Under stormy skies, a helmed figure calls lightning, controls the winds, and moves mountains. Is it Thor, mighty God of thunder? No, it is simply Elmer Fudd singing his classic line asking the audience to “Be vewy qwiet, I’m hunting wabbits” before finding a rabbit hole and trying to “kill the wabbit” with a spear. Predictably, Bugs comes out a different rabbit hole and after deploring the goals of his nemesis, sings his classic line: “What’s up, Doc?”
His spear and magic helmet, of course! This revelation gets Bugs to panic and run away, and Elmer sets off in hot pursuit, until he is distracted by a lovely Brünhilde (Bugs in drag). When the deception is discovered, Elmer goes in a fit of rage and calls up lightning, winds, earthquakes and smog to strike down Bugs, which he succeeds in doing (a most rare occurrence). Then follows one of the most elegiac moments of all the Bugs/Elmer shorts: Elmer, seeing Bug’s body illuminated by a ray of sunshine, sings his regret and walks off carrying a limp Bugs into the sunset, the camera then does a close up and Bugs raises his head and says: “Well, what did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?”
Mike Maltese’s writing (and lyric adaptation), Maurice Noble’s layouts, Arthur Q. Bryan’s voice workno one ever sang “Kill the Wabbit” with more passioneverything comes together brilliantly to make a great cartoon. But it was no accident: What’s Opera, Doc? took more time and work than is normally required for a 6 minute cartoon. Something Warner would normally not pay for, so it was achieved by subtly re-allocating production time and resources between shorts: all the staff doctored their timesheets to show they were working on a Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner cartoon for two weeks while they were in fact finishing up What’s Opera?
Animation Historian Steve Schneider called Chuck Jones’ masterpiece “a dazzling mingling of reverence and ridicule.” It was voted #1 cartoon in Jerry Beck’s The 50 Greatest Cartoons. It made it to the top of many other “best” lists and the U.S. Library of Congress deemed it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” in 1992, a first for a cartoon short. It takes more than just being funny for that kind of recognition.
Like many of Warner’s shorts, the film is filled with jokes, but it’s also filled with Wagner’s music, not only from the Ring Cycle (which the film parodies brilliantly) but also from Tannhäuser and The Flying Dutchman. Some parodies are only funny if you know the source material, others are funny even if you don’t know the source material, and the best ones can open doors.
What’s Opera, Doc? falls in the latter category. It’s safe to say that it’s the first exposure to opera for a lot of people these days. Some may even decide to give the original a try. Other genres of music should be so lucky. I mean, think about it: today most young people’s introduction to 80s music is getting Rick Rolled.
René Walling is a fan of SF, animation and comics, this has led him to co-chair Anticipation, the 2009 Worldcon, be involved with fps magazine for more than a decade, and start Nanopress, a Canadian small press. He thinks that if you like What’s Opera, Doc?, you should read Dexter Palmer’s blogging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle if you haven’t already.