Movie Review – Looney Tunes: Back In Action
– Summary –
Director : Joe Dante
Cast : Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman, Steve Martin, Timothy Dalton, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, the Looney Tunes, a Dalek, Robbie The Robot, most of Hollywood.
Year of Release : 2003
Length : 87 minutes
Synopsis: Daffy and Brendan Fraser embark on a mission to find a captured spy, save the world, and fall in love. Cartoon mayhem follows.
Review : Some pretty stupid comedy decisions undermine what could have been a great return to form for Bugs and Daffy; alas, all we get is this mismanaged misfire of gargantuan proportions. Steve Martin’s screen credibility is forever damaged by one of the most ridiculous performances in cinema history. Average at best, dumb at worst. Your kids might not even like it.
The Looney Tunes characters are back, in this Joe Dante directed feature utilising the same kind of film techniques Who Framed Roger Rabbit made famous: that is, the integration of live action and animated footage to bring both worlds together. Broadly slapstick, slyly bombastic and utterly frustrating, Back In Action features Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman and (an appalling) Steve Martin in roles that mock both the studio system, stars, comedic conventions and even the cartoon creations themselves in a rollicking ride that never once stops for breath before another gag comes along.
After being fired from Warner Brothers, Daffy Duck becomes a (seemingly) wanted talent, the world is his oyster, so to speak, and when he tags along with recently unemployed (also from the WB lot) Brendan Fraser, they begin a long, long, odyssey to rescue Fraser’s father, superspy Timothy Dalton, from the clutches of evil madmen. Jenna Elfman, playing the conniving WB executive who fired Daffy in the first place, is sent to retrieve the recalcitrant duck after Bugs refuses to work without him; the old “It’s rabbit season, it’s duck season” gag getting a big screen release again in a hilarious scene. Trouble is, Daffy doesn’t seem to want to return, he wants to explore his option elsewhere, so Elfman (and Bugs, who tags along for no apparent reason other than to cause more mischief) has to trundle after him until he relents and/or changes his mind.
And so begins Back In Action. Honestly, the film is a mishmash of comedic ideas, some funny, some not, which is a shame considering the talent on display here, both in front and behind the camera. Dante himself is no slouch in the directorial department, after all, the man gave us the two Gremlins movies, as well as Inner Space and Small Soldiers. The fact that he also gave us The ‘Burbs shouldn’t lend itself in any great way to disparagement. In any case, his comedic skills and technical cinema brilliance have been of such a high quality for such a long time, it’s almost the kind of film he could probably direct in his sleep.
And that’s the first hurdle Back In Action suffers from: the film feels a little Dante did direct it in his sleep. It’s focus, even for a live action Looney Tunes adventure, feels a little soft, almost as if the filmmakers were making it all up as it goes along (even if they weren’t) and you get the strangest feeling by the end, after all the explosions, pratfalls, bops, bangs, slips and slides, that nobody really had any clue what they were making in the first place. Elfman looks utterly out of place, her acting ability surely a far cry from being a patsy to Bugs and Daffy, which, once you stop shaking your head at, is wasted in this effort. That, and it seems like the filmmakers had her on a pay-for-wearing-as-little-as-possible contract, since she gets about in such skimpy clothes as to make herself almost a parody of women all over the world: only good for looking hot and wearing tight clothing. While Elfman is a great comedic actress, and surely this kind of material would have tickled her fancy, perhaps she unwisely allowed herself to become overawed with the whole “working with the Looney Tunes” idea, which made her less expectant of a decent script.
Brendan Fraser, meanwhile, makes films like these almost every other week: his whacky cheese-ball character (complete with inane, idiotic grin) perfectly fitting into the on-screen lunacy without even rippling the water. Fraser is almost a parody of himself in this film, which is probably what the filmmakers intended, yet it comes across as self-indulgent and, if I had to be truthfully honest, a little lazy. And from Dante, I did not expect that. Fraser is perfectly suited to this type of character, and does the comedic buffoon so well it’s almost his trademark. If they’d thrown Arnie into a scene somewhere saying “I’ll be back” I would have thrown something at the screen. Regardless of what you think of Fraser as an actor (or, perhaps, overrated circus clown), you’ve got to admit he makes this film work all on his own, without even the towering talents of an animated rabbit or duck.
