A spoiled masterpiece
LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION (Joe Dante, USA, 2003, 7)
That “7” is misleading. This film should have been one of the year’s best. It only stars two of the greatest comic performers of all time, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, at the top of their game. Isn’t it a barometer of how thoroughly the Looney Tunes characters, and the great short subjects they made *before I was born,* are so embedded in my mind that I talk about Bugs and Daffy as performers rather than as drawings? But how can a great movie result from a screenplay that reportedly went through at least 27 revisions and was the subject of constant quarreling between writer, director, animators and front-office suits.
LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION is very much less than what it should have been and sometimes even is — it’s brilliant around the edges and vacuous at the center. A casualty of pomo self-consciousness. And the part that really hacks me off is that it seems to be deliberately made that way. To cite Pauline Kael, this is the kind of film that results when a director contents himself with “express[ing] himself by shoving bits of style up the crevasses of the plots.” It’s a masterpiece in every insignificant, irrelevant detail.
The main plot is just some silly spy intrigue rejected from the Austin Powers assembly line. The result is bland and watered down at the center, but so brilliant, saucy and anarchic at the edges that you’d really rather look at it on DVD, so you can rewind and use the slo-mo to see what you only half-saw in the theater. I can still bring himself to helpless giggles by remembering — the Jerry Lewis posters decorating Paris, Sylvester getting skinned, “that’s not boxing; bite his ear,” “that would send the wrong message to children,” the snatch from Rossini’s “Barber of Seville,” and the race through the paintings in the Louvre, Daffy’s facial expressions in the reprise of the “Duck! Rabbit! Duck!” exchanges, and all the hundred various asides and uninflected jokes at the edge.
Unfortunately, the pomo filmmakers feel the need to “air out” the Looney Tunes characters by putting them in a live-action world to show off the greater technical prowess of animation today, as though animation in that sense was what the Looney Tunes were noted for. As for the human actors … frankly who cares? Joan Cusack and Steve Martin give wonderfully fruity cartoon performances (though I wonder whether Martin is finally a wee bit *much*). But Brendan Fraser and Jenna Elfman? Who cares? They’re like Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. Who would rather watch them than Bugs and Daffy, or maybe more of the other Warner Brothers characters, like Foghorn Leghorn or Sylvester and Tweety?
Now, its not any postmodern premise or the style itself to which I object. Nor were the Warner Brothers cartoons above such techniques as spoof (“Thugs with Dirty Mugs,” “Bugs Bunny Rides Again,” the celebrity caricatures in “What’s Up, Doc”), in-joke references (Daffy as “Robin Hood”; the way the ritual line “What’s Up, Doc” spawned jokes riffing off that expectation), self-consciousness (the way Bugs’ antagonists became increasingly bizarre — from Elmer to Daffy to Yosemite Sam to the Tasmanian Devil — and his line to the audience “of course, you realize, *this* means war.”) or even outright deconstructions of textuality (“Duck Amuck”).
So it’s not as though postmodernism isn’t a fertile source of humor. But the pomo comic techniques in the Looney Tunes originals didn’t go “all the way down” and didn’t assume a thoroughly pomo audience. In other words, “Duck Amuck” shows how a cartoon produces meaning, but shows the animator at the end, preserving the illusion of the author-god, so to speak. And Bugs’ “this means war” aside is to an audience that didn’t expect asides every time and accepted the illusionist conceit that the war Bugs was promising existed for its own sake (they knew it was fake, of course. But as pro wrestling shows, there’s a fundamental difference between knowing something is fake and being told by the fakers that it’s fake).
Here, the innocent surface is absent. The filmmakers don’t seem to have the confidence to make a straight cartoon movie, to try to tell a coherent first-level story appropriate to the characters. Instead, textuality gets thrown in right away as Bugs and Daffy “play their characters” as Warner Brothers stars negotiating their contracts, rather than just “be their characters.” There’s even a moment when Fraser “plays himself” in split-screen with his character in the movie, and it’s just showing off and winking at the audience. The result is the decadent selling of the jokes the audience expects.
Now, the original Looney Tunes animators used this sort of “playing themselves” premise freely themselves (remember Daffy pitching “The Scarlet Pumpernickel” or the two competing in “Show Biz Bugs”). And Bugs and Daffy can still “play themselves” brilliantly — isn’t it a barometer of how thoroughly the Looney Tunes characters, and the great short subjects they made *before I was born,* are so embedded in my mind that I talk about Bugs and Daffy as performers rather than as drawings?
In this particular movie, the “pitch” premise produces a great early scene in which Daffy’s sputtering outrage is being deliberately tweaked by the WB suits’ estimate of his worth. But what tarnishes even some of the great stuff going on around the edges is that its hollowness is sometimes underlined or the lines merely references rather than used. For example, Bugs, Daffy, Elfman and Fraser are walking in the desert and we get an offhand reference to “a left turn at Albuquerque.” Except they’re not underground, they don’t wind up anywhere as a result of the mistake or anything else. Or the singing lunchpail frog appears at the table in the background as a deal is being brokered (but unless you’ve seen the original, there’s no joke). They’re just referents to name-drop, an assurance that the filmmakers have seen the originals too, the equivalent of Eric Idle’s “I’m trying, really” nudge in the ribs.
Though this is an infinitely better film than SPACE JAM, the tragedy is that it didn’t have to be this way. Take a look at “The Simpsons,” which has *both* good stories and lots of jokes at the edge of the frame. Or take a look at “South Park,” self-conscously pomo decadent though the show is, but which uses its characters as themselves in pomo ways, rather than as “playing themselves” fodder for another bit of metacinematic fiddle-faddle.
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