Directed by Joe Dante. USA.  2003.

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The films of director Joe Dante, including Gremlins (1984), Explorers (1985) and Innerspace (1987), frequently contain outrageous visual sequences and moments of irreverent humour that evoke the spirit of the classic Looney Tunes cartoons.  Dante therefore seems like the ideal person to resurrect the Looney Tunes characters for the 21st century, and make up for the previous disappointing Looney Tunes animation/live action hybrid Space Jam (1996).  Although Looney Tunes: Back in Action continues the scattershot approach to storytelling and wall to wall gags seen in many Looney Tunes cartoons, the film features very little of the witty subversion familiar from some of Danteís best known work, such as Gremlins or Small Soldiers (1998).  If looked at in relation to Danteís previous work, Looney Tunes: Back in Action most closely resembles Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), with both films being anarchic, frenetic exercises, which feature an avalanche of movie in jokes built around a virtually non-existent plot.  

The action of Looney Tunes: Back in Action revolves around the search for the mythical Blue Monkey diamond, which is wanted by the greedy ACME Corporation, led by a deranged and OTT Chairman (Steve Martin).  A Warner Brothers studio security guard (Brendan Fraser) sets off with Daffy Duck to find the diamond, and they are soon joined by a Warner Brothers executive (Jenna Elfman) and Bugs Bunny.  Their quest takes them around the world, where they meet various Looney Tunes characters, assorted humans and even aliens from classic sci-fi movies and TV shows.  

While Looney Tunes: Back in Action is packed with great ideas and sequences, itís ultimately never quite as memorable or amusing as it should be.  While itís great to see the Looney Tunes characters back in action, the humans in the film are a little too bland.  Fraser and Elfman essentially play Ďstraight mení to their outrageous animated co-stars and arenít too bad, but others in the cast are wasted, particularly Timothy Dalton as Fraserís secret agent dad, and Martinís Chairman, whose buffoonery is more tiresome that amusing - except for the moment when he tries to fathom which of the many remote controls in his boardroom operates his giant video screen, a dilemma which many home cinema aficionados can relate to.  

Anyone familiar with specific Looney Tunes gags or cartoons will recognise some classic bits of business that Dante references in the film, including Daffy Duckís memorable outer space adventure Duck Dodgers in the 24th ½th Century (1956).  As for the new jokes, the stand out scene is surely the moment when, after the main characters arrive in Paris, Elmer Fudd pursues Bugs and Daffy through the Louvre, with the animated characters diving into a series of classic paintings and leaving chaos in their wake.  This all too brief scene is a perfect blend of inspired Looney Tunes madness and the fantastic visual imagination of Dante, and youĎre left wishing that more of the film contained the wild inventiveness of this brief scene.  

Despite numerous movie parodies and in-jokes made at the expense of the contemporary Hollywood film industry, Looney Tunes: Back in Action feels like Danteís most commercial project yet, a film thatís more of a gently mocking bark than viciously subversive bite.  It could be argued that Dante may have been under enormous studio pressure to make a more conventional family film, but Looney Tunes: Back in Action is actually more of a celebration of the Looney Tunes cartoons and classic movies than a blistering critique of Hollywood, which makes Danteís less cynical approach to the material understandable.  Itís obvious that Dante, an unabashed movie lover, relishes the opportunity to bring the Looney Tunes characters back to the big screen, and enjoys loading the film with movie in-jokes and cameos from a variety of Hollywood artists.  While the resulting film may be a hit and miss affair, itís always a pleasure when a filmmaker and movie fan like Dante shares his passion and enthusiasm for movies, and movie history, with an audience.

Martyn Bamber
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Material Copyright © 2004 Nigel Watson