Hey, it’s the Looney Tunes DVD that doubles as a drinking game! Take a shot every time you hear the phrase “giant mouse!”
Yes, the latest Looney Tunes Super Stars release, Sylvester & Hippety Hopper: Marsupial Mayhem is just that: every single one of the cartoons Bob McKimson directed featuring either Hippety Hopper or Sylvester Junior. (Along with the one he didn’t direct, Friz Freleng’s Goldimouse and the Three Cats.) Most of these are centered around the concept of Sylvester and son mistaking the loose baby kangaroo for a giant mouse, a delightfully absurd premise created by writer Warren Foster that called for a lot of creative leeway (for one, joeys don’t have round ears). Things play out in such a similar fashion in each cartoon that it’s hard to single out any individual one for praise, beyond, “the earliest ones are best.”
Having two hours of these in one place does sound a little horrifying, but no more so than last year’s Pepè Le Pew single or the Speedy Gonzales disc from seven years ago. Suffice to say, no series was meant to be seen in this kind of bulk, but it does make it far easier to locate those cartoons in your collection (or avoid them).
Though it’s incredibly unfair to any director to judge his work by viewing a constant stream of cartoons featuring a single set of characters, it does give you a fair idea of how Bob McKimson deteriorated over a seventeen year period and how to classify the different eras of his work. These are talking points that have been emphasized repeatedly over the years, so I won’t go into too much detail here.
The first cartoons (Hop, Look and Listen, Hippety Hopper, Pop ‘im Pop) made in the ’40s and written by Foster are things of pure joy in their ‘over-animated’ action and truly funny non-sequiturs. Then Friz Freleng did some political maneuvering to get Foster for himself (he felt Foster was the only storyman who could actually write stories) and McKimson got Tedd Pierce, often (and unfairly) acknowledged as the weakest of the Warner writing mainstays. Then most of the former ‘zany’ Frank Tashlin and Bob Clampett animators began leaving due to McKimson’s stifling direction, leaving only the studio’s greatest animator Rod Scribner to flounder. Scribner had returned to the studio in 1948 a weakened man and out of place, no longer able to instill his insanity into the characters as he did with Clampett. In McKimson cartoons like Cats A-Weigh! and Bell Hoppy, the excitement is purely visual, seeing how many ways Scribner can distort and pull Sylvester to pieces.
The visual element slid permanently, once and for all, when the entire McKimson unit was laid off in a studio downsizing shortly before a temporary six-month shutdown in 1953. McKimson’s animators were gone before him, and he was left to animate his remaining cartoons singlehandedly (with Keith Darling), the last of which was Too Hop To Handle. The animation is polished, but dull, literal, and lacking punch. He wanted his own drawings and acting down to the minutest detail and he got it with a vengeance. When the studio fully reopened, Chuck Jones and Freleng were able to piece together their former units. McKimson was not, and he worked with mostly lesser lights that were either incapable or unwilling to enhance what their director handed them. The tired gags, stories, and voices eventually affected the entire Warner studio, but only McKimson’s were so clearly and rapidly the work of a tired man. A shot could also be taken every time Sylvester does a nervous Peter Lorre laugh or an Art Carney “sheesh!”
The restorations on this disc, as they’ve been for the past year or two of Warner cartoon releases, are a mixed bag. True, they are clearer than any previous home video or television incarnations, but for the most part are a bit dark and grungy, looking as though they could’ve used a little more time in the studio facilities. The time and money that created the Golden Collection sets of 2003-08 are now nonexistent, so any reasonable facsimile to these cartoons’ original IB Technicolor glory is coincidental. One only needs to look at the collection’s single double-dip, Goldimouse and the Three Cats (restored for the fifth Golden Collection in 2007), to see the difference. So long as they are uncensored and free of the abhorrent DVNR process (which mistakes animation lines and movement for dirt and literally erases them), though, they get a free pass from me, even if it is disappointing to have to classify the Warner discs by ‘A’ and ‘B’ restorations.
So wait, is this still worth buying? Well, of course. Anyone reading this is probably a Warner completist like myself and will buy any unreleased cartoons without hesitation. There are still many genuinely funny moments, and any viewer will get a kick out of Junior’s prissy manner and snide comments to his father. They’re also a painful example of how high the level of skill was in the era of classic Warner animation. If these cartoons are weak by those standards, what exactly does that say about today’s animation?
Hop, Look and Listen
Pop ‘im Pop
Who’s Kitten Who?
Too Hop to Handle
Fish and Slips
Birds of a Father
Claws in the Lease
Goldimouse and the Three Cats
Thad Komorowski is the author of Sick Little Monkeys: The Unauthorized Ren & Stimpy and blogs regularly at What About Thad?.