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THE PINK PANTHER and The Importance of Cartoons Post-LOONEY TUNES

By the late 1950s, Warner Bros. Cartoons was on its last legs. In 1963, the doors were shut. Longtime animation director Chuck Jones, one of the stalwarts of the studio since the ’30s, had jumped ship to MGM to make Tom & Jerry in 1962, and David DePatie, an editor who’d been gifted the run of the studio by his WB exec father, was running out of work. In a last-ditch effort, DePatie approached Warner’s most awarded director, Friz Freleng, about creating a new studio. They were allowed to stay on the WB lot, renting the animation studio space for a pittance, and DePatie-Freleng Enterprises was born, and with it, the company’s most famous creation: The Pink Panther.

Looking for work for the fledgling company, DePatie-Freleng were approached to do an animated title sequence for Blake Edwards’ 1963 heist comedy, The Pink Panther. Though that film was about classy jewel thieves attempting to make off with a valuable diamond of the same name, the title sequence turned the Pink Panther into a character, the sleek and vibrant cat who reacted to the opening titles to the iconic theme music by Henry Mancini.

This was such a hit, and a breakout sequence in an already popular movie, DFE decided to make a theatrical short starring a version of the character. Theatrical cartoons, which ran before the studios’ movies, were phasing out, however the Pink Panther gave them new life. The first such short, The Pink Phink in 1964, directed by Friz Freleng himself, earned DFE its first and only Oscar and ensured there’d be more animated shorts to follow.

Kino Lorber has recently released the first volume of these Pink Panther shorts to go along with their whole line of DePatie-Freleng releases (more about those later), and it’s fascinating to watch these cartoons in context. Unlike most of the famous characters from animated shorts at the time, the Pink Panther series didn’t have an overall conceit or MO. He was usually silent, but not always; he’d often be depicted in Goofy-like domestic scenarios where he’d get annoyed at modern life, but not always; his most persistent foil was the short little guy from The Pink Phink, but this wasn’t always the case either. They even made a lot of direct film parodies. The formula changed depending on what Freleng and his team wanted to do.

Freleng’s style and sense of humor, however, were present in each and every one of these. You’ve seen a million Friz Freleng cartoons in your life even if you didn’t realize it. He worked in the ’20s with Walt Disney’s team before going over to Leon Schlesinger Productions (which would eventually become Warner Bros. Cartoons). He introduced or developed some of the most famous Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies characters, including Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Sylvester and Tweety, Yosemite Sam (who was based on Freleng’s stature and temperament), and Speedy Gonzales. Freleng was a huge proponent of slapstick comedy, and delaying the reveal of the joke for as long as possible. While Chuck Jones’ cartoons get more plaudits, and Tex Avery and Bob Clampett are remembered for being zanier, it was Friz Freleng whose work earned the most Oscars and gave the world some of its most enduring characters.

Which is why it’s fascinating to watch the cartoons made by DePatie-Freleng after the success of The Pink Panther. The visual style was a lot more expressionistic and the characters slightly less refined (even under United Artists, DFE never had the budget of Warner Bros. Cartoons at its prime) but Freleng’s sense of humor was always present.

After Pink Panther was up and running, DFE introduced The Inspector in 1965, a series following a bumbling French policeman and his smarter Spanish underling Deux-Deux. It’s loosely based on Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther movies and employedHenry Mancini’s theme from the second such film A Shot in the Dark. Thirty-four of these cartoons were produced between 1965 and 1969 and are perhaps some of the funniest and most beautiful in the DePatie-Freleng canon.

Kino Lorber has complete collections of several DePatie-Freleng cartoons, all of which are worth your time. In addition to Pink Panther and The Inspector–which have the largest number of cartoons–you can also check out Roland and Rattfink about a villain trying to ruin the time of a handsome goody two-shoes; The Ant and the Aardvark where an aardvark who sounds like Jackie Mason tries to eat an ant who sounds like Dean Martin; Tijuana Toads about a pair of toads trying and failing to eat prey; The Blue Racer, a frankly bizarre series about a blue snake with a lisp; Hoot Kloot about a diminutive and angry sheriff and his faithful, limping horse; and Crazylegs Crane about the dopey antagonist from Tijuana Toads and The Blue Racer. Frankly there are diminishing returns with a lot of these, but they remain an interesting and important look at a studio that kept the Looney Tunes mentality alive for another decade.

Images: UA/Kino Lorber Animation

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He’s written the animation retrospectives Batman: Reanimated, X-Men: Reanimated, Cowboy Rebop, and Samurai reJacked. Follow him on Twitter!

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