A movie for angry fat men living in basements. Oh yeah!
The best animated character in the history of the genre is Daffy Duck. Hands down. Without question. No need to argue it…
Oh yeah? Okay then, take this: he is the only fully realized, three-dimensional one-dimensional entity rendered in two dimensions ever conceived. Sorry all you lovers of the Mouse, either Mighty or Mickey, and champions of the bunny, both Bugs and Buster, but Daffy is by far the best example, the very essence, and the grand high exalted poobah, of hand-drawn hilarity. Don't believe it? Fail to see the funny in this flustered fowl? Well, it's time to wise up and bask in the wonder of the duck, lord love him. You see, for years you've bought into the anti-mallard hype. You let Hollywood and afternoon kids' shows sell you that same old Hanna-Barbara BS and pro-rabbit ridiculousness. Everything you know has been wrong for so long that now you just can't buy into the dynamic of the drake. No room for the runner in your comedy routine? Just not willing to waddle up to the bird and make nice? That's just too dang bad. Because you see, while Bugs has been trading on his savior faire and the rest of the Warner wonders have been resting on their various speech impediments, Daffy has been doing his motherducking best to live up to his name. He has essayed any and every role asked of him, from early forays into dopey doctoring to latter leaps into ghostbusting and exorcism. He's been a trouper and a tyrant, a pet and a pariah. But up until now, he has always played second fiddle to a certain bunny with an oral/carrot fixation. But thanks to Looney Tunes: Back in Action, all that is about to change. For you see, the star of this farcical journey through the Warner's cartoon canon is none other than Daffy Duck himself. It's his moment to shine, and once you see him in this movie, you'll understand why he rules the animated universe.
Facts of the Case
Daffy Duck is sick and tired of taking a backseat to Bugs Bunny. The script for their latest film has the haphazard duck being blown up several times before page eight, and he's had it. He wants a change. And new Vice President of Marketing Kate Houghton is ready to give him one. She fires Daffy and has stuntman wannabe turned temporary security guard DJ Drake escort him off the lot. When things don't go quite as non-destructively as planned, DJ is also fired and heads home to sulk. With nowhere else to go, Daffy tags along. While roaming around DJ's swanky house, he soon realizes that the failure's father is none other than Damien Drake, Warner's highest paid spy movie star. Daffy figures that with such a convincing screen persona, Damien must be into espionage in real life.
DJ scoffs at the loony toon but before he knows it, a message comes across a strange video screen hung behind a painting. It's DJ's dad Damien, and he is in trouble. He tells his son to go to Las Vegas and find a singer, Dusty Tails. She will lead him to the whereabouts of the Blue Monkey Diamond. DJ is stunned. His father is indeed a special agent. Daffy's avarice goes into overdrive and before you know it, the duo is off to Sin City.
Meanwhile, the actual Warner Brothers are angry that Daffy is gone and mandate Kate get him back. Bugs comes along for the ride and they end up in Vegas as well. As they try to find the fowl and his friend, sinister forces are also afoot. Seems the "Chairman" of the Acme Company wants the diamond for some diabolical plot. And he has several of the ex-Looney Tunes on the payroll as henchmen. It's not long before a simple search for a spy and a supernatural gemstone turns into a cross continent chase to see who gets to the goodies first: the evil Acme minions or the gang of good guys (a certain cash-hungry duck excluded).
If there was ever a director born to make a live action Looney Tunes movie, it is Joe Dante. Here is someone who is more than a fan, more than a moviemaker with a desire to delve into the realm of the classic cartoons. What Dante is defies easy description. He is a purist, the kind of stickler for detail and design that makes his films both magical and maddening. He is in the constant business of awarding creative honorariums, making sure modern audiences don't forget the classic bits of chaos, creep show, and B-movie mania that came before them. He has strived for Spielberg-style schmaltz and successfully channeled the feel of animated motion pictures into most of his movies (The 'burbs, Innerspace, Explorers). In many ways, Looney Tunes: Back in Action feels like the culmination of so much of what this man set out to do in his career that, if he never worked again, one could consider his canon virtually complete. After all, this was his dream job, the film he had always wanted to make. Warner Brother's crazed cartoons have influenced a great many of his other directorial decisions and were instrumental in fashioning his wicked, wild sense of humor. He is the bastard son of all the great animation legends: Bob Clampett, Tex Avery, and Chuck Jones. So naturally his film about his beloved Bugs Bunny and friends would be filled to the brim with in-jokes, stuffed to bursting with satirical wit, and as much a comment about the Looney Tunes as ideals as a feature to highlight them. Looney Tunes: Back in Action is Who Framed Roger Rabbit mixed with modern day myth deconstruction to simultaneously explain the importance of and underline the forgotten forces in major studio animated movies.
