In its own kid-friendly, big-budget way, Joe Dante’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action is every bit as referential and pop-soaked as Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill; instead of Tarantino’s fixations on kung-fu, westerns, and blaxploitation, we see here Dante’s love of old monster movies and cartoon shorts, also on display in his previous marvels, Matinee (1993), Small Soldiers (1998), and (best of all) the two Gremlins pictures. Here, Dante actually works with the Looney Tunes themselves, which is rather like giving Tarantino the power to resurrect and employ Bruce Lee.
Before Dante, the Looney Tunes have been employed in one other original feature-length movie, Space Jam (1996), co-starring Michael Jordan and spun off from a series of clever Nike ads. That one had its moments, but showcased a puzzling structural revision. Instead of showing the famous cartoon characters at their usual odds with each other, the Looney Tunes team up and befriend Michael Jordan. The classic Looney Tunes shorts reveled, cleverly, in primal conflict; Space Jam reveled, sadly, in cooperation (and corporations).
Dante corrects that. Back in Action is, as it should be, a thinly plotted chase movie. It focuses mainly on Bugs and Daffy, but features cameos from just about every major Warner Brothers cartoon star of yore. Yosemite Sam, Elmer Fudd, Marvin the Martian, and the Tasmanian Devil are back to chase Bugs and Daffy, not pat them on the back—although Daffy’s greatest enemy is still, hilariously, himself.
There are humans, too. Brendan Fraser and Jenna Elfman team up with Bugs and Daffy, and Steve Martin commands the chasers. Martin’s diabolical camp routine as the leader of the sinister ACME corporation falls flat—it’s like a parody of a parody of a parody—but Fraser is uncommonly good at interacting with cartoons and effects. The movie never fully utilizes his formidable talent for physical comedy (he’s good at pratfalls, and the movie only gives him a handful) but I doubt there are many other youngish actors who could keep up with Daffy Duck as skillfully as Fraser.
The best thing about this incarnation of Looney Tunes is that it actually needs keeping up with: the gags and references come fast and furious. There are innumerable lines and details from particular shorts from the past (Daffy briefly appears in both his Duck Twacy and Duck Dodgers guises), as well as nods to movies these shorts could’ve played with in the ‘50s. As with Tarantino’s film, I accepted that I wouldn’t “get” all of the references, but I did spot several of Forbidden Planet‘s less human co-stars and, somewhat inexplicably, a bit of the musical score from Gremlins (1984).
Despite its high spirits, Looney Tunes: Back in Action doesn’t quite mutate into an oddly great movie of its own like Kill Bill. It’s more tribute than revelation. There are moments, though, that are as good as the classic shorts. Most notable is a sequence at the Louvre, where Elmer Fudd chases Bugs and Daffy through a series of classic paintings and styles, from surrealism to pointillism. This bit is so inspired, so perfectly in line with the Looney Tunes sensibility that I racked my brain afterward, trying to figure out if this was, in fact, from an old Warners cartoon (I’m leaning toward no, but I could be wrong).
In other spots, though, the animation is almost too polished, presumably in an attempt to impress computer-savvy kids (and their parents). A series of pencil tests that run over the end credits are, in some cases, more effective—looser and more defined—than the fully shaded versions that try to blend with live-action backgrounds.
That is to say, the expensive interactions between animation and live action are the least essential, and probably most expensive, parts of the movie. The movie is a lot of fun, but you get the feeling Warners threw entirely too much money at it; Dante’s confidently frenetic pacing and screenwriter Larry Doyle’s 100 or 200 gags should’ve been enough. Animated explosions are almost always cheaper and funnier than live action ones.
I also could’ve done without yet another (presumably studio-imposed) product placement “gag,” this one for Wal-Mart. This sort of joke (that is, including gratuitous product placement and then commenting on it) was taken to its logical conclusion by Josie & the Pussycats (2001). If you want to take the quote-marks off of “gag,” then make it a fictional product.
This over-produced and over-marketed movie isn’t, then, an “ultimate” Joe Dante project. It’s not quite as sly as his lower-budget works. But any kind of cartoon fanatic should check out Looney Tunes: Back in Action anyway; if you love or have loved the Looney Tunes, it’ll raise your spirits as efficiently as Space Jam caused them to droop. Ignore the marketing blitz, not the movie; this time, the latter actually exists behind the former.