Thursday, November 13, 2008

Hippety Hopper - Not Necessarily The Worst Cartoon Series Ever

I couldn't find the whole cartoon online, but someone has uploaded my favorite scene from the Hippety Hopper cartoon "Too Hop To Handle" (1956), animated by Bob McKimson. McKimson animated on three cartoons during the 3-D shutdown when he had no animators: "The Hole Idea" (on which he received sole animation credit), "Too Hop To Handle" and "Dime To Retire" (on both of which he shares credit with Keith Darling, who moved from Jones's unit to McKimson's).

"The Hole Idea" is a wonderful cartoon, but anyone could have animated it; because of its stylized nature and lack of "character" moments, it doesn't really tell you how good an animator McKimson used to be. This brief scene from "Too Hop To Handle" does recall McKimson's glory days as a master of subtle character animation and perspective. (A YouTube commenter says that the first shot might be Keith Darling because of the Chuck Jones-ish look Sylvester has, and he might be right.) What's great about this scene is not only seeing a little of the '40s McKimson style again, but realizing that in McKimson's own hands, his directorial choices actually make sense -- the lowered eyelids and pointing are tolerable when he's doing them himself.

Warners somehow managed to get through six Looney Tunes DVD collections and almost more than 300 restored cartoons without including a single cartoon from this series (an "unrestored" print of "Hippety Hopper" is included as a bonus on volume 6), making it the least-appreciated of WB's successful cartoon series. I wouldn't make any great claims for it, but I do like it better than the Speedy Gonzales series, and maybe the Pepe Le Pew series from the mid-'50s on.

It is, of course, one of the most limiting concepts ever to become a successful series -- it and Pepe Le Pew both suffer not so much from being formulaic as from requiring so much setup before the cartoon can really start. (The Road Runner cartoons are formulaic, but they don't require us to wait around for two minutes until someone gets a white stripe down her back or a baby kangaroo gets mistaken for a mouse.) And the ones that stick to the rote formula of Sylvester and Sylvester Jr. encountering Hippety Hopper can be pretty hard to get through, especially the post-shutdown ones, with the exception of "Too Hop To Handle," which benefited from Warren Foster coming back to write it. (And the ones that have Sylvester and Jr. without Hippety Hopper, like "Cat's Paw" and "Fish and Slips," are downright dismal.) But unlike Pepe Le Pew, which never did a single change-of-pace cartoon except "Really Scent," the Hippety Hopper series mixed it up sometimes with some cartoons that had unusual new characters or premises, like for instance:

- "Hop, Look and Listen," pairing Sylvester with "Benny" ("But I can't say Sylvester, George"), allowing Tedd Pierce to write one of his beloved "Of Mice and Men" parodies and Stan Freberg to do his classic goon voice.

- "Bell Hoppy" (1954) - Like most of McKimson's surprisingly strong 1954 output, this one is really quite interesting and different, not only because it actually puts a new twist on the premise (cats trying to put a bell on a giant mouse) but because it offers a different characterization of Sylvester, who spends the whole cartoon imitating (I think) Bert Lahr.

- "Lighthouse Mouse" (1955) - I still haven't figured out whether I like this cartoon, what with its cruelty (even for Sylvester, he's treated badly in this one), crazy Scottish lighthouse keeper and parrot, but like all cartoons written by Sid Marcus, it's certainly different.

- "Hoppy Days" (1960) - The Jimmy Durante boxing promoter cat cracked me up as a kid, even before I knew who Durante was.

The Hippety cartoons are easier to appreciate when you're a child, because the fact that he has no personality doesn't matter so much to a kid (kids just like his happy attitude), and because this is one of the few WB cartoon series with kids as characters: Hippety is a baby mouse and Sylvester Jr., unlike Bugs' nephew Clyde, is a genuinely effective and funny kid sidekick character, one of the few such characters in classic cartoons.


Robert Hutchinson said...

I often found Sylvester Jr. amusing enough to not even care whether or not the rest of the cartoon was any good.

