The Movie Defender: Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)

Yet redundant as it might sound for a project that showcases good ol’ 2-D cell animation, for the most part, “Looney Tunes” comes across as flat as Wile E. Coyote after a boulder lands on him, unable to sustain the merriment better encapsulated in a six-minute cartoon format. — Brian Lowry, Variety

Dante is surely right to let his visual imagination run riot, but the scattershot Looney Tunes style doesn’t easily stretch to feature length, and neither Daffy nor his human co-stars generate much sympathy… –Time Out London

If the movie, which opens nationally today, has loads of nerve, its ambitious fusion of cartoons and live-action comedy is only fitfully amusing. At every turn, you can sense the director Joe Dante’s jitters as he packs more and more extraneous stuff into each scene. And the density of jokes and references piled into Larry Doyle’s screenplay smacks of nervous overkill. — Stephen Holden, New York Times

When a big budget studio film bombs—and I mean bombs—heads roll. Usually fingers are pointed at the head of development, the junior development executives who pushed the film forward, and sometimes even the head of the studio. With a few exceptions, the stars escape a lot of blame. They may be considered to be “not a draw” and have trouble getting leading parts after the film, but they keep working in supporting roles. But the director’s career is often harmed irrevocably. Think about how Michael Cimino was cast into the wilderness after the Heaven’s Gate debacle. Sure he continued to work intermittently in the independent arena into the ‘90s, but he had to scrape and beg for every nickel to get films going. And he never again enjoyed the kind of creative freedom he had in the late ’70s. Such is the case with Joe Dante in the decade since Looney Tunes: Back in Action landed in theaters with a thud.

It is possible to spin the film as not such a financial catastrophe. But look beyond the face-saving numbers that Warner Bros. has put out for public consumption and you can see just how crushing this box office defeat was. For one thing, Back in Action was a follow-up to the financially successful (though dreadfully executed) Space Jam. That movie was a solid hit for the studio and gave the folks in charge the idea that their long-neglected Looney Tunes characters could be turned into a profitable franchise of films combining animation and live action. This optimism raised expectations far beyond what would probably have been expected for a film featuring a bunch of cartoon characters who had receded in popularity for the previous three decades, if not longer.

The second thing that Warner Bros. would claim is that the film turned in a worldwide gross of almost 70 million dollars against a reported budget of 80 million. Sure that’s a loss, but with home video sales, sales to ancillary markets, and merchandising figured in, the film would eventually make a small profit. The problem with this thinking is that the 80 million dollar figure is almost surely an under-estimate of what the film actually cost. Most reports had the budget in excess of a hundred million, even before figuring in prints and marketing which more than likely ballooned the budget to more than 150 million.

While industry observers widely reported the crushing financial defeat of Back in Action, the critical reaction was not much than a shrug of the shoulders. Positive reviews were tepid in their endorsements and negative reviews were polite in pointing out what failed to work for the reviewer. With negative press swirling around the film due to the budget, lackluster reviews, and a lifeless marketing campaign, the film was dumped in November where it was unable to compete in the awards season marketplace. In the opinion of many people, Joe Dante’s career died with the film. I’m here to explain why the film and, by extension, its director deserve a second chance.

The film is stuffed to the gills with plot. Of course, most of it doesn’t matter and only exists as a reason for the animated Looney Tunes gang to pull off numerous verbal and physical gags. But since some context is needed for what I am about to sell as a defense, I’ll give you a quick setup.

Daffy Duck, enraged at always being forced to play second fiddle to Bugs Bunny in the studio’s cartoons, demands new scripts be written with him as the lead. Much to his horror and Bugs’ chagrin, Daffy is fired by Kate (Jenna Elfman), the humorless vice president of comedy at Warner Bros. In the process of being ejected from the studio by a security guard named DJ (Brendan Fraser), Daffy causes an insane amount of chaos that ends with half of the Warner Bros. backlot destroyed and DJ also being fired.

Daffy tags along with DJ back to his home where it is revealed that DJ’s father is Damien Drake (a game Timothy Dalton), the studio’s biggest action star. It turns out Damien doesn’t just play a spy in the movies, he actually is one and has been kidnapped by the Chairman (Steve Martin) of the evil Acme Corporation. Before you can say MacGuffin, DJ, Daffy, Bugs, and Kate are wrapped up in a search for a mysterious gemstone called the “Blue Monkey” that the Chairman also seeks. As you can probably guess, hijinks ensue.

The reason Space Jam was, quite frankly, an awful movie is that it not only had to serve as a Looney Tunes cartoon, but it also was intended to build on the brand name that Michael Jordan had become. Jordan, along with almost all the NBA stars he brought into the film, is a terrible actor. Not only that, but the film required the Looney Tunes characters to take on personas that were out of line with what they had become known for. This added up to a high-concept comedy with stale gags buoyed by the novelty of seeing Looney Tunes characters get the Roger Rabbit treatment of live-action interacting with animation. The results were dreadful.

Dante and screenwriter Larry Doyle seem to recognize where that film went wrong and immediately avoid any scenario where the cartoon characters are forced to do something out of character. They also make the cartoons the focal point of the story with Daffy’s bruised ego and manic energy perfectly countered by Bugs and his cocky reassurance that everything will be alright in the end. At the same time, Bugs gently suggests to the powers-that-be that his shtick doesn’t work without Daffy as a worthy adversary. It’s an acknowledgement that a protagonist is really only as interesting as his antagonist.

