Thursday, August 19, 2010

DVD Review: Looney Tunes Superstars: Bugs Bunny Hare Extraordinaire

Looney Tunes Superstars: Bugs Bunny Hare Extraordinaire

(Released August 10, 2010 by Warner Home Video)
Another Looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

Once upon a wondrous time, the land was fertile, unemployment was low… and there was a shining example of how to package animation on DVD called “The Looney Tunes Golden Collections”.

For six glorious years (2003-2008), each fall, the faithful would flock to their favorite retail store or online provider and gleefully partake of the BEST animation experience DVD had to offer. There were FOUR FULL DISCS of classic animated shorts and extras galore.

Commentary tracks by animation figures and historians, isolated music scores, featurettes highlighting specific characters or other aspects of Looney Tunes lore, “lost” bits from the fabled Warner Vault (…or would that be the iconic WB Water Tower?) remnants of the legendary “Bugs Bunny Show” (ABC 1960) – a “Holy Grail” for the “first generation” of TV animation fans. …At one point, there were even LIMITED EDITION MINI-LITHOS included with the package!

And Warner Home Video did not stop there. It offered similarly outfitted Hanna-Barbera series packages, extensive (though not quite complete) Tom and Jerry packages – and even ventured OUTSIDE their own realm to offer all of the Black and White Max Fleischer / Paramount Popeye theatrical cartoons. WHV was clearly the class of its field.

THEN, IT ALL STOPPED… or was severely curtailed.
After 2008, the Looney Tunes Golden Collections ended. Popeye has seemingly ended. And Hanna-Barbera series were limited to being lumped into “Saturday Morning Cartoons” collections or packages decidedly inferior to previous releases. To be fair, “Tom and Jerry: The Chuck Jones Collection” (2009) was a true highlight – and a harkening back to the Glory Days – but that was more of an anomaly.

Repackaging of Scooby-Doo and Tom and Jerry (Still incomplete!) became the order of the day. WHV went on the cheap – and fell from “first” to “worst”.

This leads us to “Looney Tunes Superstars: Bugs Bunny Hare Extraordinaire”.

It is an odd “middle ground” into which this release falls, as we shall see in this review.

As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS.

The Number of Shorts vs. the Price: Fifteen cartoons may seem like a lot, until you consider that (at the rate of three shorts per a theoretical half-hour show), you are only getting the equivalent of FIVE SHOWS! That’s not very much for an MSRP of 19.98.

The Extra Features: There are NO extra features! This is mitigated by the extraordinary amount of such features on the Looney Tunes Golden Collections. But, still for the price, something could have been attempted. At the very least, a few short commentary tracks, as were done in the past.

Robo-Promos: “Robo-Promos” is my term for advertisements that play automatically before you even reach the initial menu. They are unavoidably inflicted upon the viewer before “getting on with the show”, prompting me to add this new category to my CONS list. This was particularly annoying, given the small amount of actual program content that comprised the set, even though you can “zip” through them if you wish. At least there are only two of them here. Other Warner sets have had up to FOUR!

Too Many Warnings: Like Disney, Warner has lawyered itself to excess. A more recent result of this is that, when the program content ends, there are ELEVEN (I’ll repeat it for effect: ELEVEN!) warnings against copyright violations and the like – and in more languages than anyone purchasing this DVD would be likely to comprehend!!! I can certainly understand ENGLISH, SPANISH, and even FRENCH, but this expansive journey into multi-lingual legalese includes various Asian and Arabic languages! WHY? This excessive exhibition kicks in the moment the final cartoon ends and runs for 2:10 (…or about ONE THIRD the running time of some of the later cartoons!). Thankfully, you are able to skip through these, if you wish. …And you WILL wish!

No Double-Dipping: Considering that there have been SIX Looney Tunes Golden Collections – all but one of which containing as many (if not more) Bugs Bunny cartoons as are found on this set – WHV is to be commended for releasing 15 (count ‘em fifteen!) Bugs Bunny cartoons that have NOT YET been released to DVD! It could have been so easy to have simply done otherwise.

The Talent: Some of the very best talents in the history of theatrical animation are featured in this collection, even if some of their later efforts included here are not fully representative of them at their best.

Directors: I. (Friz) Freleng, Charles M. (Chuck) Jones, and the severely underrated Robert McKimson.

Writers: Warren Foster, Michael Maltese, Tedd Pierce – and the also-underrated John Dunn, who stepped into the breach when Foster and Maltese moved-on to Hanna-Barbera.

Music is by “Classic Carl Stalling”, Milt Franklyn, and the also-also-underrated William Lava – who had the sheer misfortune to follow Stalling and Franklyn.

And, of course, “Voice Characterizations” are by the great Mel Blanc – with additional roles by June Foray and Bea Benederet.

Menu and Navigation: Menu navigation is very easy. The Main Menu image of Bugs is attractive, with a nice WB Water Tower background image, similar to the outer packaging pictured above. Main Menu background music is not too loud (a frequent complaint of mine with Warner sets), and appropriately consists of the Main Looney Tunes Theme with the title sub-theme for the short “Hare We Go”.

