REVIEW: Looney Tunes: Back in Action
Produced by: Paula Weinstein, Bernie Goldman
Screenplay by: Larry Doyle
Story by: Larry Doyle, John Requa, Glenn Ficarra
Edited by: Rick Finney, Marshall Harvey
Cinematography by: Dean Cundey
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith, John Debney (additional music)
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman, Joe Alaskey, Jeff Bennet, Steve Martin, Timothy Dalton, Bob Bergen, June Foray, Heather Locklear, Joan Cusack Eric Goldberg, Billy West, Bill Goldberg
I few months ago, I trialed the PlayStation Vue service. It was pretty nifty, but it wasn’t really worth paying for, since it was still essentially cable and, thus, provided very little content that I actually wanted to watch outside of the services I already subscribed to. However, in checking out the goings on at Cartoon Network, I encountered a little show I had no idea existed: Wabbit, a modern day reimagining of the Looney Tunes brand more in line with modern kids’ comedic sensibilities. It was… fine. I didn’t care much for it, but I understood what it was trying to do. But it just… it wasn’t the same. Randomness and deadpan statements of the wacky events happening seemingly replaced wit and expert timing. A quick search on YouTube right now will turn up videos like one in which Bugs helps save a dimwitted Big Foot who calls him “lady” all the time, or Yosemite Sam running Bugs over in a car from texting and driving, and then Bugs getting the best of him because he wants the latest greatest new phone with all the ridiculous gadgets. Not itself an inherently bad premise, but the jokes really only seem to be the tired “What’s the deal with cellphones?” type jokes before Sam’s new phone just randomly vibrates him out a window. Eh.
This isn’t anything new, however. Warner Bros. hasn’t really known what to do with the Looney Tunes characters since the freaking 80s. Most of the time in the 90s, they banked on nostalgia, when contemporary kids’ networks still showed the classic shorts, which is how I grew up with them. The 2000’s saw Warner Bros. first real attempts to reinvent the brand, however. That’s how we ended up with the misguided Loonatics Unleashed superhero team show, the sitcom-like The Looney Tunes Show, and perhaps the most fondly remembered of these attempts: Duck Dodgers – coincidentally also the one that also stuck closely to the original shorts. Now, again, I didn’t watch most of these very much, thanks to the lack of cable and time, but I know that none of them amounted to reaching anywhere near the levels of success as the biggest goldmine Warner Bros. ever struck with the brand: Space Jam. Revered by 90s kids who cared not that they were merely being advertised to and begrudgingly even enjoyed by Roger Ebert, Space Jam was lightning that Warner Bros. has yet to get to strike twice. I mean, it wasn’t exactly a great movie, but it was certainly financially a success –one that only a sequel could seemingly repeat.
According to my limited Wikipedia research, Looney Tunes: Back in Action was originally slated to be called Spy Jam and feature Jackie Chan in the human lead role, after Michael Jordan declined to return. Sadly, this awesome premise wasn’t meant to be, as Chan also later dropped out. The spy premise remained, however, and an experienced director was even brought in, one who aspired to return the franchise to its original and dignified comedic sensibilities: Joe Dante, director of Gremlins. Perfect, right? Just cast funny man Brendan Fraser and funny lady Jenna Elfman and throw in a bunch of other celebrity cameos and a wacky Steve Martin performance, and you’ve got a recipe for a movie even bigger than Space Jam, right? … Of course, not. Back in Action was a box office bomb, coming and going from theatres without much notice and allegedly a lot of turbulence behind the scenes, with Dante coming to blows over the movie’s tone with the studio, which just wanted him to do freaking Space Jam 2, dammit!
Honestly, though, this movie was pretty much doomed from the start. Fraser’s and Elfman’s time in the spotlight were already beginning to wane, and not even the revered Steve Martin – donning a bowlcut wig, thick glasses, and a baffling manchild persona in the role of the film’s primary villain – could salvage the troubled production. Also, without a big name draw like Michael Jordan or even, at the time, Jackie Chan in the lead role to bring in audiences who managed to see the trailers, the film was left to bank on the plot, humor, and the Looney Tunes brand itself – something that Warner Bros. should’ve seriously reconsidered. You know, considering that they were trying to revive the brand in the first place. What of the plot? Well, there’s a magical diamond called the Blue Monkey that Acme Corp. head Mr. Chairman seeks out in order to transform the world into monkeys. Bugs and Daffy find themselves getting caught up in the action when Daffy and a Warner Bros. Studios security guard DJ Drake are fired, only to later discover that DJ’s father, action movie star Damian Drake, is an actual spy trying to stop Mr. Chairman, only he’s gotten himself captured, and it’s up to DJ and Daffy to stop it – with Bugs and Vice President of Comedy at Warner Bros. Studios Kate Houghton getting mixed up in the adventure while attempting to get Daffy to come back when it turns out that the shorts being produced just aren’t the same without him.
