Skip to main content

How many galoshes died to make that little number?

Looney Tunes: Back in Action
(2003)

(SPOILERS) Looney Tunes: Back in Action proved a far from joyful experience for director Joe Dante, who referred to the production as the longest year-and-a-half of his life. He had to deal with a studio that – insanely – didn’t know their most beloved characters and didn’t know what they wanted, except that they didn’t like what they saw. Nevertheless, despite Dante’s personal dissatisfaction with the finished picture, there’s much to enjoy in his “anti-Space Jam”. Undoubtedly, at times his criticism that it’s “the kind of movie that I don’t like” is valid, moving as it does so hyperactively that its already gone on to the next thing by the time you’ve realised you don’t like what you’re seeing at any given moment. But the flipside of this downside is, there’s more than enough of the movie Dante was trying to make, where you do like what you’re seeing.


Dante commented of Larry Doyle’s screenplay (as interviewed in Joe Dante, edited by Nil Baskar and Gabe Klinger) that he certainly didn’t find it funny”, but in consideration of how Chuck Jones had passed on, he felt honour bound to take charge (“I really shouldn’t let somebody do to those characters what had been done to them in Space Jam”). He would heroically “save them from Warner Bros”. He even had the animation department, which closed in 2001, reinstituted (Back in Action is the final traditionally-animated Warner picture).


The result was a movie the Warner merchandising department was all for, but which the studio production machine didn’t particularly care for. Wikipedia will tell you it cost $80m and made $68.5, but Dante gives the price tag as more than $100m; it lacked the critical acclaim of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the crass commercialism of Space Jam. As such, it fell into much the same unloved territory as Gremlins 2, and while it can’t match that wilfully perverse sequel for sheer inventiveness and consistency of craziness, Back in Action has a similar sense of the anarchic and self-aware (at one point it even swipes directly at Space Jam, a confused Michael Jordan revealed as one of the villain’s guises).


Dante, who can probably only see its flaws, admitted “It’s got a point of view, which Space Jam doesn’t”. He had to suffer 25 different writers churning out gags, witness his poor animation director Eric Gold doing sterling work to uphold the traditions of the animation and characters (which they film undoubtedly does) “while being berated everyday by the producers and the writer”, and a studio that didn’t even bother testing it in the same breath that they demanded changes (“It had a different beginning, middle, and ending” is the oft-repeated quote). Their cluelessness is absolutely emphasised when you learn of the things they hated, invariably the best elements of the picture, including the glorious Area 52 sequence, and the repeated fourth-wall breaking (as Dante observed of the original cartoons, it’s part of their DNA. It’s also much wittier than Deadpool’s winks).


The slenderest of plot threads is probably all that is needed, or appropriate, to prop up a show where its director attempts to include as many relevant, and irrelevant, gags as possible in the Looney Tunes tradition. It certainly marries with Dante’s self-reflexive leanings that the picture starts and ends on the Warner lot; the wised-up artifice of is infused into its being, complete with clueless studio suits and a Daffy who can be fired while Warner simultaneously retains rights to his name. This is very much the same Dante who took the piss out of the merchandising potential of Gizmo in Gremlins 2.


Arriving at a Walmart in the desert, Bugs wonders “Is that a mirage, or just product placement?”, to which Daffy replies “Hey, who cares, with shopping convenience at such low prices?” At one point, when it looks as if certain doom beckons, Daffy calls his broker (“Sell all my Warner Bros stock! I got an inside tip that Bugs Bunny’s about to die!”) The capitalist merry-go-round is pointedly, if rather crudely, etched out in Acme’s plan to obtain the all-important Blue Monkey diamond, with which it will turn humans into monkeys to manufacture Acme products that the same humans will then purchase when restored to their original state.


