What’s Up, Doc? New Looneys
By BROOKS BARNES
LOS ANGELES — Ask a first grader to identify Bugs Bunny and the response more likely than not will be a blank stare. Dora, sure. Mickey, alive and kicking. But Porky who?
Worried that the low profile of the Looney Tunes cast of characters among children is the start of th-th-th-that’s all folks for the historic cartoon franchise, Warner Brothers is embarking on a five-alarm rescue effort.
A new 26-episode half-hour series, “The Looney Tunes Show,” is headed toward Cartoon Network in the fall and will star Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck as odd-couple roommates in a contemporary cul-de-sac. Yosemite Sam, Tweety Bird, Sylvester, Marvin the Martian and Porky Pig are their neighbors.
Meanwhile, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote are going back to work in movie theaters in a series of 3-D shorts. The first of these shorts — Warner has approved three, and three more are in development — will play ahead of the movie “Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore,” which arrives in theaters July 30.
The studio’s consumer products and home entertainment divisions are trying to do their share, releasing a new Nintendo game featuring the Tasmanian Devil in September and several new DVD compilations.
An expansion is also under way at LooneyTunes.com.
“We talked at great length about whether we were audacious enough to take on such iconic treasures,” said Peter Roth, president of Warner Brothers Television, who was recently given oversight of the franchise after a restructuring. “It’s both costly and risky, but I think an extraordinary opportunity.”
Warner declined to say how much it is spending on the initiative, but the television series alone carries a cost of about $750,000 an episode, according to industry estimates. “We want to reinvigorate the brand with the best possible execution — high-quality, high-end state of the art,” Mr. Roth said.
Improving the quality will not be difficult. “The bar had gone so low that we could only go up,” said Sam Register, who took over as executive vice president of creative affairs at Warner Brothers Animation two years ago, referring to previous efforts to reimagine Looney Tunes for a new generation.
Warner has a reputation, both with fans and inside the industry, for ham-fisted campaigns to breathe new life into the franchise. Steven Spielberg sparked things up in the early 1990s with “Tiny Toons Adventures,” a series in which new characters interacted with the originals. But a 2002 effort, “Baby Looney Tunes,” was a dud for the former WB network and later for the Cartoon Network.
Big-screen resuscitation efforts have not fared much better. “Space Jam,” a mix of animation and live action starring Michael Jordan, turned a profit back in 1996. But the most recent picture, the 2003 animation-live-action hybrid “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” left North American audiences holding their noses. The movie, with Brendan Fraser, cost an estimated $95 million and sold $25 million in tickets in North America, according to Box Office Mojo and adjusting for inflation.
More recently, big plans for an online Looney Tunes world fizzled amid the economic downturn. “The Loonatics Unleashed,” another television series, was yet another sprucing-up effort from 2005 that introduced futuristic-looking, anime-influenced versions of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, was a wipeout. Many parents hated the Loonatics, which had mohawks and menacing eyes, and the series was canceled in 2007.
This revival, Mr. Register and Mr. Roth promise, will be different. One major shift involves the DNA of the wisecracking characters — it’s the same as what first made them stars in the 1940s. Bugs, Daffy, Porky and crew for the first time in years will look and behave in a manner that is familiar to adults who grew up on the cartoons. No babies. No punked-out space adventurers.
“We really like the voice and the tone of the show, and the look is just magnificent,” said Stuart Snyder, who oversees Cartoon Network as chief operating officer of Turner Broadcasting’s kids media division.
With the Road Runner, who never utters a sound other than the occasional “beep, beep,” and Wile E. Coyote, Warner went directly back to the classic looks — although they will be rendered with computers, an appearance that is now most familiar to children. The speaking characters were more difficult to update, but even they will hew closely to the hallmarks of the past.
“The minute you start drawing Bugs Bunny exactly as he was drawn in 1949, you expect the same animation and the voice to be exactly the same,” Mr. Register said. “That’s obviously not possible, so you pull the best stuff from the characters and do something slightly new with it.”
He added that art from “The Loonatics Unleashed” is framed and hanging in Warner’s animation offices as a reminder of what not to do.
The new series, still awaiting a premiere date, will be broken into bite-size components. There will be three six-minute stories that relate to one another, along with a two-minute “Merrie Melodies” component — in which characters perform in music videos (one features Elmer Fudd singing a love ballad to a grilled cheese sandwich) — and a two-minute Road Runner chase.
Despite misfires, the Looney Tunes brand is a still formidable part of Warner Brothers’ consumer products business, especially overseas, where syndicated reruns of various incarnations still enjoy heavy play. Warner has tried to keep the brand alive in the United States in part by a healthy-eating partnership with Safeway and concerts nationwide called Bugs Bunny at the Symphony where orchestras play the music from classics like “The Rabbit of Seville.”
Sales of Looney Tunes merchandise have been sliding for about eight years, but still ring up over $1 billion annually on a global basis via 1,000 licensees. (To compare, Winnie the Pooh generates about $5 billion annually for Disney.) The hope is that “The Looney Tunes Show,” supported by the theatrical shorts, will fuel new product lines.
“We have to invest quite a bit of money in the content first,” said Brad Globe, president of Warner Brothers Consumer Products. “Once there is new content out there, then retailers will become more interested in it.”
Jerry Beck, an animation historian and the author of the coming “100 Greatest Looney Tunes Cartoons,” said that fans would welcome another attempt to bring back the brand and that Warner, having hired top animation talent to work on the project, seems to be on the right track this time.
“Bugs is down but not out,” Mr. Beck said. “It’s very, very difficult to reweave older characters back into the culture, but I’m glad that Warner is at least not giving up on these guys.”