"What's Opera, Doc?" — yes, with a question mark — is a 1957 Looney Tunes short famously described by director Chuck Jones as "our attempt to squish the entire Ring Cycle down to six minutes." The incredible part is that they succeeded.
Specifically, the short is an ambitious parody of the operas of Richard Wagner, particularly Der Ring des Nibelungen (especially Die Walküre), and (musically) Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser. It was written by Michael Maltese, who twelve years earlier had warmed up for the task with Friz Freleng's similar Herr Meets Hare, with Hermann Göring (!) in the Elmer Fudd part.
The plot follows Siegfried Fudd as he attempts to (what else?) kill innocent little forest critter Bugs Bunny with his "speaw and magic hewlmet." Along the way Fudd manages to fall in love with what he does not realize is Bugs in drag as Brünnhilde; when he discovers he's been tricked, his tewwib — er, terrible wrath unleashes the full force of the helmet's awesome might: "Nowth winds bwow! South winds bwow! Typhoons! Huwwicanes! Eawthquakes! SMOOOOOOGGGGG!!"
As the tempest dies down, it reveals the broken form of the "poor wittle wabbit", which he has to all appearances finally killed. Overcome by remorse, Fudd tenderly scoops up the body and marches sniffling into the sunset... at which point Bugs, very much alive, raises his head and inquires briskly of the audience: "Well what did ya expect in an opera — a happy ending?"
Naturally, as this is an opera, almost all of the dialogue is sung ("O mighty warrior of great fighting stock, / Might I inquire to ask, 'Ehh, what's up Doc?'" to the tune of Siegfried's Horn Call). Most famous is Elmer's continual refrain of "Kill da wabbit!" to the tune of the "Ride of the Valkyries". The brief ballet sequence between Siegfried and "Brünnhilde" was painstakingly choreographed by animators who studied film of actual dancers. There's even a duet, "Return, My Love", with original words by Maltese, to the tune of the "Pilgrims' Chorus" from Tannhäuser.
Having taken roughly six times as much time and money to produce as most contemporary Looney Tunes shortsnote , "What's Opera, Doc?" is considered by many to be Jones' magnum opus and is one of the most beloved and critically acclaimed animated shorts of all time, if not the most. It has topped numerous lists compiled by film critics and professional animators, and in 1992, it became the first cartoon short to be deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress, being selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. It also holds the No. 1 spot on The 50 Greatest Cartoons list, and is also one of The 100 Greatest Looney Tunes. It's one of the few animated features included on Roger Ebert's Great Movies List.
"What's Opera, Doc?" provides examples of:
- Affectionate Parody: Of everything Wagnerian and Romantic in general.
- Amusing Injuries: This most-favored-trope of the Looney Tunes is surprisingly averted at the end... in which it turns out that its being purely Played for Drama is the gag.
- Antagonist in Mourning: "What have I done? I've killed the wabbit."
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: "Typhoons! Huwwicanes! Earthquakes! SMOOOOOOOOOOOOGGGGGGGGGG!"
- Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: Its implied at the end that Elmer takes Bugs corpse to Valhalla.
- The Bad Guy Wins: Yes, you read that correctly. It's lampshaded, even.
- Berserk Button: When Elmer catches on to Bugs' tricks, all hell breaks loose.
- Big Shadow, Little Creature: The opening, when Elmer Fudd first appears.
- Brawn Hilda: Averted; Bugs as Brünnhilde is really quite petite. The horse "she" rides in on, however...◊ Chuck Jones explained that, denied the traditionally curvaceous opera heroine, they threw every curve they had into her noble steed instead.
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: "Well, what did you expect in an opera — a HAPPY ending?"
- Catchphrase: Plays magnificently with Elmer's traditional desire to "Kill the wabbit!!"
- Clothes Make the Superman: Elmer Fudd's "spear and magic helmet" allow him to control the weather and finally kill da wabbit... kind of.
- Cool Helmet: Elmer's magic helmet.
- Cool Horse: Bugs' horse is a strange mix of a Brawn Hilda and a beautiful, white mare. Pretty neat.
- Cradling Your Kill: What Elmer does after he has killed da Wabbit.
- Darker and Edgier: Given it's a Looney Tunes short, it does conflict with the usual gleefully wacky house style. But it works.
- The usual "That's All, Folks!" closing card is cut extremely short, not even animated or with its standard whimsical music; the score plays over it as it simply fades in and out as a static card.
- Department of Redundancy Department: When Bugs first approaches Elmer the mighty hunter, their dialogue parodies the often excessive internal repetition of operatic libretti:Bugs [sings]: Oh mighty warrior of great fighting stock, Might I inquire to ask, eh, what's up, doc?Elmer [sings]: I'm going to kill the wabbit!Bugs [sings]: O mighty hunter, 'twill be quite a task, How will you do it, might I inquire to ask?Elmer [sings]: I'll do it with my spear and magic helmet!Bugs [sings]: Your spear and magic helmet?Elmer [sings]: Spear and magic helmet!Bugs [sings]: Magic helmet?Elmer [sings]: Magic helmet!Bugs [derisively]: Magic pfelmet.Elmer [sings]: Yes! Magic helmet! And Ill give you a sample! [uses his powers of thunder and lightning to reduce a tree Bugs is under to a cinder]Bugs [with an Oh, Crap! look on his face]: Bye! [runs off]Elmer: That was the wabbit!
