The Evolution of Bugs Bunny’s Appearance Over His Eight Decade Career

Bugs Bun­ny is a quick-think­ing, fast-talk­ing, was­cal­ly force of nature, and a preter­nat­u­ral­ly gift­ed phys­i­cal come­di­an, too.

But unlike such last­ing greats as Char­lie Chapin and Buster Keaton, it took him a while to find his icon­ic look.

His first appear­ance, as “Hap­py Rab­bit” in the 1938 black and white the­atri­cal short, Porky’s Hare Hunt, might remind you of those year­book pho­tos of celebri­ties before they were famous.

In a video essay con­sid­er­ing how Bugs Bunny’s look has evolved over his eight-decade career, ani­ma­tion fan Dave Lee of the pop­u­lar YouTube series Dave Lee Down Under breaks down some ear­ly char­ac­ter­is­tics, from an unde­fined, small body and oval-shaped head to white fur and a fluffy cot­ton ball of a tail.

His voice was also a work in progress, more Woody Wood­peck­er than the hybrid Brook­lyn-Bronx patois that would make him, and voice actor Mel Blanc, famous.

The fol­low­ing year, the rab­bit who would become Bugs Bun­ny returned in Prest‑o Change‑o, a Mer­ry Melodies Tech­ni­col­or short direct­ed by Chuck Jones.

A few months lat­er char­ac­ter design­er (and for­mer Dis­ney ani­ma­tor) Char­lie Thor­son sub­ject­ed him to a pret­ty notice­able makeover for Hare-um Scare-um, anoth­er rab­bit hunt­ing-themed romp.

The two-toned grey and white coat, oval muz­zle, and mis­chie­vous buck-toothed grin are much more aligned with the Bugs most of us grew up watch­ing.  

His pear-shaped bod’, long neck, high-rumped stance, and pon­toon feet allowed for a much greater range of motion.

A nota­tion on the mod­el sheet allud­ing to direc­tor Ben Hard­away’s nick­name — “Bugs” — gives some hint as to how the world’s most pop­u­lar car­toon char­ac­ter came by his stage name.

For 1940’s Elmer’s Can­did Cam­era, the pink-muz­zled Bugs dropped the yel­low gloves Thors­en had giv­en him and affect­ed some black ear tips.

Tex Avery, who was in line to direct the pair in the Acad­e­my Award-nom­i­nat­ed short A Wild Hare, found this look objec­tion­ably cute.

He tasked ani­ma­tor Bob Givens with giv­ing the rab­bit, now offi­cial­ly known as Bugs Bun­ny, an edgi­er appear­ance.

Ani­ma­tion his­to­ri­an Michael Bar­ri­er writes:

In the Givens design, Bugs was no longer defined by Thor­son­’s tan­gle of curves. His head was now oval, rather than round. In that respect, Bugs recalled the white rab­bit in Porky’s Hare Hunt, but Given­s’s design pre­served so many of Thor­son­’s refinements—whiskers, a more nat­u­ral­is­tic nose—and intro­duced so many others—cheek ruffs, less promi­nent teeth—that there was very lit­tle sim­i­lar­i­ty between the new ver­sion of Bugs and the Hare Hunt rab­bit. 

Bar­ri­er also details a num­ber of sim­i­lar­i­ties between the tit­u­lar rab­bit char­ac­ter from Disney’s 1935 Sil­ly Sym­phonies short, The Tor­toise and the Hare, and for­mer Dis­ney employ­ee Givens’ design.  

While Avery boast­ed to car­toon his­to­ri­an Milt Gray in 1977 that “the con­struc­tion was almost iden­ti­cal”, adding, “It’s a won­der I was­n’t sued,” Givens insist­ed in an inter­view with the Ani­ma­tion Guild’s oral his­to­ry project that Bugs wasn’t a Max Hare rip off. ( “I was there. I ought to know.”)

What­ev­er par­al­lels may exist between Givens’ Bugs and Disney’s Hare, YouTu­ber Lee sees A Wild Hare as the moment when Bugs Bunny’s char­ac­ter coa­lesced as “more of a lov­able prankster than a mali­cious deviant,” non­cha­lant­ly chomp­ing a car­rot like Clark Gable in It Hap­pened One Night, and turn­ing a bit of region­al Texas teen slang — “What’s up, Doc?”- into one of the most immor­tal catch phras­es in enter­tain­ment his­to­ry.

