Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)
Directed by Joe Dante
November 25 at BAM, part of its "Chuck Amuck" Chuck Jones series
Yearning to be old-fashioned and new-fangled at the same time, Joe Dante’s Looney Tunes: Back In Action is a noisy, big-hearted and thoroughly compromised affair. Dante—the maestro of both Gremlins movies and the underrated Matinee—was a shrewd choice to reboot the Warners’ much-abused property; no other contemporary director took the classic cartoons closer to heart when assembling their own visual vocabulary. He seems to have understood that the market for these characters is (literally) dying. Rather than trying to make Bugs, Daffy & co. “hip” circa 2003, he wanted to correct the sins of WB’s broader conglomerate fumbling, the worst example of which, despite its neo-ironic junk movie following, has gotta be Space Jam. Hopefully the results would speak for themselves: it’s not a paean, it’s a throwback.
So going into Back In Action, Dante’s approach is decidedly game, but pretty traditional—conservative, even. At one moment, Porky Pig sits in the Warner cafeteria, sighing: “First they tell me to lose the stutter, now they tell me I’m not funny. It’s a pain in the butt being politically correct.” (Speedy Gonzalez replies: “You’re telling me.”) The plot concerns Brendan Fraser and Jenna Elfman, two Warners employees who get caught up in a globe-spanning mad dash to stop the head of the Acme Corporation (Steve Martin) from getting a diamond hidden by Fraser’s spy-hero father (Timothy Dalton.) A lot of the comedy hinges on the differences between Bugs and Daffy—one is eternally blessed with brains, the other cursed by vanity. Their travelogue gives opportunities for rapid-fire cameos by Foghorn Leghorn, Wile E. Coyote, Granny, Sylvester, Marvin the Martian, Pepe le Pew, et al.
The screenplay uses a colorful spread of deliberately recycled Hollywood motifs and pained shoutouts to other Warners properties (Batman, The Matrix, etc), and a kind of bitterly sarcastic product placement that’s self-conscious of its inability to overcome itself, despite its self-consciousness. When Fraser, Elfman, Daffy and Bugs are stranded in the Nevada desert, a mirage—a Wal-Mart—appears. Bounding toward it, Daffy yells: “Water! Fresca! Mountain Dew! Your product name here!" This kind of arch referentiality adds to the trauma of seeing the stars of Termite Terrace way, way out of proper context, which is the screenplay’s Achilles heel as often as its trump card. Early in the story, WB exec Elfman tells Daffy Duck that her job is to “leverage your synergy.”
Back In Action is rich with hilarious throwaway gags, including less-than-flattering portrayals of the Acme and Warner brass (featuring Ron Perlman as VP of Never Learning), a hilarious Michael Jordan cameo, and the mind-searing image of Heather Locklear writhing around on a Vegas stage surrounded by dwarves in plastic Yosemite Sam faces. There are also surreal moments of startling ambition: when the hunt for the diamond takes them to the Louvre, Bugs and Daffy are chased by Elmer Fudd through the galleries. Hiding out in different classic artworks, the trio freakishly assume the properties of same: their elastic, thick lines become ashen paint smears when hiding out in a Munch, or densely speckled puddles of color in a Seurat. What really seems to get Dante’s blood pumping is the chance to harness the old cartoons’ lunatic, nigh-experimental energy.
But here’s the thing: does it matter? While Mickey Mouse has persisted by being bigger (and thus, lesser) than cinema, can Bugs and Daffy survive in a world without Mel Blanc, Carl Stalling or Chuck Jones? At a carnival in Queens one evening last summer, I saw a guy in his 50s with a punched-in face, a frizzy mullet and a giant gut walking around in a ratty old Looney Tunes t-shirt, armed with cotton candy. He was by himself, but his grin couldn’t have been dopier. Nostalgia—which, we often forget, is a pretty private thing—is the only reason a parent today would share a classic cartoon from the 1940s with a kid born in the 2000s. The Louvre scene is a quick jaunt into the classic shorts’ gleefully meta-abrasiveness, but after so much whiplash, your childhood love of the characters is the only compass that’ll help you answer the above questions. Without that, it remains—like all the movie’s best parts—a welcome glimpse of saggy, decrepit postmodernism.