- Downer Ending: Lampshaded by Bugs."What did you expect from an opera? A happy ending?"
- Elmuh Fudd Syndwome: Siegfwied Fudd Syndwome!
- Foe Romance Subtext: The usual Running Gag in shorts; Bugs Disguised in Drag, and Elmer falling head over heels for him. What's a little different here is that the "Return My Love" segment is pretty sappy, cliché and emotional yet still funny, while all other times Bugs pulled out his drag act it was only Played for Laughs.
- Hat of Power: The magic helmet, of course.
- Horny Vikings: Elmer's magic helmet has a pair of horns in the classic "viking" design. Justified here, in that the original opera was one of the Trope Codifiers.
- Killed Off for Real / Faking the Dead: This was the only short where Bugs was the former trope. And it was lampshaded as well, during which Bugs is the latter trope.
- Musical Episode: Every line is sung to the tune of music by Wagner.
- My God, What Have I Done?:
- Nerd in Evil's Helmet: Elmer Fudd wearing a magic helmet instead of his usual hunter cap.
- Not-So-Harmless Villain: Elmer Fudd.
- Oh, Crap!
- When Bugs realizes Elmer wasn't bluffing about his helmet's powers — complete with doe eyes and drooping ears.
- Then, at the end of the big love song, Bugss wig and helmet fall off, and Bugs gives an "Oh, Crap!" Smile before pulling Elmers helmet down and running for his life. All of which is accompanied by a dramatic Drum Roll which signals the start of Elmer's Villainous Breakdown. When audiences heard it and saw Bugs running for his life, they knew things were going to get REALLY ugly.
- "Oh, Crap!" Smile: When Elmer realizes that Bugs duped him, the rabbit gives Elmer this kind of smile before he runs off.
- One-Winged Angel: While he doesn't actually turn into one, when he has a Villainous Breakdown, Elmer unleashes enough power that would make him seem capable of becoming this.
- Public Domain Soundtrack: Obviously; the entire piece is a pastiche of Richard Wagner's operas. Most famously, the Ride of the Valkyries is given the immortal lyrics, "Kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit..."
- Pun-Based Title
- Pyrrhic Villainy: Elmer succeeds in killing Bugs, yes, but at the same time kills the...er...rabbit he loved and is overcome by grief and remorse. It makes perfect sense for the character. Every time Bugs fooled Elmer into thinking he got him before, Elmer broke down similarly. Perhaps he's not as cut out for hunting as he thinks he is. Or he should stick to hunting the non-sentient.
- Questioning Title?: "What's Opera Doc?"
- Recycled IN SPACE!
- This short is basically just your typical Bugs Bunny being hunted by Elmer Fudd scenario... but this time, AS AN OPERA! And ELMER WINS!
- Alternately, The Ring Cycle Abridged WITH BUGS BUNNY!
- Red Eyes, Take Warning: Elmer gets this as well as everything around him glowing red with rage when he catches on to Bugs' tricks.
- Scenery Porn: Particularly when Elmer carries Bugs away.
- Shock and Awe: "Stwike, wightning! Stwike da wabbit!"
- Shown Their Work: This was one of the only Looney Tunes shorts in which the animators did extensive research (the other one being the notorious Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs). Professional ballet dancers were hired for the animators to study.
- Shout-Out: The opening scene is a parody of the "Night On Bald Mountain" segment of Fantasia.
- Sophisticated as Hell: Opera motifs. Ballet. Love duets. Wagnerian motifs. Yet Siegfried is still out to "kill da wabbit."
- Stylistic Suck: Not the cartoon itself by any means, but the song "Return My Love" was deliberately written to be as sappy and cliché as possible.
- Team Rocket Wins: Notably one of the only three occurrences in Looney Tunes history where Elmer gets one over on Bugs.note
- True Art Is Angsty: Invoked by Bugs at the Punchline.
- Unexplained Recovery: Bugs suddenly recovers, to deliver the Punchline.
- Unsettling Gender Reveal: Brünnhilde was da wabbit! Leading to Elmer's Villainous Breakdown.
- Unstoppable Rage: Elmer gets this after catching wise to Bugs' trickery. See also: Red Eyes, Take Warning and Villainous Breakdown. In fact, it's likely the most angry he has ever been in any cartoon to date. It's no longer about hunting, or good sport. It's Personal. And perhaps the only instance in which he comes off as a truly frightening villain (it helps that he's ridiculously overpowered in this one as well).
- Valkyries: Bugs as Brünnhilde, obviously.
- Villainous Breakdown: When Elmer discovers who his love really is.
- Vocal Dissonance: As Elmer unleashes the elements on Bugs and screams, "SMOG!", it sounds significantly different than usual. That is actually Mel Blanc, not Arthur Q. Bryan, shouting that word, briefly sounding more like Yosemite Sam.
- Wham Line: Not the words themselves, but how they're uttered.... Elmer's "I'll KILL DA WABBIT!!!" is genuinely frightening. Play-time is over!
- Wholesome Crossdresser: Bugs (as usual) at one point in the short.
- Word Schmord: Bugs derisively refers to Elmer's magic helmet as "Magic pfelmet."
- "Well what did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?"