When it was released last fall, Looney Tunes: Back in Action was not a huge hit. And that fact is not as amazing as the critical drubbing it took. With this flawed wonder now available on DVD, it's hard to see why reviewers were so stingy with the pleasantries. Sure, it makes no logical sense. No, not every action sequence pays off in a completely successful or exciting way. And no, Dante doesn't rely on big name star power for the human half of his film, unless you consider Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman, and a virtually unrecognizable, family-friendly ex-Wild and Crazy guy named Steve Martin chewing scenery for the sake of a buck as high-priced box office draws. No, what Dante wanted to do here was perform a little anarchy alchemy, to capture the lunatic fringe ferocity of Bugs, Daffy, and the rest of the gang, stick it in an oversized barrel, lace the drum with TNT, and set it alight. And for the most part, he is successful, sending the film careening all over and off the screen for 90 minutes like an out of control Roman candle. There is no need to add "new" character creations to the mix. Dante has no desire to mess with perfection. This is probably the best use of the Looney Tunes icons outside their classic shorts from the 1930s to '60s ever. Space Jam is retardation for the pre-school set, an attempt to give Michael Jordan a not-needed movie career. And any "original" animations done for the big or small screen (Quackbusters) have suffered, not just from poor drawing and voice work, but also from a lack of understanding about how these twisted toon terrors actually function. Dante and screenwriter Larry Doyle deserve a great deal of fan-based praise for recreating the style and sentiment of Warner's cinematic heyday brilliantly.
So from a purely visual standpoint, the design and look of Looney Tunes: Back in Action is impressive. It fits the genre being explored and spoofed (big-budget action-adventure fantasy) effortlessly, and Dante even manages to incorporate classic cartoon capering in a highly imaginative fashion. Car chases have that animated movie motion, even down to Dante's decision to use toy cars in overhead shots to suggest the fantastical inner-traffic weaving of the heroes. Other set pieces are equally over the top and manic. Of course, the main stroke of magnificent genius here is making long-suffering Daffy the main focus. Always an underused and undervalued aspect of the Looney Tunes legacy (heck, more people remember Wile E. Coyote getting his gonads fried off than recognize this madcap mallard's adventures) Daffy is walking, talking subversion in feathers. He is dementia personified and peppered liberally with pea-brained paranoia. He is, thankfully, front and center in the narrative of Looney Tunes, his loopy personality permeating the entire film. Daffy is not as haute as Bugs. He is more than happy to be the cause of, the source for, and the butt of, each and every joke. All he is interested in is the recognition. Daffy is a schizophrenic spastic who is greedy one minute, frightened another, and wonderfully wisecracking inside both mindsets. His desire to succeed at all costs, to crawl out from under the shadow of the rabbit and stand on his own as a beloved cartoon character, mixes pain, pathos, and panic into a ripe formula for fun. And that's really what Looney Tunes: Back in Action is about: giving the audience a good time via the radical, resplendent antics of a Warner Brother's cartoon.
Yes, Looney Tunes: Back in Action is an entertaining movie and an anarchic bit of inside joking that makes it stand out amongst other, modern animated fair. But the question still remains as to why it isn't great. The characters are great. The director is great. The vast majority of the humor is great. Indeed, if one uses the age-old "sum of all parts" argument, it should be stupendous. But all it can muster is good, and there has got to be a reason for that. One such shortcoming could actually be the humdrum human casting. After all, one envisions a more madcap movie ala The Muppets where Mel Gibson, Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep, or Julia Roberts essays the major mammalian characters with crazy, career-testing pizzazz. The added attraction of watching megawatt superstars stuff their own images up their bankable butts for the sake of a cartoon romp is so ripe with riches it's ridiculous. But no, we get the mundane and the easily affordable, and while everyone here is fine (except for Martin, who seems lost in mid-improv over his kooky characterization), they don't light or lighten up the screen with their thespian tactics. Indeed, The Mummy and The Mummy Returns are such silly send-ups to begin with that Fraser seems even more muted here than when he's battling a CGI bunch of bandages.
