“An animator who really observes life in its unfettered reality,” cartoonist John Kricfalusi once wrote, “has a way of making every character have a little bit of retardation in him.” Setting aside the quote’s potential indelicacy, its wisdom-by-way-of-punchline is almost William Blake-like. When animation cleanses the doors of perception, everything appears to man as it is: infinitely, though not equally, stupid. (Think of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd’s ongoing narrative conflict and how it’s entirely facilitated by the politics of wit, with the haves unmercifully punishing the have-nots.) Of course, the idea that animation should reflect the mental unsteadiness we observe all around us is nothing new. Cartoons are part of a tradition of humor, and humor often humiliates by underscoring failure in ways that allow us to laugh at and forgive our own shortcomings at a safe distance. Kricfalusi makes the principle polemic, however, by suggesting that this distance cannot always go undisturbed. If everyone’s a doofus of a different color, the artist and the audience member must be implicated too. At some point, we all stoop to Elmer Fudd putz-hood and Daffy Duck avarice, and their satire wilts away into uncomfortable realism.
Arguably no other director in the early days of Hollywood animation toyed with the distance between everyday idiocy and that of his drawn characters more often or more artfully than Robert Clampett did at Warner Bros. A disciple of the Tex Avery and his school of laughs-by-any-means-necessary, Clampett’s most apparent gift was his ability to exaggerate a foible to the point of spastic effrontery; he drew Daffy Duck’s cart wheeling, hoot-’n-hollerin’ madness through the marsh in the character’s Avery-directed debut. Much like parallel lines eventually intersect on a plane to infinity, however, Clampett’s most surrealistic outings often seem unnervingly grounded in experiential truth.
Clampett’s cartoons lean on all the usual structural devices of the discipline; most commonly, a character has a goal, such as Elmer’s to hunt a rabbit, and various gags impede the attainment of that goal. But in Clampett’s best work, our emotional perspective is always more in tune with the hapless boon-seeker rather than with the colorful antagonist: The comedy becomes intermittently distracted by pathos. In Clampett’s first Bugs Bunny short, Wabbit Trouble, Elmer isn’t a hunter but a tourist camping in “Jellostone National Park” whose only objective is “west and welaxation.” As Bugs begins to torment him, Clampett occludes the fulfillment of his protagonist’s desperately felt desires with childish pranks that escalate into creative sadism. Bugs darkens Elmer’s glasses to create the illusion of premature night; Bugs impersonates a black bear, and then leaves Elmer to the real, snarling deal after his chicanery is found out. It’s not just Bugs, but the entire world that distorts with cruelty in order to make the main character’s life more difficult.
Due to the controversies that have complicated Clampett’s legacy (most of which have been the unfortunate product of various, fragile egos still smarting from their breakneck-paced tenure at Termite Terrace), it’s unlikely that Warner Bros. will ever issue a Blu-ray salute to Clampett on par with the tributes to Chuck Jones and Tex Avery that have accompanied their first two high-def releases. Still, I’d prefer to think of the 12 Clampett shorts featured in flawless 1080p on Looney Tunes Platinum Collection Volume 2 as a surreptitious homage. Despite a few omissions (the stereotype-laden Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarves among them), these collectively represent the director’s weirdest yet most human work; they are rare examples of goofy, satirical spectacle that align us with the inner lives of its characters, rather than simply building an impartial habitat for their jokey squabbling.
Porky in Wackyland, from 1938, might be the apogee of Clampett’s manic but sympathetic style. In this famed black-and-white short, Porky Pig flies past “Darkest Africa” to the titular topsy-turvy country, where he hikes through a landscape of Buñuelian imagery in search of the last of the dodos. (The bird more closely resembles a streamlined kiwi with a tiny parasol on its head.) Some of the creatures that Porky encounters are timely entertainment parodies, but the references are so skewed—such as an Al Jolson duckoid with a horizontally flattened mouth who squeaks “Mammy” over and over—that they alienate us rather than serve as diversions of familiarity from the bizarro plot. In this sense, despite its rich panoply of gags, the short’s perspective sympathizes more with Porky than with the viewer’s demands to be entertained, as most cartoons do; the content asks that we adopt Porky’s sense of wonder, frustration, and apprehension even when we’re confronted with recognizable allusions. With this highly elastic and bewildering environment, Clampett may have been the first cartoonist to appropriate pop culture without simply exploiting its vulnerabilities, or without breaking his story’s fourth wall—though other contexts would show him delighting in the latter.
The set’s core content, all of which has been transferred beautifully and spotlessly in 1080p, is so vivid that prolonged exposure could cause seizures. The Warner Bros. gang may have lacked Disney’s big budgets, but you’d never be able to tell, especially from the looks of their highly detailed woodsy backgrounds. (Topics for further research that have only just become clear as a result of these restorations: What’s with all the yonic tree knots in the autumnal Bugs Bunny cartoons?) It’s easy to praise the highly precise colors at work, especially in unhinged 1940s shorts like Book Revue, but it might be the early black-and-whites that pack the most lucid punch; Bob Clampett’s surreal little hellions in Porky in Wackyland have been rescued from the haze of time to honk and toot on with marvelous definition. Far more than just the illusion of risible motion, these cartoons offer full universes with their own crazy logic.
Just like in the first Blu-ray volume of Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, there’s a great big mess of extra material here, most of which is both recycled and not in 1080p. Still, it’s helpful to have so many featurettes in one place; the appreciations of Bob Clampett, Leon Schlesinger, and Tex Avery are very informative on the personalities and work ethic of each. Some of Avery’s MGM output is also represented on disc three, but none of the cartoons have been restored; it’s unthinkable that the effort wouldn’t have been made to at least bump up classics like Red Hot Riding Hood and King Size Canary to high definition. The audio commentaries were all on previous standard-def sets, but they still provide remarkable historical context and crucial insight on which animators drew what scenes; those by Michael Barrier and John Kricfalusi in particular are essential listening. A booklet with notes written by Jerry Beck is also included, though he often aggravatingly omits the year of production and managing director from his blurbs on the shorts.
For those who wouldn’t mind living in Bob Clampett’s Wackyland for a few days, this second Blu-ray volume of Looney Tunes shorts is paradise.