Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, April 27, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (2003)

16. Looney Tunes: Back in Action

In 1996, “Space Jam” was released. A feature film adaptation of a series of Nikes commercial, it was a commercial success. In the years since, the film has become something of a touch stone for nineties kid culture, an unironically beloved source of nostalgia for folks now in their late twenties and thirties. But I'm here to tell you that “Space Jam” sucks now and sucked back then. Even as a kid, I was utterly disappointed in that film. I wasn't the only one. Hardcore Looney Tunes fans hated “Space Jam” too, for the way it attempted to make the classic cartoon character “hip and edgy” for then-modern sensibilities. After various attempts to produce a direct sequel to “Space Jam” failed, someone had the idea to invite Joe Dante – obviously a huge fan of the classic cartoons – to make his own Looney Tunes feature. “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” would attempt to re-introduce these classic characters to audiences that had maybe forgotten about them.

“Looney Tunes: Back in Action” functions under the “Roger Rabbit”-like premise that Bugs, Daffy, and their follow toon cohorts are cartoon actors that interact with flesh-and-blood people and star in movies. During production of Bugs' latest project, Daffy feuds with Kate Houghton, vice president of Warner Brothers. The duck gets fired and is escorted off the set by security guard/aspiring stunt-double DJ Drake. DJ is the son of Damian Drake, a hugely popular star of spy movies... Who is an actual spy. DJ discovers his dad has been kidnapped by the villainous ACME Corporation, who search for a magical artifact called the Blue Monkey. At the same time, Kate realizes firing Daffy was a mistake and attempts to find the duck and Bugs Bunny again. Soon, all four of them are tossed together on an adventure.

From the beginning, the main goal of “Back in Action” was to make a new Looney Tunes film that was as faithful to the old cartoons as possible. This is a goal Dante's film succeeds wildly at. There is no attempt to modernize these characters, their personalities being willfully retro. Bugs is a smart-ass that is always ahead of his challengers, everything rolling off his back. Daffy is a manic clown who has an ego about him despite the universe constantly crapping on him. The film focuses in on these two toons, their rivalry and begrudgingly friendship, and the wonderful interplay they have. This allows “Back in Action” to build a long series of quick-witted one-liners and amusingly wacky sight gags.

In order to tie together its multiple gags, “Back in Action” creates a plot that is a goofy spoof of spy movies. Damian Drake is a James Bond-like figure and we know this because he's played by former Bond, Timothy Dalton. The largely inconsequential story follows the spy movie set-up of an evil villain and a group of good guys, locked in a race to retrieve a MacGuffin first. Riffing on spy formulas lead to a number of amusing gags. Such as a high-tech spy car with a number of overbearing features. Or the way Damian Drake is introduced, attempting a video call while shrugging his way through a series of stock henchmen. The tuxedos, martinis, and sexy female co-stars – such as Heather Locklear appearing as a Vegas showgirl and in a skin-tight cat suit – all make appearances and are gently mocked.

Making Bugs and Daffy the cartoon protagonists of “Back in Action” was probably a decent idea for a number of reasons. However, Dante and his gang of writers clearly wanted to squeeze in as many classic Looney Tunes characters as possible. So the loose plot sometimes feels like a series of cameos strung together. Some of these are more natural than others. Elmer Fudd and Marvin the Martian eventually being deployed by the ACME Corporation as enforcers makes a certain degree of sense. The Tazmanian Devil and Wile E. Coyote showing up in the same roles feel kind of random. Yosemite Sam's role, as the owner of a night club, feels like a somewhat unnatural pick for that character. Bit appearances from Foghorn Leghorn, Peppe le Pew, and Sylvester and Tweety feel included more because people would've been disappointed if they hadn't shown up.

The loose story has other disadvantages too. The plot of “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” reminds me a lot of the comedy scripts my friends and I would write back in middle school. It's a series of gags connected by almost nothing, the story bending in ever-wackier directions in order to justify crazier gags. I'm fine with this up to a point – and I have no doubt that “Back in Action” is way funnier than those old scripts of mine – but it does create some problems with pacing. Dante's film is only 91 minutes long but it's still unable to maintain that manic pacing the whole time. The movie starts to tire and ware on the audience right around the time Bugs Bunny turns a carrot into a lightsaber.

Whatever flaws “Back in Action” might have, the film definitely has its share of inspired gags. Its globe-trotting story eventually takes the characters to Paris, France. At this point, Elmer Fudd chases Bugs and Daffy into the Louve. The characters end up leaping into the various paintings, hoping to escape the hunter. The result is a hilarious series of sight gags, showing the classic cartoon character interacting with the different painting styles. So Bugs and Daffy melt and twist while running through the landscapes of Dali's “The Persistence of Memory.” Faces morph into exaggerated shrieks while stepping inside Munch's “The Scream.” They are rendered in the dotty Pointillism style while traveling inside Seurat's “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” These are probably not the kind of jokes little kids would love but they cracked me up.

A similarly insular collection of gags occur in an earlier scene in the film. While wandering the desert – and making an amusingly product placement filled visit to Wal-Mart – the quartet enter Area 52. There's a goofy plot justification for this but it's mostly in the movie so Dante can insert as many references to classic sci-fi/horror as he can muster. And it's sort of beautiful. Robby the Robot is there. So is Kevin McCarthy, appearing in black-and-white and screaming about how “you're next.”  (Just to make sure the reference is understood, he's also shown carrying a pod.) Once the aliens are unleashed, Dante really goes into overdrive. Ro-Man, a Dalek, a Triffid, a delightfully squishy Metaluna Mutant, the Man from Planet X and the Fiend Without a Face all appear in quick succession. What an amazing monster movie mash-up. It's another brilliant series of gags that were unlikely to be appreciated by the kids watching this movie in 2003.

Many of the vintage Looney Tunes shorts had a fast-and-loose relationship with the fourth wall. “Duck Amuck” is only the most famous example of Daffy and the gang violating the border between the fictional world and the real world. “Back in Action” happily continues this tradition. More than once, Daffy and Bugs acknowledge the audience. They crack one-liners about the quality of the story or the jokes they are telling. At one point, a flying car stunt comes to a sudden end... Before Kate acknowledges the cartoon logic at work here, the car falling from the sky at that point. Most amusingly are the unexpected breaks of reality. Such as DJ Drake, played by Brendon Fraser, being the stunt double... For Brendon Fraser. (DJ's plot concluding with him punching out Fraser – Fraser knocking himself down – plays like some weird meta comment on the actor's own career.) Or a hilarious bit where cartoon Shaggy threatens real life Shaggy Matthew Lillard.

The animated parts of “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” were directed by Eric Goldberg, who previously animated Genie in Disney's “Aladdin.” The animation in “Back in Action” is excellent. The cartoon characters look and move just as you'd expect them too, even if they look a little more crisp and smooth than I'd prefer. What's even more impressive is how seamlessly the interactions between the live actors and the cartoons are. Never for a minute do you doubt that these characters, flesh and blood and ink and paint, are occupying the same space. Look at a fight scene between Fraser and the cartoon bodyguards of Sam's night club. That moment is certainly a lot smoother than a later moment, when Fraser fights a giant, CGI, robot watch-dog. As if you needed any further proof that cel animation is superior to computer animation.

“Space Jam” was undeniably a product of 1996. “Back in Action,” do to its blatant attempt to replicate older media, is not as immediately dated... Assuming you ignore who stars in it. This film was made during a brief period when Brendan Fraser and Jenna Elfman could've been considered viable box office stars. Surprisingly, both performers are perfectly on the film's wavelength. Both largely play the straight-men to their animated co-stars. Fraser is frequently very funny, a big guy that reacts with the right breed of absurd aggravation to the literal cartoons around him. Elfman, meanwhile, is similarly in-on-the-joke. Moreover, the two have good chemistry together.

The film has its share of cameos. From performers who were highly relevant at the time, like NASCAR Jeff Gordon or pro-wrestler Bill Goldberg. Others were clearly inserted at Dante's insistent, like Ron Perlman, Peter Graves as a secret agent, and his regulars Dick Miller, Robert Picardo, and Roger Corman. The other big star in the movie is Steve Martin, as the villainous Chairman of ACME Corporation. This was during that weird period when Martin was squandering all the good will he built up by starring in shit like “Bringing Down the House” and “The Pink Panther.” Martin is surprisingly awful here. Wearing an unflattering wig and glasses, he hams it up to uncomfortable levels.

Dante described the production of “Back in Action” as a rigorous one. The producers making the film did not understand the approach his fidelity to the source material, his insistence on maintaining the spirit of the Looney Tunes. He claims he had no creative control over the film at all. Knowing this, it's amazing that “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” ended up being a generally entertaining and consistently funny film. Audiences were not interested in the revival though. The film was a flop, grossing only 68 million worldwide against a 80 million dollar budget. This killed future plans for other Looney Tunes movies. It's only now that Warner Brothers is attempting another one and it's a much demanded (for some damn reason) follow-up to “Space Jam 2.” For true animation nerds, “Back in Action” is clearly the superior approach to Bugs, Daffy, and the gang. [Grade: B]

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