For a movie with reports of studio tampering, 27 rewrites and a director (Joe Dante) who threatened to take his name off the project, Looney Tunes: Back in Action is surprisingly sturdy.
As the Tasmanian Devil would move were he mainlining caffeine, so does this blend of live-action and animation. It furiously and slyly recaptures these characters’ lovable goofiness before corporate branding and retooling became the standard.
Significant help comes from lead actor Brendan Fraser. A pro not only at interacting with the imaginary, Fraser’s bug-eyed face has its own cartoonish feel and he has immense tolerance for self-deprecation — the hallmark of all good Looney Tunes characters.
He stars as DJ Drake, a stumbling security guard on the Warner Brothers lot who dreams of being a stuntman and measuring up in the eyes of his father, action star Damien Drake (Timothy Dalton).
For now, though, he has to settle for booting Daffy Duck off the lot when Daffy’s sacked for not being funny enough. Now saddled with Daffy as a companion, DJ learns his father is actually the spy hero he portrays onscreen. In a frantic satellite transmission, Damien asks DJ to go to Las Vegas to find The Blue Monkey, a mysterious diamond.
DJ and Daffy hit the road, with studio executive Kate (Jenna Elfman) and Bugs Bunny on their trail. Although Kate fired Daffy, Bugs just isn’t as funny without him. Her job on the line, she must get Daffy back on contract “by Monday.” As their adventure takes them to Africa, Paris (where Jerry Lewis posters slather the Eiffel Tower) and outer space, the quartet contends with the ACME chairman (Steve Martin), bent on world domination.
There was probably more plot coherence in Daffy Duck’s Quackbusters, which was made up of shorts patched together with a narrative. And there definitely was more romantic chemistry between the Brunnhilde-clad Bugs and Elmer Fudd than there is between Fraser and Elfman.
But Dante establishes a finely frantic, anything-can-happen tone right from the start, tossing in loads of sight gags, classic characters and a barrage of movie-buff in-jokes. However, tipped hats to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dante’s own Gremlins and a Psycho gag will soar right over the heads of kids and most of the adults as well.
Of course, its jabs at the modern-day draw plenty of comedic blood. It has, without question, the best product-placement gag ever in a film, not to mention a hilarious lament from Porky Pig and Speedy Gonzales about the advent of political correctness.
Its warp-speed energy shines brightest in two chases. One in Las Vegas involves Yosemite Sam, Jeff Gordon and a lot of ACME dynamite, while the other finds Bugs and Daffy targeted by Elmer Fudd as they run in and out of the paintings in the Louvre. It’s a beautiful, manically funny scene.
Save for a Duck Dodgers reference in the climax, the film’s warp-speed energy runs out as the computer effects take over for an outer-space chase. And with his spastically bent-back body and short pants, Martin is better in appearance than with any of his dialogue.
But worth its salt is the movie that can put Tweety Bird in a tribal muumuu while discovering his “roots” in birds that look like him, only in different colors. It’s sweet and subversive, just like the Looney Tunes should be.