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"LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION"
(2003) (Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman) (PG)

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QUICK TAKE:
Animated Comedy: Human and cartoon characters join forces to stop the nefarious head of ACME from obtaining a supernatural diamond that can turn humans into monkeys.
PLOT:
It's time for another Looney Tunes "Rabbit Season/Duck Season" animated short, but Daffy Duck (voice of JOE ALASKEY) is upset that he's constantly in the shadow of his more famous costar, Bugs Bunny (voice of JOE ALASKEY). When he demands more, Kate Houghton (JENNA ELFMAN), the VP of Comedy with Warner Bros., has him fired and orders security guard DJ Drake (BRENDAN FRASER) to escort the disgruntled duck from the lot.

When she then fires DJ for accidentally felling the famed WB water tower, little does she know the trouble she's created. Not only is Bugs upset that he's now the one getting shot by Elmer Fudd (voice of BILLY WEST), but DJ turns out to be the son of the studio's most important star, Damien Drake (TIMOTHY DALTON).

Things get more complicated when DJ learns that his father has been kidnapped by The Chairman (STEVE MARTIN), the nefarious head of the ACME Corporation. It turns out he wants to get his evil hands on the Blue Monkey diamond. The supernatural stone can turn humans into primates and then back again, something the Chairman figures will be good for business.

Thus, DJ heads off - with Daffy in tow - for Las Vegas to rescue his father. With Kate and Bugs in hot pursuit, they end up meeting Vegas showgirl and covert spy Dusty Tails (HEATHER LOCKLEAR), have a run-in with rootin' tootin' Yosemite Sam, and discover Mother (JOAN CUSACK) and her secret lab.

With The Chairman sending Wile E. Coyote, the Tasmanian Devil and Marvin the Martian (voice of ERIC GOLDBERG) after them and the Blue Monkey, the human and cartoon teams try to avoid them, prevent the stone from falling into The Chairman's hands and rescue DJ's dad.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Certain filmmakers seem destined to direct certain types of films and that's clearly epitomized by Joe Dante helming "Looney Tunes: Back in Action." One need only look at his body of work -- that includes the two "Gremlins" films and "Small Soldiers" -- to realize that he's either been directing live-action cartoons or at least has captured and recreated the essence of such animated offerings.

That's particularly true in regards to the Looney Tunes shorts. Long before the likes of "The Simpsons" or "South Park," the award-winning films were entertaining kids and adults alike with their unique blend of humor (some of it rather dark and/or subversive), cultural references and straight out humor.

Dante and screenwriter Larry Doyle ("Duplex," TV's "The Simpsons") have tried to recreate that in this film. Like 1996's "Space Jam," this one combines the animated and live-action worlds. This time, however, non-actor Michael Jordan is reduced to just a fleeting cameo (albeit a funny one), and the basketball angle has been jettisoned in favor of a greater reliance on the large cast of "LT" characters.

The main story -- involving Daffy Duck being fired and then tagging along with a human to find a "blue monkey" diamond that the nefarious ACME chairman wants to use on humans -- is about as dumb as it sounds and is the film's weakest element.

Normally, that would spell disaster (since bad scripts almost always equal bad films), but this offering benefits from its plethora of small details and knowledge of all things Looney. Either Dante and company did their homework or are diehard fans (methinks the latter), as the film is chock-full of homage and references to classic and obscure Tunes characters, stories and minute details.

In fact, while we're supposed to be following the likes of Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman and others as they drive the main story, the greatest pleasure is derived by watching what occurs in passing or in the background of shots.

With all of that, as well as other cultural references -- such as Bugs Bunny doing the shower death scene from "Psycho" (complete with chocolate syrup poured down the drain to simulate blood, just like in the real film) -- the movie occasionally feels like a spoof picture. Like those offerings, this one fires off the jokes in Gatling-gun fashion. There's plenty to watch, and while some of the offerings hit, quite a few miss their target.

Even so, for those that flop (along with "standard" scenes such as a car chase through Vegas that's unnecessary, and blatant product placement that's offensive despite the characters trying to explain/defend that), there are more than enough moments that succeed. While kids might not get all of them, adults will likely enjoy moments such as Porky Pig and Speedy Gonzalez lamenting the difficulty in getting work in these politically correct days.

Combined with the live-action and cartoon mix, such behind the scene moments make the film feel quite a bit like "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." Whereas that terrific Robert Zemeckis film was geared more for adults, this one strives for more of a balance in entertaining multiple demographics.

For every bit of standard Tunes pratfalls, slapstick material, explosions or bone-jarring violence, there are moments -- such as Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs and Daffy into and then through various famous paintings in the Louvre -- that adults will appreciate and enjoy. Film fans will also enjoy other references, such as the theme from "Gremlins" playing when we see the old AMC car of the same name.

As far as the performances are concerned, Fraser ("The Quiet American," "George of the Jungle") and Elfman ("Keeping the Faith," "EdTV") are okay, with the former's character poking fun at the real life performer.

They and everyone else, however, are overshadowed by Steve Martin. Playing the afflicted, effeminate, diabolical, smug (and a host of other descriptions) head of the infamous ACME corporation (they of the huge magnets, advanced weaponry and curiously absent floppy and transportable holes), Martin purposefully goes way over the top and then some in creating a fun, cartoon-like villain.

Rounding out the human cast are Timothy Dalton ("The Beautician and the Beast," "License to Kill"), Joan Cusack ("The School of Rock," "High Fidelity") and Heather Locklear ("Uptown Girls," TV's "Spin City") who are fine but otherwise only temporarily seen in what amount to extended cameo bits.

While some may be disappointed that Bugs gets less screen time than Daffy (and they and others less than their human counterparts), the cartoon characters are otherwise in fine form (with Joe Alaskey replacing Mel Blanc in doing the voices).

Overall, the film is nothing special, and it's too bad not as much effort was put into the script as was obviously done with the fine details. That said, it's those smaller elements that make the film enjoyable to watch, especially for those of us who grew up watching "The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show" and all of the accompanying and fantastic shorts. "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" thus rates as a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed November 8, 2003 / Posted November 14, 2003


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