Rated PG - Running Time: 1:30 - Released 11/14/03

Looney Tunes: Back In Action is the latest full-length cartoon/live-action hybrid film from Warner Brothers featuring that famous stable of animated characters such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, etc., who have all been working much longer than most actors in the film industry today. It also contains such notable human cartoons as Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman, and Steve Martin, hamming it up with their pixellated pals. While the movie, written by Larry Doyle (The Simpsons, Beavis And Butt-Head) and directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins, Small Soldiers), is appropriately light-hearted and energetic, with appearances by just about every WB cartoon character you’d ever care to remember, its story is a little scattered and it suffers from a few problems that, in my opinion, prevent any such movie from being as enjoyable as the good old-fashioned cartoons.

The action starts in Hollywood, where Daffy Duck (voice of Joe Alaskey) complains so much about his part in the upcoming movie, he is summarily fired by Vice President of Comedy Kate Houghton (Elfman). But as soon as he’s out the door, Bugs Bunny (also Alaskey) convinces the company execs that Daffy is necessary for the success of the project, so Bugs and Kate take off to find him. Meanwhile, Daffy meets up with security guard and out-of-work stuntman D.J. Drake (Fraser), who has just received an urgent message from his famous actor/spy father, Damien Drake (Timothy Dalton). It seems that Drake Sr. is in trouble with the maniacal Mr. Chairman of the Acme Corporation (Martin), who wants a large and supernaturally powerful diamond called the Blue Monkey, the hiding place of which is known only to Damien.

D.J. and Daffy travel to Las Vegas, followed by Kate and Bugs, where they all meet up and discover the whereabouts of the Blue Monkey from “Mother” (Joan Cusack), a wacky scientist in charge of the secretive Area 52 facility hidden in the desert. Soon our four protagonists are facing Mr. Chairman themselves, and are forced to work together to foil his diabolical plan, yatta, yatta, yatta, you know how these cartoon screenplays go.

Of the problems I mentioned, the first one is the absence of Mel Blanc. Although Alaskey and the other voice actors (including Brendan Fraser, who, in addition to his human character, performed the voice of the Tazmanian Devil) all do a nearly flawless job of re-creating Blanc’s many vocal personae, there is a regrettable loss of authenticity in every new Looney Tunes production made since his death in 1989. I remember making a similar complaint about Rocky & Bullwinkle and The Tigger Movie. There is nothing to be done about this, of course, and only old-timers, purists, and the ridiculously picky, like me, would be bothered by it. But there it is.

The second problem is that, since this movie features live-action humans and backgrounds, the animated characters must be rendered in 3-D to fit in. Although to many this may seem an improvement, and indeed, the animation is as crisp and flawless as all computer-animated films have been since Toy Story, the characters just don’t look the same with their round bodies and their sculpture-mapping and their complex shading and lighting effects. I’m sorry, Bugs and Daffy just aren’t meant to have physical depth—it was their hip attitudes and sarcastic witticisms that fleshed them out in the old days; giving them that extra -D is cheating. I know—picky, picky, picky.

Then there is the issue of actual characterization. Much has been made of this movie being “not Space Jam”—that is, its producers claim it is truer to the original essence of Bugs, Daffy, etc., than that 1996 movie co-starring Michael Jordan, which turned them all into basketball stars and did away with most of their traditional settings, conflicts, and personalities. And it is true that this film is much more faithful to what they were than that film was. But still...I take issue with the whole concept of humans interacting with these characters. Maybe it worked so well in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? because the cartoons, for the most part, were previously unknown characters. I liked it when Bugs was a rabbit and Daffy was a duck—cavorting in the woods, foiling Elmer Fudd’s plans to shoot them, occasionally cracking wise to the audience—that’s what I see as the essence of Looney Tunes. I don’t want to see Bugs and Daffy sitting in a board room having contract negotiations with Jenna Elfman, doing slapstick with humans, running around the studio backlot...gimme a break.

Even if I approved of the genre, Looney Tunes: Back In Action is a bit of a mixed bag in terms of its effectiveness. Doyle and Dante have obviously tried hard to load it with punchlines, asides, and in-jokes that will please the adult members of the audience, and they have made a valiant effort to include—at least peripherally—just about every Looney Tunes character there ever was. But their concurrent desire for a short running time has forced them to move the story along at a dizzying pace. There are plenty of funny bits—Porky Pig discussing political correctness with Speedy Gonzales, Wile E. Coyote ordering Acme products on the Internet, the characters traipsing through various famous paintings at the Louvre—but the plot is so overcomplicated, and it’s delivered at such a breakneck speed, one practically gets vertigo trying to keep up.

As for the human performers, Fraser and Elfman are adequate; they both look great, but their main job is not so much acting as reacting, and what they’re reacting to is invisible to them, which always makes it difficult to look realistic. Joan Cusack is her regularly off-the-wall self, but she’s only on the screen for about 5 minutes. Timothy Dalton re-creates his James Bond character with affable good sportsmanship. Steve Martin, on the other hand, is so unfunny he’s almost unsettling. His part is given too much screen time, and I have no idea what kind of accent he’s going for, but it doesn't work. And Heather Locklear appears in a part so short and obviously contrived (for the purpose of including Yosemite Sam), it’s basically nothing more than a glorified cameo.

I’m a Looney Tunes fan from way back, and I know they can’t be like they were when I was a kid. But I have to admit, I’ll take a 7-minute “What’s Opera, Doc?” from 1957 or “Robin Hood Daffy” (‘58) over a state-of-the-art, 1½-hour, multi-million-dollar, computer-generated, 21st-century neo-Looney feature any day. ***½

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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