I’ve never seen Space Jam, and I never will, Bill Murray notwithstanding. It was such a godawful sellout of beloved characters I grew up with– and I don’t recall the Looney Tunes ever playing basketball before. So I, like the rest of the American public, stayed away from Looney Tunes: Back in Action in droves. I regret it, because now that I’ve finally seen it, it’s really pretty good.
Joe Dante reached the apex of his career when he got the job directing this. He’s always tried to distill the wacky essence and mild sadism of the Chuck Jones-era Looney Tunes into his films, so he’s a natural for this material. Brendan Fraser stars, and he was also a natural, having played both Dudley Do-Right and George of the Jungle. Having been a cartoon before, acting alongside of them wouldn’t be much of a stretch, and he fits right in among Daffy and Bugs.
The silly plot begins with Daffy being fired by the bigwigs; he gets thrown out by security guard, and wanna-be stuntman DJ, played by Brendan Fraser. Being Daffy, he manages to generate enough havoc and destruction that DJ gets fired too, even though he’s the son of their biggest star- James Bond-alike Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton, goofing on his short-lived role).
Bugs won’t work without Daffy, so the Warner Brothers (played as a set of Drew-Carey like, bone-headed twins) send their flunky Kate (Jenna Elfman) after him with Bugs in tow. But DJ’s Dad is actually a real spy, and in trouble, so they have to follow as they go to rescue him.
Most Looney Tunes shorts were a chase, and this story smartly follows that formula, so it feels like one of the old ones; and of course, you can re-use the gags of old. They manage to fit in most of the classic characters in cameo roles, and a few comedians as well, like Steve Martin. He used to be one of the funniest men alive, but had his humor gland removed sometime around 1992. This is ten years later, and he’s trying to play the wacky CEO of the nefarious Acme Corporation, who wants to turn the population of Earth into monkeys, so they can be forced to make cheap Acme products, and then turn them back, so they can buy them. That’s particularly inspired, and with his tennis shoes, Steve looked a lot like Marvin the Martian. I kept wondering if he was Marvin in disguise, but Marv has his own cameo.
The movie has too many people in it, which is part of the problem. If Steve had been replaced with a cartoon, I think it might have been better. He also has a bald goon henchman who would have been perfect for Gossamer to replace. Gossamer was the huge red fuzzy monster with tennis shoes, sadly absent here. Acme’s board of VP’s is a collection of character actors like Ron Perlman and Mary Woronov, which is what the people should be in a movie like this- small cameos, like when Elmer Fudd had to serve Humphrey Bogart roast rabbit. Watching Steve Martin try to out-cartoon a cartoon is excruciating.
But when the cartoon stars are on the screen, the movie really shines. The plot takes us all over the world, from Area 52 in the Nevada Desert (not that other Area) to the Louvre in Paris, where we get a terrific update of the classic “run through classic paintings” gag. The cartoons were hand-drawn, with computer-generated shading and effects, so they look and feel like the ones we remember, but can behave with the real world in ways impossible even in the classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit? That was a better movie, but this one is plenty of fun too.
Joe Dante wasn’t given free reign to include any cartoon character he wanted, sadly; he slips in a cameo for Shaggy and Scooby in the cafeteria on the Warner Brothers lot, and they look as primitive and flat as they did in the 70’s; that’s part of the gag, and the little touches like that, and Dante’s obsession with 50’s sci-fi pulp, make the film delightful. Joan Cusack plays the lead scientist at Area 52, where Marvin Martian and a host of robots and aliens are stored. And where would Acme be without its biggest customer, Wile E. Coyote? Thankfully he keeps his mouth shut as he was intended to, but he’s an Acme lackey and is mostly a waste. Taz has a cute cameo, and so does Pepe le Pew as a gendarme.
The gags are pure Looney Tunes, with dynamite, rockets, and the occasional wolf whistle at a Can-Can dancing girl. Jerry Goldsmith’s final score references “Powerhouse” and the old Carl Stalling masterpieces. As a lover of the old cartoons, it was worth seeing, but not a classic. One of the best Looney Tunes shorts of recent vintage was Carrotblanca, which captured the old feel and gave the characters mild updates that worked. Back in Action‘s best parts have that same feel. The voice work is mostly excellent, but Mel Blanc can never be replaced, even with the dozen voice actors they use here. If anything, I wanted more of the classic cartoon characters, and fewer interludes with Steve Martin and Jenna Elfman, who felt out of place. In the end, it’s a good movie with something for fans of the old cartoons, young and old. Unfortunately, the disaster of Space Jam seems to have tainted the box office appeal for these icons, so this movie flopped. I doubt we’ll be seeing them again, and maybe that’s how it should remain- Warner Brothers has stated that they will be released all the Looney Tunes in the Golden Collection DVD sets, warts and all. If that means we’ll be seeing lost classics like Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs as well as the late-60’s tripe, we can remember them as they should be.