Review by KC Carlson
“I laughed till I stopped!” – Gene Shalit (from the episode “KACME-TV”)
This set collects the final 30 episodes (of 65) of the first season of Steven Spielberg Presents Tiny Toon Adventures (TTA) on 4 DVDs. The first 35 episodes came out on a previous set (Season 1 Volume 1) last year.
Tiny Toon Adventures debuted in 1990, paving the way for a long and successful series of animated television shows for WB Television, including Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League/Justice League Unlimited, Teen Titans, the current Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and the upcoming new series Scooby Doo – Mystery Inc. (due late 2009). TTA (along with the other, early series like Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, and Freakazoid!) were done in conjunction with Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, ensuring that there was a great deal of media hoopla for the series’ premiere on TV.
The series also became known (or perhaps notorious) for another reason — there was much to-do about the series bringing back most of the very popular original Looney Tunes characters, including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam, the Road Runner, and Wile E. Coyote. Despite the fact that Spielberg did many interviews about the new series being all about the next generation of the Warner Bros. stars, more than a few people were surprised to discover that Bugs and company were just supporting characters in the new series.
The real TTA stars were pint-sized kid characters inspired by many of the traits and characterizations of the original Looney Tunes stars. So you could see some of Bugs’ outgoing and never-say-die personality traits in TTA stars Buster Bunny and Babs Bunny (no relation), but they have no formal nor familial relationship to Bugs (although Bugs often acts as a mentor to Buster). Babs also has the added ability to perform dead-on impersonations of celebrities (including quick-changes) or her friends, which often gets her in trouble.
The secondary leads are Plucky Duck and Hamton J. Pig, based loosely on Daffy Duck and Porky Pig. Hamton has a couple of neurotic tendencies, such as an extreme compulsion for cleanliness, which differentiates him somewhat from Porky. Often Hamton is used as a “straight-ham” to the other’s antics, especially Plucky, who is his best friend. Plucky, on the other hand, is remarkably like Daffy, especially in being egotistical and greedy, but he also has a a secret sweet side, occasionally revealed when he is dating Shirley the Loon, and when we meet Baby Plucky in the second season. (“Water go down the hole!”)
The two major antagonistic Looney Tunes characters, Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam, probably went through the biggest changes in inspiring their Tiny Toon not-quite dopplegangers. Loosely based on Elmer, Elmyra Duff (Fudd backwards, kinda) is easily the funniest and scariest (in equal measures) character in the series. She’s one of the few human characters, and she’s obsessed with animals and wants to take them all home to hug them and squeeze them and pet them — until she accidentally crushes the life out them (not shown — it’s a kids’ show!). And yes, her hair bow is held in place with the tiny skull of a hamster!
Montana Max (or Monty) shares the same explosive temper as Yosemite Sam, but little else other than a similar name, as he is the spoiled brat rich kid of the gang, solving all his problems by throwing money at them. Like Elmyra, he’s also a human and, amusingly, Elmyra has a big crush on him. Trivia: Monty is voiced by Danny Cooksey, the only kid-aged member of the voice cast, which is kind of amazing once you hear his big, explosive voice.
Other cast members include Fifi LaFume (a female version of Pepe LePew), Dizzy Devil (based on the Tazmanian Devil, but dumber, if you can believe it), Sweetie (a girl version of Tweety), Little Beeper (a young roadrunner), Calamity Coyote (like Wile E., he communicates by holding up signs), Fowlmouth (loosely based on Foghorn Leghorn, he frequently swore when angered [censored], but this was later changed to him using euphemisms instead), and Gogo Dodo (the actual son of the original dodo from 1938’s Porky in Wackyland. Wackyland is shown as being adjacent to Acme Acres and several adventures are set there). One character, Furrball, is roughly analogous to Sylvester the Cat. However, Furrball is largely non-anthropomorphic compared to the other animal characters, being largely portrayed as an actual cat, and often as one of Elmyra’s pets/victims.
