Warners' wacky wascals

Special to The Times

Although they never received the budgets or prestige of the Disney and MGM shorts, Warners' "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies" remain the quintessential Hollywood cartoons: fast-paced, aggressively funny and uniquely American in their humor. Pretty much everyone in the country under age 60 grew up watching them in theaters and on TV, and animation fans have eagerly awaited their appearance on DVD for years.

The "Looney Tunes Golden Collection" offers 56 cartoons, presented in their entirety, with the slapstick pratfalls and explosions intact. (They are ignoring the pressure from killjoys and self-styled watchdog groups on networks in recent years to censor the "violence" in cartoons they air.)

The transfers were made from good prints, clear enough to enable viewers to see dust, scratches and occasional mistakes. The cartoons were never high-profile items for the studio. The budget for a 1950s Warners short was only about $30,000; 20 years earlier, Walt Disney spent $37,000 on 1934's "The Goddess of Spring." Warner Bros. director Friz Freleng once commented, "Walt spent more on storyboards than we did on films."

Any selection of 56 shorts from a total studio output of more than 1,000 is bound to involve omissions, but the choices for the "Golden Collection" seem erratic at best. Some of the cartoons are genuine classics: "Long-Haired Hare," "Rabbit Fire," "Rabbit of Seville," "Duck Amuck," "Feed the Kitty," "High Diving Hare." But where are the Oscar winners -- "Tweetie Pie," "Birds Anonymous" and "Knighty Knight Bugs"? Or such milestones as "A Wild Hare," "I Haven't Got a Hat" and "Porky's Romance"?

The set provides neither a coherent history of the studio and its characters nor a fair representation of the various directors' output. Freleng, who had the longest tenure of any director, is represented by 15 films; 26 are by Chuck Jones. Only three by Bob Clampett are included, but nothing by Tex Avery or Frank Tashlin, two key architects of the Warners style.

The "Golden Collection" is loaded -- overloaded, really -- with extras. Eleven cartoons can be viewed with "music-only audio tracks" that highlight Carl Stalling's amazing scores, but two or three would have sufficed. All the cartoons are subtitled in English, French and Spanish, and it's fun to see how such catchphrases as "What's up, Doc?" translate (Quoi d' neuf, docteur? and theseQue hay de nuevo, viejo? is how they know it in French and Spanish, respectively). Best of all are the genuine rarities: a World War II "Seaman Hook" short; Jones' health film, "So Much for So Little"; some 1950s commercials; and the live-action-animation combinations from the features "My Dream Is Yours" (1949) and "Two Guys From Texas" (1948).

There are numerous "Behind the Tunes" mini-documentaries devoted to various artists and characters, which quickly become repetitious, with the same talking heads of the children of the artists, voice actors and admirers of the cartoons. Any mention of something sad is followed by various characters crying, etc. The "Behind the Tunes" films include clips from several cartoons not included in the set, notably "You Ought to Be in Pictures" and "Porky's Duck Hunt."

The voice-over commentaries by Michael Barrier, Greg Ford and Jerry Beck aren't terribly interesting, except for the excerpts from old taped interviews with the artists. Animation historian John Canemaker's two-part special for the television program "Camera Three," "The Boys From Termite Terrace" (1975), made when the artists were younger and more energetic, outclasses the other documentary material.

Warners is clearly using the "Golden Collection" set to test consumer response. If it sells well, other sets (Silver, Platinum, Tin, Yttrium) will presumably follow and present a more complete picture of the studio's extraordinary output. In the meantime, these discs offer excellent, uncut prints of some of the funniest films ever made, so it may be a mistake to look a gift rabbit in the mouth.

Even without comparisons to the classic shorts in the "Golden Collection," the two discs of mini-cartoons done in the Flash format for the Web, "Looney Tunes: Stranger Than Fiction" and "Looney Tunes: Reality Check" are excruciatingly inept. The artists who made these threadbare spoofs of movies and TV shows have no sense of who the characters are or what makes them funny. Like a high-school production of "Evita," if you don't have a close relative involved, you're better off staying away.

Somewhere between the sublime of the classic cartoons and the ridiculous of the Flash farces lies "Space Jam" (1996) -- a successful, if not very good, live action-animation combination. The new edition includes two music videos tied to the film; a making-of featurette, "Jammin' With Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan"; four uninspired recent cartoons; and the special "Bugs vs. Daffy: Battle of the Music Video Stars."

Cartoon connoisseurs should stick with the "Golden Collection."

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