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Looney Tunes: Back In Action (2003)
Director: Joe Dante
review by Amy Harlib
Despite the critical and aesthetic failure of Warner Bros' venture into a feature blending live-action with cartoon characters, Space Jam (1996), the just-mentioned film production company dared to try the combination again, this time to considerable success with Looney Tunes: Back In Action directed by stalwart, genre veteran Joe Dante (Gremlins, Small Soldiers, among others) who really loves and understands his material. Anyone fond of animation but especially 'Boomers' who grew up enjoying Warner Bros' cartoons on TV, will experience a delirious nostalgia wallow with this opus while youngsters will be captivated by the colourful, dynamic, fanciful and funny images.
Looney Tunes: Back In Action, both a meta-movie - meaning a film about making films - and a parody of the spy-adventure genre, uses a ridiculous plot as an excuse to get equally absurd characters from one funny scene to the next, the purpose of this type of comedic animation. The story begins with Daffy Duck (voice of Joe Alaskey), weary of being the butt of pratfalls co-starring with Bugs Bunny (also the voice of the versatile Joe Alaskey), demanding that the Warner Bros' executives give him the top ranking roles, claiming he has much popularity and a large fan following. The upper echelons, during a boardroom meeting, prove not very amenable to this idea. They direct Vice President of Comedy, Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman), to fire the obstreperous duck and to arrange to get him expelled from the studio premises.
Affable, earnest studio security guard and stuntman wannabe D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser) winds up assigned with the dubious task of giving Daffy the heave-ho, accomplished so it seems, only after a lively chase causing such mayhem around the Warner Bros' lot, that hapless D.J. finds himself getting canned too. The now both unemployed duck and man wind up at the latter's home where we discover that D.J. is the only son of action superstar Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton), famous for his lead roles in hit, glamorous espionage pictures. The plot thickens when D.J., according to messages left in the residence, discovers that his father's performing jobs serve as covers for his real occupation, that of international super-spy! The same messages reveal that agents of the nefarious Chairman (Steve Martin) of the Acme Corporation abducted Damian while he was tracking down the fabled Blue Monkey Diamond reputed to possess uncanny powers. Resolved to rescue his beloved father, D.J. decides to emulate his 'old man' and, accompanied by Daffy, embarks on a globetrotting pursuit.
An equally important narrative thread concerns Bugs Bunny back in Hollywood where his current film project fails to gel or sparkle without Daffy's participation. The studio heads, none other than the Warner Bros (Don and Dan Stanton), order Kate to get the duck to return on pain of losing her prestigious job. Bugs Bunny, equally eager to get his feathery partner back, teams up with Kate to find Daffy and it doesn't take long for the plot trails to intersect and for the two humans and the two cartoon characters to form a foursome whose adventures take them from Las Vegas to Paris, France, to deep into the wilds of Central Africa, and even, for the 'toons', to the outer reaches of high orbital space before the climax at the Acme Corporation headquarters. There the heroes must try and stop the Acme boss from using the powers of the Blue Monkey Diamond to further his plans for world domination, of course, what else!?
Leading up to this denouement, the four protagonists must cope with Acme minions including: big, burly, chief henchman Mr Smith (Bill Goldberg); Yosemite Sam; Wile E. Coyote; Marvin the Martian; the Tasmanian Devil; and even Elmer Fudd. The heroes also find Damian's allies to be quite helpful: Dusty Tails (Heather Locklear), an undercover secret agent posing as a Vegas song and dance act; and Mother (Joan Cusack), in charge of Area 52, a clandestine, hidden laboratory where, in one of the best sequences, numerous cameos of costumed characters and creatures (including Robby the Robot, a couple of Daleks, a spoof of the Alien face-hugger, and many more) from classic sci-fi films appear, to any fan's utter geeky delight. This part, worth the price of admission alone, compares in cleverness to a later entirely animated chase scenario in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Here Elmer Fudd, Bugs and Daffy all run through, appearing inside the canvases of, one famous painting after another (some of which aren't really Louvre acquisitions but who's fussing?) They assume the styles of well-known artists including Salvador Dali; Henri Toulouse-Lautrec; Georges Seurat; and Edward Munch with brilliantly hilarious, memorable results.
Besides the colourful sets, costumes, props and scenic locations in the live action portions, Looney Tunes: Back In Action really dazzles in the way it combines the 'real' world with animation in an excellent homage to classic Warner Bros' cartoons, with brief appearances throughout by nearly every character in the studio's archives adding icing to the cake. Inevitable comparisons to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? will have this new film coming up equally adroit and visually complex, while Jerry Goldsmith's superb score smoothly glides from one musical style to another to perfectly accompany the proceedings.
Looney Tunes: Back In Action, packed with laugh-out-loud jokes, puns, physical comedy, and references to previous cartoon classics - tries hard to maintain the zany pace and frenetic energy of a seven-minute cartoon for an hour and a half and largely succeeds, only dragging in spots where the human performers, mostly quite able at holding their own against their animated counterparts, can't quite achieve that cartoon hyper activity. Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman, Timothy Dalton, Heather Locklear - all sparkle in the midst of the animated antics with one glaring exception, Steve Martin's villainous Acme Chairman, so over-the-top, so self-consciously scenery-chewing, that the effect proved awkward and grating and not amusing.
Irritating chief foe aside, Looney Tunes: Back In Action offers all the madcap, outrageous fun fans of Warner Bros' cartoons and animation in general could want. With its success at the box office and its appeal to youngsters and the young-at-heart, we can only hope that any sequels will sustain Looney Tunes' high level of quality and, to paraphrase Porky Pig, who also appeared, that it won't be all, folks!
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