There were also a couple of mostly original characters (or at least not based on the Looney Tunes characters): Arnold the Pit Bull, a parody of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the aforementioned Shirley the Loon, a character who mostly speaks in typical Valley Girl-speak (typically ending most sentences with “… and some junk.”). She also displays certain psychic powers including telekinesis and mind-reading and is very versed in anything New Age. She reportedly gets her name from actress Shirley MacLaine (another New Ager who has authored several books about her past lives). Shirley’s mantra is “Ohwhatalooniam.”
All of these characters live in Acme Acres (except Gogo) and go to school at the Acme Looniversity, whose faculty is made up of the classic Looney Tunes characters, like Bugs and Daffy. (Bet you thought I forgot about them!) The school is set up so that the classic characters can share their wealth of experience in teaching the kids how to be great cartoon characters. However, the Tiny Toons adventure far and wide, so not every episode is set at the Looniversity (and thus the classic characters don’t always appear).
TTA was a five-days-a-week series, originally airing weekdays in the late-afternoon afterschool timeslots or early in the morning, where I always enjoyed watching it while I was getting ready for work.
Because it was the first series for WB animation and Amblin and also because of the frantic work schedule — 65 episodes for the first season — the actual animation was contracted out to many different studios, which unfortunately means that the animation quality fluctuated wildly from episode to episode in the first season, until either the bugs were worked out in the system or some of the animation houses were fired. Animation problems included wildly off-model character designs, resulting in several annoying episodes where all the characters talked out of the sides of their mouths. Other problems included episodes where the animation was too rubbery or bouncy, inconsistent animation styles from scene to scene, and the occasional out-of-control movement. Some episodes were so bad that sections had to be re-animated — occasionally by another animation house.
While the animation bugs were being worked out, the same sort of thing was happening with the scripts, although to a lesser extent. On any new project, it takes a while for everything to come together into some semblance of a creative whole, and animated programs are no different. One of the frequent complaints about TTA (and one which I generally agree with) was its frequent reliance on “borrowing” other stories from a wide variety of other media, including the original Warner cartoons, plopping the TTA characters into the middle of the proceedings and seeing what happens. Usually this was done in the name of parody, but a handful of episodes came perilously close to actual theft and were largely unfunny to boot.
In watching the series as a whole, one has to wonder if all the writers were always on the same page in terms of deciding what kinds of stories to tell and how to properly develop the characters. There seemed to be a certain amount of leeway in terms of experimentation (a few new non-classic Warner characters were occasionally tried out), and sometimes this seemed to mean that great germs of ideas became “average” episodes or stories once executed — although to be fair, the same could be said of the original, classic Looney Tunes cartoons, when taken as a whole.
But let us instead discuss just a few of the many outstanding episodes of the series — and specifically the ones included on this particular DVD set:
The set starts off with a bang with “Animaniacs!” (no relation to the subsequent WB animated series), a full- length tour de force featuring contributions by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini. The plot revolves around the upcoming Acme Looniversity Animation Festival. The Toonsters are hard at work on their animated class final projects, which will be shown at the Festival and judged by their professors — Bugs, Daffy, and Porky. Except for Plucky, who’s cut every class and is not even aware of the Final Project. So Buster gives Plucky a crash course in basic animation (a fun tutorial for the viewer), including several basic film tricks such as flashbacks (which, of course, Plucky abuses). The bulk of the cartoon shows Plucky’s frantic attempt to get his project completed in time for the competition. But the thing that elevates this cartoon into something special is the showing of many of the kids’ final projects, including Dizzy’s classic “Dizzy Eat World,” which is exactly what it sounds like, gloriously animated in jiggly crayon, and featuring a hysterical self-produced soundtrack, including the classic “That’s All Folks!” fadeout. Gogo’s film is predictably weird — completely composed of b&w clips from the Joe McDoakes 1953 comedy short “So You Want To Learn To Dance.” When questioned about how un-Gogo-like it is, Gogo’s rant of an explanation is very funny.
There are also entries by Elmyra (an animated horror poem about her love of animals), Hamton (a short film noir entry), Montana Max (the multi-million dollar production of “A Montana Max Christmas”), Shirley the Loon (an edited version of her tone poem “Song of the Loon,” but still running 17 hours, 34 minutes,) and Plucky’s entry, which has to be cut down to 3 seconds due to the length of Shirley’s film. Can you guess who wins the competition? An excellent episode which showcases many of the supporting character’s personalities by way of their wacky film projects.
