Looney Tunes: Back in Action
Looney Tunes: Back in Action proved a far from joyful experience for director Joe Dante, who referred to the production as the longest year-and-a-half of his life. He had to deal with a studio that – insanely – didn’t know their most beloved characters and didn’t know what they wanted, except that they didn’t like what they saw. Nevertheless, despite Dante’s personal dissatisfaction with the finished picture, there’s much to enjoy in his “anti-Space Jam”. Undoubtedly, at times his criticism that it’s “the kind of movie that I don’t like” is valid, moving as it does so hyperactively that its already gone on to the next thing by the time you’ve realised you don’t like what you’re seeing at any given moment. But the flipside of this downside is, there’s more than enough of the movie Dante was trying to make, where you do like what you’re seeing.
Dante commented of Larry Doyle’s screenplay (as interviewed in Joe Dante, edited by Nil Baskar and Gabe Klinger) that he “certainly didn’t find it funny”, but in consideration of how Chuck Jones had passed on, he felt honour bound to take charge (“I really shouldn’t let somebody do to those characters what had been done to them in Space Jam”). He would heroically “save them from Warner Bros”. He even had the animation department, which closed in 2001, reinstituted (Back in Action is the final traditionally-animated Warner picture).
The result was a movie the Warner merchandising department was all for, but which the studio production machine didn’t particularly care for. Wikipedia will tell you it cost $80m and made $68.5, but Dante gives the price tag as more than $100m; it lacked the critical acclaim of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the crass commercialism of Space Jam. As such, it fell into much the same unloved territory as Gremlins 2, and while it can’t match that wilfully perverse sequel for sheer inventiveness and consistency of craziness, Back in Action has a similar sense of the anarchic and self-aware (at one point it even swipes directly at Space Jam, a confused Michael Jordan revealed as one of the villain’s guises).
Dante, who can probably only see its flaws, admitted “It’s got a point of view, which Space Jam doesn’t”. He had to suffer 25 different writers churning out gags, witness his poor animation director Eric Gold doing sterling work to uphold the traditions of the animation and characters (which they film undoubtedly does) “while being berated everyday by the producers and the writer”, and a studio that didn’t even bother testing it in the same breath that they demanded changes (“It had a different beginning, middle, and ending” is the oft-repeated quote). Their cluelessness is absolutely emphasised when you learn of the things they hated, invariably the best elements of the picture, including the glorious Area 52 sequence, and the repeated fourth-wall breaking (as Dante observed of the original cartoons, it’s part of their DNA. It’s also much wittier than Deadpool’s winks).
The slenderest of plot threads is probably all that is needed, or appropriate, to prop up a show where its director attempts to include as many relevant, and irrelevant, gags as possible in the Looney Tunes tradition. It certainly marries with Dante’s self-reflexive leanings that the picture starts and ends on the Warner lot; the wised-up artifice of is infused into its being, complete with clueless studio suits and a Daffy who can be fired while Warner simultaneously retains rights to his name. This is very much the same Dante who took the piss out of the merchandising potential of Gizmo in Gremlins 2.
Arriving at a Walmart in the desert, Bugs wonders “Is that a mirage, or just product placement?”, to which Daffy replies “Hey, who cares, with shopping convenience at such low prices?” At one point, when it looks as if certain doom beckons, Daffy calls his broker (“Sell all my Warner Bros stock! I got an inside tip that Bugs Bunny’s about to die!”) The capitalist merry-go-round is pointedly, if rather crudely, etched out in Acme’s plan to obtain the all-important Blue Monkey diamond, with which it will turn humans into monkeys to manufacture Acme products that the same humans will then purchase when restored to their original state.
Dante’s relationship with satire is at its best when he adopts a welcoming, mocking tone; caustic evisceration is not his best aspect. Rather, he thrives on the disarmingly inclusive, pushing through his take on the world with such brio that you might not be aware how pointed he is, or how he might have called you out, until you delve below the surface. Part-and-parcel of that is the metatextuality frequently informing his work; his playfulness is as much about deconstructing the bubble of reality itself as the social and political assumptions within it. That’s why it’s easy to dismiss a movie like Looney Tunes, focus on its brasher, noisier aspects, rather than respond to its wit and perspicacity. A bit like the original Warner Bros shorts themselves, really.
