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FILM REVIEW: LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION
By Mark Caro
Chicago Tribune Movie Writer
In one of the many "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" in-jokes, our cartoon and live-action heroes come across a Wal-Mart in the desert and wonder, "Is it a mirage or product placement?"
Jenna Elfman, as an uptight Warner Bros. studio executive, quickly explains away such in-movie advertising: "The audience expects it. They don't even notice it anymore."
OK, so director Joe Dante and screenwriter Larry Doyle ("Duplex") are tweaking crass Hollywood practices and rationalizations, but a similar question applies to their movie: Is it entertainment or product placement?
From the title on down, "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" feels less like a movie than an exercise in brand reinforcement. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck (both voiced by Joe Alaskey) are at the center of things, and the rest of the Warner Bros. cartoon gang appears as well. Most of them aren't finding new ways to make us laugh as much as they're reminding us of their trademark bits, though Porky Pig reporting that his stutter has been deemed politically incorrect is a modern twist. But even that joke is aimed at in-the-know adults rather than potential new Bugs and Daffy fans.
This animation-meets-live-action comedy feels closer to "Space Jam" than "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." Brendan Fraser at least takes a step up in class from his turn opposite a flatulent animated monkey in "Monkeybone." Here he plays DJ Drake, a studio security guard who winds up with Daffy at his side after the crabby quacker forces the Warners brass to choose between him and Bugs.
Soon after Kate Houghton (Elfman) orders DJ to kick the plucky duck off the lot, the mismatched pair are off searching for DJ's kidnapped super-suave movie-star dad Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton miscast as someone who actually got famous for playing a 007-like spy). Kate and Bugs wind up in pursuit because the Warners folks want Daffy back after all.
Meanwhile, the Acme Corporation's evil Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin in a moppy wig) seeks the magical Blue Monkey Diamond to carry out a rather clever plan of transforming people into monkeys to make crummy Acme products, then turning the monkeys back into people to buy the lousy things.
Dante, whose "Gremlins" (1984) boasted more than a bit of that anarchic Warners spirit, was a logical choice to direct. But as "Small Soldiers" (1998) and other films have shown, the director tends to pour more energy into movie references than storytelling. Most of these references lack payoff. Bugs enacting a "Psycho" parody serves no satirical purpose and will zoom over young viewers' heads. For that matter, the whole movie-biz plot is likely to draw yawns from uncomprehending kids as well as adults weary of Hollywood navel-gazing.
DJ complains about Brendan Fraser being a prima donna (ha ha), and Warner Bros.' "Scooby-Doo" and "Lethal Weapon" franchises get plugs. So do Sprint cell phones, shown in the hands of Ms. U.S. Cellular herself, Joan Cusack, who plays a maternal version of 007 gadgetmeister Q.
Daffy and Bugs are still good for some laughs. Their running in and out of paintings in the Louvre is a comic highlight, and Bugs gets off a zingy "Finding Nemo" wisecrack.
Otherwise, Bugs' wit batting average is uncharacteristically low, and the movie follows suit. You never lose awareness that Fraser and, particularly, Elfman are acting alongside creatures they can't actually see, and you constantly think you should be having more fun than you are. In the end, you want to ask the filmmakers: Is that all, folks?
"Looney Tunes: Back in Action"
Directed by Joe Dante; written by Larry Doyle; photographed by Dean Cudney; edited by Marshall Harvey, Rick W. Finney; music by Jerry Goldsmith; produced by Paula Weinstein, Bernie Goldmann. A Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Friday, Nov. 14. Running time: 1:32. MPAA rating: PG (some mild language and innuendo).
DJ Drake - Brendan Fraser
Kate - Jenna Elfman
Mr. Chairman - Steve Martin
Damien Drake - Timothy Dalton
Dusty Tails - Heather Locklear
Mother - Joan Cusack
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