Did you ever see a movie on DVD that you intentionally gave a miss during its theatrical run, only to kick yourself in the head for missing it on the big screen when you finally saw it at home on your dinky-by-comparison television screen? For me LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION is such a film, and having seen it last night I must urge any fellow Warner Brothers cartoon junkies out there who haven't seen it to get off your asses and pick it up (I got it at the Times Square Virgin Megastore for seven bucks).
When it came out, I opted to skip this film because I still hadn't gotten the taste of the regrettable SPACE JAM (1996) out of my mouth; SPACE JAM was a prime example of sheer Hollywood "product," taking beloved characters and shoehorning them into a storyline that does not play to their strengths — the Looney Tunes gang engaging in an intergalactic baseball game upon which hinges the fate of planet Earth — and partnering them with the world's number one sports Icon, in this case basketball demi-god Michael Jordan, for a live action/animation hybrid that tries way too hard and yields little in the way of entertainment (at least the animation was impressive). The film also irked me because it was basically a feature-length document of the kissing of Michael Jordan's ass, and while I have no problem with Jordan it was clear that the filmmakers were more interested in exploiting the perceived bankability of his sports legend status than they were in creating a genuinely fun movie that was as crazily manic as the Looney Tunes are deservedly famous for being. It was a hollow, soulless dud that made me sad as a lifelong fan of Bugs Bunny Daffy Duck and the rest of their obnoxious, irreverent brethren. LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION, however, had the exact polar opposite effect on me, thoroughly lifting my spirits during a period when I've been somewhat bummed out by life and the world in general. The original LOONEY TUNES shorts have always had that effect on me, and just the mere thought of some of their gags makes me giggle and in some cases laugh out loud. Some cases in point:
• Bugs Bunny’s truly idiotic duet with a cross-dressing wolf in the classic “Litte Red Riding Rabbit” (1944).
• Owl Jolson’s lively and kinda David Lynchian performance of “I Love To Singa.”
• The one in which a doting father buys a cute little duckling as a pet for his daughter, only to suffer the tortures of the damned when said duckling grows up to be Daffy Duck.
• “Back Alley Oproar,” in which an exhausted Elmer Fudd attempts in vain to sleep while Sylvester the cat mounts a fence and proceeds to sing. Easily Sylvester’s finest hour, his incredibly annoying songfest will have you simultaneously laughing your ass off and wanting to commit suicide because it’s just so horrendous, especially when he resorts to stylings aping those of Spike Jones (the musician, not the filmmaker).
• “The Swooner Crooner,” an hilarious comment on the rivalry between Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, recast here as singing roosters whose vocalizations spur unprecedented displays of lust and Herculean egg-laying on Porky Pig’s farm.
• “Super-Rabbit,” a deft parody of the Max Fleischer Superman shorts of the early-1940’s that gets my vote as the first time the Warner Brother’s crew really cemented the formula of Bugs gleefully decimating an opponent, in this case Western-style bad guy Cottontail “I hates rabbits” Smith and his hapless horse.
There are innumerable other examples, but you get the idea. The LOONEY TUNES cartoons had an incalculable influence on my sense of humor and love of the ridiculous and absurd, so I approached LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION with a certain amount of trepidation, but fortunately I remembered my experience with SPACE JAM so I went into it with zero expectations. What I didn’t know was that it was directed by Joe Dante, a talented graduate of Roger Corman’s New World stable who gave the world GREMLINS, the superior GREMLINS 2, the vastly underrated EXPLORERS, and had an uncredited hand in one of my favorite movies of all time, ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, each of which could quite fairly be described as live action cartoons, so it almost goes without saying that Bugs and his colleagues were in qualified directorial hands.
