Sunday, October 30, 2005

Bugs Bunny vs. America

The new Looney Tunes Golden Collection includes a number of cartoons that weren't released on VHS tape before, including one of my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoons, Bob McKimson's "Rebel Rabbit" (1949).

Image Hosted by

McKimson's Bugs Bunny cartoons from the late '40s aren't quite like anybody else's. For one thing, his Bugs looks very different from everybody else's -- chubbier, toothier, and frankly uglier than the Bugs who features in other cartoons, which is ironic considering that all the other directors were working from a Bugs model sheet designed by McKimson. When it came to character design, McKimson never seemed to care much about making characters look good; his one-shot supporting characters, like Gruesome Gorilla in "Gorilla My Dreams" or the hillbillies in "Hillbilly Hare," are grotesque-looking, with weirdly-proportioned bodies.

This kind of design doesn't look pretty but gives lots of opportunities to any animator who wants to take advantage of the characters' long arms and chubby bodies to put lots of characterization into the upper body movements, especially arm movements. Manny Gould, a Clampett animator who worked for McKimson from 1947 to 1949, arguably did even funnier animation for McKimson than for Clampett; Gould's specialty, as I've written before, was having characters swing their arms about and thrust themselves directly toward the camera, and McKimson characters were perfect for this kind of animation. Here are some still frames from a Manny Gould scene in "Rebel Rabbit" where Bugs confronts a U.S. Senator (based, like Foghorn Leghorn, on the Senator Claghorn character from Fred Allen's show):

Image Hosted by

Image Hosted by

Image Hosted by

McKimson and his writer, Warren Foster, took what might be called a situation-based approach to Bugs Bunny. Whereas most other directors usually stuck with the formula of Bugs vs. a hunter (most of Bob Clampett's Bugs cartoons stick to this) or Bugs vs. a big loudmouthed jerk (Chuck Jones' favorite kind of Bugs cartoon), and put a spin on those basic situations, McKimson's and Foster's way of putting a twist on the Bugs Bunny formula was to put Bugs in the weirdest situations possible.

So in the Bugs cartoons directed by McKimson and written by Foster, we get:

- Bugs is suckered by the Easter Bunny into delivering eggs for him ("Easter Yeggs")
- A lab researcher wants to remove Bugs's brain and replace it with the brain of a chicken ("Hot Cross Bunny")
- Bugs tells the story of his life, in which he is a failed entertainer who caught a lucky break ("What's Up, Doc?")
- Bugs is conned by the Three Little Pigs into buying straw and stick houses before the Wolf blows them down ("The Windblown Hare")
- Bugs helps Christopher Columbus on his voyage ("Hare We Go" -- one of the few Bugs cartoons with no villain, though Columbus does at one point try to eat Bugs when the food runs out)
- Bugs rubs a lamp and meets an annoying genie voiced by Jim Backus, who sends him to Baghdad ("A Lad-In His Lamp")

You'll also note from some of those plot descriptions that McKimson's Bugs in this period is not particularly smart, nor is he particularly sympathetic. He usually wins, but more out of sheer destructive aggressiveness than the intelligence we usually associate with him. He's not a crazy rabbit either, as he is in Clampett's cartoons; he is, really, kind of a tough-talking thug, who's sympathetic largely because his opponents are also thugs.

"Rebel Rabbit" takes that approach to the logical extreme: here Bugs is not only a thug, but almost literally a terrorist. He is so furious to discover that the U.S. government only has a two-cent bounty for hunting rabbits ("Rabbits are perfectly harmless") that he swears to prove that "a rabbit can be more obnoxious than anybody!" The rest of the cartoon is just one gag after another of Bugs doing the most destructive things he can possibly do short of actually killing people onscreen; he literally ties train tracks in knots, sells Manhattan back to the Indians, and in the most famous gag, saws off Florida and cuts it loose, yelling: "South America, take it away!"

Bugs goes as far with destruction and mayhem as a cartoon character possibly can -- by his own admission, "too far" -- to the point that the government declares him a menace and sends in the army (in stock live-action footage) to take him down.

It's a disturbing cartoon, in the sense that we're seeing a beloved cartoon character running amuck, wrecking private property and getting attacked by the army. But in a way it's the most plausible portrait of what would happen if a cartoon character were let loose in the real world, our world: the things that look cute in a cartoon universe don't seem so cute when he's doing it to us. Accordingly, the backgrounds for this cartoon (designed by McKimson's layout man, Cornett Wood, whose departure in 1951 may have been what caused McKimson's cartoons to get visually duller) are mostly very realistic portrayals of familiar real-world sights like the U.S. Senate and Times Square. It's a cartoon about cartoon energy and violence being unleashed upon a non-cartoony world, and it's both funny and kind of scary.

No comments: