Looney Tunes: Back in Action
review by Dan Lybarger, 14 November 2003

One of the more painful aspects (among many) in watching Space Jam, was a nagging sense that its creators had only a passing regard for the Looney Tunes characters or the remotest understanding of why viewers fell in love with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck or Tweety in the first place. The voice actors frequently did a sloppy job of imitating the late, great Mel Blanc's distinctive touch in the classic cartoons. Further, the antagonistic relationships the characters had toward each other that made the original toons so funny was lost. Even though Bugs and Daffy had been used to plug products before, any serious lover of the Warner Bros. characters had to feel offended at being asked to pay theatrical admission for a ninety-minute Nike commercial

To its credit, Looney Tunes: Back in Action is an attempt to make up for how the first movie cheated the characters and their fans. Director Joe Dante helmed Gremlins, which was loaded with the kind of irreverent humor that made the Warner Bros. cartoons a naughty alternative to Disney's fare, and writer Larry Doyle is a veteran of the entertainingly caustic Daria and The Simpsons.

People who, like me, love the series, will marvel at how well these guys know the source material. Look closely, and you'll spot the mother bear from Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears still making goo-goo eyes at Bugs after all these decades, and voice artist Joe Alaskey, who does Bugs, Daffy and a few others, manages the unenviable task of imitating Blanc's sounds expressively enough to match the needs of the current story.

While the affection for the originals is really refreshing, Looney Tunes: Back in Action still stumbles over some formidable hurdles. For one thing, the originals were designed to keep a crowd occupied for a few minutes until the feature kicked in, not to take up an entire feature. Like Saturday Night Live sketches put on film (try sitting through eighty minutes of Dan Ackroyd doing that nasal Conehead voice), explosions and cartoon violence can get old in the long run.

One also wishes Doyle had developed his story the way he sneaked in dozens of in jokes. The film begins with Bugs and Daffy sitting in with Warner Bros. executives (played by live action actors) during a fierce contract negotiation. As can be expected, the terminally jealous duck is tired of being the rabbit's foil. This time, however, an exec (Jenna Elfman) who's impatient with the bird's consistent prima donna behavior fires him.

Because the Looney Tunes are so much a part of the culture, the long series of self-referential gags isn't a problem at first. It's funny watching Bugs, Daffy and other Toons wandering around the studio complaining about the current demands of filmmaking. For example, Porky Pig bemoans that his trademark stammer is deemed "politically correct," but execs inform him he's no longer funny without it. It's too bad the story doesn't stay on the lot because that's where it's most entertaining.

When a bumbling security guard named D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser) gets fired after trying to get Daffy off the lot, the two discover that D.J.'s father Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton) is more than Warner's top star. It turns out that Damian is so good at playing spies because he is one and has stumbled across a diabolical plan by the Acme corporation to enslave the world to its shoddy merchandise.

Imagine an entire planet reduced to imitating the Coyote's futile quest for the Road-Runner, and you can see the comic potential. Instead, the film gradually loses momentum. The long scenes where Steve Martin hams it up as Acme's Chairman of the Board don't help. Martin's strutting and preening aren't particularly funny, and at times he's too busy out-contorting his animated costars instead of trying to create a more worthwhile character. To be fair, the material doesn't give him much to work with. It's an indication of what's wrong with the rest of the film.

None of the human performers are as fun as their cartoon counterparts, and the adventure itself is short on thrills and is sometimes stingy on laughs. When your human contributors are as talented as Martin or Joan Cusack, this is inexcusable. Maybe the film might have worked better if it had been completely animated.

There are enough freeze-frame moments to make Looney Tunes: Back in Action a decent rent. As with The Simpsons, there are gags that can't be easily seen while the film is running normally. Fans of Dante's earlier films like Gremlins and Matinee can spot funny cameos from actors who have been his regulars, and some of the most obscure Looney Tunes characters casually stroll by. Still, this is not the sort of content that merits spending $80 million.

The new Looney Tunes Golden Collection box set features some astute comments from Dante, Alaskey and their collaborators. Their love for the Warner Bros. cartoons is better served there than it is in their own film.

Directed by:
Joe Dante

Starring:
Brendan Fraser
Jenna Elfman
Steve Martin
Timothy Dalton
Joan Cusack
Heather Locklear

Written by:
Larry Doyle

Rated:
PG - Parental
Guidance Suggested.
Some material may
not be appropriate
for children.

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