Friday, August 23, 2019

Tortoise Beats Hare: Protagonist Loses; Shreds Opening Credits

Release date: 3/15/1941

Available on Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 2 (WHV DVD); Looney Tunes Platinum Collection, Vol. 2 (WHV BR)

You may download a copy of the cartoon HERE.


The second Bugs Bunny cartoon under the Avery aegis, Tortoise Beats Hare adds another influential ripple to animation: the notion that the hero can be a loser. Or, more precisely. that the protagonist (who is also an antagonist) is prone to a different outcome than we're used to in conventional storytelling. It furthers the strong impression that Bugs Bunny is a compelling individual.

Another animation historian noted (and I paraphrase) that Bugs is the one animated character most of us would enjoy hanging out with. He is smart, world-wise, has a great sense of humor and never wants for amusement in life. If he heckles his adversaries, it's more to enlighten them of their lack of self-awareness and smarts. Bugs could be doing anything, but since he's a cartoon animal, he makes do with the options of this painted and penciled world, and enjoys his existence. Mickey Mouse is a cipher; Bugs has a genuine personality.

Characters such as Donald Duck and Andy Panda had frustration scenarios built into their series. Donald's screen persona is wholly based on vexing outcomes to simple tasks and the aggravation this brings him. But neither character is one you'd care to pal around with. (Andy Panda's passive-aggressive hostility might be a bit much to contend with for long.)

This winner-as-loser concept could be misused, as in the Famous Studios Popeye short Wood Peckin' (1943), which shows how tiresome this routine can become if not handled with finesse. The Warners cartoon directors and writers learned that Bugs had to maintain his cool and shrug off events that would ruffle other animated characters. He could not be another limb-flailing kook. Once they understood that basic truth, Bugs' character became the unflustered being we recognize as the "classic" version.

Other Schlesinger studio directors would further Bugs' persona through the 1940s, in alliance with Mel Blanc's voicing, which defines the character alongside his personality traits. The Bugs of this film is still larval. He looks less like the Bugs we know and love than in his prior film A Wild Hare. Some of the animation here looks like character designs from the Friz Freleng unit (who created a nadir of the early character in Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt later in this year).

Tortoise Beats Hare has one of Avery's most alarming and innovative openings. Still-frame captures can't do it justice. Its effect is a culmination of Avery's direction, Carl Stallings' musical score, Mel Blanc's vocal and the combined might of the animation, ink and paint and background departments. The effect remains shocking and fresh. Avery returned to this set-up in his M-G-M cartoons, but the shock of the new renders this maiden voyage the best of them all.

Bugs struts stage-left into the title frame. Chewing on his characteristic carrot, he almost doesn't notice the credits.