Tunes: Back in Action
To any fan of the great Warner Bros animations from the '30s to the '50s, this film starts promisingly.
A reprise of a famous cartoon involving "pronoun trouble" between Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd suddenly goes into montage overdrive, as Daffy gets shot – over and over again. Cut to Daffy flipping forward through his copy of the film's script, dismayed at the number of times this violence is about to be inflicted on him.
Such fancy reflexivity came easily to such inspired cartoon creators as Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and Robert Clampett, long before it became fashionable in Anglo productions of Brechtian theatre. And it comes just as easy to live-action director Joe Dante (Gremlins, 1984). Poetic justice has, for once, been served in Hollywood: no one but Dante could have brought the required erudition, love and imagination to this homage.
Cartoon aficionados and cinephiles will find plenty to admire here. (Kids, however, may be left colder: at the public screening I attended, I was the only person laughing.) Many figures from the animated archive splutter fleetingly to life – often in gags playing out in the background of the main action – and the parodies cover everything from Scooby-Doo (2002) to Russian Ark (2002), with a special sarcasm reserved for an earlier, ill-fated Warner Bros effort, Space Jam (1996).
Dante knows all the right moves. Clichés are literally blasted with a gun, patently absurd plot developments are accompanied at all times by extravagantly raised eyebrows, and the tricks of movie artifice are brandished ("Ah, autumn in fake New York!" sighs Daffy as he zips through a snow-machine-treated set). Jerry Goldsmith's exuberant score, as in a cartoon, never stops.
There is a vague story involving human beings to stitch all this together, and neither it nor they are terribly interesting. DJ (Brendan Fraser) is a lowly employee at Warners (he was once Brendan Fraser's stunt double). The secret espionage activities of his movie star father, Damien (Timothy Dalton), plunge him and Daffy into a life-and-death struggle with the evil Mr Chairman (Steve Martin). Bugs and the ice-maiden studio development executive Kate (Jenna Elfman) also enter the fray.
This should have been one of the best films of its year. So why don't its ingredients ever cook? It is hard to think of a single hybrid film mixing animation with live action that really soars. Some (such as Cool World  and Who Framed Roger Rabbit ) are fascinating as piecemeal experiments, but even they clunk all the way to their usually dull, long overdue endings.
You can almost hear Dante's palpable relief when, late in this picture, he is able to drop the real actors altogether for a good ten minutes in cartoon outer space. Generally, though, it's the same old problem of mugging performers staring into the blank space that will later be filled by digital effects, pretending to interact with imaginary creatures who get all the best lines.
Looney Tunes: Back in Action works best at its broadest – and in the comic histrionics department, Martin and a splendid Joan Cusack do not disappoint. Dante may be able to contain the contradiction of making a blockbuster that mocks product placement, but he never licks the challenge of telling a formulaic tale and sending it up at the same time.
So all his creative energy goes into the digressions – like a ludicrously sexy cameo from Heather Locklear, and a parade of famous movie monsters that seems to have strayed in not from a Chuck Jones cartoon but Dante's own Matinee (1993).
© Adrian Martin December 2003