Warner Bros. is whistling a happy toon


In the 1930s and '40s, Bugs Bunny stood his ground against all comers and took no guff, making his mark as perhaps the world's most beloved cartoon character.

In the '90s, a new group of Warner Bros. "toons" are carving out their niche in the animation world. And they're using the same technique Bugs used -- copping an attitude.

There are unmistakable echoes of the great "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies" cartoons in "Animaniacs" and "Tiny Toon Adventures," two of the most popular cartoons now on television. The creators have the same wry outlook on current events as did the great cartoonists of yesteryear.

"When we're writing, we are certainly reacting to life in the '90s -- things going on in our culture to things that have made impressions on us as individuals or as a group," said Tom Ruegger, executive producer of Warner Bros. Animation.

Those observations seem to have found a mark, as "Tiny Toons," "Animaniacs" and "Batman: The Animated Series," are rated in the top five shows for 2- to 11-year-olds. The fourth Warner show, "Taz-Mania," a series of new adventures of the Tasmanian Devil, a long-time Bugs Bunny antagonist, is regularly in the top five for Saturday-morning shows.

While the shows are aimed at children, they also have an adult sensibility.

"To make something really funny and enjoyable, I think you have to entertain yourself when you're doing it," said Jean MacCurdy, who heads the Warner animation division, which consists of 250 artists, writers and directors.

"We figured, if we were laughing, others would laugh with us," she explained. "For the most part, we were right."

Unlike their progenitors, "Animaniacs" and "Tiny Toons" -- each under the creative control of producer Steven Spielberg -- depend heavily on dialog to propel the story rather than the action of the characters. Luckily, the characters are interesting enough to carry off the witty repartee.

"Animaniacs" features the Warner brothers, Wakko and Yakko, and their sister, Dot. These three are said to be so out-of-control they have to be kept in the studio's water tower. They break out, of course, and wreak havoc on such unsuspecting figures as Michelangelo and Beethoven.

The trio are surrounded by ensemble characters like Slappy Squirrel (a Borscht Belt-style comedian), Pinky and the Brain (two mice who want to take over the world) and the Goodfeathers (three Italian pigeons staking out their turf under the guidance of the Godpidgeon, who bears more than a slight resemblance to Marlon Brando).

"I don't think we're thinking of the kids when we're writing these things," said Mr. Ruegger. "We have what we feel are really strong characters. With the Warners, we always try to put them in a position that we suspect we'd find children. The Warners are children and we try to keep their brains very childish, and their concerns are child-like.

Then, we throw them against an adult who literally, for a kid, is almost speaking in a different language."

"Tiny Toons," which has won seven Emmys in three seasons, is set at a school where young toons -- named Buster Bunny, Babs Bunny, Plucky Duck and Montana Max -- learn their craft at the feet of the masters, namely, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd.

The comparisons between "Tiny Toons" and "Looney Tunes" characters are unavoidable, and semi-intentional, according to Mr. Ruegger.

"The Tiny Toon characters veer off into their own world pretty strongly, so that the Looney Tunes characters can live and breathe safely without worrying about Tiny Toons," said Mr. Ruegger. "A lot of the Looney Tunes characters just don't get along, and we try to force our characters into trying to at least have relationships with each other, and isn't that what life's all about?"

"Tiny Toons" is Warner's first full-fledged animation project since the studio shut down in the '60s. It was a big hit in syndication, then became the foundation of a deal with the Fox network, which three years ago was trying to establish a foothold in the burgeoning children's market.

The Warner programs have not only taken Fox (locally, WBFF, Channel 45) to the top of the Nielsen ratings in the children's daily and Saturday market, they are also out-performing the Disney Afternoon, a quartet of cartoons created by the Walt Disney Studios (airing locally on WNUV, Channel 54).

This national phenomenon was reflected locally during the November sweeps, when the Warner shows on Channel 45 outdrew their Disney competitors on Channel 54 in both ratings and audience share.

"Tiny Toons" and "Animaniacs" almost doubled "Darkwing Duck" and "Goof Troop" in share (the percentage of televisions that are on at a given time) among children in two key demographic groups -- ages 2-11 and ages 6-11, ratings figures show. "Batman" more narrowly wins its time slot over "Bonkers" among children in Baltimore.

All three Warner shows win decisively over the Disney programs among adults watching during those times, according to the Nielsen ratings figures.

"Batman," in its second season, borrows heavily from the comic book and the two feature films directed by Tim Burton. Mr. Ruegger said the cartoon also borrows from Max Fleischer's "Superman" cartoons from the 1940s.

The current "Batman" -- the third animated show to feature the Caped Crusader -- is decidedly darker in script and tone than any cartoon featuring a super hero and is the first non-comedic show to come from the Warner studios.

"There are some life and death issues that are being dealt with in these episodes," said Mr. Ruegger. "I'm sort of relieved that we've received very few letters complaining about the dark nature of the show. Basically, people know that it's Batman, they've seen the Tim Burton movies and this is a reflection of that and it's OK."

The show, which had a brief run in prime-time last year, has been a monster hit. It attracts high ratings in virtually all demographic groups, even as some of the episodes are being shown for a fifth time.

"Batman" won a prime-time Emmy last season and spun off a full-length movie, "Mask of the Phantasm," that opened in theaters during the Christmas holiday. The movie features the voice of Dana Delany ("China Beach"), who portrays the young love interest of Bruce Wayne.

In addition, Mark Hamill, Luke Skywalker from the "Star Wars" trilogy, appears in the movie as he does in the series, as the Joker, a toon with a serious 'tude.

Which is just the way Bugs Bunny would want it.

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