But my biggest caveat for the film would have to be the pantomime stupidity of Steve Martin. I will freely admit my general disdain for Martin as an actor, or even as a comedian. I find his humour low-brow, inane, and largely unfunny. When given a decent script, and a great cast around him (such as Parenthood or Father of The Bride (the first one, not the stupid sequel!) and perhaps, even Bowfinger) he’s not too hard on the brain to watch: but generally, I avoid films with him in it because they normally suck. Like The Pink Panther remake, which should never have even made it past the concept stage if you ask me, I found it to be….. well, it’s a word I refuse to publish on a family friendly website like this. Let’s just say that I don’t have a high opinion of him as a talent. In Back In Action, his performance is so skin-crawlingly revolting, so eye-scratchingly high-pitched, so “I-want-to-stab-your-dog” idiotic, I don’t even think a word has been invented yet to describe just how mind-numbingly atrocious it is. Martin plays the Chairman of ACME corporation (which, as we all know, provides Wile E Coyote with all his anvils and contraptions for catching the Road Runner) using only the barest modicum of “acting” ability he has at his disposal. He screeches through the film like fingers down a chalkboard (any of you kids remember those?) and it’s easy to see just how stupid his co-stars that share the screen with him think it all is. There’s disdain writ large across their faces, as Martin imbues the film with the kind of ludicrous behaviour normally reserved for the clinically insane. Now, I understand that the kids watching the film may…. just may…. find that hysterically funny. Personally, though, I think it’s a wank. Martin’s Mr Chairman is some kind of unfunny parody of a bizarre combination of Dr Evil (Mike Meyers, rest easy) and a five year old child: and it doesn’t work.
As far as the animation and the storyline goes, the film is reasonably convincing, although certainly not in the same ballpark as, say, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and while no doubt the crew worked on the film for many hours, the end result is a little below par as far as this kind of thing goes. And what’s with the new animation style on the cartoon characters. Everyone looks like they’ve been given a bit of Pimp My Character action on themselves. Bugs and Daffy shimmer on the screen, lighting highlights on the toons look more like a chrome accessory than an “advancement” in style. Perhaps the fact that I grew up watching the original classics makes me more appreciative of good artwork, but this seems a little…. well, fake. The toons interact with the real live stars of the film, no doubt about it, but the whole show still, no matter how hard Dante, Elfman and Fraser try, seems a little flat, a little false. Okay, so perhaps I’m making more out of an animated/comedic/adventure film than I ought to, especially considering a talking, carrot chewing rabbit is involved, but I still think the film is a little to self conscious and full of itself to warrant such a light tone in a review. This film had a lot of potential to live up to. Heck, I think even Michael Jordan fared better in Space Jam, and considering the pasting that film took from critics, that’s saying something.
That said though, there’s still a perverse pleasure in a tiny Duck and Rabbit beating the snot out of each other, blowing people up, defying the laws of nature, gravity, and logic, in order to get a comedy point across. The film does have it’s great moments, and of particular mention is the point in the film where Daffy & Bugs are pursued into paintings in the Louvre by Elmer Fudd, and the animation here, is of the highest order. From expressionistic to pointillism, Bugs and Daffy undergo a change in animation style that suits the paintings they’re in, and this scene is perhaps the funniest, and cleverest, of the whole film. And some of Yosemite Sam’s moments are a highlight (“my biscuits is burnin'” is a classic line, and one I love to hear him say) because he always made me laugh as a kid.
That said, there’s a lot to like and dislike about this film. Most certainly not worthwhile for a discerning adult, or even a fan of the Looney Tunes (they seem to want to trade on their history all the time these days, without offering anything new) but the kids will love it. There’s a little violence that’s not suitable for the younger tots, but in keeping with the original animated shorts we all grew up on, it’s about on par. I was amused by the film on a purely superficial level, and I guess my inner child probably enjoyed seeing the Bunny and the Duck go around again: but the animation purist in me was simply appalled by the lack of class and inept handling of some of the worlds great character creations. I expected more, and found myself a little… nay, a lot, disappointed.