Over the years, millions of kids have grown up watching Looney Tunes. Part of the reason they endure, though, is that they work on two levels. Watch them as a child and you’ll laugh; watch them again as a grown-up and you’ll laugh for a totally different reason. These cartoons have always had plenty of silliness for the young ones, while also having a more subtle level of sophistication that appeals to adults. Strangely, there hasn’t been a full-fledged Looney Tunes movie since 1996’s Space Jam. Who knows why it took so long, but fans can now be thankful for the return of these beloved characters to the big screen in Looney Tunes: Back in Action.
The opening scene is a delightful spoof of Hollywood wheeling and dealing. Jenna Elfman plays Kate Houghton, the Vice President of Comedy at Warner Bros. Pictures. She comes up with the bright idea of firing Daffy Duck, deeming him not funny enough. The duck protests, but Kate orders him off the studio lot. Coming in to carry out this task is DJ Drake (Brendan Fraser), a security guard who dreams of becoming a professional stuntman. He’s a perpetual screw-up, however, and his attempt to toss Daffy out on his ear turns into a fiasco that ends with the Batmobile accidentally knocking over the famous WB water tower. DJ is fired as well.
Meanwhile, DJ discovers that his father – a major action movie star named Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton) – is actually a real spy. He’s been kidnapped by the evil ACME corporation, makers of all those gizmos routinely used by Looney Tunes characters. Steve Martin plays the Chairman of ACME, who is trying to locate a rare diamond known as the Blue Monkey. The stone has the power to turn human beings into monkeys, and this gives the Chairman an idea: he will turn people into monkeys, then use them as slave labor in the ACME factories. Once enough products have been made, he’ll convert them back into people, who can then purchase the products. DJ sets out to rescue his father and stop ACME. Daffy tags along. Kate, who has gotten in trouble for firing Daffy, needs to get him back, so she also goes along. Accompanying her is Bugs Bunny, who’s always up for an adventure.
Looney Tunes: Back in Action very cleverly moves its plot from location to location, thereby allowing all the famous faces to pop up. For example, the search for DJ’s father at one point leads to the desert, where Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner come into play. (In one of the more humorous aspects of the movie, some characters, like Wile E. Coyote, are bad guys, working for ACME.) Later, the crew ends up in Paris, where they encounter the beloved (and stinky) Pepe Le Pew. Some Looney Tunes characters get a lot of screen time, while others – such as Porky Pig – have mere cameos, but they’re all here.
What I loved about this film was its style of humor which, like the old short cartoons, works on multiple levels. In this case, the secondary level is very in-jokey about show business. There are tons of references to other movies. One of my favorite bits involves an underground government lab known as Area 52, where a researcher (Joan Cusack) keeps alien specimens in giant jars. If you look closely, all the aliens are from old sci-fi movies, such as Robot Monster. Another funny scene features a cameo from two non-Looney Tunes cartoon stars, one of whom chastises the real-life actor who recently portrayed him in a big-budget movie. There are many other similar gags packed into the movie. Director Joe Dante has always specialized in off-beat, self-referential films like Gremlins, Matinee, and Explorers. He’s the perfect choice to make this movie a hip satire of Hollywood.
My other favorite scene has little to do with show business, but it’s just a great moment of inventiveness. During a visit to the Louvre, Bugs, Daffy, and Elmer Fudd hop into various famous paintings, including “The Scream.” The animation style is then altered so that it resembles the paintings they have entered. It’s truly a brilliant sequence.
Although the cartoon characters are essentially the stars of this film, the actors are well chosen. Fraser has made a lot (perhaps too many, to be honest) slapsticky comedies, such as George of the Jungle, Dudley Do-Right and Monkeybone. He’s good at this type of humor. So is Jenna Elfman. She has a rare ability to do physical comedy without overdoing it. Steve Martin was a great choice for the Chairman, because he does something original with the role. Wearing Harry Potter glasses, flood pants, and sneakers on his pigeon-toed feet, the Chairman looks like Pee-Wee Herman’s evil older brother.
It is important to note that Looney Tunes: Back in Action is very much a pro-Daffy Duck movie. He gets to be the hero. Many of us have been waiting for the day when the duck gets his real moment to shine. Here it is. And thank goodness for it. That alone is reason enough to smile, but the rest of the movie is fun too. Like most cartoons, the plot is inconsequential; what’s really important is the laugh quotient. The Looney Tunes are most definitely back in action, and it was great to have them make me laugh so much again. They have always had an anarchic sense of humor. Setting them loose on Hollywood was nothing less than inspired.
( out of four)
Looney Tunes: Back in Action is rated PG for some mild language and innuendo. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.
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