Walt Disney Animation and the Warner Bros. Animation are longtime rivals who sported very different philosophies when it came animation. The stalwart, good heartedness of Disney’s shorts stood in contrast to the wild, nihilistic nature of Warner’s universe. Their respective facilities, business outlooks, and differing collections of talent and staff infrastructure all lent to two very disparate takes on cartoon entertainment.
The first and most obvious variation between the studios was their physical workspace. While Walt Disney ran a very tight ship with around two thousand employees at his disposal, Warner’s animation division, under the supervision of Leon Schlesinger, was comprised of a mere two hundred personel. This meager collection of artists were housed in a decrepit building affectionately referred to as “Termite Terrace” due to its sub-standard condition and periodic pest infestations. As a result, Disney produced a predominance of high-quality, consistently-styled animation that echoed the traditionally proven nature of animation grandfather Ub Iwerks’ earlier pieces while at Termite Terrace, the smallness of the studio allowed for many different directors who varied wildly in tone, discipline, and style to be given the reigns to flagship characters.
Both studios benefited in different ways from their respective environments. Disney was able to manufacture distinct, well-made and technically sound animations but allowed for little upward mobility or originality on the part of the animators. On the other hand, at Termite Terrace, the directors were forced to be creative and develop their own unique modi operandi as they worked to meet the demand for new cartoons every four weeks. In this sense, you had the competing philosophies of originality versus consistent quality – and in the world of art, it has often been the case that avant garde experimentalists make history over those who go with tried-and-true methods. In this respect, Warner Bros. was certainly on the bleeding edge of the medium.
Another major difference between Disney and Warner Bros. was in their character designs, particularly for the companies’ respective flagship icons. From the beginning, Mickey Mouse nearly always stood as the clear hero in his shorts.* His moralistic high ground and valiancy were obvious riffs on the major contemporaneous action stars of the early to mid-twentieth century. Conversely, at Warner, Bugs Bunny was never portrayed as the strong moral character so often put forth by Disney. Indeed, Bugs was inherently depicted as a trickster character who more closely echoed an archetype like the Norse god Loki than noble gentry, operating on his own set of principles and ideals. And while Bugs was later more clearly defined as a reactionary, his original incarnation would often act without any sort of provokation. This is most clearly evidenced in Chuck Jones’s early Elmer’s Candid Camera short.
*Pun definitely intended.
Music was always a large part of Disney shorts. It was so integral, it fact, that Ub Iwerks created his animation style using music as a rhythmic scaffold around which he constructed his cartoons. The music itself would be added afterwards, but the synching was critical to the bouncy motion of the characters and environment. This attachment to musicals was in large part a callback to the very first films, which were silent and usually had live instrumental accompaniment in the theater.
In keeping with these roots, Disney created the Silly Symphonies – a series of whimsical music-centric shorts that met with huge success in the early days of the industry. These shorts were so universally popular that other studios, including Warner Bros., termed their short animations in a similarly alliterative or assonant manner. Warner first started with Merrie Melodies, and subsequently moved on to Looney Tunes.
Interestingly, outside of cultural references and occasional musical one-offs, the Looney Tunes series featured relatively little musical accompaniment. More importantly, motion was usually was not set to the track, and actions often occurred independent of musical cues; the track complemented the animation instead of actively partnering with it. There were, of course, exceptions to this, as we can see in Chuck Jones’s Rabbit of Seville.
Story structuring was also a point of contention between the two cartoon giants. Plot arcs n the later character-driven Disney shorts were very formulaic, where some character, such as Mickey, would get involved in a conflict with a rather obvious, over-the-top villain and then proceed to heroically defeat him or her. This structure was sometimes mixed up with the addition of Minnie as a romantic foil or damsel-in-distress for Mickey to rescue.
In Looney Tunes cartoons, the villains were either unwilling participants, or too pathetic and dopey to take seriously. As a result, the viewer would find themselves rooting for a morally ambiguous character just to see how horribly he might interfere with alleged antagonist’s day. For the same reason that people enjoy watching shows like Candid Camera or Scare Tactics, something about seeing someone take advantage of the innocent bystander clicked with audiences.
The way in which characters were created in Termite Terrace was also far removed from the Disney method. As characters were introduced at Termite Terrace, they were each iterated on by the major directors and animators of the studio. This lead to very interesting and diverse characterization of the Looney Tunes cast. Meanwhile, at the Disney studio, characters were rigidly set and did not tend to stray much, if at all, from their initial incarnation.
This rigidity is most apparent in the creation of Mickey Mouse. Since his 1928 debut short Plane Crazy, Mickey has maintained a largely consistent personality. Conversely, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and Daffy Duck were all drastically altered and tinkered with before they became the well-known anthropomorphic goofballs kids recognize today.
It is worth noting as well that Ub Iwerks created Mickey Mouse in the Plane Crazy short in a very unique manner. Locked away in a room with nothing more than his supplies, Iwerks worked for hours on end to produce today’s most recognizable character in animation. This singular approach to character development is certainly a testament to Iwerks’ incredible talent for creating such a resonant and successful character. However, it is also a clear example disconnected philosophies of Disney and Warner Bros.
Disney and Warner both offered unique forms of entertainment that were each wildly successful. Disney’s more industrially regimented approach perhaps stunted the potential of his employees, but the end result was well-received and profitable. The Warner animation division at Termite Terrace was a low-budget zoo of a facility that represented Warner Bros.’ desire to cash-in on the animation fame of the other major film companies. Nevertheless, the studio still managed to eventually yield powerhouse creators like Bob Clampett, Tex Avery, and Chuck Jones – three legends whom we can thank for the final looks and personalities of classic characters like Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig.
However, if only one can stand the victor in the annals of history, and I would like to humbly put my bid in for the wackiness that is Bugs and his gang of miscreants. For my part, the morally grey character (e.g. Tyrion Lannister) is almost always more fascinating to watch than the unflinchingly evil or good (e.g. Ned Stark) character, and that factor ultimately makes Looney Tunes far more watchable.
In addition, I also appreciated the more impactful way Warner Bros. used music. Because a musical short is so radically different from the typical Looney Tunes cartoon, it makes it difficult to help but be caught up in the silliness of the situation. On top of that, to choose something as classical and bourgeois as opera as Chuck Jones did in Rabbit of Seville and use it so absurdly is a significant departure from creatures dancing happily to the merry tunes of Disney’s early shorts. I also find that I’m a total sucker for humor and Disney never hit my funny bone quite as well as Warner – the somewhat extreme violence and moral ambiguity of the Looney Tunes seemed to gel with me far more than the cuddliness of the former.
To conclude this piece, I’ll leave you with a fun little sequence from Robert Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Hopefully you can appreciate it a bit more having read this article – enjoy!
So what do you prefer – the wild nihilistic style of Looney Tunes, or the classical, almost romanticized storytelling of Disney? Leave you thoughts in the comment section below!