If this all sounds a little, well, heady for a movie called Looney Tunes: Back in Action, rest assured that the film is very, very funny. Sporting a high hit-to-miss gag ratio, Dante pumps up the energy and relentlessness of the film as our heroes veer across continents, through paintings in The Louvre, and eventually into outer space. Along the way they encounter practically every member of the Looney Tunes universe, several of them operating as extensions of Acme’s villainous reach (Yosemite Sam, Wile E. Coyote, Marvin the Martian). These sequences allow every character to showcase a bit that has them doing what they do best. Not only is there a measure of nostalgia when these characters appear, their individual gags are often extremely funny—the sequence that finds poor Wile E. Coyote once again cursed with faulty Acme equipment is inspired.

While the portions of the film that do deal with the human characters feel like more of an afterthought, Dante, ever the subversive filmmaker, uses these scenes to mock mainstream studio films. Taking down targets like bloated superhero pictures, blatant product placement, romantic comedy clichés, and talky characters who exist only to spout exposition, the Dante who skewered his biggest hit and the merchandising it inspired with Gremlins 2 is fully on display. With his love of irreverent humor, cartoonish slapstick and sound effects, and obvious affection for the Looney Tunes characters, he was creatively the perfect pick for the film.

But Dante’s creative abilities come with the sensibilities of a snarky movie nerd. I mean that in the most positive, loving way. By the time Looney Tunes: Back in Action went into production, Dante was long past his days as the man behind hit low-budget horror films (Piranha, The Howling) who transitioned into the assured director of profitable mainstream genre fare in the ‘80s (Gremlins, Innerspace). In the fifteen years leading up to Back in Action, Dante’s career was marked by personal movies and TV shows that had built up cult audiences (The ‘Burbs, Matinee, Eerie, Indiana) while failing to attract mainstream crowds. Even a seemingly sure thing like the brilliant Gremlins 2 (which shares the same anarchic spirit of the Looney Tunes universe) was considered a financial disappointment. Given that track record going into production, it’s hard to believe Warner Bros. actually handed him the reins of such a big-budget production.

The film turned out exactly as you would expect a Looney Tunes movie directed by Joe Dante to be (complete with cameos by Dick Miller, Mary Woronov, Roger Corman, Kevin McCarthy, and Robert Picardo) and Warner Bros. did not know how to handle it, eventually dumping the film and publicly shifting the blame of a massive financial misfire to the director.

But why were critics so lukewarm to the finished product and why was word-of-mouth among audiences so poor? Perhaps the film was too much in keeping with the spirit of the Looney Tunes shorts? It is often chaotic, breathlessly-paced, and only interested in telling as many jokes as is humanly possible in its running time, damn the plot or character development. But I consider these traits to be a good thing when making a film featuring cartoon characters.

Granted, it’s not a perfect film. Martin is too over-the-top as the villain, failing to realize that the jokes are happening all around him and he does not need to supply additional clowning around. Some of the gags involving the human characters are too broad or obvious (DJ complaining that Brendan Fraser got him fired as his stunt double from The Mummy). And the integration of the animation with the actors and sets is not nearly as seamless as it was in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? But most of these problems aren’t much more than nitpicking. They are far outweighed by what Dante gets right.

The fallout for the film’s failure quickly fell on Dante. In the years since, he has increasingly turned to television as a director for hire on episodes of CSI:NY and Hawaii Five-O. He worked on a web series with Roger Corman for FEARnet called Splatter and directed Homecoming and The Screwfly Solution, two well-regarded installments of the Masters of Horror series. Only after dipping his toe back in the feature filmmaking waters by directing the wraparound segments of the anthology film Trapped Ashes did he finally get another full-length film off the ground in The Hole. While that film opened in foreign territories as far back as 2010, it sat on the shelf in the United States for over two years before getting a handful of theatrical screenings the week before its home video release.

While Dante seems to be slowly working his way out of the woods, it’s doubtful he will ever be handed the reins to a studio film again. Projects like The Hole point a direction back to the independent film days of his youth at Corman’s New World Pictures. While that road may afford him the opportunity to work in a more creatively friendly environment, the distribution models have changed so drastically in the last 35 years, he likely may never see another of his films receive a true theatrical release. And that’s a damn shame.

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One thought on “The Movie Defender: Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)

  1. An interesting article. Recently I saw a few individual scenes from Back In Action and its just as funny as I remember it being in the cinema. A few years ago I was very suprised to hear it was a financial flop – particularly considering its modest reviews and all-star cast. Although not perfect, the characterisation and humour is far more faithful to the Warner Bros. shorts than the awful Space Jam. I guess 3-D animation was the new big thing, and “Xtreme” sports was all the range with kids. The 6 year time difference between this and Space Jam could have impacted things too – child fans of S.J. would probably think they were too old for the same 2-d animated animals they watched the previous decade. Space Jam also piggy-backed off a popular combined celebrity endorsement and a marketing campaign which had waned by the time Back in Action came out.

    To be honest I think it was just bad timing that killed this fun movie. A real shame too – it caused bit of an identity crisis with the Looney Tunes brand which, just like Dante’s career, has only really been remedied in recent years

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