(Crazy moose, loose in the hoose--RAAAK!)

Anonymous said...

I've always thought any appeal on these cartoons was based on Sylvester's reactions, as opposed to any great fondness for Hippety.

The only thing that's bothered me over the years about these is that Sylvester should have known it wasn't a giant mouse.

Bell Hoppy doesn't remind me of Bert Lahr at all. The blackout format reminds me a bit of Freleng.

F. Fox

Larry Levine said...

I had a record (as in LP) as a kid called "Bugs Bunny & Friends" which was a batch of audio Looney Tunes stories--including one in which Mel Blanc voiced Hippety with an Australian accent. I'm guessing this is the only time the character spoke.

Anonymous said...

Nothing is inherently wrong with the McKimson Sylvester Jr. cartoons. He just made way too many of them. He made his point with the first.

Anonymous said...

What also makes "Too Hop to Handle" rise above the series' normal output, aside from McKimson's animation, is the fact that he and Junior finally do figure out in this cartoon that Hippety is not a giant mouse -- not that it does Sylvester any good at the iris out (or that they remember it for the next cartoon), but it does avoid a bit of the annoyance of the "idiot plot" that Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel used to reference in their film critiques; in that the only way for the story to work is for the character(s) in it to be idiots (yes, Warners cartoons wouldn't survive if certain characters weren't idiots, but putting them in the same plot over and over again is where it gets annoying).

Anonymous said...

A Hippety Hopper cartoon on the old Saturday morning Bugs Bunny show always meant that it was time to head to the kitchen for another bowl of Lucky Charms. :)

Yeldarb86 said...

"But I can't say Sylvester, George"

For some reason, I immediately started laughing when I read this line.

The Hippety Hopper series was okay, except in entries like Lighthouse Mouse when the characters were incredibly mean or stupid.

J. J. Hunsecker said...

I never cared for Hippety Hopper, even as a child. McKimson's 50's cartoons are usually pedestrian, barring a few exceptions. I'd rather have watched any Pepe Le Pew cartoons. At least Pepe had charm.

Anonymous said...

Was never a big Sylvester Jr. fan; the "my father is so brave/I'm ashamed of my father" stuff got old rather quickly. I prefer the Hippety Hopper shorts without him, like "Lighthouse Mouse", "Hop, Look, and Listen", "Bell Hoppy", and "Hoppy Go Lucky".

Anonymous said...

''McKimson animated on three cartoons during the 3-D shutdown''

What is this shutdown that people have mentioned in different animation blogs? When did WB have a shutdown and why?

Also, I think Sylvester Jr harmed the cartoons more then helped them. The Hippety Hopper shorts like the one with Sylvester and Benny were much better, as it added some sort of variety as to how Sylvester was roped into continuing the battle with Hopper. This, to me, was much funnier than the the beatings that followed (which you were expecting).

Dave Mackey said...

So the story goes, Warner Bros. cartoons was shut down in the early 1950's as Jack Warner was envisioning the entire movie industry going 3-D and he wasn't willing to make every cartoon of his in that format. There was just a skeleton staff on hand to do odds and ends like prepare Blue Ribbon reissues, but not much else. The staff scattered, but many of the artists were rehired when the studio reopened. Some assistants were finally promoted to animator like Keith Darling, who'd been with the studio since the late 30's. Some of those who didn't return after the layoffs included Rod Scribner, Ken Champin and Charles McKimson.

P.O.'d 80's Baby said...

Hold up! I love the Hippety Hopper series! I want every episode. I found this blog because I'm looking for scarce and elusive clues to proof that they even existed. Who the heck critiques looney tunes anyway? These are from my child hood and were very amusing, I liked that you knew what was going to happen. in fact a lot of cartoons, the best ones actually have survived off their formulaic predictability.
Look it up! Try to find a successful cartoon character anywhere , much less looney tunes, that didn't have a strong formula and give you a sense of predictability. That's the gimmick. that's the hook. that's how it works. I love these episodes and consider them now to be a rare treat. I'm disappointed they are so hard to find.