Daffy Duck’s Quackbusters, an embarrassingly bad 1988 film that stitches together classic cartoons from the golden age of Warner Brothers cartooning with a flimsy plot line about ghost busting, is proof that corporations can’t be trusted with classic Americana. The film, which is being released by Warner Home Video on DVD in August, shows a glaring cleavage between the work done by classic animators such as Chuck Jones (whose chef-d’oeuvre, the 1953 Punch Trunk, is cannibalized for this compilation), and the new segments, which are garish, choppily animated and clumsily written. Even the posture and the gait of Daffy and Bugs have changed, and they have been neutered of anything remotely transgressive. Quackbusters does as much damage to the legacy of Warner Brothers as the despicable 1990 “Tiny Toons Adventures,” which respected the tender gender sensibilities of America’s youth by dividing the androgynous Bugs into a blue “boy” rabbit and a pink “girl” bunny.
In the United States, the line between commercially produced entertainment and “folk” entertainment can be very porous, in part because we have no single, shared reservoir of folk sources and traditions. The Happy Birthday song? It’s under copyright protection, at least according to its corporate owners. So too half the songs you think are traditional Christmas carols but are, in fact, ditties owned and harvested for profit every yuletide.
Classic cartoon figures, like classic songs, belong to what seems a gray area between commercial product and the world of old quilts, marching bands and campfire stories. But it’s not really a gray area. Warner can do whatever it pleases with its cartoons, even unto subverting their characters, ruining their sense of humor and trashing their dignity. It can also decide when and where Bugs and Daffy are seen and if you’ve noticed that there are never any decent cartoons on Saturday morning network television anymore it’s in part because the Warner Brothers classics are now limited to Warner-affiliated outlets. If you don’t have cable, you’re stuck with pre-pubescent superheroes, incomprehensible robots and other technicolor enforcers of Manichean morality. Hence, a tradition as old as making Mom and Dad really crap pancakes and eggs in the pre-dawn hours of the weekend is now history. Until the rules change, at some inscrutable corporate whim, and Bugs, Daffy, Sylvester and Tweety return in all their atavistic splendor.
If I were writing a stupid, one-idea book aimed at frequent fliers and other suits, it would be something like Daffy in the Boardroom: Classic Advice from One Funny Duck. It would have mind-numbingly idiotic chapter titles like “Tooning In: How to Listen Your Clients,” and “Beep-Beep: Staying Ahead of the Competition.” The only substance in the book would be an in-depth look at an interesting problem in the history of management: How did the various and disparate teams of cartoonists, under the leadership of directors such as Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and Friz Freleng, manage to put out such consistently high-quality product? How did such a large and changing group of creators stay true to something as delicate as a sensibility, a form of humor, a style of dialogue and the nuance of consistent characters? And how did all that wisdom utterly elude the corporate hacks who made Daffy Duck’s Quackbusters?
Sometimes you wish culture fell under historic covenants, like old houses, and once it reached a certain venerable age, it could be conserved.
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