Looney Tunes: Back in Action

Starring:
  • Dudley Do-Right
  • Jenna Elfman's Clavicle and Shoulder Blades
  • A Most Effeminate Wild and Crazy Guy

 

 
Directed by Joe Dante

"I'll have you know, Mr. Fraser, that this movie is no more homoerotic than Monkeybone!"

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 nature—ideas 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 world—the 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 Tunes—and 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 older—who 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.

The Pitch:
1 "What's Opera, Doc?" and Foghorn Leghorn's "Little Boy Boo"
Plus
 
1 Gremlins 2
Equals
 
2 Looney Tunes: Back in Action
See It For:

Daffy and Brendan rent the direct-to-video sequel to George of the Jungle.