Mother: Area 51 is actually a paranoid fantasy that we concocted to hide the true identity of this facility.
DJ Drake: Which is?
Mother: Area 52.
The best scenes in Looney Tunes are just such a merry medley of barbs and movie/cultural referencing. Stranded in Death Valley, Bugs, Daffy, stuntman/ security guard DJ Drake (Brendan Fraser) and WB VP for Comedy Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman) come across a top-secret facility, Area 52. Presided over by a splendidly kooky Joan Cusack (is there any other Joan Cusack?), it is naturally full of aliens.
There’s a classic Grey, and of course Marvin the Martian, but the rest are loving recreations of classic movie monsters from the ’40s to ’60s, including, most recognisably, Robby the Robot (Forbidden Planet), Daleks from the Peter Cushing Dr Who movies (permission was granted by the BBC, which didn’t go down well with the Terry Nation estate; apparently their appearance was at the behest of Steve Martin, a big Doctor Who fan…), the Metaluna monster (This Island Earth), the Robot Monster, The Man from Planet X, a brain creature (Fiend Without a Face; it flies at Fraser’s) and a Triffid (the 1963 The Day of the Triffids). And there was no way Dante would miss an opportunity to reference (the original) Invasion of the Body Snatchers, hence Dante-regular Kevin McCarthy appearing, in black and white, clutching a pod.
Admittedly, there isn’t a great deal to the scene beyond its indulgence, but it’s the kind of indulgence Dante is so good at; it’s irresistible. Even the top-secret Area 52 has its own slogan (“Keeping things from the American People since 1947”; also glimpsed is a videotape labelled “Moon Landing Dress Rehearsal”), such is pervasive corporatisation.
Elmer Fudd: Well, as it turns out, I’m secwetwy evil.
Daffy Duck: That’s show business for ya!
The greatest animated flair is flaunted when our quartet of heroes visit Paris (“Just how are we supposed to get to Paris?” ask Daffy, “Like this” replies Bugs, reaching over and pulling corner of the screen to; the execs must have loved that one). Arriving at the Louvre, Bugs and Daffy are pursued by Elmer Fudd through a series of paintings, the trio taking on the artist’s stylistic quirks in each; the funniest is the melting The Persistence of Memory by Dali.
Then there’s Munch’s The Scream, Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (complete with lecture on pointillism) and La Gouloue by Toulouse-Lautrec. Alas, a further flight, through Escher’s Relativity didn’t make it. Appropriately, accompanying the chase is Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky (about an amble through an art gallery).
DJ Drake: The great thing about movies, you always know what’s going to happen next.
Also appearing in France is, naturally, Pepé La Pew, although he isn’t subject of the political correctness gag for suggesting French people stink (“It’s a pain in the butt being p-p-politically correct” opines stammering Porky Pig; “You’re telling me” replies Mexican caricature Speedy Gonzales). And, naturally, an adoration for Jerry Lewis; a far more offensive a slur on the French than suggesting they whiff a bit. His posters are found adorning the bottom of the Eiffel Tower (for Which Way to the Front, or Ou Trouvez-vous La Guerre?)
While it leads into an over-hectic flying car chase that at least ends quite well (the car only finally crashes when its occupants recognise it’s out of gas), the Las Vegas sequence is also good fun, featuring as it does Heather Locklear’s alluringly-named Dusty Tails in a PVC cat suit (“How many galoshes died to make that little number?”) and Fraser mirthfully donning a Yosemite Sam mask for an over-sized (compared to the other diminutive Sam dancers) production number at his casino.
DJ Drake: Did you see those Mummy movies? I’m in them more than Brendan.
Fraser, whose fortunes as a leading player have been mixed since he hit the jackpot in The Mummy series, has a tendency to come across as a bit of a lug if he isn’t keenly directed, but he seems perfectly at home in Dante’s heightened milieu. So much so, the director let him voice Taz. Admittedly, the DJ/obnoxious Fraser doppelganger thing was done a decade earlier in the also patchy (but also underrated, despite an irritating moppet co-lead and an annoyingly noisy AC/DC soundtrack) Last Action Hero, but he and Jenna Elfman are well-matched and easily as game as Bob Hoskins was in the far more feted Roger Rabbit.
