A Magic Book “Spells” Trouble For Wile E. in THE WHIZZARD OF OW

28 Jan

The Whizzard Of Ow

copyright year 2003 (unreleased)

Director: Bret Haaland

In short: Don’t tamper with sinister forces you don’t understand–especially if you’re Wile E. Coyote…

Review by Rachel Newstead

In this installment of my ongoing series on the Larry Doyle Looney Tunes, I take a look at the one of the six that perhaps comes closest to the spirit of the original: the Road Runner cartoon The Whizzard Of Ow. As you’ll see as we work our way down the list, however, it turns out to be faint praise…

After using such varied–yet unsuccessful–means as a dehydrated boulders, Burmese tiger traps, an Acme Batman suit, and even performance-enhancing drugs (leg-muscle vitamins, to be exact) through the years,  it makes perfect sense that in the era of Harry Potter, Wile E. Coyote would resort to the one thing he hasn’t tried in his quest to catch the elusive Road Runner.

Namely, magic.

Therein lies the premise of the first–and best–cartoon of our Unseen Six, The Whizzard Of Ow.

Two things become apparent immediately. Well, make that three. First is the background design: it lacks Maurice Noble’s elegant stylization, and Robert Gribbroek’s varied color palette, but it’s certainly better-looking visually than the McKimson and Larriva shorts had been. The various cacti and mesas are rendered with highlights, and have some dimension. The background artists were obviously going for an early-fifties look here, but as this was done at Rough Draft Studios, I couldn’t help but think this landscape could double as an alien planet for Fry, Bender and Leela. (Rough Draft worked on Futurama, as well as The Simpsons Movie).

Second is the requisite opening “freeze-frame” shot, in which we’re introduced to Wile E. and the Road Runner. As is well-known to any fan of the series, Chuck Jones would give his characters bogus Latin genus and species names (such as “Eatibus anythingus” for the Coyote and “Acceleratii incredibilis” for the Road Runner) in a parody of the nature documentary shorts then in vogue. The writers here throw us for a loop by supplying the real genus and species names (Canis latrans and Geococcyx californianus, respectively).

Why is anybody’s guess–was that the writers’ way of playing with our expectations? Were they afraid some overzealous parent in the audience would write an angry letter, complaining that children watching weren’t being adequately educated? Did the creative well run dry during the funny-Latin-name brainstorming session? Who knows?

Third and most jarring is the presence of other characters in the Road Runner and Coyote’s world, though they exist only to set up the plot: as the cartoon opens, we see two wizards atop two opposite mesas, dueling it out “Night On Bald Mountain” style. The white-bearded one on the left and the Vincent Price-like one on the right happen to strike at precisely the same moment, obliterating one another.

This sends the book belonging to “White-Haired Wizard”–and the cat belonging to “Vincent Price Wizard”–hurtling toward you-know-who just as he’s within grasping distance of the Road Runner.

Which brings us to point four–two beings just got killed in this cartoon, and we’re not even a minute into it. Granted, they’re fantasy beings, but still….it demonstrates what will be an ongoing problem in these six cartoons, a realistic sort of violence better suited to Famous Studios than Termite Terrace. Oh, well, at least the Coyote’s mauling is more slapstick-y–after being clawed to a fare-thee-well by the Wizard’s familiar, Wile E.’s ears drop off as he spies…the book!

Figuring that after sixty years, he finally has Acme beat by a mile, he immediately puts the magic book to use against his feathered quarry–and we’re off to the races.

As Mickey Mouse learned in the Fantasia sequence “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,”  however, it’s one thing to have a wizard’s book, and quite another to know how to use it. From here on in, we’re pretty much in standard Road Runner territory, with the magic book standing in for the Acme products.The coyote, trying to get Acme Customer Support before he hits re-entry...

Well, almost. He does resort to a couple of Acme items, like an Acme magic broom (somebody has to supply Hogwart’s, I guess) but it works about as well as the 9,273 other items Acme’s provided him with over the years.

I give you Exhibit A: astride the broom, Wile E.  chases the Road Runner into a tunnel, but as he’s been on the losing end of such a situation so many times before, he immediately rockets upward and out of frame when he hears what sounds like an approaching truck. Which is really the Road Runner, naturally, but by the time the coyote realizes this, there’s not much he can do about it. The broom seems to have a mind of its own, propelling Wile E. into the edge of outer space.

This is followed by a funny, if obvious, gag in which Wile E. tries to navigate the Acme company’s customer service voice mail as he plummets earthward (“You have reached Acme Flying Broom customer service. All of our operators are busy at this time….”) The timing is very nearly Chuck Jones-like in one all too brief sequence: he comes to a screeching stop just inches above ground, steps off, wipes his brow, checks to see if he’s really on  terra firma–then proceeds to leap over the nearest cliff when the Road Runner startles him with a “BEEP BEEP!” Unfortunately, the sequence quickly falls apart once the Coyote reaches the cliff. The animation probably could have been better here–or at least a bit slower, especially when he’s heading down the cliff. In Jones’ cartoons, the falls were painstakingly timed–down to the frame, in fact–so that one could easily see the Coyote’s expressions of frustration/hopelessness.

They never mentioned THIS problem in "Aladdin"...

There’s also the inevitable crystal ball gag, which I’m almost certain we’ve seen in classic Road Runners, so Doyle loses any points he’s thus far gained for originality.

And of course, no revived Road Runner cartoon would be complete without the old “birdseed as bait” routine–but this time, there’s a twist. Using one of the book’s spells to levitate the rock rather than trust unreliable pulleys and catapults, the Coyote hadn’t quite gotten the hang of actually getting the rock to fall. You can guess what happens from there, I’m sure.

Doyle makes one last departure from the Jones tradition in that he has the Road Runner actively engineer the Coyote’s downfall at the end (just how, I won’t say, for those of you who are spoiler-phobic). Again, Doyle’s attempts at originality come off as somehow wrong, for the characters and our expectations. When he sticks to the source material–be it the Coyote’s design, expressions, or the series’ standard gags–he’s a bit closer to the mark.

Doyle is fan-savvy enough to give the audience an in-joke of sorts (the routine involving the Coyote and the tunnel) without being clumsy or obvious. Certainly better than the cameo-filled “fan-wankery” of the next cartoon on our list, Attack Of The Drones.

It’s a mixed bag, this cartoon. I approached it wanting desperately to see the flowing animation and calculated pace of this series’ heyday, but sadly, I didn’t get it in most scenes. While nowhere near as horrible or as artistically desolate as the McKimson/Larriva efforts of the ’60s, it’s still far too fast, with too few in-betweens, so much so that some gags are hard to “read.” (A problem I touched on a bit earlier in this review). Strong poses of the sort Jones was known for might have solved the problem.

One thing that did stay at high quality throughout is John Frizzell’s music. Though not on the level of Stalling or Franklyn (but then, what is these days?) it does what a good cartoon score is supposed to do–enhance the action on-screen without overpowering it.

If Doyle had made just this one cartoon, I suspect he’d be looked on more favorably by fans. Yet….I’m irritated that I have to keep saying, “It’s better than Larriva…it’s better than Larriva.” It doesn’t say much about a present-day producer if he looks good only in comparison with the very worst of the past.

(Edited for clarity, 1/29/10)

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