Without a doubt, the cartoons manufactured by the Warner Brothers studios through the 1930s to the `50s were the best produced anywhere. Characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd, to name a few, were such solid creations that the animated shorts still entertain today. Unfortunately, these classic characters aren’t being serviced as well by their current caretakers.
Following a run in with the rather humorless Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman), the new vice president in charge of comedy, cartoon star Daffy Duck is fired from Warner Brothers studio. Warner’s security D.J. (Brandon Fraser) also loses his job when, in the course of ejecting Daffy from the studio he ruins shooting on a new Batman film and dumps the contents of the Warner’s water tower into Kate’s car. Returning home with Daffy in tow, D.J. discovers that his father Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton in perhaps the biggest image cash in by a former James Bond actor since Roger Moore appeared in Spice World (1997)) is using his fame as the star of a series of spy movies as cover for being a real spy. Drake has been captured by the Chairman of the Acme Corporation (Steve Martin) after discovering that he has an evil plot involving the mysterious Blue Monkey diamond.
Realizing that Daffy is an integral part of the cartoons, Kate and Bugs follow D.J. and Daffy to Vegas, helping them escape from Yosemite Sam in Damian’s spy car. As the four join forces to rescue Damian Drake and thwart the Chairman’s plan to enslave the world, their path takes them from the secret government complex Area 52 to Paris to outer space.
As expected, the plot is nothing more than a skeleton to hang jokes on. Unfortunately, outside of a few set pieces, which we’ll get to in a moment, there’s not much meat to the movie. While the jokes fly fast and furious, they miss more often then they hit their target. The pacing of the film is jerky, sometimes dragging under the weight of not very funny material, and there’s no building excitement towards the climax.
The film does have a few redeeming sequences. Director Joe Dante indulges his love of 1950s science-fiction b-films in the Area 52 sequence and its menagerie of familiar captured alien invaders. Another sequence finds Bugs and Daffy being chased by Elmer Fudd through the various paintings hanging in Paris’ Louvre museum. Watching the characters run through Munch’s “Scream” or Dali’s “Persistence of Memory” I couldn’t help but feel Dante is giving a nod to the late director Chuck Jones who often liked to mix classical influences into his shorts (“What’s Opera Doc?” (1957), “The Rabbit Of Seville (1950)”).
In jokes abound in this movie. Classic Warner Brothers cartoon directors Chuck Jones and Robert McKimson and voice artist Mel Blanc get name checked early on. Bond fans will get chuckles from the various movie posters in Drake’s home. Several other supporting characters from the shorts show up in quick cameos including Beaky Buzzard and the Peter Lorre-esque Mad Scientist. There’s a sequence set in the Warner Brothers Studio cafeteria where we can see Speedy Gonzalez lamenting his political incorrectness and the animated Shaggy yelling at actor Mark Lillard that he didn’t portray him right in the recent Scooby Doo live action film. These are nice little surprises for the adults who bring their children to the movie, it’s not going to be enough to sustain the film for them.
The thing that hurts the movie the most is the same thing that hamstrung Space Jam, the 1996 film that teamed the Looney Tunes characters with a live action Michael Jordan, having Bugs Bunny conscious of his status as a world famous cartoon star. While this tactic worked well for the Bugs-inspired Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), this distances Bugs from the “average Joe” persona he sported in the classic shorts. True, there were a few times in those shorts were the characters broke the fourth wall and acknowledged their existence as “contract players” at Warner Brothers, but it was always done for the sake of a joke. While, Bugs’ character is not as watered down here as in Space Jam, it doesn’t feel as strong as when he appeared in the classic shorts.
Daffy Duck fares a little better. As a character Daffy started of as a crazy (or daffy, if you will) duck that just ran amuck for the seven-minute length of a cartoon. Slowly, he evolved into a more vain character whose ineptitude was his own worse enemy. Dante plays the character straight down the middle giving fans of each version of the character something.
Although the younger set will probably overlook Looney Tunes: Back In Action’s flaws, there isn’t enough in the film to recommend it for older fans of the original Looney Tunes cartoons. They would be better served by investing in the recently released Looney Tunes Gold Collection 4-disc DVD set.