Linguists note that we periodically encounter sentences so unusual that no one has ever uttered them before in all of human history. In this movie Marvin the Martian gets to utter one such line:
Now the diamond will bathe the earth in a monkey-transforming glow!
Of course, given who Marvin the Martian is, he regularly gets to utter such lines. And that’s what this movie is about: letting us see our favorite Looney Tunes characters back on the big screen, delivering the same kind of zany gags, schticks, and antics that made them famous in the first place.
There’s also a good bit of newness to the movie. For a start, Looney Tunes: Back In Action isn’t standard animated fare. It’s a live-action hybrid that integrates cartoon characters into the “real world.” This has been done before: most successfully in the Disney venture Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and also in the Warner Brothers vehicle Space Jam. (Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck appeared in both of these and starred in the latter.)
How does this film compare to its predecessors in the cartoon crossover genre?
It’s a mixed bag.
Kids will definitely want to see it, as will die-hard adult fans of the Looney Tunes characters. For their purposes, the movie is a resounding success. It gives us a big screen adaptation of the Looney Tunes characters which is faithful to the characters we grew up with. Their comic sensibilities are the same, the timing is the same, even many of the jokes are the same. And that’s part of the problem: There is a little too much sameness about all this.
It’s one thing to be faithful to the comic sensibilities of a franchise. It’s even fair to call back a few favorite jokes from the past as nods to the audience. But it’s another thing to repeatedly recycle gags that we’ve heard and seen dozens of times in television syndication.
To be fair, the movie occasionally pushes the gags farther than we’ve seen before. There are a few points in the movie where the film delivers an age-worn cartoon gag only as set-up for taking it in a new direction, and it’s a delight when this happens. But this is infrequent.
Much more successful are the new gags that we see. There are a lot of these, and they’re often quite clever:
Tongue-in-cheek mentions of non-Warner Brothers properties like Wal-Mart are one of the fun things about this movie. Sometimes movies will offer a few such nods, but this movie is stuffed with them. For example, in one sequence our heroes visit Area 51 and find it housing aliens from an incredible number of science fiction movies and TV shows, some popular (“Dr. Who,” Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and some of them quite obscure (The Man From Planet X, Fiend Without A Face).
Some sequences — like the Area 51 visit or a stunningly animated romp through the paintings in the Louvre — are very entertaining. Individual jokes, individual scenes, individual sequences can all be funny and satisfying.
It’s the movie as a whole that doesn’t hang together.
The problem is: It’s too much like a cartoon.
Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the Looney Tunes style of humor were designed to entertain an audience through seven-minute shorts, not ninety-minute features. To make the transition to a full-blown, feature-length movie requires some adjustments. This movie doesn’t make them.
In a seven-minute short, the plot can be something of an afterthought. You can just throw a bunch of gags at the audience with a loose, even absurd plot and the audience won’t get bored. But you can’t do this for ninety minutes. You need a real plot with characters we can empathize with, characters who aren’t simply performing their schticks the whole time. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the Toy Story movies provided those things. Looney Tunes: Back In Action doesn’t.
The plot is paper thin. Basically, it’s a chase story: Daffy Duck (Joe Alasky) and security guard D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser) have been fired from Warner Brothers. Bugs Bunny (Joe Alaskey) and studio exec Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman) are chasing them to try to rehire them. However, Duck and Drake (get it?) are themselves chasing a mysterious diamond known as the Blue Monkey and trying to save D.J.’s superspy-pretending-to-be-an-actor-pretending-to-be-a-superspy father Damien Drake (Timothy Dalton).
The interlocking chases serve as the pretext to take our heroes around the globe (and even off it) while encountering one gag after another. They also allow the filmmakers a paint-by-the-numbers method of shoehorning in every major character from the Looney Tunes stable. (Tip to the execs: It’s neat to see minor characters called back from old cartoons, but it bogs down the story if you feel forced to include every major Looney Tunes character for fear of disappointing somebody.)
The film also breaks an important rule regarding cartoon-live action crossovers. Part of the beauty of these movies is the fun of seeing toons interacting with the “real world.” Therefore, the live action humans in the movie must behave (more or less) like real world humans. They need to be straight men for the zaniness of the toons to bounce off of, the way Bob Hoskins was in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
That’s not what happens here.
The human hero and villain in the film both behave in a distinctly toon-y manner. D.J. Drake is so goofy, he acts like basically a toned-down version of his traveling companion Daffy Duck.
Worse is Steve Martin, who plays the evil chairman of the Acme Corporation. He is in maniacal spastic villain overdrive for every moment of his screen time, and it really wears on one’s nerves. He’s more over the top than many cartoon villains, and it’s his scenes that are the least successful. The tragedy is that Steve Martin is capable of so much more than what he delivers in this film, but due to the way he was scripted, directed, or simply chose to play the part we’re left with a profoundly unsatisfying character and performance.
Fortunately, as noted, there’s still a lot of fun and interesting stuff in the film. It’s just uneven in quality. The movie is worth seeing for children and Warner Brothers animation fans, but the fact that it fails to hang together as a whole keeps it from being the kind of Looney Tunes come back film that its title suggests — and that I’d very much like to see.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.