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Anything is possible in a cartoon. Animals can talk, aliens can blow up planets and cars can turn into giant robots. One of the leaders in cartoon animation is the Warner Bros. Animation studio that was originally founded in 1933. Primarily responsible for the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies theatrical shorts, Warner Bros. Animation also gave birth to the popular 90’s cartoon titled Animaniacs.
Warner Bros.’ first animated theatrical series was Looney Tunes, directed by Chuck Jones and Tex Avery among others. Beginning in 1930, these theatrical shorts were played before feature films in theaters across the United States. There were two series (Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies), both featured such characters as Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, and what came to be one of the most recognizable cartoon characters of all time, Bugs Bunny.
The series’ popularity soared when the shorts began airing on network and syndicated television in the 1950s. However, because the syndicated shorts were targeted to a younger audience and also because there were concerns over childrens’ television in the 1970s, the cartoons were edited to remove particular scenes of violence. Other scenes that were removed involved stereotypical portrayals of certain racial and ethnic groups as well as questionable vices such as cigarettes and the consumption of alcohol.
The Looney Tunes cartoons were crafted in the traditional hand drawn animation style and are characterized by their rich orchestral soundtracks, nonsensical situations, wild characters and comical situations. The Warner Bros. team brought audiences all the way from outer space (with characters such as Duck Dodgers and Marvin The Martian) to more familiar settings like everyday kitchens and living rooms (as seen in the films that feature such characters as Sylvester the cat and Tweety the bird). Stories take place all over the world and sometimes show recognizable landmarks and buildings such as the Colosseum and the Taj Mahal. Sometimes the characters’ actions and movements would follow the laws of physics while other times they’d be completely unpredictable . One of the staples in the shorts is that characters are subjected to violence that would normally result in death only to return unscathed in the next scene. This is most likely why children enjoy watching the cartoons even though characters like Wile E. Coyote don’t always get what they want. The resurrection aspect feeds into “happy delusions of immortality that pervade one's early years”. Due to the 6-10 minute time frame of each short, the stories are often fast paced.
Beginning in 1993, Warner Bros. Animation began airing a new animated series created by Tom Ruegger titled Steven Spielberg’s Animaniacs (or just simply Animaniacs). The show was created after the success of an earlier show that was also created by Tom Ruegger, Tiny Toon Adventures. Animaniacs was a mix of slapstick, old-fashioned wit, pop culture references and cartoon violence. It was also well known for its humorous educational segments that covered subjects such as geography, astronomy, mathematics, science, history and social studies, often in musical form. With its variety show format, Animaniacs contained short skits featuring a cast of characters. The show was composed of three short mini-episodes that would each star a different set of characters.
First airing on “Fox Kids” from 1993 to 1995, the series ran newer episodes from 1995 to 1998 as part of the afternoon programming block on “Kids WB”. There are a total of 99 episodes that later would receive airplay on other popular television networks including Nickelodeon, Nicktoons Network and Cartoon Network.
The humor of Animaniacs varied in type and would range from parody to cartoon violence. The show also made use of catchphrases and recurring jokes/segments. Multiple characters on Animaniacs had catchphrases, with some characters having more than one. A few notable catchphrases include Wakko’s “Faboo!”, Yakko’s “Goodnight, everybody!” often said following adult humor and the most prominent one that was said by all the Warners was “Hello-o-o, nurse!”. Recurring gags included a close up of the Warner’s water tower after the closing credits; right before the end of the episode the water tower door would open and one or more of the characters would come out, say something to the audience and the water tower door would close. Another joke was during the last few lines of the opening theme, after the phrase “We’re animaney, totally insaney”, one or more of the Warners would chime in with a rhyming phrase.
Animation work on the show was sent out to several different studios over the course of production. Most episodes frequently had animation from different companies in each episodes respective segments. The series was created with a higher production value than standard television animation; the show had a higher cel count than most TV cartoons.
