The Hamlet of hares

ANOTHER fad you'll say -- academics in love with cartoons, intellectuals slumming again. But just a doggone minute, buthster. Rarebit season has always been in vogue among word watchers. The big difference now is that there are more of us out there ready to declare our long-term affection for the punny bunny. It's only coincidence that New York's Museum of Modern Art this past fall opened a tribute to 50 years of Warner Brothers animation, and that video and TV specials are featuring highlights from the world of the wacky wabbit and his friends. The museum show is fine, watching uncut Bugs Bunny reruns finer. The Lapin Oeuvre, so to speak, gains from familiarity. Fans wait for favorites, having memorized lines and routines. And none are so memorable -- and loved -- as those that show the Rabbit having fun with language, ``moidering'' it, with delight. At such times Bugs is at his most sublimely ridiculous, a Hamlet of hares for whom ``words, words, words'' are the essential stuff of an antic disposition that keeps him happy and humane.

The world of animation can be a violent one, but Bunny cartoons are never cruel or vicious. Just the opposite, unless one counts the parodic damage done to history (``The Scarlet Pumpernickel''), to art (``The Rabbit of Seville,'' ``What's Opera Doc?''), and to literature (``A Tale of Two Kitties'' and ``Hamlet,'' wonderfully used and abused in many features). Bugs Bunny cartoons are ritual enactments of threats met by intelligence and good-natured derring-do. In many, Bugs encounters a raspy-voiced varmint-chaser, ``Yosemite Sam,'' a crunched-up ball of red-haired energy who is aggressive, mean, but downright adorable in rascally incompetence. Sam is always the villain, Bugs the fearless hero. In between is Daffy Duck, an eternal loser, always on the make, whose craftiness is his undoing. Against them, Bugs is always the winner, but it is not for that that we mainly love him.

It is rather that Bugs is benevolent in his supremacy. Who else would drop victory at defeat of an enemy by going for a punch line instead of a punch? Meet the foe by turning his other cheek and planting one big smooch upon it? Take great fun in mocking clich'es of language, situation, and character, including ``fugitives from the funny papers,'' as Bugs himself observes of stereotype cartoons.

In ``Buckaroo Bugs,'' for example, a zany send-up of good and bad guys in the Wild West, alliteration and allusion overturn predictable expectations in ways that foreshadow Mel Brooks.

Bugs Bunny cartoons are also camp put-downs of a thousand and one history texts. During blockades, ships are really ``bottled up'' in the harbor; spies ``button their lips,'' a knight is dubbed ``Sir Loin of Beef.'' Enemies are domesticated, monsters converted to peace. A Gothic Horrible, bent on destruction, pauses to do his nails; a Big Mama Meanie who misuses and mispronounces English falls for the buck-toothed cutie with the Brooklyn accent. Prose style is the man. Most cartoons rely on visuals, but to hear Bugs is to love him.

His passion for the in-joke is part of his compassion: He never takes himself seriously. At meaningful moments, he moves off center for an ironic aside. Generations of youngsters have grown up imitating his lines, but if they have also indirectly felt the influence of his love of language, they have received fine instruction in the guise of entertainment.

Bugs is good but no goody-goody. The world he inhabits is full of physical threat and base desire, to which he sometimes succumbs. What saves him from sin and sentimentality is word play. He is, for all his ego, a humble soul, with distance on himself and faith in humanity. After tricking a dimwitted lone ranger in ``Buckaroo Bugs'' into galloping into the Grand Canyon, Bugs magnanimously tunnels through to the pit to console him with a pat on the forehead and the reassuring words, ``Goodnight Sweet Prince.''

As his creators have said, Bugs evolved with adults in mind. No soft or cute conception like Disney's, creatures often smug in virtue, obvious in design, Bugs is a true innocent, one tested in the world of experience, a passive hero whose aggression is reserved for words.

What's up, Doc? Bugs Bunny is, always. On the alert for action, always rising to occasions, rushing in where fools and angels fear to tread, he makes the most of the moment, a hedonist of good heart and common sense. Children may watch but only those with imaginations semantically exercised will recognize that in the world of Bugs Bunny, the pen is truly mightier than the sword.

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