By the mid-1970s, the Warner Bros. animation studio was long past its golden days, having peaked in the 1950s under the auspices of such Warner animation stalwarts as Chuck Jones and Bob McKimson. The animation department was shuttered in 1969, when the studio ceased producing short subjects as a cost-saving measure. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and their pals found their way to new generations of children through frequent television airings, but many of the original cartoons were edited or censored due to violent or insensitive content, and the production of new material was infrequent, at best.
Enter Larry Jackson, a longtime fan of Warner Bros. animation. In 1975, he produced and directed a documentary called Bugs Bunny Superstar, designed to explore the origins of the Warner studio's most popular and enduring characters. Released theatrically to great success, the documentary created new interest in the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series while shedding light on the creative process behind those classic cartoons. The film's success eventually lead to the creation of several anthology films (most notably 1979's The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie) that highlighted classic Warner cartoons with new wrap-around segments tying the different storylines together.
Bugs Bunny Superstar has been previously released on DVD (as a special feature on the Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume Four compilation), but now Warner Archive has remastered the documentary and released it for the first time as a stand-alone Made-to-Order DVD title. The film is certainly entertaining, serving as a solid introduction to the history of the Warner Bros. stock characters and their creators. But there is shockingly little detail for a documentary, and those historical segments feel like filler that has been somewhat haphazardly inserted amidst the nine cartoon shorts highlighted in the film.
The film is ostensibly narrated by Orson Welles, but the storied actor's presence is all but negligible here. Onscreen hosting duties belong to Bob Clampett, a longtime animator with Warner Bros. and a denizen of the infamous "Termite Terrace," where the anarchic spirit of the Warner cartoons was truly born under the loose supervision of producer Leon Schlesinger. The movie also features brief appearances from Warner's early wunderkind Tex Avery and director/animator Friz Freleng, but the focus remains largely on Clampett, who is not shy about taking credit for much of Warner's golden-age success (something that reportedly infuriated Jones and other Warner animation pioneers, who felt that Clampett perhaps took too much credit in this film). The documentary's focus is also split when it comes to the cartoon characters themselves; while the title indicates that it will focus entirely on Bugs Bunny, the creation and development of other Warner stock characters like Tweety, Daffy, and Foghorn Leghorn are addressed as well (albeit all too briefly).
Interspersed between interviews and archival footage of the animators hard at "work"--that work including some hilarious scenes of the cartoonists acting out the plot of their shorts so as to best capture lifelike movement--are nine full-length classic cartoons that filmmaker Jackson apparently felt represented the best that Warner Bros. had to offer in the 1940s. However, while these selections manage to highlight at least one contribution from each of the major animation directors of the period, the cartoons that were chosen for this retrospective are generally a rather odd lot. The earliest short, 1940's The Wild Hare, is perhaps the most notable of the cartoons featured here, as it marks the first official appearance of Bugs Bunny as we know him today--the wisecracking "wabbit" who has little difficulty outwitting hunter Elmer Fudd. A Corny Concerto (1943) is also a noteworthy inclusion, serving as a sly and effective parody of rival Walt Disney's acclaimed Silly Symphonies cartoon series. But other choices are more questionable; for instance, 1947's I Taw a Putty Tat, with Tweety and Sylvester, is not the first, nor the best, pairing of these two characters; Walky Talky Hawky (1946) is a rather generic Foghorn Leghorn cartoon with Henery Hawk; 1944's The Old Grey Hare is enjoyable, but included at the expense of other, more entertaining Bugs/Elmer pairings; What's Cooking Doc? (1944) features a strangely belligerent Bugs, well before his transformation at the hands of Chuck Jones in the 1950s. Additional features like 1942's My Favorite Duck and 1946's Hair-Raising Hare are entertaining cartoons in their respective ways, but don't really have a narrative purpose attached to the documentary portion of the film. And while Rhapsody Rabbit (1946) is a welcome sight, it is interesting that the documentary does not take the time to address the plagiarism controversy surrounding that particular cartoon (as it is virtually identical to that year's Oscar-winning Tom and Jerry short The Cat Concerto).
Bugs Bunny Superstar is an interesting look back at Warner Bros. animation in the 1940s, but the documentary remains an incomplete examination of the figures behind its success, and barely begins to address the wide range of influential cartoons that emerged from the studio during that period. Still, it is nice to see this film released to DVD in its own rights for once (instead of being relegated once more to the "special features" tab on yet another animated collection). And who knows--if it engenders enough interest in the Termite Terrace crew, perhaps we will see a more exhaustive documentary examining their pioneering roles in the development of animation sometime in the future. A girl can dream, right?
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