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Welcome Back, Wile E.

By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin September 27, 2010 at 4:00AM

Welcome Back, Wile E.
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As I discussed earlier this summer, cartoons are making a small but encouraging comeback in theaters this year. If you should happen to see Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole, you’ll be treated to the second of Warner Bros.’ new Road Runner cartoons, Fur of Flying. (The first, titled Coyote Falls, played with Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, and the third, called Rabid Rider, will appear at the head of Yogi Bear in December.) These new widescreen films bring two classic Warner Bros. cartoon stars back to life, and while they transform the graphic characters and backgrounds into sculpted CGI form they remain absolutely true to the spirit of Chuck Jones’ vintage shorts.

That is no accident. Everyone at the revitalized Warner Bros. animation department (Executive producer Sam Register, supervising producers Allison Abbate, Spike Brandt, and Tony Cervone, and especially writer Tom Sheppard and director Matthew O’Callaghan) took their mission seriously. They wanted to “do right” by these great cartoon characters, and realized they—

—were in for a drubbing if they messed up. Thanks to staff producer Katherine Concepion, I was privileged to attend a special studio screening arranged for Chuck Jones’ daughter Linda and her son Craig. There, Register reported that senior Warners management was enthusiastic about the prospect of reviving their sidelined stars, and are so happy with the results that they have commissioned more new shorts with other members of the Looney Tunes cast. (There is also a new, non-CGI Looney Tunes series scheduled to launch on Cartoon Network next year.)

Director Matthew O’Callaghan with Chuck Jones’ approving daughter, Linda Jones Clough.

O’Callaghan, who has several decades of animation experience behind him, starting at Disney in the 1980s, and two feature films under his belt as director (Curious George and Open Season 2) approached the new Road Runner cartoons with a keen sense of what made them tick, and what challenges he faced. First, he was told the new films couldn’t run more than three minutes—about the same as a preview trailer—or theater owners would rebel. That meant readjusting the formula that Chuck Jones and writer Michael Maltese worked out so well: no time to freeze-frame and identify the characters in bogus Latin, only one chance to see the Coyote’s new scheme fizzle at first, etc. To inspire and guide his animators, O’Callaghan made frame enlargements of key drawings in old Road Runner cartoons.

His next hurdle was dealing with 3-D, and to my delight, he decided to use every trick in the book—like forced perspective—to exaggerate gags for dimensional effect. When Wile E. Coyote stretches his arms in a desperate attempt to reach something, and we see the action from his point-of-view, his limbs are artificially lengthened to boost the impact of the shot.

Most important, these new three-minute shorts are quite funny—and I’m sure they play as well “flat” as they do in 3-D. Young viewers who haven’t seen the old Road Runner shorts may have to acclimate to their modus operandi, but I’m sure it won’t take them long to catch on. (No matter what happens to the poor Coyote—and darn near everything does—he always survives to fight another day.)

The cartoons not only look good—they sound good, too. Warner Bros. encouraged the animation team to score them just like the old days, so that’s a sixty-piece orchestra playing Christopher Lennertz’s music on the soundtrack, including the “Merrily We Roll Along” theme.

I wish there were some easy way to see all three Road Runner cartoons without having to sit through those family-friendly features…but for now, that’s your only option. Still, if you love cartoons, and appreciate ingenious use of 3-D, I’d say they’re worth the price of admission.

This article is related to: Journal, Animation, Warner Brothers