February 24, 2005

The Loonatics Have Taken Over the Asylum

Please show your children this image of “Buzz Bunny”, one of the characters from Warner Brothers’ upcoming “updating” of their classic animated cast. He’s the futuristic version of Bugs Bunny.

Let me know if the image “tests well” with your kids. Mine said, succinctly, “He’s really scary”. No prompting on my part, I promise.

Bugs Bunny, in any version, should never be “scary”. Nor do I particularly think he ought to have superpowers and fly around protecting a futuristic city. Warner Brothers has screwed the pooch before with attempts to cash in on Bugs and Co., most notably in the film “Space Jam” and in their babyification of the characters in “Baby Looney Tunes”. This appears to me to be the biggest bomb of all, though.

This is the flip side of what is so bad about the state of contemporary intellectual property rights. Lots of observers have noted that it denies to current creators the ability to do what Disney did throughout the 20th Century, which is to revitalize old characters and stories that were in the public domain. What the current IP environment also does that is equally bad is that it condemns the current holders of valuable intellectual property to wallowing in squalid pigpens filled with their own droppings.

The WB’s kidvid offerings are struggling, consisting mostly as they do of commercial tie-ins, third-rate leftovers from Japan, and misguided but not entirely awful attempts to revisit old franchises (the current “Batman” series on WB). The two standout hits are “Teen Titans”, which I personally like a lot, and “Mucha Lucha!” which I like even more. The answer to the problem of a struggling line-up is (as it always is) originality. “Teen Titans” works because it borrows (rather than dull-wittedly imitates) a lot of the visual tropes of Japanese animation but also because it reworks some of the themes and narratives from the comics that inspired the series in entertaining ways. “Mucha Lucha” works because there’s never been anything like it before, and because it’s wildly inventive and entertaining in its own terms.

In contrast, I would say that the entire concept, from art to themes, of “Loonatics” betrays a near-total lack of understanding of the intellectual property it proposes to take advantage of. At that juncture, you either have to think that some uniquely untalented person has been given the assignment and has sold his bosses on his bad ideas, or that the bosses issued a commandment to do something, anything, with the intellectual property they had locked up in their vaults. Squeeze one more drop of cash out of it, go back into the played-out mine one more time.

That degrades whatever value the old properties have, not to mention rarely pays off in terms of the new series. The latest layer of content is what sometimes sells an interest in the deeper layers. A good Looney Tunes series or film might prompt a young person to want to view the DVD anthologies. A bad one might strangle that impulse at birth. It may also be that sometimes you can’t go home again. Maybe Bugs and Co. can never be redone, maybe their moment is over. Maybe we don’t need more cartoons about them, but instead new cartoons made with the same originality and passion that the best Looney Tunes cartoons were made in.
I’m agnostic about whether there ever can be new Looney Tunes, but I’m not about whether “Loonatics” is it. This series feels like a disastrous act of vandalism.