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"Looney Tunes: Back in Action", Indeed

There is nothing more refreshing than a total lack of pretension. We're rearing our heads into Oscarville, as we hit the middle of November and all the Academy voters' memories actually start to work. Master and Commander came out today as well, which I did not see and thusly will make no statements for or against. But it does certainly bear that Gladiator-esque feel to it that the Academy seems to love, where a movie like Looney Tunes: Back in Action will receive no such genteel treatment. I am not implying that this is "Oscar-worthy" material, but like the original shorts themselves, I personally always appreciate something willing to laugh at the world as opposed to simply trying to please it.


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I'll get the unpleasant part out of the way first and talk about the main thing I didn't like about the film, although "didn't like" may be too strong a sentiment. A wacky, madcap film like Back in Action always has something to hang its hat on, or rather, its plot; in this case, it's a framework for a James Bond parody. I was surprised by how much I appreciated the inclusion of such a parody. Austin Powers has dropped the ball on Bondian spoofs, becoming inmeshed within its own Myers universe, so a Bugs/Daffy take on the iconic spy seemed strangely apropos. However, there was not so much in the way of real parody of the Bond style, beyond some sharp gag moments like the classic Vegas blackjack showdown. Rather, the Bond framework ended up being the way that the movie forced itself to have something resembling a real arc for most of the characters (excepting the main cartoon duo); it made me smile most of the time, but it didn't really make me laugh, and I felt like it could have with a little more focus. (On the upside, anybody who's read a synopsis of the film's plot and balked at the whole mystical Blue Monkey diamond thing, like I did, should be pleased to discover that the Blue Monkey's actual power is rightfully stupid and goofy, just as it damn well should be.)

But who cares about any of that stuff, anyway? The real stars of this film are not Elfman and Fraser, but Bugs and Daffy. Joe Alaskey once again proves to be one of our modern-day Mel Blancs, with his excellent renditions of many of the Looney characters, including the two headliners. I knew Alaskey could do Daffy, but I was most impressed with his Bugs - it is not easy to be able to do both. (This is coming from a guy who can do one much better than the other; I'll leave it to you to guess which.) The conflict of the film that garnered my attention far more than the spy stuff was the classic matter of Daffy needing to better himself and his situation, and Bugs needing Daffy to shut up and stick to the script. Both characters are in fine form (Eric Goldberg's animation team coming through in spades), although Daffy will be a little different to some audience members, due to him now being something of a meld between his Jonesian desires and his Clampettian nature. The brilliance of the payoff to the film is maybe even a little more subtle than expected; Daffy comes across as actually having achieved what he wants by being the hero, but then Bugs reveals that he got what he wanted all along by them being on the set of their movie. (If you consider learning that Bugs wins in the end a spoiler, then you need to re-evaluate your understanding of the Looney Tunes.) On a surface level, they don't seem to actually conflict, but a little more thought and you realize that one undercuts the other. It proves that the reason Bugs remains the greatest hero is that he has no interest in actually being the hero; he just does what he needs to do.

As for the humans, they're just as game for the wackiness as the cartoon stars are. Brendan Fraser is a talented comedian who has been stuck in many untalented films, and he works best when reacting to the zaniness around him. In here, he has this in spades, and his performance actually feels like a highlight, which is a difficult feat to pull off when sharing a screen with the rabbit and the duck. Timothy Dalton, one of history's better Bonds, is a genius casting coup, especially when related back to that whole James Bond-parody thing; he's not deadly obvious like Sean Connery would have been, but he's got just the right feel for the character and the symbol that he helps justify some of that aforementioned disappointment with that side of the film. Jenna Elfman doesn't stand out as much as her three male cohorts, but she has just the right tone for her semi-haughty executive and throws in a few character-related barbs at those in the business side of the animation industry, in a time where such barbs are sorely, sorely needed.

And Steve Martin comes up with a villain as justifiably loony as any Tex Avery creation. He's so weird that he's infinitely watchable, especially as he deals with the parade of actual Looney Tunes villains that he controls. He easily belongs in their ranks via style and personality alone.

What makes the movie work overall is the fact that it's so self-aware. It's this that makes Joe Dante so perfect for the material. Not only is he an avowed Looney Tunes fan, but he has made an entire career on self-aware cinema, most notably with the Gremlins films. In that, this film fits right in line with all of his previous work, filled with Dante-typical cameos (yes, both Dick Miller and Robert Picardo are there, although maybe a little more blink-and-miss than usual) and in-jokes. The film is also savagely anarchic in its parodies of everywhere it seems to be: Vegas glitz, jungle typicalities, 50s-style aliens in an Area 51 knock-off (although they'd say the reverse), and satire of the Warner Bros. lot so massive in the opening section that it rivals Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back's Miramax deconstruction. The Looney Tunes shorts were always about being self-aware; they started making fun of their own formulas barely three or four years into production. By Back in Action following their lead, Dante has created a feature film that is much like his rendition of Daffy: both Jonesian and Clampettian, providing both mayhem and winks.

Three and a half (***1/2) stars out of four (****)


A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on November 29, 2003

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