A star was born, so much so that four direc­tors — Jones, Avery, Friz Fre­leng and Bob Clam­pett — were enlist­ed to keep up with the demand for Bugs Bun­ny vehi­cles. 

This mul­ti-pronged approach led to some visu­al incon­sis­ten­cies, that were even­tu­al­ly checked by the cre­ation of defin­i­tive mod­el sheets, drawn by Bob McKim­son, who ani­mat­ed the Clam­pett-direct­ed shorts. 

His­to­ri­an Bar­ri­er takes stock:

Bugs’s cheeks were broad­er, his chin stronger, his teeth a lit­tle more promi­nent, his eyes larg­er and slant­ed a lit­tle out­ward instead of in. The most expres­sive ele­ments of the rab­bit’s face had all been strength­ened …but because the tri­an­gu­lar shape of Bugs’s head had been sub­tly accen­tu­at­ed, Bugs was, if any­thing, futher removed from cute­ness than ever before. McKim­son’s mod­el sheet must be giv­en some of the cred­it for the marked improve­ment in Bugs’s looks in all the direc­tors’ car­toons start­ing in 1943. Not that every­one drew Bugs to match the mod­el sheet, but the awk­ward­ness and uncer­tain­ty of the ear­ly for­ties were gone; it was if every­one had sud­den­ly fig­ured out what Bugs real­ly looked like.

Now one of the most rec­og­niz­able stars on earth, Bugs remained unmis­tak­ably him­self while spoof­ing Charles Dick­ens, Alfred Hitch­cock and Wag­n­er; held his own in live action appear­ances with such heavy hit­ters as Doris Day and Michael Jor­dan; and had a mem­o­rable cameo in the 1988 fea­ture Who Framed Roger Rab­bit, after pro­duc­ers agreed to a deal that guar­an­teed him the same amount of screen time as his far squar­er rival, Mick­ey Mouse. 

This mil­len­ni­um got off to a rock­i­er start, owing to an over-reliance on low bud­get, sim­pli­fied flash ani­ma­tion, and the tru­ly exe­crable trend of shows that reimag­ine clas­sic char­ac­ters as cloy­ing tod­dlers. 

In 2011, on the strength of her 2‑minute ani­mat­ed short I Like Pan­das, an ini­tial­ly reluc­tant 24-year-old Jes­si­ca Borut­s­ki was asked to “fresh­en up” Bugs’ look for The Looney Tunes Show, a series of longer for­mat car­toons which required its cast to per­form such 21st-cen­tu­ry activ­i­ties as tex­ting:

I made their heads a bit big­ger because I did­n’t like [how] in the ’60s, ’70s Bugs Bun­ny’s head start­ed to get real­ly small and his body real­ly long. He start­ed to look like a weird guy in a bun­ny suit.

Lee’s Evo­lu­tion of Bugs Bun­ny- 80 Years Explained was released in 2019. 

He has­n’t stopped evolv­ing. Giz­mod­o’s Sabi­na Graves “sat down with the cre­ative teams shep­herd­ing Warn­er Bros.’ clas­sic Looney Tunes char­ac­ters into new and reimag­ined car­toons” at San Diego Com­ic-Con 2022: 

In a push led by Looney Tunes Car­toons’ Alex Kirwan—who spear­heads the franchise’s cur­rent slate of shorts on HBO Max—the beloved ani­ma­tion icons will soon expand into even more con­tent. There’s the upcom­ing Tiny Toons Loooniver­si­ty revival, a Hal­loween spe­cial, Cartoonito’s Bugs Bun­ny Builders for kids, and two fea­ture-length ani­mat­ed movies on the way—and we have a feel­ing that’s not all, folks!

…to quote Bugs, “I knew I shoul­da tak­en that left turn at Albu­querque!

Relat­ed Con­tent

How to Draw Bugs Bun­ny: A Primer by Leg­endary Ani­ma­tor Chuck Jones

The Strange Day When Bugs Bun­ny Saved the Life of Mel Blanc

The Proof That Mel Blanc–the Voice Behind Bugs Bun­ny, Daffy Duck & Porky Pig–Was a Genius

Kill the Wab­bit!: How the 1957 Bugs Bun­ny Car­toon, “What’s Opera, Doc?,” Inspired Today’s Opera Singers to First Get Into Opera

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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