Dante’s relationship with satire is at its best when he adopts a welcoming, mocking tone; caustic evisceration is not his best aspect. Rather, he thrives on the disarmingly inclusive, pushing through his take on the world with such brio that you might not be aware how pointed he is, or how he might have called you out, until you delve below the surface. Part-and-parcel of that is the metatextuality frequently informing his work; his playfulness is as much about deconstructing the bubble of reality itself as the social and political assumptions within it. That’s why it’s easy to dismiss a movie like Looney Tunes, focus on its brasher, noisier aspects, rather than respond to its wit and perspicacity. A bit like the original Warner Bros shorts themselves, really.


Mother: Area 51 is actually a paranoid fantasy that we concocted to hide the true identity of this facility.
DJ Drake: Which is?
Mother: Area 52.

The best scenes in Looney Tunes are just such a merry medley of barbs and movie/cultural referencing. Stranded in Death Valley, Bugs, Daffy, stuntman/ security guard DJ Drake (Brendan Fraser) and WB VP for Comedy Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman) come across a top secret facility, Area 52. Presided over by a splendidly kooky Joan Cusack (is there any other Joan Cusack?), it is naturally full of aliens.


There’s a classic Grey, and of course Marvin the Martian, but the rest are loving recreations of classic movie monsters from the ‘40s to ‘60s, including, most recognisably, Robby the Robot (Forbidden Planet), Daleks from the Peter Cushing Dr Who movies (permission was granted by the BBC, which didn’t go down well with the Terry Nation estate; apparently their appearance was at the behest of Steve Martin, a big Doctor Who fan…), the Metaluna monster (This Island Earth), the Robot Monster, The Man from Planet X, a brain creature (Fiend Without a Face; it flies at Fraser’s) and a Triffid (the 1963 The Day of the Triffids). And there was no way Dante would miss an opportunity to reference (the original) Invasion of the Body Snatchers, hence Dante-regular Kevin McCarthy appearing, in black and white, clutching a pod.


Admittedly, there isn’t a great deal to the scene beyond its indulgence, but it’s the kind of indulgence Dante is so good at; it’s irresistible. Even the top secret Area 52 has its own slogan (“Keeping things from the American People since 1947”; also glimpsed is a videotape labelled “Moon Landing Dress Rehearsal”), such is pervasive corporatisation.
 

Elmer Fudd: Well, as it turns out, I’m secwetwy evil.
Daffy Duck: That’s show business for ya!

The greatest animated flair is flaunted when our quartet of heroes visit Paris (“Just how are we supposed to get to Paris?” ask Daffy, “Like this” replies Bugs, reaching over and pulling corner of the screen to; the execs must have loved that one). Arriving at the Louvre, Bugs and Daffy are pursued by Elmer Fudd through a series of paintings, the trio taking on the artist’s stylistic quirks in each; the funniest is the melting The Persistence of Memory by Dali. 


Then there’s Munch’s The Scream, Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (complete with lecture on pointillism) and La Gouloue by Toulouse-Lautrec. Alas, a further flight, through Escher’s Relativity didn’t make it. Appropriately, accompanying the chase is Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky (about an amble through an art gallery).


DJ Drake: The great thing about movies, you always know what’s going to happen next.

Also appearing in France is, naturally, Pepé La Pew, although he isn’t subject of the political correctness gag for suggesting French people stink (“It’s a pain in the butt being p-p-politically correct” opines stammering Porky Pig; “You’re telling me” replies Mexican caricature Speedy Gonzales). And, naturally, an adoration for Jerry Lewis; a far more offensive a slur on the French than suggesting they whiff a bit. His posters are found adorning the bottom of the Eiffel Tower (for Which Way to the Front, or Ou Trouvez-vous La Guerre?)


While it leads into an over-hectic flying car chase that at least ends quite well (the car only finally crashes when its occupants recognise it’s out of gas), the Las Vegas sequence is also good fun, featuring as it does Heather Locklear’s alluringly-named Dusty Tails in a PVC cat suit (“How many galoshes died to make that little number?”) and Fraser mirthfully donning a Yosemite Sam mask for an over-sized (compared to the other diminutive Sam dancers) production number at his casino.


DJ Drake: Did you see those Mummy movies? I’m in them more than Brendan.

