Stuart’s Log: LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION (2003)
December 5, 2013 § Leave a comment
If more Hollywood movies were like Looney Tunes: Back in Action, American cinema would be a lot better off. Spare me the eye-rolls, the litany of criticisms of the film as mass-marketed children’s fare or as disservice towards the Golden Age of Warner Brothers animation that inspired it. The film is a commercial gimmick, and director Joe Dante and his team of writers and animators both credited and uncredited take no great pains to conceal it. In fact, Back in Action is gimmickry multiplied a hundredfold, a hall-of-mirrors of reflexivity run amok, whose colorful, kaleidoscopic whole is greater than the sum of its many cornball parts.
The plot is a matrix of contrivances borrowed liberally from buddy comedies, James Bond spy thrillers, 50s sci-fi movies, and, of course, many of the old Looney Tunes shorts—most prominently the famous Chuck Jones cycle of Bugs and Daffy pair-ups. No use going into it in any great detail, except to say that it is constructed as something of a riff on the movie’s own shameless franchise-milking raison d’être, suggesting that a Looney Tunes transposed to the modern age of Hollywood filmmaking is a compromised Looney Tunes indeed. It isn’t long after Daffy has been fired by WB executive Kate (Jenna Elfman) and ejected from the lot by security guard DJ Drake (Brendan Frazer) because he commands a small fraction of Bugs’ audience that we see Porky Pig and Speedy Gonzalez lamenting that political correctness has consigned their roles in the film to mere cameos.
As soon as our four protagonists—Kate, DJ, Bugs, and Daffy—have set out for Las Vegas, plot begins to play a diminutive second fiddle to Dante’s characteristic zeal for comedic anarchy. The gags whiz by like machinegun fire—chortle at a bullseye or cringe at a misfire for a split-second too long and you’ll have missed the next volley. Critic Dave Kehr has observed that Joe Dante’s Gremlins (and, I would add, many of his other hits of the eighties and nineties) is “grounded in a fundamental division in American popular culture, between the sweetness and sociability of the Disney feature, and the unbridled id of Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes shorts.” Back in Action is all id, a cacophony of manic delights that has no pretense of Spielbergian suburban normalcy against which to pit itself.
An entropic meta-movie, Back in Action puts a great deal of contemporary American filmmaking to shame, if only for its unchecked anything-goes energy. Mise-en-scéne is often redolent of classical Hollywood in its studio-designed vibrancy. An interlude in Paris dazzles with its packed framings, imaginative details, and eye-popping colors—the city hasn’t looked like this much fun since the glory days of Stanley Donen and Vincente Minnelli (note as well the poster for Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain hanging on the wall of an eatery on the Warner Bros. lot). If Dante’s more darkly satirical films owe a great debt to Frank Tashlin, then the more fitting reference point for Back in Action might be Jerry Lewis, to whom Dante pays explicit tribute in a few key scenes (the first-act antics on the Warner Bros. lot brought The Errand Boy to mind). It’s tough to think of any of the film’s countless influences that don’t date back to Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Looney Tunes: Back in Action is so uncommonly wonderful because it’s an authentic time-capsule movie, a summation of just about everything that was uniquely great about forties and fifties movie comedy and a reminder that there was once a time when, for all its well-oiled machinery, Hollywood had a few screws loose and was all the richer for it. – Stuart