Whether he’s the destabilizing force of Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes’ glory days, or more centered in contemporary reboots that can’t measure up, Bugs Bunny remains a towering cartoon influence.
Although Bugs evolved from previous incarnations in form and style, Tex Avery’s Wild Hare premiered on July 27, 1940, marking the first time The Rabbit uttered his lasting catchphrase, “What up, Doc?” And while the argument where the resilient, respected trickster truly begins and ends is definitively subjective, there is never a bad anniversary for memorializing our favorite cartoons in which Bugs takes over the frame.
Here are 7.5 times that Bugs Bunny transformed animation culture and industry.
The Big Snooze (1946)
Bob Clampett’s distinctive, demented cartoons always threaten to rip reality apart, but rarely more than in this surrealist classic, which starts by breaking the Fourth Wall and ends with Elmer and Bugs death-diving toward Earth. After Fudd quits his job in frustration — even calling out Jack Warner himself — a worried Bugs manically invades his peace and dreams, unleashing seven minutes of madness that has little analogue in animation history. From stripping Elmer nude to clothing him in hot drag, The Big Snooze’s hilarious but disturbing hijinks arguably transcend the Raymond Chandler noir novel from which it steals its title — and almost every cartoon made since. It’s an unhinged masterpiece that also happens to be the final film Clampett ever fully finished for Looney Tunes.
Rhapsody Rabbit (1946)
If there exists a polar opposite of The Big Snooze’s surreal madness, it is this utterly charming, wordless Merrie Melodies piano duel (and duet) with an adorable mouse, directed by Friz Freleng and released the same year. Although it’s arguable that Rhapsody Rabbit’s grand performance is stolen outright by Carl Stalling’s mesmerizing yet schizophrenic score — which mashes reimagined classical and jazz standards with his own hyperkinetic soundtracking — watching an increasingly frustrated Bugs get a quite rare taste of his own medicine tacks this classic closer towards singularity. No one says a word as Bugs shoots an audience member for coughing too loud, tries to destroy a sweet mouse with way more piano skills, and eventually fails to steal the show for once. It is perhaps the most joyfully exuberant short Freleng ever made.
The Heckling Hare (1941)
Although Tex Avery is popularly credited with creating the current iteration of Bugs Bunny — and his signature catchphrase “What up, Doc?” — that pop culture knows so well, he directed only four films starring the rascally rabbit. And while all of Avery’s Bugs Bunny shorts are distinctive for one (usually good) reason or another, The Heckling Hare, animated by Bob McKimson, is the one that encouraged Avery to leave Warner Bros. for MGM — which brought the legend even more success while significantly reshaping the animation industry. Avery’s move reportedly came after a dispute with Leon Schlesinger over the possible death of Bugs at the finale, which was recut with Avery’s disapproval. As such, The Heckling Hare remains a metafictional curiosity, a film about a film about a career that fell apart but managed to come together and change an industry, and animation history itself.
Little Red Riding Rabbit (1944)
The first Looney Tunes cartoon in which the stunning Mel Blanc landed a voice credit (after 8 years of employment), Friz Freleng’s brilliant short flips an immortal European fairy tale of natural rites and rebirth on its head by using a deafening Red Riding Hood — hilariously voiced by Bea Benaderet (later, the voice of Betty Rubble) — a hapless wolf hustler and a plenty willing Bugs, whose interventions still manage to hammer the folklore’s messages home. Little Red Riding Rabbit is also something of a layered revenge fantasy that easily transcends but promises to inspire polarizing opinions across demographics — especially in regards to its treatment of poor, sweet Red Riding Hood, whose adherence to the folklore’s script repeatedly pisses off both Bugs and his wolf nemesis. Animated by Manny Perez, Gerry Chiniquy, Virgil Ross, and Dick Bickenbach, it is one of the smoothest, rhythmic physical comedies Looney Tunes ever made.
What’s Opera, Doc? (1957)
Although it may not seem possible, there are indeed people living right now who have never heard of this timeless short masterpiece — which is more sweeping and cinematic than many animation and live action feature films that they actually have seen. Its epic scope, reaching from Wagnerian opera to Disney’s foundational Fantasia and even metafictional commentary on Bugs and Elmer’s own cliche, has earned What’s Opera, Doc? a home in the Library of Congress, as its mythic frames — animated by Ken Harris, Richard Thompson, and Abe Levitow — are routinely deconstructed by academics and professionals. Merrie Melodies would never again showcase something as ambitious and amazing.