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Regarding the King

There is one singular Lord Almighty of animated characters, and that is the Heckling Hare. You can interpret that in any way you like. Nobody has a record like Bugs, a string of hits and masterpieces of short films, one after the other. Nobody has the esteem of Bugs Bunny, among audiences either during his infancy or today, or even among his other cartoon co-stars; Daffy and Porky even phoned Bugs Bunny to get them out of a jam once, and that was early in the Rabbit's career. Nobody has the power of Bugs, the ability to get into brawl after brawl and remain victorious. He's the one that's always in control, no matter what the situation is. This makes Bugs more than a mere character; he is a PHENOMENON. So the question remains: why? Why does this status belong to a character who describes himself as a "mild-mannered forest creature, easily shy and frightened"?


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Of course, the Trickster is a famous character of all mythologies, and often the Rabbit is the creature used to represent him (Uncle Remus' Brer Rabbit, for instance), along with Spider and Coyote. But the Trickster is not a figure of victory for most of his stories, and he has the tendency to be caught in his own traps. Anansi, the Spider Trickster of African legend, probably had twice the failures compared to his successes. Bugs is different from these poor schmoes; despite the fact that he's been a loser a few times in his career, he still has the image of the ultimate winner.

In fact, it may help to distinguish Bugs from even his fellow "innocents"; characters like Road Runner and Tweety have the same winning record that Bugs does. So why don't they have the same acclaim? The distinction is present, I believe, in the natures of their personalities. The Road Runner does not have one; he is the purest form of Macguffin, a force of speed meant only to consistently embarrass and elude Wile E. Coyote. Tweety may have a personality, but it is sugary-sweet and overtly innocent, and he has no wit to him whatsoever. The trick to Bugs may be that he is an "innocent" without innocence; while he is never to blame for his scrapes as he is always provoked, once he gets going he's far more coolly devious than his adversaries are. In fact, that lack of innocence is why he wins. He's the constant victor because he is constantly knowledgeable.

Chuck Jones made the comparison between the duck and the rabbit as such: Daffy is who we are, and Bugs is who we want to be. Is this the truth, then? I'd say so. Bugs does what we all wish we could do. We all know the feelings of frustration of being unable to know what to say or do in grave situations, and the feelings of embarrassment that comes from acting foolish and panicky. Bugs is devoid of all of this. He is perfectly at ease in all dire problems, and he always has the right response. This kind of comic perfectionism is difficult to sell to cynical audiences, and yet Bugs remains as popular as he ever was. I dare say the way he can be so perfect and yet palatable comes from just being damn funny; would we be as willing to invest in a "perfect" character like Bugs if he wasn't also perfectly and truly likable? Not only is Bugs brilliant and unbeatable, but he's charming, debonair, and humble. (These qualities differ from short to short, particularly given the different directors' styles. McKimson's Bugs is not nearly as charming as Jones' Bugs.) In that, there's one more difference that Bugs has from the other "innocents" of the Termite Terrace set. We can often sympathize with Wile E. and Sylvester, understanding their hungers and their failures, to the point where we almost begrudge Tweety and Road Runner their impeccable records. Bugs not only wins, but gives us the distinct feeling of deserving to win.

It is remarkable how Bugs has remained a singular event in pop culture and artistic history. There have been wisecrackers before and after. There have been heroes before and after. There have even been comedic and heroic cartoon characters before and after. But truly, nobody has ever created a character quite like Bugs Bunny. There has never been such a synergy of these elements in any other character, and perhaps that is why he continues to have new works created about him instead of being replaced by some sort of "update" character-wise. One interesting shred of proof regarding how difficult Bugs is to duplicate: on Tiny Toon Adventures, nearly every Looney Tunes character has a corresponding "pupil" per se. It takes two different rabbits to try and cover Bugs' facets, and even then they're not totally successful.

I've spent this essay both gushing about the Heckling Hare and going back and forth on possible reasons for his success. In the end, have I come to anything? Probably not, I'll bet. We can identify all his charms and advantages all day and still find him to be an elusive figure. That's the point, really; if we could actually pin down why he's the king, then we'd actually be able to do it again with another character. But there's no shame in wondering and deliberating over an animated soul who is truly lightning in a bottle. Bugs must be, as Jones says, the personification of what we want to be, for to chase after what his nature is as joyous and as fruitless as chasing after our fondest dreams


A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on Nov 13, 2003

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