Hey, doc! Let's go to the museum and watch cartoons


Let us not dwell on the question of whether the Baltimore Museum of Art ought to bring in an exhibit of animated cartoons for 12 weeks, because the answer -- no! -- is simply too obvious. Let us instead consider "That's all Folks!: Bugs Bunny and Friends Present the Art of Animation" (through Aug. 25) strictly on its own terms.

Much has been written about the creativity and ingenuity of the Warner Bros. cartoons of the 1930s to the 1960s, the subject of this sprawling show. Steve Schneider, author of the catalog and brochure which accompany it, credits Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones and the other creators of Warner cartoons with giving their works a brashness, irreverence, topicality and sheer speed -- and their characters a multidimensionality -- missing in other products. These are the "finest, funniest, and most inventive animated shorts ever made," burbles the show's introductory text.

Maybe, but wandering through these spaces and looking at the dozen or so cartoons playing on TV sets, one soon begins to question the vaunted creativity of these shorts. For it quickly becomes obvious that the four pairs of characters to which the show is largely devoted all fit into one rather simple, monotonously repeated formula. Whether it's Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig and Daffy Duck, Tweety and Sylvester or Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, what it comes down to is a battle between the getter and the gettee. Character A (Elmer, Porky, Sylvester, Wile E.) is for one reason or another out to get character B (Bugs, Daffy, Tweety, Road Runner), but B actually outsmarts and gets the best of A.

The repertoire of devices and escapes is large, and so is the repertoire of settings, up to and including grand opera ("What's Opera, Doc?" to the music of the Ring cycle). But seeing basically the same thing over and over quickly palls, and by the time one has made one's way from TV to TV to TV even "What's Opera, Doc?" comes off as tiresomely pretentious.

The show is divided into cartoons and wall material, the latter explaining and making much of what a time-consuming, laborious process it is to create a sophisticated cartoon. As if one measured the quality of a work of art by the amount of labor that went into it.

Speaking of labor, museum personnel have worked hard (and deserve credit) to give the show an attractive setting, with everything from bright yellow walls to life-size models of the cartoon characters to benches in the form of carrots for watching the TV sets. But all their efforts do not keep this show from being, after a very little while, a bore. "We wrote cartoons for grown-ups," said Warner story man Michael Maltese. Not for this grown-up.

So what about kids? Are parents supposed to think it's an uplifting event to take their kids to a museum to sit in front of TV sets and watch cartoons? And if so, what are they supposed to say to the same kids on the next sunny Saturday morning when the TV set beckons? Are they supposed to say that at home cartoons are a waste of time but at the museum they're art?

One cartoon now and then can be fun; this show only proves that a dozen are a waste of time wherever they are.

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