SUMMARY: Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd replay their old rivalry as a Wagnerian opera.
WHY IT’S HERE: ‘What’s Opera, Doc?’ is undoubtedly one of the high points in animation history. An ingenious double parody of both Wagner’s “Ring” cycle and the standard Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd cartoon as epitomized by Tex Avery’s ‘A Wild Hare’. It’s instantly apparent from the opening moments that ‘What’s Opera, Doc?’ is an extraordinarily beautiful cartoon. What also becomes quickly apparent is that ‘What’s Opera, Doc?’ is far less crammed with traditional Warner Bros. gags than the average short. The luscious look and stunning vocal work and music is far more important than gags here and so, instead of joke after joke, we get lengthy operatic routines including the longest and most emotionally charged drag act Bugs has ever done.
It’s all still very funny but ‘What’s Opera, Doc?’ has so much more to offer. Mel Blanc and Arthur Q. Bryan (as Bugs and Elmer respectively) give the performances of their careers, summoning up genuine emotion from their astonishing work. The pair had been working on Bugs and Elmer cartoons for years by this point and had the characters and their relationship down to a tee but they exert themselves even harder here and the result is an explosive chemistry that provides ‘What’s Opera, Doc?’ with its emotional core. This is key in making the jaw-droppingly tragic ending even more effective as we see the murdered Bugs lying vulnerable beneath a weeping flower. The glorious final wisecrack alleviates some of the sadness but not so much that it spoils the mood. You come away from watching ‘What’s Opera, Doc?’ with a real sense of melancholy alongside the invigorating swell of having seen something truly brilliant.
It’s unsurprising to learn that Jones swapped round his schedule, finishing other cartoons more quickly in order to give this masterful cartoon the extra attention it deserves. What is perhaps more surprising is the fact that ‘What’s Opera, Doc?’ went virtually unrecognised in its time, not even being nominated for an Oscar in a year that Robert McKimson’s Speedy Gonzalez picture ‘Tabasco Road’ was! (Incidentally, Friz Freleng’s great Sylvester and Tweety short ‘Birds Anonymous’ won the Oscar). Thankfully, ‘What’s Opera, Doc?’ has been retrospectively re-evaluated and has since been hailed as the classic it so blatantly is. Today, it is perhaps the most famous Warner Bros. cartoon of them all.