Fraser, whose fortunes as a leading player have been mixed since he hit the jackpot in The Mummy series, has a tendency to come across as a bit of a lug if he isn’t keenly directed, but he seems perfectly at home in Dante’s heightened milieu. So much so, the director let him voice Taz. Admittedly, the DJ/obnoxious Fraser doppelganger thing was done a decade earlier in the also patchy (but also underrated, despite an irritating moppet co-lead and an annoyingly noisy AC/DC soundtrack) Last Action Hero, but he and Jenna Elfman are well-matched and easily as game as Bob Hoskins was in the far more feted Roger Rabbit.


Also game is Timothy Dalton, as DJ’s dad, star of spy series License to Spy and real life spy Damien Drake. Dalton’s infinitely more fun here than he was when he was actually playing 007, and you’re left wanting more (“Don’t worry about me son, I’ve got out of worse scrapes than this” he assures, due to meet his demise by a combination of death train, dynamite, and Pendulum of Doom).


As usual there’s a cadre of Dante regulars and chums to keep a look out for: the aforementioned McCarthy, Dick Miller as lot security guard, Roger Corman (as a director), Robert Picardo and Ron Perlman as Acme VPs, Don and Dan Stanton as Warner brothers.


Unfortunately, the weak link in this is Steve Martin’s Acme boss Mr Chairman. Martin, wild and whacky guy, decides the way to approach sharing screen time with cartoons is to be as big and broad a living embodiment of a cartoon as he can be. The results make you want to gnaw off an arm, so tone deaf, relentlessly grating, are they are. There’s maybe the one scene with him that works, where its revealed that he is actually Granny, who is actually Damien Drake (“I’m actually… your father”), who is actually Michael Jordan, who is actually Mr Chairman. But it’s slim pickings.


And there is a lot here that just falls flat, or is misjudged, from laboured Star Wars gags (apart from the one above) and the extended space sequence (aside from when Daffy becomes Duck Dodgers), to a whole thing with a big CGI metal dog; like Roger Rabbit, the more the animation (traditional or CGI) leaves the realm of the main characters and decides it can serve any plot purpose, the less successful it tends to be.


But, as I suggested above, Dante’s right, in a good way, about there being only so long before you get to something you like. He even manages to make the umpteenth Psycho shower scene (which really should have had a line drawn under it after High Anxiety) work (complete with Bosco’s chocolate syrup, used by Hitch for the blood in the original). Fraser drives an AMC Gremlin, at which point a blast of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme from Dante’s 1984 hit pipes in (sadly, Back in Action was the composer’s last film score).


Wylie Coyote, my favourite Warner cartoon character, has a missile with “HI THERE!” written on it (Dr Strangelove). There are further Batman references (after Gremlins 2, and Dante turning down the chance to direct the picture in the early-mid ‘80s), “Hey, waddaya know, I found Nemo”, Bugs is suggested to “Team up with a hot female co-star” (a dig at Lola Bunny in Space Jam; Usually, I play the love interest”), and a very gracious Matthew Lillard having lunch with (Casey Kassem’s) cartoon Shaggy, the latter complaining “You made me sound like a total space cadet”.


And Daffy, poor Daffy. Whether its an egg frying on his beak, being favoured, yet again, over Bugs, who is wearing Groucho glasses and nose (“Whichever one’s not the duck”), the contents of his leaving box (containing a Bugs voodoo doll and a photo with Nixon), or his forlorn desire to get the blue monkey (“I’m rich, I’m affluent, my liquidity is assured”), culminating in classic Bugs out-manoeuvring (“Pronoun trouble”), he’s worthily redrawn for the ‘00s. As is Bugs himself.


Dante’s diligence towards the original characters is part of the reason Looney Tunes is far from the write-off its box office bomb reputation suggests. It’s easy to imagine how forgettable the originally conceived Spy Jam sequel (with Jackie Chan) would have been. You can see why Dante dismissed the movie with “It could only come out as a mishmash of half-baked ideas that didn’t bake”, but it’s far more satisfying than such a post-mortem suggests. As for Warner unceremoniously dumping it, well it’s another backhanded compliment on being a baffled genius at work (they didn’t get Gremlins 2 either). Looney Tunes: Back in Action maybe half-baked, but that half is really quite tasty.








Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Two hundred thousand pounds, for this outstanding example of British pulchritude and learning.

The Avengers 4.18: The Girl From Auntie
I’ve mentioned that a few of these episodes have changed in my appreciation since I last watched the series, and The Girl from Auntie constitutes a very pronounced uptick. Indeed, I don’t know how I failed to rate highly the estimable Liz Fraser filling in for Diana Rigg – mostly absent, on holiday –for the proceedings (taking a not dissimilar amateur impostor-cum-sidekick role to Fenella Fielding in the earlier The Charmers). I could watch Fraser all day, and it’s only a shame this was her single appearance in the show.

By Jove, the natives are restless tonight.

The Avengers 4.17: Small Game for Big Hunters
I wonder if Death at Bargain Prices’ camping scene, suggestive of an exotic clime but based in a department store, was an inspiration for Small Game For Big Hunters’ more protracted excursion to the African country of Kalaya… in Hertfordshire. Gerry O’Hara, in his second of two episodes for the show again delivers on the atmosphere, making the most of Philip Levene’s teleplay.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

I think we’ve returned to Eden. Surely this is how the World once was in the beginning of time.

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
Ridley Scott’s first historical epic (The Duellists was his first historical, and his first feature, but hardly an epic) is also one of his least remembered films. It bombed at the box office (as did the year’s other attempted cash-ins on the discovery of America, including Superman: The Movie producers the Salkinds’ Christopher Columbus: The Discovery) and met with a less than rapturous response from critics. Such shunning is undeserved, as 1492: Conquest of Paradise is a richer and more thought-provoking experience than both the avowedly lowbrow Gladiator and the re-evaluated-but-still-so-so director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven. It may stand guilty of presenting an overly sympathetic portrait of Columbus, but it isn’t shy about pressing a critical stance on his legacy.

Sanchez: The truth is, that he now presides over a state of chaos, of degradation, and of madness. From the beginning, Columbus proved himself completely incapable of ruling these islands…

This is bad. Bad for movie stars everywhere.

Trailers Hail, Caesar!
The Coen Brothers’ broader comedies tend to get a mixed response from critics, who prefer their blacker, more caustic affairs (A Serious Man, Barton Fink, Inside Llewyn Davis). Probably only Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou? have been unreservedly clutched to bosoms, so it remains to be seen how Hail, Caesar! fares. The trailer shows it off as big, bold, goofy, shamelessly cheerful and – something that always goes down well with awards ceremonies – down with taking affectionate swipes at Tinseltown. Seeing as how the unabashedly cartoonish The Grand Budapest Hotel swung a host of Oscar nominations (and a couple of wins), I wouldn’t put anything out of the question. Also, as O Brother proved, punctuation marks in titles are a guarantee of acclaim.

I’m an easy sell for Coens fare, though. Burn After Reading is very funny, particularly John Malkovich’s endlessly expressive swearing. Intolerable Cruelty makes me laugh a lot, particularly Clooney’s double t…

Thank you for your co-operation.

Robocop (1987)
Robocop is one of a select group of action movies I watched far too many times during my teenage years. One can over-indulge in the good things, and pallor can be lost through over-familiarity. It’s certainly the case that Paul Verhoeven’s US breakthrough wears its limited resources on its battered metal-plated chest and, in its “Director’s Cut” form at least, occasionally over-indulges his enthusiastic lack of restraint. Yet its shortcomings are minor ones. It remains stylistically impressive and thematically as a sharp as a whistle. This year’s remake may have megabucks and slickness on its side but there is no vision, either in the writing or direction. The lack of focus kills any chance of longevity. Verhoeven knows exactly the film he’s making, moulded to fit his idiosyncratic foibles. It might not be his best executed, but in terms of substance, as he recognises, it is assuredly his best US movie. Alas, given the way he’s been unceremoniously ditched by Hollywood, i…