(This is the 16th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)
This was originally going to be “Rabbit of Seville,” which I might like just a bit more than this one. But I’ve written quite a bit about “Seville,” I like them both very, very much, and “Opera” is a bit more highly regarded, so here I go.
There are many fine candidates for animated films that might appear on this list. Hayao Miyazaki came closest, and in the end, he might have fallen off the list in part because I couldn’t decide which of his movies I liked best (Princess Mononoke, probably). But Miyazaki came along when I was already middle-aged, and I suspect one’s favorite cartoon will come from our childhood. Which means it was going to be Bugs Bunny, and it was going to be Chuck Jones (my favorite non-Jones Bugs would be “Baseball Bugs,” which is Friz Freleng).
There was a time when it was the duty of Americans to insert the wisecrack that could deflate delusions of grandeur. (Now, of course, we must face the fact that we are the deluded ones, and so Bugs Bunny, who for so long had been a representative of the great American wiseacre, is perhaps finally out of place.) But one of the fascinating things about “What’s Opera, Doc?” is the way it embraces Wagner. We might assume that the wiseacre would poke merry fun at opera; there was always a high/low culture thing going on whenever the American wiseacre ridiculed European culture. But here, as with “Rabbit of Seville,” Jones and writer Michael Maltese don’t ridicule. They insert Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd into the Ring Cycle, but just as Wagner must make room for Bugs and Elmer, so, too, Bugs and Elmer must make room for Wagner.
And so “What’s Opera, Doc?” turns out to be as faithful an adaptation of Wagner’s endless epic as you can fit into seven minutes. There is humor, of course … I don’t want to suggest that this cartoon isn’t funny. But it’s self-reflective humor. We laugh at the idea of Elmer Fudd as Siegfried and Bugs as “Bwoonhiwde,” but the humor isn’t solely directed at high culture. It is also directed back towards the wiseacres. “What’s Opera, Doc?” is a very loving parody.
The tightrope that “What’s Opera, Doc?” walks between high and low culture is particularly fascinating when you consider the critical reaction to the cartoon over the years. In a 1994 poll of animators and film historians, “What’s Opera, Doc?” was named the best cartoon of all time. It was the first cartoon to be selected for the National Film Registry, which yearly honors “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films.” It remains the only Bugs Bunny cartoon to be selected, although Chuck Jones has won two more selections, for “Duck Amuck” and “One Froggy Evening.”
There were some interesting comments on this one, with one person noting that Bugs Bunny was Cool-capital-C, while Cool isn’t as popular now as it once was. So Bugs isn’t as popular, either.