Nearly 20 months after AT&T’s WarnerMedia announced plans to meld content from its myriad brands into a streaming service, HBO Max is finally launching today. And one of its signature shows stars an 85-year-old, an 83-year-old, and an (almost) 80-year old—veteran entertainers who once starred in some of the greatest comedy films ever made.
I speak, of course, of Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, and Bugs Bunny.
On Looney Tunes Cartoons, whose first 10 episodes debut today, they’re joined by other iconic characters such as Tweety, Sylvester, Marvin Martian, the Road Runner, and Wile E. Coyote, all of whom themselves date to the 1940s and the golden age of theatrical animation.
The fact that the Looney Tunes crew is back isn’t exactly a massive whoop in itself. Actually, it would have been more surprising if new Warner Bros. cartoons of some sort weren’t part of the HBO Max mix. Though the original Warner cartoon studio closed in 1963, its characters have starred in countless revivals, reboots, and reimaginings ever since. Most recently, a Cartoon Network series called New Looney Tunes skewed toward aggressive modernization efforts such as depicting Daffy Duck drinking pumpkin-spice coffee and Elmer Fudd asking Bugs Bunny to “do me a solid.”
But like every new take on a venerable franchise—I hate that word when applied to works of creativity, and I promise not to use it again—Looney Tunes Cartoons sets up a complex challenge for itself. Fortunately, judging from the three episodes I previewed—and several additional cartoons already live on YouTube—it has an atypically strong sense of what it’s trying to accomplish.
Thanks to licensing, it isn’t hard to grind a profit out of a familiar face more or less forever: Even Felix the Cat, whose stardom faded when the silent era did, has an underwear deal with Benetton. What’s far tougher is keeping yesterday’s characters relevant through new movies and TV shows made without the brilliant minds and cultural moments that made them matter in the first place.
2016’s Peanuts Movie, for instance, was admirably true to Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and company, but didn’t lead to a permanent uptick of interest in Charles Schulz’s characters. Then there are Jim Henson’s Muppets, whose 16 years as a Disney property have been pockmarked with disappointment. (At least they’re getting a new Disney Plus show in July.)
Ultimately, the blander the source material, the easier it is to rehash it for new audiences. Which explains why we will always have Scooby-Doo with us.
Compared to many continuations, however, Looney Tunes Cartoons does start out with some advantages. For one thing, the Warner Bros. characters have never felt stuck in the particular era when they were created. Their jaunty irreverence helped shape American humor as we know it; from 1970s Saturday-morning reruns to 1996’s Space Jam, they have proven their ability to connect with new generations.
For another, the show’s format is the furthest thing from a big bet on one premise. Each episode—there will eventually be 80 in all—runs 11 minutes and includes multiple cartoons. Some run for around
six minutes, just like the original Looney Tunes. Some are a bit shorter. And still others are just brief gags. If you don’t like one, there’s a decent chance you’ll find the next one more pleasing.