There was this critic at a screening of Looney Tunes: Back in Action (Warner Bros.), the new, live-action and animated Bugs and Daffy feature, who was complaining that the movie “cannibalized” the great Warner Bros. cartoon tradition—which made me wish that Bugs Bunny were there to say, “What a maroon.”
In the first place, buster, it’s hard to cannibalize a tradition that began life by cannibalizing everything in sight: pious Disney cartoons, grand operas, symphonies, literary classics, Hollywood movies. In the second, the film has been directed, written, and animated by people who were weaned on Bugs, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, the Road Runner, etc., and who fought like Tazmanian Devils to keep that free-for-all spirit in a $100-millon-plus studio “tent pole.” In the third place, Looney Tunes: Back inAction is a nutty, zany, wacky, unruly, spastically hilarious hodgepodge that hits at least twice as often as it misses—which is a big deal, since there are more gags per square foot of celluloid than in any film since Joe Dante’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990).
As it happens, Dante is at the helm of this one, too—hired at the instigation of former Simpsons writer Larry Doyle, who wrote the original screenplay and executive-produced a bunch of (as yet unreleased) Looney Tunes shorts before leaving the studio in disgust last winter over “creative differences.” (“They’re dethpicable,” he did not say.) Dante, meanwhile, came up against executives who were nervous about the characters “breaking the fourth wall”—i.e., addressing the audience and thus “throwing them out of the movie.” As Bugs Bunny might put it, “What imbeciles.” There was rarely a fourth wall in a Warner cartoon—that was the point. Luckily for us (and Bugs and Daffy, who weren’t seen at their finest in the last Warner feature, the embarrassing Space Jam ), Dante and his animators won the major battles. Teams of gag writers would periodically review the footage of live actors and think of more quips for the cartoon characters to interject: Jokes were being animated as recently as six weeks ago, while sound people were busy sprucing things up with their own boinks and bonks and burps.
This background stuff is important because Looney Tunes: Back in Action is best thought of as something like an old Marx Brothers musical—the ones that came together on the road with people like George S. Kaufman and S.J. Perelman (not to mention Groucho and Harpo and Chico and Zeppo and Gummo), who threw in any gag they could think of to keep the rickety plot in motion. (Dante is a big fan of a similar anything-goes comedy classic, Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin .) The picture hurtles out of the starting gate with a variation on an old Chuck Jones classic (the one about rabbit-hunting season) then segues into a montage in which Daffy is incessantly shot, smashed, and flattened—at which point the duck hurls down a bunch of scripts in disgust. He’s sitting in a boardroom at the Warner Bros. studio: He’s sick, he fumes, of being pummeled for laughs while Bugs Bunny, the star, saunters away unhurt; besides, he says, violence in cartoons sets a bad example for children.
It’s likely that Daffy is shot, smashed, flattened, and exploded more often in the next 80 minutes than in all of his shorts put together—once even by cartoon characters who worry that they’re setting a bad example for children. Fired by studio VP Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman) and informed that he no longer even owns his own name, Daffy follows home a hapless security guard named DJ (Brendan Fraser), who sometimes works as a stuntman for Brendan Fraser (Brendan Fraser) and is also the son of the studio’s biggest star, Damien Drake (Timothy Dalton). It turns out that Drake is actually a secret agent off screen as well as on, and has been kidnapped by the nefarious Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin) of the Acme Corp., who is desperate to get his hands on a diamond with mysterious powers, “The Blue Monkey”—or, as Martin pronounces it, “Monk-ehhhh.”
To recount too many of the jokes would be a crime: Part of the fun is how fast they come at you and how fast they whiz by—most of them aimed squarely at grown-ups (for whom the Warner cartoons were originally intended) but with enough slapstick oomph for kids to love them, too. The human-’toon intercourse is dizzying: Cartoon characters leap into painted backdrops that humans crash through. And in a sequence in the Louvre, Elmer chases Bugs and Daffy through some of the world’s most famous paintings—and suddenly we get the Salvador Dalí Bugs and Daffy, the Edvard Munch Bugs and Daffy, the Georges Seurat Bugs and Daffy. Treating Bugs and Daffy as movie stars and Fudd, Wile E. Coyote, Taz, and Yosemite Sam as real-world villains doesn’t undermine their shtick—in fact, the new context makes it fresher and funnier. Once in a while there’s even a bit of nightmarish poetry, as when Elfman’s Kate regards one of Yosemite Sam’s goons with horror as he’s poised to toss a stick of dynamite into her car. “Dynamite???” she says. “Who uses dynamite???” “Welcome to my world,” says Daffy, with the sad fatalism of one who has grown accustomed to being blown up.
It’s a good thing that there are constant injections of helium, because Dante’s direction of the live actors can be a little flat. The compositions are often (maybe by necessity, given the difficulty of adding cartoons) one-dimensional, and the pacing goes disastrously slack in a sequence set in a Las Vegas casino owned by Yosemite Sam. (The only thing that saves it is a brilliantly staged and animated barroom brawl between Fraser and a succession of burly cartoon characters.) Dante wastes his familiar stock company (Dick Miller, Mary Woronov, Robert Picardo, etc.), and he can’t get anything funny out of Elfman, who just pulls faces. But Fraser is, as always, likably game; his rubberiness, in this context, seems a mark of soul. And there are lots of goosey cameo appearances, from Joan Cusack (who gets to do a spit take) to Batman to Robby the Robot.
Steve Martin, moreover, is a miracle. Determined not to be upstaged by his flamboyant Warner costars, he has concocted a “supertwit” that is at times at least their equal. His red hair parted in the middle, he staggers around the set in sneakers and an ill-fitting suit, jerking his torso, windmilling his arms—stopping his gyrations only to saunter up to one of several repulsed women, convinced that he is catnip to the ladies. This is the old Steve Martin, the whirligig genius of The Jerk (1979), The Man With Two Brains (1983), and All of Me (1984). To see him this way after at least a decade of domesticated dreck is to love all the more the liberating influence of Warner Bros. cartoons.