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With: Brendan Frasier, Jenna Elfman, Steve Martin, Timothy Dalton, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Heather Locklear, Joan Cusack, Dick Miller, Roger Corman, Kevin McCarthy, Matthew Lillard, Mary Woronov, Robert Picardo, Ron Perlman, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck (both voiced by Joe Alaskey)
Written by: Larry Doyle
Directed by: Joe Dante
MPAA Rating: PG for some mild language and innuendo
Running Time: 90
Date: 11/09/2003

Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Tunes' of Glory

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

That Chuck Jones (1912-2002) was one of the two or three greatest animators of all time is without question. During his lifetime he made at least four masterworks that rank among the finest films ever made (such as Feed the Kitty, and What's Opera, Doc?), in addition to at least a couple dozen more truly exceptional works. No one knows that better than director Joe Dante, a lifelong cartoon fan as well as a fan of horror and sci-fi films. Befriending Jones during the 1980s, Dante began casting him in cameos (Gremlins), or hiring him to animate credit sequences (Gremlins 2).

Now that Jones has passed on, Dante has stepped up to make the best tribute he knows how. Dante's new feature film Looney Tunes: Back in Action has little to do with Jones' precise style or timing or his exquisite use of space. Instead, Joe Dante has made a classic Joe Dante film, depicting his unabashed love and enthusiasm for the characters that Jones worked with. The result is both a highly personal work and a hugely entertaining ride. Looney Tunes: Back in Action takes place in a Who Framed Roger Rabbit kind of universe, where cartoon characters exist alongside humans and have contracts at movie studios.

Looney Tunes doesn't spend much time establishing the rules of this universe, mostly since the humans here are pretty cartoony themselves. Hence, there are no rules. But, it helps to have a solid knowledge of old Looney Tunes shorts, plus Dante's other films and lots of other old sci-fi and horror films. The ACME chairman (a completely over-the-top Steve Martin) wishes to track down a special diamond called the Blue Monkey that has the power to turn humans into monkeys and back again. His evil scheme involves getting the monkeys to build useless products, and getting the humans to buy them.

Movie star Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton), who plays a James Bond-like superspy in his films, is also one in real life. Drake has been captured while hunting for the diamond and enlists the aid of his son, D.J. (Brendan Fraser), who has just been fired from his job as security guard on the Warner Brothers lot. Meanwhile, the new Vice President of Comedy, Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman) has just fired Daffy Duck for not being funny enough. Daffy has latched onto D.J. and the two of them head off to Vegas on the first leg of their adventure. Obliged to hire Daffy back, Kate and Bugs Bunny quickly follow.

This adventure takes our heroes all over the world, to improbable locations like the Arizona desert or Paris. Luckily, these places allow Dante and screenwriter Larry Doyle (a former "Simpsons" scribe) to bring in characters like Wile E. Coyote and Pepe le Pew. In addition, Yosemite Sam owns a casino in Vegas, and Foghorn Leghorn is an MC for the stage show. Dante presents everything in a highly evolved post-modern world, in which every one of these characters has seen all the old cartoons. When Sam slips on a banana peel, he stops to shoot at it and yells, "Consarn cliché!" In another hilarious scene, Porky Pig and Speedy Gonzales share lunch and complain about how political correctness has ruined their careers.

Joan Cusack turns in a very funny performance as a scientist working in a desert lab studying various forms of alien life, Marvin the Martian among them. For this scene, Dante provides us with a wide variety of interplanetary visitors, all borrowed from old films. I picked out the title character of Robot Monster (1953) and the little flying brains from Fiend Without a Face (1958) but many others flew over my head. Still, Dante knows he's working with two comedy legends in Bugs and Daffy (both voiced by Joe Alaskey) and he remembers to give them a few great one-liners, independent of his overall vision. Like the original cartoons, youngsters will enjoy themselves, even if they don't get all the jokes.

For all the references and product placements -- Bugs, D.J. and crew are rescued from the desert heat when a Wal-Mart appears on the horizon -- Dante plants tongue firmly in cheek. In this as well as his other films, he uses these gags to air his mistrust for large organizations, advertising and consumerism, as well as human beings' warlike tendencies. In other words, he wants us to have a good time, but he also wants us to think twice before rushing out and buying a Brendan Fraser doll. Finally though, the best thing one can say about Looney Tunes is that Dante has made a film that he himself would pay money to see.

DVD Details: Not surprisingly, Joe Dante's Looney Tunes: Back in Action didn't light any fires at the box office and received mostly tepid reviews. Yet it's a vintage Dante production, full of his passionate regard for cartoons and sci-fi/horror pictures, as well as his funny little cameos (no one does cameos like Dante) and chaotic flourishes. He had one massive hit back in 1984 with Gremlins and he's been successfully revisiting the same material ever since with cold reception after cold reception. The biggest mystery is how kids missed out on the fun. Thankfully, Warners' excellent new DVD provides a second chance for this wonderful film. The widescreen transfer is crisp and sound is clear. The disc includes a brand-new Wile E. Coyote / Road Runner cartoon, The Whizzard of Ow, which is pretty funny even if it lacks Chuck Jones's finesse. (It also appears to be presented pan-and-scan...) Additionally, the disc comes with deleted scenes and two fairly chintzy "making-of" shorts "narrated" by Bugs and Daffy. Unfortunately, I was not able to access the DVD-Rom extras on my Mac.

(This review also appeared in The San Francisco Examiner.)

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