Another excellent episode is “TT Music Television” a collection of animated music videos. Leading the pack here are two videos by the made-to-be-animated band They Might Be Giants of their classic songs “Istanbul, Not Constantinople” (which includes a cameo of John and John) and “Particle Man” (a brilliant wrestling parody that reveals that Dizzy plays a mean accordion!). Plus, two classic songs — “Respect” by Aretha Franklin (showcasing Babs) and “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barret Strong (showcasing Max, natch) — are joined by a Fantasia-inspired parody of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice starring Buster in the Mickey Mouse role. Plus a wonderful, if brief, look at Julie Bruin, a TTA version of comedian Julie Brown. (And if you don’t remember who she is, pop over to YouTube for a quick look at her classic 80s video “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun“.)
Another 80s musical group was Toon-ified in the episode “New Character Day” when the The Roches (three musical sisters with incredible harmony singing) appeared — as three Toon cockroaches, natch — performing a concert at germ-phobic Hamton’s house. Comedy ensues. This episode was written by the very very talented Sherri Stoner, who wrote an amazing number of high-quality cartoons for many of the early WB shows, concentrating on making sure the great female characters that were developed for these shows got their time in the spotlight. Stoner was co-writer of the classic “Fields of Honey” episode (included on Season 1, Volume 1) which really defined Babs Bunny’s character.
Also on “New Character Day” was “The Return of Pluck Twacy” which featured a lot of great gags (by Eddie Fitzgerald) but was awfully close to a re-make of the classic 1946 Clampett-directed The Great Piggy Bank Robbery. The opening sequence of this episode also features a devastating parody of Disney’s Roger Rabbit, supposedly voiced by Spielberg himself.
“Inside Plucky Duck” features two great Plucky cartoons: a double-length “Bat’s All Folks” (including work by Dini and Timm) featuring Plucky as BatDuck and Hamton as Decoy, the Pig Hostage (complete with a target on his chest) which manages to parody not only the 60s TV show, but the Batman movies and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, as well as Monty Python and the Holy Grail (?). The second cartoon, “Wild Takes Class” is a silly short about Plucky trying to do classic Clampett-esque wild takes without learning the basics, and getting stuck as a giant eyeball for an entire day.
Many of the TTA episodes were structured as three short cartoons all grouped together in “theme” episodes. Several of these have a outstanding short, while the other cartoons in the show aren’t quite up to the same level. One of the great shorts was on an episode called “Son of Looniversity Days,” a collection of cartoons about the school. The short in question is called “C Flat or B Sharp?”, a dialogue-less cartoon written by Buzz Dixon, about the efforts of Buster, Plucky, and Hamton to get a piano down from the top of the clock tower where it was accidentally delivered (only in a cartoon!), to the tune of Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody (a cartoon staple). Not surprisingly, there’s a big Laurel and Hardy vibe (it’s similar to their classic short The Music Box), but it’s actually more of a homage to Friz Freling’s excellent dialogue-less cartoons from the Looney Tunes era.
“Duck Dodgers, Jr.” (from “The Return of the Acme Acres Zone”) features the only other Tiny Toons character who is a direct relative of one of the original characters — Marvin Martian’s daughter Marsha Martian, a cutie who, as far as I know, never appeared again. (Or at least I assume she’s his daughter; she refers to him as “daddio”.) This cartoon is also notable for the return of the incredible painter/designer Maurice Noble, who designed the backgrounds on the original Duck Dodgers cartoon (as well as many others).
“Slugfest (” from “Mr. Popular’s Rules of Cool”) is an amusing parody of the then-popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, here called the Immature Radioactive Samurai Slugs. (Wait! Wasn’t that the actual title of one of the thousands of actual b&w comic book parodies? My head hurts.) The slug’s names: Picasso, Warhol, Rockwell, and Grandma Moses.
