Review: LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION (2003), an underrated and self-referential family adventure
Being a “90s kid”, I’ve always thought of “Space Jam” as the ultimate theatrical experience starring the Looney Tunes… despite the fact that, you know, it isn’t a particularly good movie if you watch if without the nostalgia goggles. But don’t tell that to Warner Brothers —they’ve already greenlit the sequel, and they sure as hell are ready to milk every last ounce of nostalgia out of us “90s kids”. (Yeah, I may sound grumpy and cynical, but I’m certainly going to be one of the first to line up outside theatres showing “Space Jam 2”; there’s no point in denying it).
In any case, if you don’t belong to my generation and consider “Space Jam” to be more of a Michael Jordan “worship-fest” instead of a true Looney Tunes adventure, I’ve got a fun alternative for you: Joe Dante’s “Looney Tunes: Back in Action”. Despite being a box office bomb —and the main reason Warner Bros.’ animation department closed more than fifteen years ago—, the film holds up pretty well nowadays, especially compared to its aforementioned predecessor. And although director Dante firmly believes it to be one of the worst work experiences of his life, and seems to be almost embarrassed by the movie… I just can’t hate it. It’s pure Looney Tunes fun: dumb, self-referential, and occasionally creative.
The plot is nothing more than an excuse to give Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the rest of the gang something to do for ninety minutes. Our villain, the Chairman of the Acme Corporation (played by a wacky and almost unrecognisable Steve Martin) is planning to transform the entire population of the world into monkeys. But in order to do so, he must first get a magical diamond appropriately named the “Blue Monkey”. After capturing super-spy/famous actor Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton, spoofing his 007 past) he seems to have nothing standing in his way, until Damian’s son, D.J. (the always likeable Brendan Fraser) starts looking for him. With the help of WB executive Kate (Jenna Elfman) and, of course, Bugs, Duffy and many other cartoons, he will try to stop the Chairman from conquering the world.
First and foremost, unlike “Space Jam”, the film preserves the Tunes’ classic personalities, reminding audiences of their famous short films and TV shows. Daffy is annoying, unlucky and ridiculously ambitious; Bugs is smart and sassy, and the rest of the gang —which includes Wiley Coyote, Sylvester, Tweety, Porky Pig, Marvin the Martian, Taz, and many, many more— seem to be their usual selves. Yes, they have a little less do to here than in “Space Jam” because the main focus of the story is on Daffy and Bugs and the human characters, but they all have their moments to shine. The Tasmanian Devil is particularly funny —especially when you consider he was actually voiced by Brendan Fraser, of all people.
Like most (creatively) successful family pictures, “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” works on two levels: it entertains the children, but it also contains enough “adult” material for their parents to have a good time. In terms of the former, “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” is wacky and colourful, full of slapstick and classic Looney Tunes situations. I mean, it’s hard not to laugh at Wiley Coyote getting whacked by Acme Products, or Yosemite Sam getting blown up by dynamite. It’s a little predictable, but it’s all done with energy and passion for the classic material. Plus, it all looks very good; the integration between live action and animation is believable enough, even more than fifteen years after the movie’s original release.
In terms of what the parents might enjoy, “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” is full of pop culture references, easter eggs, and homages to classic cartoon and sci-fi flicks. We’ve got Brendan Fraser mocking his early-2000s reputation —his character, D.J., is actually supposed to be “real” Brendan Fraser’s stunt double; we’ve got Timothy Dalton playing a cartoonishly efficient super-spy; and we’ve got cameos by the likes of Speedy Gonzales and Porky Pig —who discuss how political correctness has affected their careers—, or Scooby Doo and Shaggy —the latter criticises Matthew Lillard for his live-action interpretation of himself.
There’s also a delightful sequence set in and around Area 52 (please do not confuse with the phoney Area 51), which is full of cameos from famous movie monsters and aliens. From “Forbidden Planet”’s Robbie the Robot, to the “Doctor Who” Daleks (!), this sequence in particular demonstrates Dante’s love for film, and his awesome attention to detail. “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” is great for home viewing, especially if one makes use of the pause button to find even more unexpected details in the backgrounds.
Brendan Fraser, always the expert at playing lovable losers and goofy action heroes (oh, how I miss him), is perfect as D.J. All he has to do is smile, run, and act as if he were surrounded by cartoon characters, and he does so admirably. Jenna Elfman plays an unfortunate stereotype —that of the icy woman in a position of power who lacks a sense of humour— and although she does get better as the movie progresses, I still think the character —and all female characters in the film, for that matter— could have been treated better. Joan Cusack plays an oddball scientist, and Steve Martin is amazingly over-the-top as the Chairman; it’s like watching a live-action cartoon villain… which couldn’t be more appropriate. Oh, and watch out for cameos by the likes of Roger Corman, Ron Perlman, Peter Graves, Batman (!) and Dick Miller (this is a Joe Dante picture, after all).
It may feel at times as if “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” were a missed opportunity —not all the jokes land, and the climax feels a little bit forced (no surprises there, considering that, according to the Blu-ray, the original ending was totally different). On the other hand, though, I just can’t help being in love with some of the better bits —consider, for example, Bugs, Daffy and Elmer Fudd’s chase through the Louvre, in which they enter some of the world’s most famous paintings ("A Sunday on La Grande Jatte" by Georges Seurat, "The Persistence of Memory" by Salvador Dalí, and "The Scream" by Edvard Munch). Or the aforementioned Area 52 sequence. Or most of Steve Martin’s scenes. There’s quite a bit to like in the film, especially if you get infected by its silly, over-the-top tone.
It may sound like sacrilege to some, but “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” is definitely better than “Space Jam”. It’s more faithful to its classic characters, it’s got funnier and more creative gags, and it doesn’t depend on the popularity of a famous athlete. Plus, its (very light) satire of the movie industry and its executives —the brothers who own Warner Bros. in the movie couldn’t be any more clueless— is actually amusing; surprisingly enough, it doesn’t feel self-indulgent. Occasionally hilarious, frequently creative, impressively animated, and sufficiently wacky, “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” is the movie many fans haven’t seen, but that most of them should actually take the time to enjoy. “Underrated” doesn’t even begin to cover it.