Happy Birthday, Bugs Bunny!

The Old Grey Hare (1944)

Although Bugs Bunny may have garnered greater sci-fi plaudits for his various escapades with Marvin the Martian, created by Chuck Jones and co-starring in classics like Haredevil Hare and Duck Dodgers in the 24-1/2th Century, Bob Clampett’s The Old Grey Hare is perhaps the most terrifying but gut-busting speculative fiction Warner Bros. ever produced. It begins with the voice of God (Mel Blanc, of course) ordering Elmer to keep pursuing his nemesis to the turn of the 21st century, by which points they are ancients barely able to run. From its peaceful dream of infant Bugs and Elmer napping, to its heart-wrenching finale in which Bugs digs his own grave at raygun-point, The Old Grey Hare is a pretty messed up time-travel epic, especially for kids. But its rather mature exploration of the meaning of life and death is ringed in rebirth, as it’s the first Merrie Melodies cartoon starring Bugs Bunny that credited Warner Bros. Cartoons (rather than Leon Schlesinger) for its creation.

Super-Rabbit (1943)

It’s impossible to gauge the cultural and historical influence of Bugs Bunny and company without taking into account their influence before, during, and after World War II. And while they regularly broke the Fourth Wall during their greatest cartoons, it is Chuck Jones’ Super-Rabbit where Bugs Bunny broke through the screen to literally become a soldier for U.S. Marine Corps. Although the short is ostensibly a riff on the Superman mythos — starring Bugs as a lab rabbit who devours a sci-fi super carrot and flies off to kick the ass of a dumb Texas hunter named “Cottontail” Smith who is terrorizing rabbitkind — its sudden ending where Bugs simply walks off the screen to join the war effort makes Super-Rabbit perhaps the most influential of Warner Bros.’ propaganda cartoons. Indeed, the short’s finale encouraged the Marines to demand that Bugs be officially inducted into the service as a private; he was even given dog tags. After being promoted in rank through World War II, when peacetime finally arrived Bugs was officially discharged from the Marines as a Master Sergeant, marking one of the few times in cartoon history where a character leapt off the screen to help chart the course of reality itself.

Space Jam/Looney Tunes: Back In Action (1996/2003)

It’s not very easy to find .5 of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, unless you look to live-action cinema, where animation shares half the stage. Which is an intriguing place to search, as Bugs and company never really satisfactorily made the leap to full-length features. Space Jam, a mixed-media masterpiece of marketing mostly about the end of basketball legend Michael Jordan’s self-imposed retirement, was anchored by a more mellow Bugs trying to productively channel the chaos of his cartoon compatriots. Space Jam’s skillful blend of live-action hoops and (mostly) seamless animation also marked the last time that Bugs Bunny invaded popular consciousness and made a significant box-office impact — despite the argument that 2003’s comeback Looney Tunes: Back In Action was probably the better film, although it flopped in theaters.

Since then, Warner Bros. hasn’t figured out a way to push Bugs back into feature spotlight or take advantage of the Looney Tunes’ visually-oriented comedy universe. Indeed, the character’s latest full-length Looney Tunes: Rabbits Run, directed by Space Jam supervising animator Jeff Siergey, went straight to DVD, on-demand, and streaming. Until it does, cartoon geeks and scholars are left with Bugs Bunny’s brilliant shorts, which continue to stand the test of time and influence generations of animators.

This article appeared at Cartoon Brew

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