In Hollywood, Bugs Bunny and studio executive Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman, Dharma and Greg) are having a meeting to talk about the Bugs' next picture.
“There are some aspects of the script that need work,” Kate complains. “There's no heart, no cooperation, no one learns anything.”
“Daffy learns not to stick his head in a jet engine,” Bugs replies.
It's one of many moments in Looney Tunes: Back in Action that acknowledges how out-of-sync the cheerful, violent mayhem of the Looney Tunes world is with the safer, more conventionally uplifting children's entertainment of the 21st century. Indeed, this is a movie where no big moral lessons are offered, none of the characters evolve in any significant way and no heartstring-tugging is permitted. It's just joyful, clever, fourth wall-breaking lunacy, which is exactly what a Looney Tunes movie should be. Naturally, it flopped at the box office, and no Looney Tunes movie has been made since. It's hard out there for a wabbit.
However, Bugs isn't really the star of Back in Action: this time, the perpetually irritated Daffy Duck takes center stage, though he spends much of his time complaining about the fact that he's always being asked to play second fiddle to Bugs. Early in the movie, Daffy tells the Warner Brothers (Don and Dan Stanton) – depicted as two soulless pencil-pushers – that he's sick of being mistreated and that the studio must choose between him and Bugs. The studio fires Daffy without hesitation.
Security guard and part-time stuntman D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser, Gods and Monsters) is tasked with removing Daffy from the studio lot, which leads us into a chaotic chase scene on the set of a Batman movie (being directed by Roger Corman, of all people – hey, I'd pay to see it). D.J. is fired, but quickly gets a new task to deal with: recovering the mysterious “blue monkey” diamond. You see, Drake's father is famous actor Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton, License to Kill), who plays a James Bond-esque character on the big screen but is also a spy in in real life. Damian has been kidnapped by the villainous Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin, The Jerk), who is planning to use the diamond to... well, never mind. It's all very silly, and the story isn't really important. What you need to know is that circumstances force D.J., Daffy, Kate and Bugs to go on an adventure together, and that they'll encounter all sorts of other Looney Tunes characters along the way.
This is a much more satisfying live-action/animation hybrid than the unique-but-clunky Space Jam (which I loved as a kid but sort of regret revisiting as an adult), which was more about celebrating Michael Jordan at the peak of his stardom than about giving the animated characters a chance to shine. Back in Action director Joe Dante clearly adores these characters, and delivers a film that is much closer to the anarchic spirit of the original shorts. The film is stuffed to the brim with affectionate references to memorable moments in Looney Tunes history (a little “One Froggy Evening” here, a little “I Love to Singa” there), in addition to an abundance of other blink-and-you'll-miss-them pop culture references (my favorite: composer Jerry Goldsmith – delivering the final film score of his remarkable career - working his memorable Gremlins theme into the mix when Fraser hops into a beat-up yellow Gremlin).
Admittedly, there's a reason the Looney Tunes characters tend to work better in a short-film format: their brand of frantic cartoon violence can get exhausting after a while. Sure enough, Looney Tunes: Back in Action begins to lose a little of its charm by the time it reaches the finish line... not because the material is any weaker than the early stuff (there are some wonderful gags littered throughout the third act), but because we're getting worn out.
Still, the film is too funny to ever become genuinely annoying, and Dante has an endless supply of new ideas to offer up from scene-to-scene: a wonderful jab at the growing trend of product placement in movies (much worse now than it was when this film was released), a trippy chase scene that finds the characters hopping through a series of famous paintings in the Louvre, a handful of great Wile E. Coyote gags, Speedy Gonzales and Porky Pig bemoaning their diminished status in a “politically correct” world, a scene in which Fraser's character meets the actual Brendan Fraser (who turns out to be an arrogant snot)... there's plenty to enjoy.
Daffy Duck's “performance” is immensely fun, as his eternal resentment of Bugs Bunny's easily-won success leaves him in a state of constant agitation. “All you have to do is munch on a carrot and people love you,” he snaps. The film cleverly hints at the idea that it's going to tell an actual story about these two working through their relationship problems, but nope: let another movie teach kids about the value of cooperation.
The flesh-and-blood actors fare pretty well, too. Fraser is more or less perfect for this sort of thing, as he's one of those rare actors who can both match the energy of the Looney Tunes characters and act opposite them without an ounce of condescension. Steve Martin also seems to be having a grand time, playing his Bond-style villain as a bespectacled nerd with a perpetual cold and a host of posture problems (the part is a welcome reminder of just how good Martin is at physical comedy). Elfman is mostly required to play the humorless straight man to everyone else, but she does so capably.
In a sense, Looney Tunes: Back in Action marks the end of a chapter in Dante's career. It's not the final film he made (he's made a couple of low-budget horror-comedies, directed some TV episodes and is still working on various projects), but to date, it's both his last big studio film and his last good film. Dante reported that making the movie was, “a pretty grim experience all around,” as his creative choices placed him in constant battle with Warner Bros. The end result isn't precisely the film he set out to make, but it's a witty, well-crafted labor of love that treats its characters right and delivers a lot of laughs. Forget about the Monstars: this is the only modern-era Looney Tunes movie you need.
Looney Tunes: Back in Action
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 93 minutes
Release Year: 2003