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Looney Tunes: Back in Action

  Looney Tunes: Back in Action
Bugs Bunny and Jenna Elfman are surprised to see Brendan Fraser show up in his "George of the Jungle" outfit.

© 2003, Warner Bros.
All Rights Reserved

It's a rough time for Warner Brothers animation. Forced to fire one of their leading cartoon stars, Daffy Duck, the brothers Warner send studio lackey Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman, winningly playful) to break the news to the paranoid duck. Removed from his Hollywood lifestyle, Daffy hits the streets. He finds comfort in the friendship of studio security guard and wannabe stuntman D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser, the only one in the cast who understands exactly what kind of film he's in). D.J.'s father (Timothy Dalton) is soon revealed to be a super-spy, trying to protect a secret diamond that the maniacal head of the Acme corporation (Steve Martin, oddly but deeply unfunny) wants for his own nefarious plans. When D.J. goes to Las Vegas to retrieve the diamond, he reluctantly takes Daffy along for the adventure. Back in Hollywood, the studio has had a change of heart and wants Daffy back, forcing Kate and Bugs Bunny to head off after D.J. to the city of sin and convince the duck to return.

The "Looney Tunes" collection of animated characters were somewhat tarnished by the hip, 1996 cash-in "Space Jam," which teamed Bugs and Daffy with Michael Jordan. The film was not without its charms -- God bless Bill Murray for his cameo -- but it wasn't the "Looney Tunes" that dominated the cartoon market in the 1940s and '50s with irreverent humor and pointed satire. Who else would be more skilled at returning the "Tunes" to all their uncontrolled glory than director Joe Dante? The filmmaker behind neo-classics like "Gremlins" and "Innerspace" has the imagination to weave a world where Duck Dodgers and Foghorn Leghorn can co-exist peacefully. Besides, Dante has already mounted a massive "Tunes" homage with his lovably outlandish 1990 "Gremlins" sequel, "The New Batch." "Back in Action" (IMDb listing) offers Dante an authorized attempt to make use of these classic cartoons.

And use the characters he most certainly does. Daffy Duck has returned to the annoying complainer he once was, endlessly bitching about his screen time and billing. Bugs Bunny sips carrot martinis and wonders if "he shoulda takin' that left turn at Albuquerque?" And Porky Pig openly worries about his stutter. Dante makes time for each of the "Tunes" mainstays to get their moment in the sun, even awkwardly shifting the action to Paris, so Pepe Le Pew can get in on the fun.

For the most part, Dante is incredibly successful in mixing the rapid-fire joke telling of the classic shorts with the more sophisticated animation and pacing audiences are used to today. While in Paris, "Back in Action" finds its best sequence, in which Elmer Fudd chases Bugs and Daffy through the Louvre's classic paintings, taking on each artwork's appearance as they jump from wall to wall. THe scene represents the film's best merger of modern animation technology with traditional screwball comedy. I can't say "Back in Action" is a laugh riot -- it isn't as hilarious as it thinks it is -- but its ambitious pursuit of oddball subjects, along with Dante's decision to feature cameo appearances by a host of the "Tunes" archive characters, is enough to save the film.

Make no mistake, this is strictly a Joe Dante movie. Dante has always loved to pay tribute to classic films, so he's filled out the picture with cameos by Kevin McCarthy (holding a "Body Snatchers" pod), Mary Woronov, Dante regulars Robert Picardo and Dick Miller, and legend Roger Corman (and you know this film is fiction, because it shows Corman directing the new "Batman" picture). Dante also steers the action to the secret government outpost "Area 52" (apparently "Area 51" is an elaborate sham), which is stacked with classic rubber sci-fi monsters from the 1950s, and guarded by Robby the Robot. There is a fantastic madcap vibe to the opening sequence set in the Warner Brothers backlot, revealing a bustling community of the past, when productions crisscrossed regularly. Dante has even recreated a comedy version of the "Psycho" shower scene with Bugs in the Janet Leigh role. Try explaining that one to a group of 8 year-olds.

"Back in Action" is pretty brave in the jokes that it tells, not fearing to fly wildly over the heads of children everywhere. Hell, even today's parents aren't going to pick up on half of the tributes paid in this distinctly Dantesque picture. To combat the exclusivity of the gags, Dante has made sure the physical comedy is well represented. There are enough pratfalls and face smashes in "Back in Action" for three movies, but it keeps in line with the special brand of slapstick that the "Tunes" pioneered eons ago. It's still fun to see Daffy get his beak blown off, or to see Yosemite Sam fall into a pit of dynamite, with only a single match to illuminate his surroundings before quickly being blown to kingdom come. Dante treats the traditional "Looney Tunes" formula with unreserved reverence, and deserves credit, along with screenwriter Larry Doyle, for attempting to return this franchise to its roots of pure slapstick and mile-a-minute joke telling. This is far from "Space Jam 2," and thank God for that.

Filmfodder Grade: B

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