Also game is Timothy Dalton, as DJ’s dad, star of spy series License to Spy and real life spy Damien Drake. Dalton’s infinitely more fun here than he was when he was actually playing 007, and you’re left wanting more (“Don’t worry about me son, I’ve got out of worse scrapes than this” he assures, due to meet his demise by a combination of death train, dynamite, and Pendulum of Doom).
As usual there’s a cadre of Dante regulars and chums to keep a look out for: the aforementioned McCarthy, Dick Miller as lot security guard, Roger Corman (as a director), Robert Picardo and Ron Perlman as Acme VPs, Don and Dan Stanton as Warner brothers.
Unfortunately, the weak link in this is Steve Martin’s Acme boss Mr Chairman. Martin, wild and whacky guy, decides the way to approach sharing screen time with cartoons is to be as big and broad a living embodiment of a cartoon as he can be. The results make you want to gnaw off an arm, so tone deaf, relentlessly grating, are they are. There’s maybe the one scene with him that works, where its revealed that he is actually Granny, who is actually Damien Drake (“I’m actually… your father”), who is actually Michael Jordan, who is actually Mr Chairman. But it’s slim pickings.
And there is a lot here that just falls flat, or is misjudged, from laboured Star Wars gags (apart from the one above) and the extended space sequence (aside from when Daffy becomes Duck Dodgers), to a whole thing with a big CGI metal dog; like Roger Rabbit, the more the animation (traditional or CGI) leaves the realm of the main characters and decides it can serve any plot purpose, the less successful it tends to be.
But, as I suggested above, Dante’s right, in a good way, about there being only so long before you get to something you like. He even manages to make the umpteenth Psycho shower scene (which really should have had a line drawn under it after High Anxiety) work (complete with Bosco’s chocolate syrup, used by Hitch for the blood in the original). Fraser drives an AMC Gremlin, at which point a blast of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme from Dante’s 1984 hit pipes in (sadly, Back in Action was the composer’s last film score).
Wylie Coyote, my favourite Warner cartoon character, has a missile with “HI THERE!” written on it (Dr Strangelove). There are further Batman references (after Gremlins 2, and Dante turning down the chance to direct the picture in the early-mid-80s), “Hey, waddaya know, I found Nemo”, Bugs is suggested to “Team up with a hot female co-star” (a dig at Lola Bunny in Space Jam; “Usually, I play the love interest”), and a very gracious Matthew Lillard having lunch with (Casey Kassem’s) cartoon Shaggy, the latter complaining “You made me sound like a total space cadet”.
And Daffy, poor Daffy. Whether it’s an egg frying on his beak, being favoured, yet again, over Bugs, who is wearing Groucho glasses and nose (“Whichever one’s not the duck”), the contents of his leaving box (containing a Bugs voodoo doll and a photo with Nixon), or his forlorn desire to get the blue monkey (“I’m rich, I’m affluent, my liquidity is assured”), culminating in classic Bugs out-manoeuvring (“Pronoun trouble”), he’s worthily redrawn for the ‘00s. As is Bugs himself.
Dante’s diligence towards the original characters is part of the reason Looney Tunes is far from the write-off its box office bomb reputation suggests. It’s easy to imagine how forgettable the originally conceived Spy Jam sequel (with Jackie Chan) would have been. You can see why Dante dismissed the movie with “It could only come out as a mishmash of half-baked ideas that didn’t bake”, but it’s far more satisfying than such a post-mortem suggests. As for Warner unceremoniously dumping it, well it’s another backhanded compliment on being a baffled genius at work (they didn’t get Gremlins 2 either). Looney Tunes: Back in Action maybe half-baked, but that half is really quite tasty.
Addendum (02/02/23): Much as it pains me to say this, as he ranked as one of my favourite moviemakers, it appears Joe Dante was a Black Hat. And I say was, as he is no longer.