The Three Bears (the cult-fave characters from a handful of original Looney Tunes) were revived for two different shorts in this set: the less-successful “Bear Necessities” (from “Fairy Tales for the 90s”) where the bears are updated for the 90s, although there are a couple of great sight-gags, and the much better “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” (from “The Acme Home Shopping Show”) where the bears appear in their original incarnations and are tortured by Elmyra while she sings the classic children’s song.
“Dream Date Game” (from the episode “Dating, Acme Acres Style”) is a silly Dating Game parody with Elmyra having to choose between Hamton, Plucky, and Montana Max. It never fails to crack me up because of Elmyra’s ludicrous questions, such as “If I were ice cream and you were a desert topping, what’s the capital of South Dakota?”
“Elmyras Around The World” (from the episode “Weirdest Story Ever Told”) features wall-to-wall international Elmyras in a musical parody of Disney’s “It’s A Small World” that’s almost as annoying as the original.
Another game show parody featuring Elmyra figures into “KACME-TV”, the seemingly-all-hands-on-deck episode that was supposed to be the Season Finale (until one of the episodes with horrible animation was SO delayed by re-takes it didn’t air until weeks after the actual season ended). “Gyp-Parody” features Buster in the Trebeck role up against Acme Acre’s dumbest residents in Elmyra, Dizzy, and Calamity Coyote. (Okay, Calamity’s not dumb, but he can’t speak and his buzzer is broken, so everybody ignores his signs.) But the most devastating thing on this episode is a version of the classic Lucky Charms ad, casting Plucky as the leprechaun and the cereal as Unlucky Worms “with green worms, yellow grubs, purple slugs, and pink maggots — part of this balanced breakfast! They’re magically disgusting!” The episode also features quick-or-you’ll-miss-them cameos of many of the creative staff and some fun freeze-frame-required credits.
Some of the episodes feature guest voices. Jonathan Winters guests as Sappy Stanley, a smarmy character loosely based on the non-Warners cartoon character (and mostly forgotten) Silly Sidney, but actually looking not much like him in an episode called “Who Bopped Buster Bunny?’ which, despite the title, doesn’t really have much to do with “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” either. Original Looney Tunes voices June Foray (Granny) and Stan Freberg (Pete Puma, Junyer Bear) occasionally return to do their characters’ voices as well.
Sometimes the linking devices are the best things about certain episodes. In “How Sweetie It Is,” second banana Sweetie, who’s probably as sick as seeing Buster and Babs in every single episode as most of the viewers are, rises up and demands an episode of her own. You go, girl! It’s probably a little too much Sweetie, however, but at least the episode features the oddly disturbing adaptation of Poe’s “The Raven” (guest narrator: Vincent Price!). So, where’s my Shirley the Loon episode?
All in all, and despite the occasional just average episode, Tiny Toon Adventures was an excellent starting point for WB animation, leading to many, many greater things to come. As long as you realize that these cartoons should not be compared to the original Looney Tunes classic shorts (which were originally developed by teams of animators working closely together for virtually decades), there’s a lot of great enjoyment to be gained out of many of the adventures of the Tiny Toons. Here’s hoping that Warner’s doesn’t leave us hanging (as they seemingly have over the final series of Animaniacs episodes), and here’s hoping for the eventual release of Seasons Two and Three of TTA (as well as the excellent TTA movie, How I Spent My Vacation) for future DVD release.
Oddly, after Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain wrapped production, the adventures of Pinky and the Brain continued, teamed with a past TTA star in 1998 for Pinky, Elmyra, and the Brain, a short-lived (13 episodes) spin-off. I never saw this, heard it was a trainwreck (only 5 episodes were shown during the original run, before it was cancelled), and have been curious about it ever since. Somehow I doubt it will ever find its way to DVD.
A couple of final notes: It’s worth sitting through the final credits of TTA to look for the established-here WB trademark joke credits and random final gag bit. Also, as much as I love love love Bruce Broughton’s wonderful theme song (“We’re tiny, we’re toony… We’re all a little Looney….”), sitting through it at least 14-16 times per disc can be wearing. Thoughtfully, there’s a chapter stop just after the opening credits of each episode that puts you right at the beginning of each episode with just a click of the chapter button.
“It’s been surreal!”
(A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the studio.)