuck Jones called “illustrated radio”—talky sitcom material that’s comprehensible even with the picture turned off. Many of these new Looney Tunes pass a much nobler test: They’d be funny without an audio track. Kenny Pittenger’s Firehouse Frenzy is largely devoted to firefighters Porky and Daffy getting ready to do their job, and 90% of the humor comes from the exuberant kinetic energy of the animation.
Another point in Looney Tunes Cartoons’ favor is that they don’t obsess over consistency for its own sake. Gemmill’s Harm Wrestling, Kramer’s Pest Coaster, and Pittenger’s Big League Beast all feature Bugs Bunny, but he looks and behaves slightly differently in each—more laid-back in Gemmill’s short, for instance, and wound tighter in Kramer’s. As any Looney Tunes fanatic can tell you, he was also a meaningfully different character in the films of Clampett, Jones, Friz Freleng, Robert McKimson, and other directors. The fact that the new cartoons’ directors and designers seemingly have some latitude is a promising sign for the episodes yet to come.
Does that mean Looney Tunes Cartoons has a shot at giving us anything to rival enduring classics such as The Great Piggy Bank Robbery and What’s Opera, Doc? Certainly not. From an artistic standpoint, channeling someone else’s work from another era is inherently constricting, no matter how well you do it: Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones, after all, did not make their names directing new Felix the Cat cartoons. You can bring back Bugs and Daffy over and over again—next year, they’re set to costar with LeBron James in a long-overdue Space Jam sequel—but you can never fully reignite the alchemy of the past.
With a show like this, the best we can hope for is that it’s entertaining on its own terms and captures some of the original spirit. Looney Tunes Cartoons does both with more verve and respect than most revivals of beloved creations, animated or otherwise. For those of us who love these characters, it might even be an incentive to pony up $15 a month for HBO Max.