Image Quality: I don’t really know how to rate this category. I begrudgingly regard it as a “PRO”, but this is how I see it…

It would seem that, starting with the sixth cartoon of the set, 1953’s “Lumber Jack Rabbit”, they appear to have been remastered in some sort of WIDESCREEN effect!

Unlike MGM and Disney (and even later Columbia Three Stooges shorts), I was not aware that any of the Warner Bros. animated shorts were released to theatres in widescreen but, apparently, this would seem to be the case.

If true, however, I wonder why WHV waited until THIS series of releases to start getting “historically accurate”. (The same situation prevails with the concurrent DAFFY DUCK collection!)

After all, there were six previous Golden Collections – and Warner DID release the MGM TOM AND JERRY and DROOPY shorts in widescreen, when they were originally produced that way. So, if this was the case, why didn’t the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies get the same treatment in other DVD releases?

Adding to my initial belief that WHV has indulged in some video trickery, is the fact that the TOP AND BOTTOM OF THE SCREEN IMAGE look to be cut off – or, are far too close to the frame than I recall from nearly a lifetime of viewing these cartoons. Such is not the case with the widescreen DVD releases of DONALD DUCK, TOM AND JERRY, and DROOPY cartoons of the later 1950s that WERE produced for widescreen Cinemascope viewing.

In these cartoons, credits might appear at the VERY TOP (or bottom) of the screen and, if (say) a tall character was wearing a HAT, said hat is cut off at the top of the screen. You can’t help but notice this.

Now, having recently gotten a widescreen HD TV, I must confess that I LIKE the widescreen effect, especially when compared to the standard (full-screen?) image of the first five shorts of the collection.

But, something is still awry when viewing them this way.

Thad Komorowski discusses and illustrates this better than I ever could HERE.

And, the ultimate “PRO” for “Looney Tunes Superstars: Bugs Bunny Hare Extraordinaire”…

The Shorts:

Mutiny on the Bunny” (Freleng, 1950): “Shanghai Sam” (um…) shanghais Bugs to man (rabbit?) his pirate ship, in one of several “Sam as a Pirate” shorts. This is the one where Bugs continually finds new and inventive ways to SINK Sam’s ship, and Sam is seen continually repairing and re-launching it. Classic Bugs and Sam to be sure!

Bushy Hare” (McKimson, 1950): This one was on TV at least once a month (if not more often) in local syndication during the early ‘70s. Then, it disappeared – most likely due to the Australian Aborigine antagonist. The Stork (sober in this outing, unlike in some other cartoons) loses baby kangaroo “Hippity Hopper” and delivers Bugs to a Mama Kangaroo. (“Hippity” is, presumably, off scaring Sylvester into thinking he’s a “giant mouse” for the majority of the short.) Bugs (and the audience) enjoys a highly spirited chase and contest with the fiery little hunter in one of Mc Kimson’s better cartoons. Highlight: Bugs arguing with the Aborigine and not even knowing what he’s saying! …Just curious, do kids today even KNOW about the Stork? Or is this just another aspect of Looney Tunes that has become lost to time?

Hare We Go” (McKimson, 1951): Another great, with Bugs as the mascot on the voyage of Christopher Columbus. Great line: The ship pitches back and forth, allowing Bugs and Italian stereotype Columbus to share the same bowl of soup – until it falls off the table and splatters all over the deck. Observing the sign “Captain’s Mess”, Bugs remarks: “If it’s the Captain’s Mess, let HIM clean it up!”

Foxy by Proxy” (Freleng, 1952): Still another great with Bugs vs. what appears to be about a half-million bouncing and bounding foxhounds (cloned from the Barnyard Dog of the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons)… and one really big, dumb one! To see this pack of pooches move forward and in reverse across your screen is to remember it always! Oddly, Bugs spends most of this cartoon dressed as a fox, just to heckle the hounds.

Hare Trimmed” (Freleng, 1953): Granny inherits a large sum of money, and Sam comes a’callin’ with marriage on his greedy little mind. Bugs is not about to let this happen – with an ending at the church you won’t soon forget! Bea Benederet plays Granny.

Lumber Jack Rabbit” (Jones, 1954): Bugs wanders into the territory of the fabled Paul Bunyan – where everything is giant sized, including the carrot crop and Paul’s watchdog! Bugs sings “Jimmy Crack Corn” throughout this cartoon. A pleasant-sounding melody (that we actually sang in early 1960s grade school music class), until you stop and listen to what the song is actually about. A very odd choice, to say the least. The rest of the cartoon is good, despite that unfortunate aspect.

Napoleon Bunny Part” (Freleng, 1956): Bugs tunnels into the chamber of Napoleon Bonaparte and his big, dumb guard. Lots of loud and violent gags ensue – with more than a few laugh-out-loud moments.