Just like the classic cartoons from which it sprang, LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION offers a goofball plot that serves as just enough story that won’t get in the way of the dialogue, insane gags and interplay between the characters. After years of being a second banana and the butt of more often than not violent punch lines, Daffy Duck pleads his case to his Warner Brothers bosses and presses them into choosing him or Bugs Bunny as their flagship character. This tactic completely backfires when Kate (Jenna Elfman, who’s actually good enough here to erase the lingering radiation of DHARMA & GREG), the new VP of the company’s comedy division — a “genius” who created LETHAL WEAPON BABIES,“ a LETHAL WEAPON you can take your grandchildren to — unceremoniously fires him and orders him physically ejected from the Warner Brothers lot, a task that falls to DJ (Brendan Frasier), a goofily hunky security guard/aspiring stuntman. DJ’s efforts at catching Daffy wreak considerable damage, and as a result the poor guy gets the boot and heads home. The studio soon realizes that Bugs without Daffy is not necessarily a wise creative move, an opinion bolstered by Bugs’ own hardball techniques, so Kate is given the weekend in which to get Daffy back or be out on her ass, and during her search for the little black duck she discovers that the security guard she fired is the son of the studio’s number one action star (Timothy Dalton, sending up his status as a former James Bond). Meanwhile, DJ and Daffy find themselves in the middle of a James Bondian plot for world domination presided over by the head of the ACME corporation (Steve Martin in a fun turn that out-bizarres the bizarreness of his 1970s/1980s work), and their path collides with that of Bugs and Kate on a globe-crossing adventure that goes in many unexpected comedic directions. Fun, lively, fast-paced, loaded with in-jokes for fans of Warner Brothers cartoons in particular and movies in general, and actually funny, LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION was everything SPACE JAM could have been but wasn’t, and the crying shame of it is that this film was totally ignored by almost everybody. It’s downright criminal.
The script handles the Warner Brothers characters with a knowing affection and successfully transplants them into the modern world with not one misstep, Bugs’ been-there-done-that aplomb and Daffy’s rampaging neuroses in fine form, supplemented by numerous welcome appearances by most of the familiar LOONEY TUNES stable (including Granny and Baby Bear still being voiced by their original voice actors, namely the venerable June Foray and Stan Freberg). Even Nasty Canasta returns from the cartoon ether, so what’s not to love? And Brendan Frasier has always been something of a live action cartoon himself, so he not only fits right in with his animated co-stars and is his usual enjoyable self (so sue me, I like the guy), his character irritatedly makes mention of what a prima donna dick the real Brendan Frasier is (he doubled for him in THE MUMMY movies until Frasier decided to do his own stunts), he also provides the spot-on voice for the Tasmanian Devil.
One of the many bits that I loved is that despite being brought in to “leverage his synergy” and craft shorts in which people learn lessons and morals, and there’s no violence — to say nothing of Bugs’ infamous cross-dressing being described as “In the past, funny. Today? Disturbing.” — Kate is unwillingly forced to confront the fact that such cartoons basically suck out loud, a point driven home by a brief bit wherein Porky Pig (who’s been ordered to lose the stutter) and Speedy Gonzalez bemoan being forced to be politically correct, thereby rendering them comedically null-and-void. And let us not forget the following quote from Bugs Bunny in rebuttal to Kate’s comments on his drag proclivities: “Lady, if you don’t find a rabbit with lipstick amusin’, you and I have nuttin’ ta say ta each other.” A great modern example of how the Warner Brothers characters work on levels that both adults and kids enjoy for mostly completely different reasons, to say nothing of being a genuinely sick line that must have gone over very well with PETA.
The film-geek fun includes appearances by Roger Corman, Heather Locklear, Mary Woronov (of DEATH RACE 2000 and EATING RAOUL fame), Peter Graves, Matthew Lillard (getting bitched out and threatened with physical violence by the animated Shaggy for his shoddy performance in the live action SCOOBY-DOO movie), Bill Goldberg, and Joan Cusack as a somewhat loopy scientist in a sequence guaranteed to win over old school sci-fi freaks thanks to the presence of FORBIDDEN PLANET’s Robby the Robot (with his real voice), a Metalunan mutant from THIS ISLAND EARTH, the Man from Planet X (from the film of the same name), Marvin the Martian (okay, so that one was a given), some Triffids, the ludicrous gorilla-in-a-space helmet Robot Monster, a Fiend Without a Face (a greasy-looking crawling brain with antennae on a spinal column), and even a pair of Daleks from DOCTOR WHO (of course shrieking “Exterminate! Exterminate!”).
As is quite obvious by now, I was in heaven. If you, like me, are a real lover of Bugs, Daffy and the rest, you owe it to yourself (and any like-minded folks you choose to share it with) to see LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION immediately. My gushing enjoyment of this film is due to more than being pleased at finally seeing some of my favorite characters being handled properly again; while not for all tastes, this is an undeniably entertaining and good film, a rare “family” movie that can be enjoyed by all and not give you diabetes. TRUST YER BUNCHE and give this unfairly overlooked gem a chance. You won’t be sorry.