The Walt Disney Company made its mark in 1928 when it introduced the iconic character who would become its symbol/mascot. Micky Mouse debuted in the short film Steamboat Willie in 1928. Throughout the 1930s and into the 40s, Disney established itself as the dominant masters of cinematic animation. Other popular characters like Donald Duck, Minnie Mouse, Goofy and Pluto, among others, appeared to enthrall kids and amuse adults. The animated shorts were so successful the company started to make longer films. No one could compete with Disney in the genre of animation. Walt Disney was riding high, with no competition.
Warner Brothers changed all that! They started their animation department in 1930 in an attempt to duplicate the success Disney was having. They began with their “Merry Melodies” shorts, which were cartoons made to promote their music (They had acquired four music publishing companies). However, they didn’t hit their stride until the mid-late 1930s when they initiated their more satiric, rough-and-tumble style that would become known as the “Looney Tunes”. (Alternately spelled “Looney Toons”.) Porky Pig was the first of the famous Looney Tunes characters to debut in 1935. He was followed by others, such as Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Sylvester & Tweety, Yosemite Sam and many others, most notably the most popular “Toon” of them all, Bugs Bunny who debuted in 1940.
Throughout the 1940s and into the 50s, Disney’s roster of characters competed with the WBs Looney Tunes for animated supremacy. The competition was far less one-sided back then than it is today. Unlike the current situation with the superhero films, Warner Bros was able to find the niche that the public wanted and overtook Disney, becoming more popular than the House of Mouse. Even today, decades later, Bugs and the Looney Toons win in almost every poll when pitted against Mickey and company.
How did the upstart Warner Bros animated characters overtake Disney in popularity? Ironically, they did it by using the same method which is failing them today…They went edgier! If you look at the old Looney Tunes cartoons, they were hyper-violent; used occasional adult humor and even subtle innuendo; and were very non-PC. Their take-no-prisoners style of anarchy was a marked contrast from Disney.
Although some of the early Mickey Mouse cartoons had the same sort wild energy that Looney Tunes had, Disney soon settled into a more innocent, wholesome style. Their characters were more sympathetic and usually were the victims of circumstance. What people liked about Bugs Bunny was that he was not sweet and sympathetic…he was a bad boy! He was a mischievous prankster who enjoyed inflicting his brand of vengeance on Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam or anyone else who got on his bad side. In his own words, “Ain’t I a stinker!”
New characters kept popping up, such Roadrunner and the Coyote or Foghorn Leghorn. Viewers loved to watch the Coyote getting repeatedly crushed by boulders and falling off cliffs in his unsuccessful efforts to catch and eat the roadrunner. The more overtly violent the WB got, the more fans oved it. Characters like Speedy Gonzales may have been overtly racist, but the WB was unapologetic and kept the non-PC humor coming. Pepe Le Pew was practically an attempted rapist.
Warner Bros continued to be the fan favorite in short animation (a different genre from feature films) until the age of television ended the long-time trend of showing short cartoons before theatrical films. Once TV made cinematic shorts obsolete, Warner Bros ended their lucrative Looney Tunes series and reintroduced the characters to a new generation of kids in the 1960s (including myself, by the way) when the Looney Tunes shorts were rerun as weekly animated TV shows.
As for Disney, they also ended their production of short films and focused on full length theatrical movies, most of which were live action at this point. (Disney went through a long slump in animation until 1989 when The Little Mermaid jump-started a new era of Disney domination at the box office.) The Looney Tunes conquered a new medium in the 60s/70s; whereas Mickey, Donald, Goofy and the others were relegated to corporate symbols. At the end of the day, Warner Bros and the Looney Tunes won the first round of the feud with Disney.