Bedeviled Rabbit” (McKimson, 1957): A much better Tasmanian Devil outing than “Doctor Devil and Mister Hare”, later in this set. Stowing away inside a crate of carrots, Bugs is airdropped to the package’s destination in Tasmania. The animation of terrified stampeding animals seems to be reused in “Doctor Devil”, only with a DOG added! Thanks to DVD clarity and freeze-frame, we can see an unrelated article (that appears to be about REAL PEOPLE) being used as “generic text” in the Guidebook to Tasmania, from which Bugs reads about the Devil and his voracious appetite. One SURPRISING GAG that I didn’t notice until the ‘80s is Bugs commenting that Taz “…tosses a MEAN SALAD!”, and you see the Devil at a huge salad bowl tossing about leafy greens and lots of little dead animals! WHOA!

Apes of Wrath” (Freleng, 1959): A less energetic, more talky, but still quite good remake of “Gorilla my Dreams” (1948). The now-drunken stork temporarily misplaces a baby gorilla… and bops Bugs on the head, dresses him in baby togs, and presents him to Mrs. Gorilla as her new baby. Mr. Gorilla (named “Elvis”) is appalled at the new arrival, and sets out to do away with him – only to be continually clobbered by his wife when he does. June Foray is good as Mrs. Gorilla, as is Mel Blanc who grunts and stammers his way through the short as Elvis.

From Hare to Heir” (Freleng, 1960): Medieval “Sam Duke of Yosemite” is broke when along comes Bugs, offering the convenient contrivance of a million pounds if Sam can hold his fiery temper. With each outburst, Bugs can deduct any amount he sees fit – and does he ever put Sam to the test! Despite the very-out-of-left-field-plot-motivation, this is a good and funny cartoon – written by Freleng himself, after his longtime collaborator Warren Foster departed for Hanna-Barbera to write Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, and The Flintstones.

Lighter than Hare” (Freleng, 1960): “Yosemite Sam of Outer Space” (…If nothing else, Sam had RANGE!) lands at a junkyard inhabited by Bugs Bunny. Modern mechanized mayhem ensues. Particularly good is the “Robot Sam vs. Robot Bugs” sequence, where “Robot Sam” mirrors his mentor’s personality to the extent that, when “Robot Bugs” goads him into pressing a booby-trapped button, he says “Ahm a pressin’!” This is the only Bugs Bunny short I ever saw theatrically – though later than 1960! Also written by Freleng.

The Million Hare” (McKimson, 1963): In a prophetic foreshadowing of modern reality television’s unfortunate “The Amazing Race”, Bugs and Daffy must race each other to a television studio to win a million “box” prize. By this time, Warner Bros. cartoons had been trimmed by 30 seconds to a minute from their Golden Age of “Seven Minutes-Plus” running times. Indeed, the running time for “The Million Hare” was 6:19, leading me to believe that, when I saw these on ABC and CBS Sat AM network runs, that they were CUT EVEN MORESO than they actually were.

Mad as a Mars Hare” (Jones, 1963): The last original appearance of Marvin Martian and, by far, the least successful. It is WAY too talky for a Warner Bros. short, and illustrates the effect of the loss of Michael Maltese on Chuck Jones better than anything could. It is also not helped by a short running time of 6:49. …Or WAS it?

Doctor Devil and Mister Hare” (McKimson, 1964): The last original appearance of The Tasmanian Devil (…he was not yet universally referred to as “TAZ”), in a string of medical, hospital, psychology, and mad-science related gags, flimsily held together by the sheer cussedness of our devilish antagonist. Even Bugs seems to be going through the motions here, as he will in our next and final short. Still, there are some enjoyable moments – just not nearly as many as there once were. Give it points, however, for at least TWO gags backfiring on Bugs! You didn’t see that very often.

False Hare” (McKimson, 1964): The last original appearance of (“True, Non-Sarcastic Moment of Silence”)BUGS BUNNY! Even I’ve yet to figure out exactly what the title seems to be a gag on… a wig or toupee, perhaps? Robert McKimson’s version of “The Big Bad Wolf – and his nephew the Little (…not “L’il”, for the Disney lawyers that might be reading this) Bad Wolf” set out to trap Bugs with a phony club for rabbits. Bugs pretty much walks his way through this outing, and into animation history. I’ve never seen a completely uncut version of this cartoon until the DVD release.

“Looney Tunes Superstars: Bugs Bunny Hare Extraordinaire” is a mixed bag, with more to like than to “run away from”. The later cartoons simply do not approach the older ones in overall quality – but this should not be news to anyone familiar with Looney Tunes. By this time, the gags are tired, the pacing is slow, and the scripts are too talky – which is an odd thing to say, when Mel Blanc is doing the talking, but the difference is all too apparent.

Still, there is something to like about all of them. And, as noted earlier, it is a definite PLUS that Warner chose to include these, rather than re-package the already-released and better-known classics. Indeed, I hope to see MORE of these on future volumes.

The “widescreen matter” is open to debate. Overall, I like it… despite any shortcomings.

The issue of “number of cartoons vs. list price” will also vary by viewer, as discounted prices can be found by anyone with a search engine.

Strictly speaking for myself, I find the complete and total absence of “Extras” to be the greatest negative – especially as WHV has already and routinely shown us just how WELL they can be done.

So, if you want your “hare without the trimmings” – and get the cartoon “Hare Trimmed” to boot – this collection is for you. Aw, heck… It’s BUGS BUNNY with no double- dipping… just enjoy it!

No comments: