Fighting for Looney Tunes' soul

Published Nov. 20, 2003|Updated Sept. 2, 2005

You could forgive writer Larry Doyle for throwing up his hands and crying "thuffering thuccotash" more than once in the past couple of years as he has tried to bring the Looney Tunes franchise kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

Doyle has been the point man in Warner Bros.' effort to revitalize its storied Looney Tunes franchise. He is the sole credited writer on the new feature film Looney Tunes: Back in Action and is the head writer and executive producer of a series of animated Looney Tunes shorts intended to run before Warner Bros. movies, probably beginning next year with the Scooby Doo sequel.

Doyle, best-known for his award-winning work as a writer and producer on The Simpsons, was thrilled to be given the chance and the budget to restore Looney Tunes characters Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig to prominence, particularly with the six-minute shorts. Like a lot of people, Doyle believes the characters haven't been served particularly well recently, be it in the Michael Jordan vehicle Space Jam or children's cartoon series such as Baby Looney Tunes and Animaniacs. Doyle, along with most at Warner Bros., wanted to restore their edge.

"The characters had been diminished in order to become a product for young children," Doyle said. "The problem is, they don't compete that well in that juvenile area. I've got a young son, and while he likes Looney Tunes just fine, he prefers Dragon Tales. And that's the way it should be. Looney Tunes were always designed for adults and teens."

Parting ways

Doyle no longer works for Warner Bros. His contract ran out more than a year ago. He said he and his team of writers and animators completed eight shorts last December, and the studio has since "watered down" six of them and decided to shelve the other two. He is not particularly proud of the new movie, either, saying "it's not terrible" but it's not as good as it could have been.

What happened with Doyle is indicative of the war that has been waged at Warner Bros. for the past decade for nothing less than the soul of the Looney Tunes. Some, like Doyle, would like to see the cartoons return to the assertive irreverence that has made them so timeless since their golden age in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. Others at Warner Bros. would also welcome a shift away from the infantilism of the Animaniacs but not at the cost of losing sight of political correctness.

"Basically, what it has come down to," one person familiar with the situation at the studio said to the Los Angeles Daily News, "is you simply have too many people offering too many opinions. And in the end, it saps a little bit of the spirit out of these projects when everyone feels the need to have their fingerprints on them."

Though one might be tempted to borrow a phrase from Bugs Bunny _ "of course you know this means war" _ there is actually little disagreement at Warner Bros. on several significant points, namely that the Looney Tunes gang had fallen on hard times before Space Jam in 1996 and returned to them after it. The reasons for this decline include a lack of new product, general audience indifference to the characters' presence in Space Jam, the closing of the Warner Bros. Studio Stores and an inability to interest a new generation in characters other than the Tasmanian Devil and Tweety Bird.

More duck, please

"You couldn't even find the cartoons in prime time on the Cartoon Network anymore," said film critic Leonard Maltin, who has written extensively about animation. "That network (which is owned by Time Warner) gives more tender loving care to their new characters and Scooby Doo than they do to the Looney Tunes. So they need to be reintroduced, and they need to be reintroduced in a high-quality manner."

With executives in the studio's consumer products division begging for something new (there was nothing after Space Jam, save for a Tweety Bird direct-to-video movie in 2000), Warner's movie division commissioned screenplays. Doyle, who was much more interested in reintroducing the shorts than he was in writing a feature-length film, ultimately got the gig, although by the end, the screenplay went through at least 27 revisions, including efforts by notables Roger Schulman (Shrek), David X. Cohen (Futurama), Adam Resnick (Death to Smoochy) and Ed Solomon (Men in Black).

Looney Tunes: Back in Action uses a story premise that was refined time and again by the great director Chuck Jones, playing on Daffy's jealousy of Bugs' effortless success. Joe Dante, who featured the Looney Tunes characters in the opening-credits sequence of his 1990 movie Gremlins 2: The New Batch, was a logical enough choice to direct. Like Doyle, Dante believed the Looney Tunes franchise needed to be brought back to its roots and wanted to steer clear of gimmicks.

Cartoon vision

"There hadn't been any singular vision in the last few years," Dante said. "The characters just weren't consistent. By the time they got to Space Jam, they could have been Woody Woodpecker and his pals for all that it mattered.

"It's kind of like what happened to Mickey Mouse all those years ago. He started out as this wild rodent, then they gave him a girlfriend, a house and a dog, and suddenly he wasn't that interesting anymore. He lost that edge."

In attempting to restore that edge, Looney Tunes: Back in Action lacked one thing Dante said it needed: a singular vision. In addition to the mind-boggling number of rewrites, sources say Dante feuded with Doyle, Doyle bickered with veteran animation director Eric Goldberg, and studio executives kibitzed with everyone involved. Though such heated disagreements are typical when making a movie, the difference in this case was that each side believed it was fighting not just for the film but for the future of the Looney Tunes franchise.

"There was a lot riding on this," said Dante, who at one point threatened to take his name off the production. "I had some trepidation going in about that, but I was worried that if I didn't take it, someone else would and do it worse."

Back in Action arrived in theaters Nov. 14 and has received good to middling reviews. Combined with the initial sales success of a four-DVD set of classic cartoons, Looney Tunes Golden Collection, the Looney Tunes characters, which also include Yosemite Sam, Elmer Fudd, the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, are at least back in public view. Warner's home entertainment division has plans for many more volumes of DVDs, but the future of Doyle's completed shorts remains uncertain.

"I finished them, and they tested well, but somewhere between the time I proposed them and finished them, (Warner Bros.) turned back into a giant studio," Doyle said. "They started second-guessing everything, even the basic concept of doing these cartoons in a spirit similar to the originals."

Too many cooks . . .

"It has simply become an executive pile-on," Doyle said. "Anything that anyone had a concern about got changed. A bunch of changes were made over things that were put in precisely to remind people that these characters could be cutting edge. Nothing was gratuitous. It's too bad, because these shorts are clearly the best ones that have been done since the '50s on all levels: animation, humor and characterization."

Sources inside Warner Bros. dispute Doyle's contentions, saying the eight shorts were finished last summer and not in December, and that any changes were made to improve the content as well as to head off potential criticism. One Warner Bros. spokesman said Doyle shouldn't bad-mouth the cartoons because he hasn't seen the finished products.

Warner Bros. has a huge financial stake in the continued success of Looney Tunes. Beyond that, a number of its executives grew up on the cartoons and would love nothing more than to add something to the legacy.

Doyle would like to return to Warner Bros. and complete work on another 15 shorts that were well into development before the studio pulled the plug.

"If people saw these (cartoons) on Warner Bros. movies all the time, who knows . . . maybe you might see teenage girls wearing Tweety T-shirts again," Doyle said.

Said Maltin: "Comedy can't exist in a vacuum. It has to have some immediacy. The beauty of the Looney Tunes is that they had that in their day. I don't see any reason why they can't have it again, provided the right people are working behind the scenes."