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Looney Tunes: Back In Action

The merry-go-round broke down.

That's the best explanation for how you can throw some of the funniest characters in cartoons together with at least one of the funniest men alive and come up with something as mediocre as Looney Tunes: Back In Action. Oh, some may chide me for having hoped it would be something more, and that's okay. I have learned my lesson.

It seemed genial enough. Set in a literally loony version of American pop culture, the movie borrows the conceit of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Bugs, Daffy and the rest are all actual movie stars, subject to contract negotiations and the whims of a fickle public. It's an idea a little post-modern for the general family audience, and Larry Doyle's script does occasionally get too heavy with Hollywood inside jokes. But the real crime, even from the outset, is that the Warner characters are going through the same jokes they did in classic cartoons. In other words, they really have nothing new to offer.

At least the plot shows some spark. Would-be stuntman D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser) lives under the shadow of his father, Damien (Timothy Dalton), star of a series of high-profile spy movies. (It's a fictional world, indeed, where Dalton got to stay on as Bond - maybe if he'd had this kind of humor about himself then.) In the twisted logic of Daffy Duck, however, Damien Drake is actually a spy playing an actor playing a spy. Thank heavens he's right, or there would be no movie.

The evil ACME Corporation has captured father Drake in an effort to find the mythical Blue Monkey Diamond. Imbued with the power to transform humans into simians, the diamond plays a key role in the latest plot of Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin, not Marvin Acme). Let's leave that unexplained, for it does make a good, if brief, joke.

In some places, the movie has moments of inspiration that could only be achieved by modern animators. Bugs and Daffy flee from a vengeful Elmer Fudd through various paintings in the Louvre - a giddy sequence as they all take on the styles of each artwork. A visit to Area 52 (51 being a lie foisted upon the American public to distract them from the real base where the government keeps aliens) has real energy to it, mostly provided by a loopy Joan Cusack as the head of the base. Here the gags have a throwaway feel, and as a result, they work. Even the overly self-referential nature of the scene is forgivable (what kid is going to recognize Ro-man, the Metalunan Mutant, and Daleks?) because it just doesn't care if you get it or not.

Not only is the larger film heavy-handed, it's also rather mean-spirited. While it's understandable that D.J. goes quickly from revering Daffy to being annoyed by him, their interaction degrades into violent antagonism - from D.J. When cartoon characters hurt each other, it can be funny, but somehow throwing a human into the mix takes us away from the pure slapstick of it, especially when Fraser plays everything so earnestly.

So, too, does Jenna Elfman. The awkwardly spritely actress plays studio executive Kate Houghton, a woman that in a more, ahem, mature picture would be called a bitch. Neither she nor Fraser are given much funny to do, nor are they written with as much depth as the Looney Tunes themselves. In an unforgiving way, they have to represent the real world.

Luckily for the other actors, they don't. Martin's schtick might not appeal much to adults, but as a cartoony (not cartoon) villain, he simpers and hams his way into a pretty amusing performance, with quite a few lines and bits that stick. As usual, Cusack steals every scene she's in. Even Heather Locklear, in a near inexplicable cameo, gets to just have fun. But not Fraser and Elfman.

The two stars are not bad, just underwritten. Doyle couldn't figure out a better way to build their characters than to have them both introduce and summarize themselves in one breath.

As for Dante, he has long had an affinity for the Looney Tunes characters, trying to capture their spirit in several of his films. He finally gets a chance to play in their sandbox, and then spends all his time indulging his other obsessions. Look closely (maybe too closely) and you'll see a bevy of actors from the Roger Corman studios, including Corman himself as the director of the latest Batman picture. (Hey, a Corman take on Batman would have to be better than Joel Schumacher.) Focus on the task at hand, Joe.

It's not terrible. What could have been exciting, if not exactly original, just ends up going in circles before bizarrely grinding to a halt. Don't blame Bugs and Daffy, though. Cartoon Network's Duck Dodgers proves that we can take them in longer doses, but just like real actors, they have to have something to do.


Derek McCaw

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