Animaniacs had its own original score constructed by a 35-piece orchestra and contained a variety of music types. Many songs were parodies of classical or folk music with educational lyrics, such as “Wakko’s America”, which listed all of the states in the U.S. and their capitals to the tune of “Turkey in the Straw”. Another titled “The Presidents”, named every US president to the tune of the “William Tell Overture”. Other songs that were parodied include the “Mexican Hat Dance'' and “Singin’ in the Rain”.
The characters’ humor was aimed at an adult audience as well as children. One character, Minerva Mink had episodes that network censors considered too sexually suggestive for the show’s intended audience, for which she was soon de-emphasized as a featured character. Some other characters had personalities similar to those of film stars in movies that were marketed towards adults. For instance, the show’s recurring Goodfeathers segment (tough guy pigeons in Brooklyn) was populated with characters that are based on Martin Scorsese’s R-rated crime drama Goodfellas. Other films parodied include George Lucas’ Star Wars, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s Beauty and the Beast, Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, Robert Stevenson’s Old Yeller and John G. Avildsen’s Rocky.
Both Looney Toons and Animaniacs were created by Warner Bros. using traditional 2D animation techniques. Another relation between the two series is that they both have characters that animate in a “full animation” fashion. This means that features such as arms and legs would be redrawn in between frames to give a lifelike quality to the characters. This allowed both cartoons to bring their wacky character’s emotions and expressions to exaggerated levels.
Parodies are another subject that both series have in common. Animaniacs would poke fun at all kinds of historical figures from the past just like Looney Tunes had done decades before. An example of one of the Looney Tunes parodies would be in the film “Long-Haired Hare” where Bugs Bunny is seen conducting a performance as Leopold Stokowski (imitating his energetic style). In the Animaniacs episode “Cookies for Einstein”, the Warners try to sell Albert Einstein some cookies while he works on solving the theory of relativity. Another parody can be seen in an episode where Skippy squirrel becomes upset after seeing a movie titled “Bumbie, the Dearest Deer” a clear reference to the the Disney film Bambi directed by David Hand.
Both series have been played theatrically as well. While Animaniacs was created for television, there was a short titled “I’m Mad” which opened nationwide alongside the full-length animated feature Thumbelina (directed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman) on March 30th, 1994. While Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies screened theatrically for decades, Animaniacs only did so once.
Another similarity between the two creations is that they contained certain material that television network censors deemed inappropriate for children to watch. Both series comprised scenes of characters inflicting violence on themselves as well as engaging in risky or dangerous behavior that could be easily imitated by a younger more impressionable audience.
The use of catchphrases and recurring gags is another similarity between the two productions. In fact, the catchphrase “Hello-o-o nurse” was actually created with Bugs Bunny’s character in mind and was originally going to be used for the character Buster Bunny on Tiny Toon Adventures. (Ruegger) More examples of catchphrases from Looney Toons characters include Porky Pig (That’s all Folks!), Daffy Duck (You’re despicable!), Bugs Bunny (What’s Up, Doc?) and Elmer J. Fudd (Be vewy vewy quiet, I’m hunting wabbits).
One object that is unique to the Looney Tunes brand is that on November 15th, 1996 Warner Bros. released the hugely successful film Space Jam directed by Joe Pytka, a film that opened at #1 in the US box office and grossed over $230 million worldwide. The movie starred all of the popular Looney Tunes characters alongside live action basketball superstars Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, Charles Barkley, Muggsy Bogues and Shawn Bradley. Animaniacs never released a full length feature film in theaters.
In the end, it’s clear that through the years cartoons can stay relevant and evolve into something new entirely at the same time. Warner Bros. has no plans to do anything with the Animaniacs franchise as of late but has been theatrically releasing CG shorts featuring classic Looney Tunes characters such as Sylvester the cat and Road Runner. These new films are being shown before various feature presentations in movie theaters all around the United States (similar to how the original cartoons were seen). What will the future hold for Bugs and company? We’ll have to wait and see.