Sunday, December 21, 2003

REVIEW: Looney Tunes: Back In Action

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 December 2003 at the Arlington Captiol #1 (second-run)

There are some obnoxious parts to Looney Tunes: Back In Action. The Wal-Mart product placement gag, for instance is belabored and not nearly as subversive as it would like to be; it doesn't come close to blowing up in the advertiser's face the way the product placement in Minority Report did. And even for a movie which is definitely being aimed (at least in part) at a ten-and-under audience, some characters come off as flat and undeveloped. I'm not sure what, exactly, Heather Locklear is doing in the movie, either.

But... Much of the rest is inspired. It's the kind of movie that in today's world could be homogenized into something painfully bland, but somehow writer Larry Doyle and director Joe Dante kept that from happening. Just the very fact that only one writer is credited is something, and it's also great that Dante was allowed to indulge himself. He loves these characters, especially the Chuck Jones versions, which is mostly what's presented here. He also likes old sci-fi movies, as the scene in "Area 52" with Joan Cusack will attest (Daleks... There are Daleks in this movie!). And, hey, it's intensely gratifying for me to see him cast Timothy Dalton as the world's greatest super-spy on-screen and off, him being my favorite Bond and all (of course, he's also the one who would be most believable as both Brendan Fraser's father and young enough to still be active).

Dalton playing Damian Drake, whose life on-screen is the same as it is off-screen, is kind of a tribute to the way the Looney Tunes characters operate. Since the beginning, they've broken the fourth wall or gone completely meta, doing cartoons about them as actors in cartoon movies, but even in those, their personality remained constant. Here, Bugs and Daffy show that their relationship off-screen is just as contentious as it is on-screen, and it drives the plot, as Daffy seeks to strike out on his own and Bugs realizes he needs Daffy.

The human characters are passable. This movie will do nothing to help Brendan Fraser's case when arguing that he's actually a really good actor and not just a goofy slapstick guy, but he is a good slapstick guy. It's a gift, really, to be able to handle screwball dialogue with Daffy Duck, considering the duck isn't actually on set. Jenna Elfman (paired with Bugs) doesn't seem as comfortable as Fraser, but she doesn't quite have the practice. Also a bit out of practice is Steve Martin, who hasn't been able to cut loose and play a total spazz like he does here for almost twenty years.

The big fun of the movie, though, is watching it as a scavenger hunt. Cartoon, pop culture, and cult movie references are tossed around in the foreground and background approximately once a second - aside from the "Area 52" scene, check out the titles of the VPs at the Acme Corporation, for instance, or who's directing the new Batmovie (hey, he can't be worse than Schumacher). Spot Dante favorites Robert Picardo and Dick Allen. Be ready to freeze-frame when the DVD comes out.

In addition, this is one of the few times I can remember most of the Looney Tune voices really sounding right. June Foray as Granny is a given, and Joe Alaskey may, in fact, be a better Daffy than Mel Blanc, but I never figured Alaskey for doing such a good Bugs. Or Billy West as Elmer. Or, heck, Brendan Fraser doing Taz. The only one that really seems off is Eric Goldberg as Marvin the Martian.

In short: Much more right than wrong here. And when "wrong" happens, well, give them a couple seconds. It gets back on track.

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