Twenty-five years after starring alongside Michael Jordan in the original Space Jam, the Looney Tunes are preparing to lace up and take the court with LeBron James in the sequel, Space Jam: A New Legacy. But one familiar character will be staying in the locker room: Sources at Warner Bros. have said that amorous cartoon skunk, Pepé Le Pew, will not be featured in the upcoming film, which is set to premiere in theaters and on HBO Max on July 16. In fact, the controversial character — who made his first appearance in 1945 — seems to be permanently retired from the Looney Tunes canon. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the studio has no plans to feature Pepé in any other feature films or the new Looney Tunes cartoon series currently streaming on HBO Max.
Interestingly, the skunk was scrubbed from the Space Jam sequel over a year ago. But the news is coming to light amid an ongoing reckoning with the pop culture of yesteryear, including the recent announcements that Disney+ has put content warnings on select episodes of The Muppet Show, and Dr. Seuss Enterprises ceasing publication of six of the late author's books. Both of those decisions infuriated conservative critics, who held them up as examples of "cancel culture" run amok.
In a March 3 column praising the Seuss estate for their decision, New York Times Opinion writer Charles M. Blow listed Pepé Le Pew among a trio of animated characters from his childhood — including fellow Looney Tune Speedy Gonzalez and Tom and Jerry's Mammy Two Shoes — that have aged poorly. Blow specifically criticized Pepé as having "normalized rape culture," for his vintage animated antics, which involved him relentlessly pursuing a black female cat, Penelope Pussycat, who he repeatedly confused for a skunk mate. The writer later continued his argument on Twitter, citing multiple examples from Looney Tunes cartoons. "This helped teach boys that “no” didn’t really mean no," Blow wrote.
According to Deadline, the decision to cut Pepé from the New Legacy team was made in 2019 after Roll Bounce director Malcolm D. Lee replaced the original helmer, Terence Nance. Nance filmed a comic Casablanca homage that would have placed the cartoon skunk in the same frame as Jane the Virgin star, Greice Santo. In the since-deleted sequence, Pepé played a bartender making eyes at Santo's customer. But when he tries to make his move, she teaches him proper manners by pouring her drink over his head and slapping him silly. At that point, James and Bugs show up hoping that Pepé can tell them where to find Lola Bunny. After providing the intel, he reveals that Penelope has filed a restraining order, and James specifically tells him that he's not allowed to grab her, or any other women, without their consent. When Lee took over the film, that scene was removed without the animation being completed.
Santo apparently learned that the sequence was deleted at the same time as the rest of the world. In a statement provided to Deadline, a spokesperson for the singer and actress indicated Santo was disappointed by the decision since the scene ultimately features her teaching Pepé a lesson. “This was such a big deal for Greice to be in this movie," the spokesperson said. "Even though Pepé is a cartoon character, if anyone was going to slap a sexual harasser like him, Greice wished it would be her. Now the scene is cut, and she doesn’t have that power to influence the world through younger generations who’ll be watching Space Jam 2, to let younger girls and younger boys know that Pepé's behavior is unacceptable."
Reaction to the filmmakers' decision to remove Pepé from the Space Jam sequel is evenly split on Twitter, with some defending the character while others are happy to see him remain in the history books.
Space Jam: A New Legacy premieres July 16 in theaters and on HBO Max.
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