Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck are back into their old feuding ways as the feathered fowl, once again, demands top billing with the universally loved rabbit and not suffer the indignity of being second banana anymore – or else. Warner VP of Comedy, Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman) helps him with the “or else” and orders security guard DJ Drake (Brendan Fraser) to toss the errant duck out on his tail feathers. Daffy wreaks havoc on the studio lot and DJ loses his job, too. But, a nefarious scheme by Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin), the head honcho of the notorious ACME corporation, force Bugs, Daffy, DJ and Kate to join forces and save the world in “Looney Tunes: Back In Action.”
This represents Warner’s second foray into a feature length ‘toon starring the famous Looney Tune characters led by icon Bugs and his demanding buddy Daffy. The first effort, combining live and animated action, “Space Jam,” also starring human Michael Jordan, was a popular enough effort that has had a pretty good shelf life. I was less than entertained by the effort, though, and hoped that the sophomore feature effort would be an improvement.
While “Looney Tunes: Back In Action” isn’t a masterpiece, it does capture the humor and look of the long running Warner Brothers animated shorts that dominated Saturday morning cartoon television for decades. The weakness with this modern feature length update is the main story that has the quartet on a quest to stop the evil Mr. Chairman from getting his greedy hands on the mystical Blue Monkey Diamond. If he succeeds in his dastardly plan, he’ll use the diamond’s power to turn every human in the world into a monkey to be used to manufacture shoddy goods for his monolithic ACME corporate empire. Then, he’ll turn them back to Homo sapien form, force them to buy the cheap goods and make lots of money. Such evil needs to be stopped and Bugs and his crew are up to the task.
The real draw to “Back In Action” isn’t the main story (for me, though the kids will like it) but the sheer number of sight gags, references to old movies, Warner cartoons and pop icons for the adults that will see this “kids’ flick.” The main adventure is pretty routine as the live characters interact with their cartoon counterparts in their mission to stop Mr. Chairman before he can activate the power of the Blue Monkey Diamond. This action packed adventure is low level enough to entertain the kiddies but cerebral enough to keep both parents and non-parents interested. While not great, “LT: Back In Action” is a film for all ages.
Director Joe Dante and his talented production, animation and F/X crews, from a script by Larry Doyle, capture the original vaudevillian humor that Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng and Tex Avery (with the masterful vocal characterizations created by the great Mel Blanc) brought to their often Oscar-winning shorts. This modern rendition of the old comic geniuses’ work makes you realize the plethora of cartoon icons that Warner Brothers introduced over their many years of producing Looney Tunes. I’m betting that they didn’t miss many of the old familiar faces in this heartfelt homage to the old days.
The research into the old ‘toons is impressive and the filmmakers have succeeded in duplicating the looks and voices that are so familiar from my Saturday morning youth. Besides the obvious stars of WB cartoons, Bugs and Daffy, there are a plethora of other notables. Porkey Pig makes an appearance; Yosemite Sam is the front man for the evil ACME Corp’s Wooden Nickel Casino; Elmer Fudd reprises his “Duck Season” performance opposite the stars; Marvin Martian is still angry and a hit alien hired to go after the duck and the diamond; the Tasmanian Devil (voice of Brendan Fraser) whirls into the picture with his wife, Mrs. Taz; the Road Runner is still after the Roadrunner; Sylvester is thwarted by Granny, once again, in his obsession with Tweety Bird; many, many more of the Warner cartoon players are in the picture, too, making a second viewing a must for WB fans..
One of the problems I had with “Space Jam” was the way the filmmakers tried to integrate the cartoon characters into the live action by trying to give them three dimensions. It wasn’t a convincing melding of live and animated action. This time around, Dante and his team keep the ‘toon characters true to their original look and feel and maintain the irreverent humor, pop references and homage to old movies that were so prominent in the old cartoons. This movie is one where you have to keep your eye on the screen or you’ll miss the reverential references to the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Forbidden Planet,” Elvis’s “Viva Las Vegas,” “Robot Monster” and Jerry Lewis as a Gallic icon.
Fine art is well represented with such classics as “Dogs Playing Poker” and the “Mona Lisa” punned. A sequence that takes place in the famous Louvre museum is brilliant as the animated heroes must elude hunter Elmer and journey from one artwork to another, including Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” (you know, the one with the melting clocks) and George Seurat’s pointillist classic work, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte.” This piece of animation brilliance, as the ‘toons blend into the artists’ works, is on par with some of the best of the old stuff and makes me wish and wonder for a purely animated feature or, at least, a featurette. Warner Brothers plan to start including new Looney Tunes shorts before select full-length films, soon, so that’s something to look forward to.
The live action performers take a back seat to their cartoon colleagues with Brendan Fraser giving a game perf opposite his famous costars. Fortunately, the actor has the physical skill, well honed, to interact the best with his celluloid colleagues. Steve Martin gives a quirky perf as Mr. Chairman and Jenna Elfman is OK as the humorless VP of Comedy. Timothy Dalton plays it straight as the superstar spy in the movies (and DJ’s father), Damian Drake, who happens to be a real life superstar spy. His performance is not all that different from his 007 persona and this is where the filmmakers garner the humor. Joan Cusack gives a good turn as Mother, the maternal caretaker of Area 52 (Area 51 was invented as a cover for the super-secret government site!) where she lovingly takes care of alien visitors to Earth. Heather Locklear, as Dusty Tails, is the headline act at the Wooden Nickel and the sexy spy cohort of Damian’s. These and the other living folks do a decent job but, mostly, are overshadowed by their anime brethren.
