Featuring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and a multitude of other animated Warner Bros. “contract players” interacting with a live action world, Looney Tunes: Back in Action throws together a ragtag plot in which Bugs and Daffy are joined by WB vice president Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman) and security guard DJ Drake (Brendan Fraser) in an attempt to rescue DJ’s spy father (Timothy Dalton) from the clutches of the mad Acme CEO Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin), who’s bent on taking over the world. The film is being touted as a return to greatness for the franchise, but the film breaks that promise, proving to be little more than a parade of routine, awkwardly integrated live action and animation slapstick with hack jokes thrown into the mix. The lunacy isn’t inspired and the film never imitates the sharp comedic wit so frequently on display in the works of Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, and Chuck Jones. A few moments come close, particularly a sequence in which perennially confused Elmer Fudd pursues Daffy and Bugs in and out of paintings hanging in a Paris art museum or when DJ chases after a hooting Daffy across the WB backlot, but these reminders of the glory days are all too fleeting. That’s not to say that Back in Action would have been good had it merely mimicked the studio’s past achievements, but some of that savage imagination would have been desirable. Few cartoons today really tap into the anarchic wit and rapid-fire aggression so common to these classic shorts. In the end, any fan of the original “Looney Tunes” series has to thank the powers that be that Joe Dante was chosen to helm Back in Action. Dante is a die-hard movie buff and his knowledge of and appreciation for sci-fi/horror films, comic books, and cartoons—an entire pulpy universe of gloriously “disreputable” cultural detritus—makes for a few bright moments. While the live action actors such as Steve Martin and Joan Cusack are busy making fools of themselves by mincing around trying to be cute, Dante fills in the background with bits and pieces culled from decades of pop-culture saturation. Whether it’s a quick recall of some bizarre early Warner Brothers cartoon, like the little owl, replete with blue bow tie, doing some soft shoe and crooning away from Tex Avery’s 1936 I Love to Singa, or references to a lovingly low budget tradition of sci-fi monster villainy—various creatures seen in the film include the eponymous beasts of both Robot Monster and Edgar Ulmer’s Man from Planet X and even a couple of Daleks from the BBC’s 40-year-old sci-fi cult favorite Dr. Who—Dante fleshes out the film with giddy touches designed to speak to older Looney Tunes fans. And it’s only appropriate considering that Looney Tunes were originally created with an adult audience in mind. The shorts were a grab bag of Hollywood industry in-jokes with levels of violence and innuendo acting as a testament to the expected sophistication of the intended viewers. Back in Action is a kid’s movie, and it’s the attempt to half-heartily harken back to the original cartoons, particularly in the misleading marketing, that is ultimately so damning. Save for its director’s fannish instincts, the film would be an utter washout, but Dante must be held just as accountable for the warmed over gags and cheap moralizing (“Everyone can be a hero”) as he is for the film’s more self-aware gestures, and, sadly, there just isn’t enough fan appreciation to go around.
- Joe Dante
- Larry Doyle
- Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman, Steve Martin, Timothy Dalton, Joan Cusack, Joe Alaskey, Roger Corman, Heather Locklear
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