The movie actually sets all this up quite quickly, with all the primary characters and events being established within the first ten minutes or so. Sadly, what then follows is a loosely connected road trip, globe-trotting adventure with various Looney Tunes “villains” popping in to put a stop to the heroes. The film feels very much like Warner Bros. borrowing the structure of a Muppets movie, complete with the aforementioned celebrity cameos – Heather Locklear, Joan Cusack, Robbie the Robot, and even Matthew Lillard shows up as himself, interacting with the cartoon Scooby and Shaggy, voiced by Frank Welker and Casey Casem. Sadly, unlike the Muppet movies, the pacing of the film, overall, just feels off, and not just in the plot area.
Familiar gags featuring the characters pop up, but with none of the expert set up from the shorts. For example, within a mere couple minutes, we get three familiar gags: Bugs, discussing business with Kate, dresses up in drag at one point, and Michigan J. Frog, previously just sitting in the background eating flies, starts singing “Hello! Ma Baby” in response. The frog scene isn’t done yet, but already they’ve messed up, since nobody but the hapless discoverer of the frog is supposed to see him sing, but it could kind of work if they just left that alone. However, another reference is also happening in the background of another angle, where Ralph Wolf is attempting to eat a sheep right next to Sam Sheepdog and gets a beating. This is also still being talked over by Bugs and Kate, but the sound effects and scenes are prominent enough that they’re not mere Easter eggs, but are meant to be scene stealers. It’s only later that the hapless construction worker character whisks the frog away as if nobody had seen it, intending to cash-in on the frog’s unusual talents – you know, except that the frog was already by himself on a studio lot and sharing a dining hall with a bunch of other celebrities, so…?
None of the gags work in this scene because the filmmakers are so focused on cramming in familiar references, they forgot the reasons why these jokes worked in the first place. They’re not funny because they’re familiar, nor are they funny just because of the events that happen. They were funny because the animators knew how to set them up. The jokes throughout the movie are frequently obvious and sometimes go on for too long, as if they’re waiting for the audience to say, “We get it!” (No points for guessing what happens when Jenna Elfman slowly creeps up on Bugs taking a shower.) Even the score, Jerry Goldsmith’s last, doesn’t really seem to know what to do with itself. The familiar “Powerhouse” theme, used in the shorts for scenes where an elaborate contraption was at work, is here used liberally for seemingly any old action scene. The film becomes a bit of a chore, particularly if you’re a fan of the original shorts and, thus, know how it all should work.
A few bright spots do exist, however. There’s a chase scene through various works of art that has some fun with the animation, and a climactic battle in space feels almost like it belongs in a legitimately good Looney Tunes movie. It’s likely no coincidence that much of that climax succeeds because it takes the audience away from Steve Martin’s horrendous and annoying villain character. (I still have no idea what was going on there.) Jenna Elfman is bland, and not because she’s playing a studio head, but because she’s frequently relegated to simply standing aside and watching things happen around her – possibly to make it easier on the effects guys. She could have worked, mind you, but the movie can’t seem to figure out what to do with her beyond have her be DJ’s love interest. Luckily, Brendan Fraser as DJ is almost like this movie’s Jason Segel in The Muppets: he fits in comfortably among the cartoon characters and even provides the voice of Taz, of all characters! And the animation is very nice and, when live action characters do interact with them directly, it’s very convincing. It’s a shame that Elfman’s character wasn’t afforded more to do – it’s likely a female lead was mandated, but it might’ve also been fairer to women to eliminate the role all together. It’s not like kids were going to be drawn in by the promise of a romantic subplot the movie itself acknowledges is half-baked and arbitrary, right?
I’m not really certain whether to blame the studio or Dante for these shortcomings, however. If you were to ask Dante, he’d almost certainly blame the studio. However, he also obviously had enough freedom to work in a bunch of jokes at their expense that remain in the final cut, so perhaps he should’ve just gotten over it and actually made a better movie instead. Regardless, Back in Action just isn’t a very good movie, and while even dear ol’ Mr. Ebert enjoyed the film enough, I would’ve preferred another reinvention of the franchise than what we got here. Something in-universe even, like a Duck Dodgers movie that expanded the scope of the shorts with other Looney Tunes characters cast in various roles. Or, you know… even a proper Space Jam sequel. Yes, that movie was undoubtedly one big cynical commercial (and was even inspired by an actual ad campaign), but the combination of a straight man like Michael Jordan and the zany cartoon characters just worked so much better than having everyone, including the live action characters, exist on the same level of zaniness as the cartoons. It’s not like this hasn’t been done before, either. Who Framed Roger Rabbit not only was a great commercial success, but is still widely considered a masterpiece by critics and fans alike. It can be done. Of course, I don’t think the people at Warner Bros. are all that keen on learning lessons, if their handling of the DC Comics movies throughout the years are any indication. Come to think of it, now that we’re actually closer than ever to getting that proper Space Jam sequel, I should probably take back what I said before…
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 1.5 / 5