The other problem could be the story itself. Only Bugs and Daffy have a movie plot life that reflects their status as animated actors in films. But all their fellow cast members seem lost in narrative-necessary limbo. Why is a classic villain like Yosemite Sam running a casino? Why are criminals like Nasty Canasta reduced to playing henchmen? Elmer still works for the Warners, but the rest of these former fiends feel deliberately cast off and ill considered, well outside the realm of hyper-reality that Dante is trying to create.
Then there are the cameos. Why is WWE star Goldberg here, if all he is going to do is walk around like a human steroid? (The deleted scenes do explain a little more about this.) Cult actress Mary Woronov is around for a couple of scenes, but she and the rest of Acme's board of directors (with such wonderful joke positions as VP of Rhetorical Questions) are reduced to set designs, getting very little viable onscreen humor time. Heather Locklear appears to be a last-minute replacement for Britney Spears (she uses the pop puke's same baby doll/whore act onstage), and Timothy Dalton is so underdeveloped that his role must have been generically labeled "sniveling idiot" in the script. While it is true that Daffy, the rabbit, and the rest of the gang are the real reason for the movie, the flesh and blood actors appear inconsequential. So to load up your screen with so many crazy walk-ons (Roger Corman, Robert Picardo, and Ron Perlman are all added for split-second shots at recognition), either minor or major, without giving the audience enough time for grateful recognition, defeats the purpose. And then there is the script. The transition between Tinsel-Town reality and spy-spoof lampoon is very awkward. You can almost hear the cinematic gears grinding and shifting. More should have been done to set it up appropriately. And wasn't Fraser at all concerned about heading back to a tropical jungle to spend more time wandering around faux-pyramids, trying to undermine supernatural evil? The road trip nature of the journey is fine, filled with many humorous vignettes, and the Paris sequences have some special moments (the Louvre chase scene is fantastic). But there is just not enough satire in the spy story to tell you if it's all a joke, a movie within a movie, or just a tired bit of Hollywood action formula being misapplied to those lovable, loony toons.
Yet if there is anything that saves Looney Tunes: Back in Action, aside from the cartoon characters themselves, it's Joe Dante. This is really a director's film, and Dante delivers the devilish goods. Known for his ability to keep anarchy in check without losing much of its madness, his imprint is all over the screen, especially in the Area 52 sequence. Using his wealth of B-movie knowledge and a love of all things alien and slimy, there is a trivia game in the making over the numerous references, asides, and images he checks for the sake of a single-set piece. And the final confrontation in space between Daffy, Bugs, and Marvin the Martian manages to find the proper balance of Hollywood blockbuster, Warner Brothers animation, and pure movie making pleasure to make for a fitting conclusion to the story. But if they had made the live action more acerbic, scuttling the spy spoofery and dealing realistically with the decision to ditch the duck (simply forgo all the kid-friendly action and adventure), Looney Tunes: Back in Action would have been a much better film. Indeed, it would have been fun to see the real "lives" of these classic pen-and-ink entities outside the studio setting. How do they live? What kind of social lives do they have? Is their real-world existence anything like the cartoon realm they work in? It could have given the Looney Tunes a brand new modern lease on life. And Dante's dated additions could have also been included to act as a loving tribute to that long-lost era in cinema where cartoons clashed with creature features to perfectly warp the wee ones. But as it stands, Looney Tunes: Back in Action is merely a merry melody, a tender compliment to some classic characters by a director who understands them inherently. It may not be perfect, but it really is a delightful and delirious romp.
