Note: I originally wrote this in April of 2009, but I forgot about it until recently when I started tidying up my notes on how to write better fiction.
Many of the most iconic Warner Brothers and Disney cartoons were produced in the 1930s through 1950s. However, there’s a subtle, but often very noticeable difference in how these two sets of cartoons feel and a very simple reason for it. Warner Brothers cartoons primarily center around basic, adversarial slapstick. The problem with this is that, as we grow up, we start to notice the flaws in this approach, illustrated by this hypothetical conversation:
“These two thinking, self-aware characters don’t like each other. They fight amusingly.”
“What do you mean _why_?”
“Why don’t they like each other?”
“That’s just what rabbits and hunters (or cats and birds or whomever else) do. Stop over-thinking things.”
By contrast, Disney generally based their cartoons around caricatures of daily life. When adversarial conflict did occur, it felt more natural. Everyone knows dogs often don’t get along with smaller furry animals like chipmunks and cats and who hasn’t felt like Donald Duck getting into a fight with an inanimate object at some point?
We can enjoy both kinds of cartoons, but Disney’s approach doesn’t tarnish as we grow up. Pluto is still a dog, but Bugs Bunny is a person in different clothes, just like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Why, then, should we expect it to feel natural to see Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam chasing him with a gun?
Of course, this isn’t to say the classic-era Warner Brothers writers were bad at what they did. The originality and variety seen in their gags makes them highly memorable. (eg. Wile E. Coyote’s tiny umbrella, portable holes, Roadrunner’s ability to run through painted scenes to outwit Coyote, and the elevation of anvils from “just another heavy object to be used for gags” to an icon of cartoon slapstick, just to name a few.) They simply didn’t realize the importance of certain cartoon design decisions.
This perceptual shortcoming (possibly stemming from successive generations of animators learning by “getting a feel for it” rather than by analyzing the “why” of prior successes) is in no way limited to one company or one time period. On Disney’s “The Chronological Donald, Volume 4”, Leonard Maltin finishes by introducing a modern Donald Duck cartoon which he presents as evidence that Donald Duck is still going strong. However, my first impression was that it was disappointingly boring. I later realized that this was because it felt like Donald didn’t deserve what he was receiving. In the modern cartoon, the Aracuan bird relentlessly torments Donald Duck who just wants to take a picture for Daisy. In the classics, whether by having Donald throw the first punch (eg. smashing Huey, Dewey, and Louie’s snowman or putting lit firecrackers in their trick-or-treat bags and then pouring water on them) or by having him fight an inanimate object, the impression is given that Donald is in the wrong… or at least an innocent victim of bad luck with no thinking entity behind it.
I think this is also why I always enjoyed Road Runner and Coyote cartoons more than other types. As with Donald Duck, many of Wile E. Coyote’s failures are his own fault and, for the rest, the guy’s just obsessed. Go eat some easier food for cryin’ out loud! It certainly also helps that Wile E. Coyote draws on the same fount of humor via expressions without speech that have proven so successful with Pluto.