Kevin S. Sandler’s essay collection Reading the Rabbit argues that one of the flaws of the later theatrical cartoons for Warner Brothers was its inability to remain culturally relevant. As the book put it, “Unfortunately, Warner Bros. animation never learned to rock and roll.” This flaw plagued theatrical animation from all the major studios besides Warner Brothers. However, Hollywood and New York theatrical studios did occasionally attempt to acknowledge that rock was a cultural force and not merely a fad.
Walter Lantz had the longest span of rock references and chronicled how the music adapted during those years–from the bobbysoxers of Real Gone Woody in 1954 through the Elvis Presley imitation of in 1957’s Fodder and Son (clip below) and the Beatles-hair references in Woody and the Beanstalk (1966) and Chiller Dillers (1968) to the hippie of Woody’s Magic Touch (1971).
After a brilliant rock adaptation of children’s literature in Three Little Bops (1957), Warner Brothers reduced to nods to Elvis in two “Bugs” episodes of 1959 Hare-Abian Nights and Apes of Wrath. And then among the studio’s penultimate annual releases was Banty Raids (1963), which made a beatnik a rock singer.
Warner Brothers’ successor studio DePatie-Freleng made references to Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” in Go Go Amigo (1965). The following year mice danced individually instead of as couples in Swing Ding Amigo (1966), Daffy Duck quoted from the Shirelles’ “Mama Said” in A Squeak in the Deep (1966), and the Pink Panther failed to bust up a rock party in his house in Pink-a-Boo (1966). Surprisingly, although the studio lasted until 1980, it did not incorporate rock music in its cartoons after the sixties.
When Warner Bros-Seven Arts Cartoons operated briefly in the late sixties, its Norman Normal (1968) used the actual group Peter, Paul, and Mary for music and voices. That same year the German in Flying Circus (1968) also quoted from “Mama Said.”
Under Chuck Jones’s leadership, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer borrowed Banty Raids’s beatnik-as-rocker motif for the “Tom and Jerry” cartoon Rock ‘n’ Rodent (1968), in which Jerry played jazz.
At Paramount, Ralph Bakshi’s Marvin Digs (1967) used music from the rock group the Life Cycle to tell the story of hippies beautifying their neighborhood with swirling colors.
So theatrical animation studios tried to rock and roll. Whether they did it well is a matter of opinion.