After years of playing second banana to Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck finally gets top billing in “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” and what a great time for it to happen since this is the film to pay tribute to the great Warner Bros. cartoon characters from the past. It goes without saying that Daffy ends up being fired by Warner Bros. at the beginning of the film (a continual ritual that the film has fun with)and has to endure the constant verbal jabs from that legend of pranksters, Bugs Bunny. Even when Daffy finally gets his own movie, he still can’t get no respect.
The film opens with Daffy being fired by a Warner Bros. executive(Jenna Elfman), an entirely necessary thing to do for the sake of moving the story forward, not to mention the fact that Bugs Bunny has always been the studio’s number one box office draw. If Daffy doesn’t get fired, how can Bugs save him? Daffy soon teams up with an aspiring stuntman named D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser) who works at the studio where his father, Damien Drake,(Timothy Dalton, in a sly twist on the Clark Gable villain he played in “The Rocketeer”) is a top star leading a double life as a spy. Drake’s kidnapped by the evil megalomaniac Mr. Chairman (a high voltage Steve Martin) and it’s up to Daffy and D.J. to save him with Bugs in hot pursuit.
The plot of “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” is necessarily artificial and threadbare, purposefully so, since the film’s real goal is to hurtle through the glorious past of the old Warner Bros. cartoons. Soon, Daffy and D.J. and Bugs and Elfman’s Katherine find themselves in one cartoon galaxy after the other – worlds that are populated by such old cartoon favorites as Elmer Fudd, Yosemite Sam and Wile E. Coyote. The cameos are brief (I would’ve loved to have seen an extended battle between Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner in the desert), but the message is clear: The Saturday morning cartoons are dead and buried now and they were great days, populated by characters much more full-blooded than the characters from the Disney and Pixar lines. Bugs and Daffy were born out of the old contract studio system, a system now dead – a fact that Bugs and Daffy are all too aware of – and one of the jokes in the film is that all of the characters are aware that they’re part of a cartoon universe where the good guys win, but the bad guys get the best lines.
“Looney Tunes: Back in Action” was directed by Joe Dante, a real nice guy and sucker for nostalgia, and Dante’s much more confident in this combined world of animation and live-action than we saw in the interesting but uneven “Small Soldiers,” another live-action film where the toy characters never seemed to jump out of the screen. Dante throws in a staggering amount of pop culture references into “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” that harken back to obscure science-fiction films and shows like “Dr. Who,” not to mention the brilliant early cartoon designs of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. Will kids understand all of this? I don’t think “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” is meant for young kids, certainly not kids who only know Bugs Bunny from the film “Space Jam,” a fun but slight live-action comedy that was, essentially, one big sneaker advertisement. “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” is a real time capsule.
Is “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” a great achievement in animation? No, but I think that’s the point of the film – that the old cartoon characters and drawings are more human than the visual miracles produced by Disney and Pixar. The combination of animation and live-action in “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” is well done, a nice comeback for Warner Bros. after they’d previously spent $100 Million on 1998’s “Quest for Camelot,” an animated disaster that had seemed to have retired Warner Bros. from the cartoon business for good. Here, Bugs and Daffy look better than ever – colorful and three-dimensional – although I’m not sure that they’ve ever looked bad.
The only thing I didn’t like about “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” were, to be honest, the human characters, and not just because Jenna Elfman keeps looking in the wrong direction during her scenes. I just think that it’s so great to see Bugs and Daffy back on the big screen that it would’ve been nice if the film hadn’t tried to upstage them with big name actors. Then again, who could ever upstage Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck? They built Hollywood, at least the cartoon version.