Sadly, Warner Brothers treats Looney Tunes: Back in Action like a box office flop that has no right being heralded on DVD. What a shame. What could have been a lesson in classic animation for kids and adults alike is lowered to near bare-bones level for presentation. Of the bonus features offered, some are only accessible (about 24 minutes of additional deleted scenes) via DVD-ROM (and even then they are only available online, not as part of the disc), while others hint of hastily put together afterthoughts. Behind the Tunes is merely a press puff piece, a chance for the cast and crew to "interact" with Bugs and Daffy as they discuss the making of the movie. Bang, Crash, Boom is a special-effects featurette that is rather insightful, even if it is very short. You learn about how certain scenes were filmed and how Dante used a couple of foam rubber "puppets" to help the onset actors imagine the cartoon equivalent of their costars. Probably the best material offered in the worst imaginable package is Looney Tunes out of Action: The Best Scenes You've Never Seen. Using a movie theater format, a poorly animated Bugs and Daffy narrate deleted moments from the movie. For the most part, the sequences are revelatory. They show the direction the movie was molded into: how demographics and test screenings required the ditching of the love story, the changes in Jenna Elfman's character, and a different ending that is absolutely awful. It also hints that the final film rested solely with Dante's tinkering and fine-tuning.
But the best thing about the disc (aside from the amusing modern Roadrunner and Coyote short called "Whizzard of Ow") is the sound and vision. Looney Tunes: Back in Action looks wonderful in a glowing 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that captures the colors and the cartoon nuances brilliantly. Oddly, the trailer looks even more eye popping, but it could be the result of having a smaller, shorter canvas to work with. Still, the vibrancy of Las Vegas, the beauty of the Utah desert, and the chaotic creations of the surreal Acme world are showcased exceptionally well. Equally impressive is the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound. Now, it's not a full-bore speaker blow out, testing the limits of your home system. But there are wonderful atmospheric effects and a nice use of the channels in the action scenes. This is one DVD that does a good job of recreating the theatrical experience. Too bad it couldn't have tossed in a little more of what DVD does best.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Why is there no commentary on this DVD? Why was Dante, one of the biggest fans of the Looney Tunes ever, not given a chance to speak out along with his film? It is absolutely criminal. Now, maybe it was his choice, but the reality may be far more fiscal. Mom and Dad see a title like Looney Tunes: Back in Action and automatically think "Great, a new digital child tamer." They will scoop it up without thinking and render the decision acceptable as long as the kiddies are kept quiet while they contemplate their discontented lives. But this was not the purpose of the film, nor was allowing Dante to be involved part of the grand universal babysitting plan. So to take something so different and stuff it into a family-friendly market die is unfair. And Dante is obviously a victim of said merchandising reconfiguration. It would have been nice to hear his war stories, his recollections of toons past and how he fought to keep his vision of their legacy intact. Or perhaps this is the reason that Warner Brothers said no to a narrative track. Maybe they like history just the way it is, rewritten ala Uncle Walt to make sure no monetary misstep is represented and no sell through ill will is aired. Joe Dante lived his whole career to make this movie and to not give him a chance to talk about it is wrong. Shame on you, Warner Brothers. Shame. Shame.
So, do you still need proof of Daffy Duck's supremacy? Isn't the fact that he can single…wingedly save Looney Tunes: Back in Action from being another Jordan-esque excuse for mediocrity validation enough? After all, for a movie with so many misgivings to actually work as a wonderful, humorous homage to the legacy of Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, Tex Avery, Fritz Freleng, Robert McKimson, and countless others says a lot about the insane one's star power. These men made Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Tweetie Bird, Sylvester, Wile E. Coyote, Roadrunner, Yosemite Sam, and Elmer Fudd the icons they are today. They deserve massive recognition for redefining the cartoon cosmos, for avoiding all the sticky cornball cuteness and jacking up the witty wildness. Looney Tunes: Back in Action provides further proof of that stalwart mythology and finally elevates Daffy to the status of full-blown superstar. So forget about the bunny and go with the funny. Take your unintelligible Donald and stuff him. Forget about the modern miscreants of middling returns. Simply sit back and relish a healthy portion of Duck ala Unhinged, with a side of stellar Warner Brothers character antics. Daffy Duck is the best, most misunderstood animated entity ever, and, while not the perfect showcase, Looney Tunes: Back in Action does the dizzy drake proud. Thank you, Joe Dante, for putting the lunatic back into these tunes. So stop with your arguing about Daffy's greatness. It is to laugh. Oh yeah? You're…des…picable!
Looney Tunes: Back in Action is found not guilty and is free to go. Warner Brothers is admonished for not allowing director Joe Dante to record a commentary. But because they saw fit to hire the creative crazy man, they are sentenced to time served and are released on their own recognizance. Court dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer(s)
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