Too Looney For Its Own Good
The problem with Looney Tunes: Back in Action is that
Joe Dante's (The Howling, Gremlins, Gremlins 2, Innerspace,
Small Soldiers,) direction is too inconsistent, and
not just because the movie is only intermittently entertaining.
The humor, the looniness of Chuck Jones' Looney Tunes were
in the play between logic and the laws of natureideas
only filmmable at the time by animation. Think of the out-of-control
planes that halted seconds before a crash because of "air
brakes," or Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff because
gravity only takes effect after you look down. The
spirit behind the joke is revealed in a single Foghorn Leghorn
cartoon (directed by Robert McKimson in 1954): Foghorn, trying
to woo a hen to get into the henhouse for the winter, plays
hide-and-seek with a nerdy little chicken with big glasses
named Egghead Jr. Forghorn hides around the yard, while Egghead
scribbles down Einstienien formulas that show how the kid
keeps finding him. Foghorn is completely befuddled by all
this, exasperating, "I know, I know: Fig-yas don't lie."
Egghead is the perfect marriage of science and imagination
that expanded the limitations of the physical worldthe
enterprising 1950's spirit that enabled the moon launch described
in cartoon form.
It's this commingling of high and low art that enriches Looney
Tunesand makes them far more interesting than Disney
shorts. "What's Opera, Doc?" got many of us interested
in Wagner...not that we turned off cartoons and flipped on
Ride of the Valkyries or The Flying Dutchman,
but growing older, we remember the Spear and Magic Helmet
and the unforgettable refrain "Kill Da Wa-bbit, Kill
DA Wa-bbit." Chuck Jones' cartoon is an introduction
to the world of high art, where the imagination soars on the
brilliance of great artists. By associating the joy of a cartoon
with the sounds of opera, the connection becomes almost instinctual
when we grow olderwho wouldn't go see Ride of the
Valkyries if you knew that it was the "Kill da Wa-bbit!"?
Many of us, though not as many as I'd probably like to think,
grew up with this unconscious association. Jones, too, understands
that kids aren't ready for the complexities of high art: When
Elmer Fudd cries, "What have I've done? I've killed the
wabbit. Poor little bunny, poor little wabbit" as he
carries the wabbit away in his arms, we're on the verge of
tears. But in a completely non-cynical move, Bugs lets the
kids off the hook: "Well, what did you expect in an opera,
a happy ending?"
There is a single great sequence in Looney Tunes: Back
in Action that rivals the genius of those classics. Elmer
Fudd, rifle in hand, chases Bugs and Daffy through the Louvre
and inside famous paintings. The chase through Dali's Disintigration
of Persistence of Memory results in a slow-motion chase,
with Elmer's gun melting and merely flopping the bullet out
of the barrel. Next, the trio land in Edvard Munch's The
Scream, with Bugs running across the bridge (in the same
color as the red-orange the background), bellowing in Bugsian
mock-horror alongside the screamer. Then onto a can-can dance
through a Toulouse-Lautrec, into a chase across the shoreline
of pointillist Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the
Island of La Grande Jatte, featuring Bugs and Daffy using
parasols and picnic baskets to thwart Elmer's hunt, finally
ending with Elmer blasting a buckshot of Seuratian points
harmlessly like David Letterman's old confetti canon.
This may be the single best scene of any movie this year,
a modern version of a canonized classic that rivals the greatness
of the source, even using completely original material. Its
brilliance stems from the use of the paintings' own internal
logic: In each painting, the looney tuners interact with the
painting itself (even in color and texture), providing us
with a mini-essay on the relationship between style and logic.
The scene is exhilarating because of the exactness of the
animation: When Bugs slogs to a halt in the Dali, we fear
for Bugs, until Elmer's gun exhibits the same melting principle,
with the bullet flopping out of a rubbery barrel to the ground.
Or at the climax of the scene, we fear for Bugs and Daffy,
culminating in the humorous shock of the pointillist buckshot.
Dante doesn't kill the rabbit, but he kills da wa-bbit.
The problem is that the rest of the movie doesn't measure
up to this promise. It's pretty apparent that the large set
pieces were written first, with the narrative designed mostly
to get from Gag A to Gag B. The result is an absence of narrative
logic, which is fatal here. The Looney Tunes' play of logic
goes out the window, and what fun is there in mayhem if there's
no rules? To contrast with the Louvre scene, the crew is stuck
in the middle of the desert, and instead of inventing some
clever way to get back to civilization (perhaps with more
interplay between the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote), they
just happen to stumble into some secret lair whose entrance
is some invisible membrane in the middle of nowhere. If that
doesn't make sense, that's precisely my point: This isn't
an imaginative rebellion against the physical world, it's
the anarchy of animation, which isn't nearly as fun. The climatic
fight between Bugs and Daffy takes place on Marvin the Martian's
space station; they zip around all over the place, but the
problem here is the same as in The Matrix sequels:
Without any internal logic, without any rules, the scene is
sapped of its drama.
Likewise, most of the ideas sound a lot better than they're
executed. Yosemite Sam owning a Vegas casino with Heather
Locklear as a double agent showgirl sounds hilarious,
but it's less so onscreen. Brendan Frazer as the loser stunt
double son of suave movie spy Timothy Dalton sounds like
a hoot, but it's often not because nothing connects all this
together, and the movie grows tiresome. Some of the individual
gags are pretty funny, like Wile E. Coyote ordering Acme materials
via AOL, but Dante seems bent on being hip rather than consistent.
Sure, an animated Shaggy complaining to Matthew Lillard that
he made him "look like an idiot" is great, but it's
hip without connecting to the classical themes of Looney Tunes.
One missed opportunity sums up Dante's biggest flaw: In the
desert, Frazer, Elfman, Bugs, and Daffy see a disorienting
mirage of a Wal-Mart Supercenter. That's funny, and Dante
suggests something satirical when Steve Martin (the head of
Acme Corp) goes on a small tirade about what Wal-Mart's done
to his profit margin. This is like K-Mart bitching about having
to close its stores, and suggests a larger idea than the usual
complaints about Wal-Mart. It's an opportunity for the marriage
of high-minded comedy and low-ball gags that Chuck Jones perfected
(here, even while being hip to the times), but Dante let's
the gag die harmlessly to move onto the next set piece.
Still, a word must be said about Steve Martin as the head
of the Acme Corporation: This may be my favorite small character
performance of the year. Martin invokes a few effeminate French
stereotypes without overplaying them into cliché, rubbing
his palms down his chest, maniacally swinging around the space-age
board room, with his hair parted in the middle, hanging girlishly
around his eyes. His gray suit is matched with hiked-up white
socks and Letterman-era tennis shoes, presumably to make it
easy to march around and wag his finger at his associates,
like the "Vice President of Rhetorical Questions."
It's a little part in a mostly throwaway movie, but there's
still a sense of genius here, as if Steve Martin mocks his
nineties intellectual persona by finding out what The Wild
and Crazy Guy would be like as Dr. Evil.