“Looney Tunes: Back In Action” is rated PG for some suggestive humor but this has always been a mainstay for the Looney Tunes over the decades. Only the fanatically politically correct would take this rating seriously. To do so would take away the kids’ opportunity to get a taste for the wackiness that their parents grew up with. It would also deny these parents from seeing how many reminiscent references they can spot throughout the film. I was watching for them and still missed a bunch. Maybe my wife, Laura, will rent it for me on DVD – if I’m a good boy. To quote that famous pig, “That’s all, folks!” I give it a B+.
Daffy Duck is fired by Vice President of Comedy, Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman, TV's "Dharma and Greg") for having demographics limited to fat guys in basements while Bugs draws laughs from the Brothers Warner meeting for belching on his carrot. Daffy's followed out the door by security guard DJ Drake (Brendan Fraser, "George of the Jungle"), an aspiring stunt man whose dad, unbeknownst to Houghton, is Warner's biggest star, Damien Drake (Timothy Dalton). Drake Sr. also turns out to be a real spy whose knowledge of the Blue Monkey diamond has made him the target of Acme head Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin, "Bringing Down the House"). DJ and Daffy set out to save the elder Drake, Houghton's in pursuit with Bugs to rehire the duck and it's the "Looney Tunes: Back in Action."
After 1996's truly awful live action/Looney combination, "Space Jam," "Back in Action" is a big step in the right direction. It's got enough of the subversive humor that made the shorts so special that it probably requires multiple viewings to catch them all. However, despite the inspired casting of such human cartoons as Fraser, Martin and Cusack, the live action segments drag the Tunes down. Warner Brothers should bite the bullet and make a completely animated Looney feature.
The dual chase (screenplay by Larry Doyle, "Duplex") clearly stamp Daffy as the underdog hero and Bugs as the corporate star by their pairings with DJ and Kate, who are obviously meant to end up together after a whirlwind tour which takes them through the bright lights of Las Vegas, the top tourist attractions of Paris, back to Area 52 (Area 51 was invented to hide it) and into outer space. However, the Blue Monkey diamond plot, which the evil Acme Chairman wants because of its ability to turn people into monkeys (cheap labor) and back again (consumers), borrows too many references from "The Powerpuff Girls Movie." The fun to be had here is almost always, with a few exceptions, in the asides and the Tunes themselves.
The real diamond in "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" is a scene set in the Louvre, where Daffy and Bugs are chased by Elmer Fudd through a melting Dali painting which disables Fudd's gun. They're into Edvard Munch's The Scream before Fudd reacts and Daffy's pixilated exiting from Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grande Jatte" ends the chase on an 'educational' note. This montage is entirely animated and has the wit and smarts of the original cartoons. Perhaps inspired by this, the following live action sequence, in which DJ rescues Kate hanging from a helicopter hovering about the top of the Eiffel Tower, is the film's best - Fraser swings across the frame grabbing flowers and chocolates along the way. However, another brilliant bit of animation, a black and white recreation of "Psycho's" shower scene with Bugs, has its punch pulled when it's incorporated back into a live action 'joke' that falls flat.
Meanwhile, the ultimate bad guy has little interaction with animation. Steve Martin, whose performance is entirely guided by his three-sizes-too-small suit jacket, is surrounded by silent (and wasted) advisors - Vice President Rhetorical Questions (Robert Picardo), V.P. Bad Ideas (Mary Woronov), V.P. Never Learning (Ron Perlman), V.P. Stating the Obvious (Marc Lawrence), V.P. Child Labor (Vernon G. Wells), V.P. Nitpicking (Bill McKinney), V.P. Clawing Way to Top (Leo Rossi), and finally, V.P. Unfairly Promoted (George Murdock). Perlman gets one line and Woronov is like the cat to Mr. Chairman's Le Pew.
After starting off with a bunch of Warner Brothers lot in-jokes (a commissary scene features Scooby Doo and Shaggy critiquing Matthew Lillard, Daffy commandeers the real Batmobile), the bright lights of Vegas are used to showcase Fraser's stunt inabilities (he crash lands onto a table where dogs playing poker bark furiously at him) and the charms of Yosemite Sam's club singer Dusty Trails (Heather Locklear, "Uptown Girls"). The Fremont Street Experience is an almost too-dazzling backdrop for the colorful toons. After an ingenious use of product placement (Walmart allows for a costume change), the group discovers that the mysteriously mentioned 'Mother' is Joan Cusack ("The School of Rock"), head of Area 52 who has predicted that the day would come where the aliens housed there (Robby the Robot, the Metaluna Mutant, the Man From Planet X and Robot Monster) would revolt (led of course, by Marvin Martian). Enter Duck Dodgers (and one of the film's funniest visual gags involving the diamond and an orbiting satellite) to save the day.
When Dodgers and the rabbit crash land back at Acme, Daffy frets over the scratched spaceship. 'Don't worry, it's a rental,' replies Bugs. Despite flashes of brilliance, unfortunately the hare's right by a hair.
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