Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Sombrero Grande actually LIKED Looney Tunes Back In Action?!
Review by Sombrero Grande

I’ll admit the concept and trailers didn’t exactly paint a glowing picture of this film. When I first called “dibs” on the review for Looney Tunes Back In Action amongst the Masked Movie Snobs, El Bicho’s e-mail reply was: “Better you than me, but if you want to submit a review tonight that says it sucks and Steve Martin is a whore, I don't think anyone would take issue with it.”

Further evidence of the lackluster press this movie’s gotten can surely be witnessed by the fact that I attended a FREE advanced screening where the tickets clearly stated the instructions to arrive early because more tickets were given out than seats would be available “to ensure a full theater.” At the screening in question, the relatively small theater only had, at most, half the seats filled.

So does Looney Tunes Back In Action really deserve all this apparent bad buzz? Sombrero Grande sez: “no.”

I grew up watching Looney Tunes and, in their finest moments, Daffy, Wile E. Coyote and the rest can still elicit bigger laughs from me than most Hollywood “comedies” today. The problem with more recent efforts by Warner’s animation folks is that the looney crew has been watered down, dismissed as “kids’ fare” and mere marketing tools and thereby almost surgically removed from the cleverly crafted, over-the-top cartoon mayhem that initially made them so popular.

I have a big beef with pretty much any modern movie that claims to be able to translate the spirit of cartoons into live-action. Usually, in the hands of inept cretin-directors, this inevitably means filming in fast-motion or tippy-toe walking with the cliché tinkling bell sound effect (for examples, refer to such dismal wastes of celluloid as The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and The Flinstones). The movie to come closest so far to actually capturing the feel of a cartoon in live action is Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but after watching Looney Tunes Back In Action I think we have a new winner.

You see, director Joe Dante (of Gremlins and Innerspace fame) GETS cartoons. I’ve heard the story that Joe nicknamed Looney Tunes Back In Action the “Anti Space Jam” movie and really wanted a big screen return to the kind of classic Looney Tunes mayhem that used to light up the silver screen and tickle the funny bones of young and old. So…did Dante do dat? Sombrero Grande sez: “yes.”

The story in the film is very loose, much like the plotting of any given Looney Tunes cartoon; it’s essentially there only to put the wheels in motion for zany cartoon mayhem. Fortunately, there are only two actual “slow spots” I found where the movie had to break to let the plot develop a smidge before getting back to the dynamite, anvils, etc. Brendan Fraser plays the son of Timothy Dalton’s character, a famous spy movie hero (a very clever play on Dalton’s status as one of the least-favorite James Bond portrayers). When his father turns out to be an actual spy who has been abducted by the evil ACME corporation, it’s up to Fraser, Daffy and Bugs to save him. Sound like a kinda crappy premise? Well, so does “coyote repeatedly attempts to catch road runner and is unsuccessful,” doesn’t it? Dante gets that, in Looney Tunes cartoons, the entertainment value lies in the gags, not the story.

While there’s a lot of bad slapstick in the film, the real hilarity comes from all the references, “background jokes” and parodies of other films, all of which arrive with mile-a-minute delivery. The big laughs are in the details, like the plethora of Jerry Lewis posters in Paris or the titles of all the ACME Vice Presidents. Of all the parodies and references in the film (Batman, Dr. Strangelove, Finding Nemo, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Cape Fear, Star Wars, Space Jam, The Mummy remake, numerous ‘50s sci-fi B-movies and too many others to mention), only one seemed flat and that’s the Psycho parody that simply went on too long. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers parody caught me so off guard that I thought I’d wet myself laughing. There’s plenty for kids to enjoy in the movie, but it’s stuff like this that makes me think there’s even more for the parents.

Nearly every Looney Tunes character makes at least a cameo appearance somewhere in the film, and the more familiar you are with the old cartoons the more fun you’ll have spotting them. Speaking of background jokes and references, a particularly funny scene takes place in the Warner Brothers commissary where Porky Pig is sitting at a table with Speedy Gonzalez, grousing about how the studio made him lose his stutter and now no one thinks he’s funny. Porky groans something about “political correctness” and Speedy replies, “si, tell me about eet.” At the next table an animated Shaggy and Scooby Doo berate Matthew Lillard for his portrayal of Shaggy in the live-action Scooby Doo movie. These very clever moments are peppered with the antics of Michigan J. Frog, Sam the Sheepdog and Ralph the Wolf all at tables in the background.

The jokes at the expense of the studio are also golden, like when the Warner Brothers (the studio’s run by two actual brothers named Warner, don’t ya know?) talk up their newest film, “Lethal Weapon Babies,” which is “a Lethal Weapon movie we’ll finally be able to take our kids to,” or when Daffy gets fired and then finds he can’t say his own name because Warner Brothers owns the rights to it.

The true spirit of Looney Tunes’ antics lives on in segments like the one in which Elmer Fudd pursues Daffy and Bugs through a variety of paintings in the Louvre. Playing with the styles of Dali and Seurat produces some very surreal and funny gags that seemed plucked right out of one of the old cartoons (but I couldn’t recall ever seeing them done before).

Of course there’s also some bad parts of the movie (remember I said I LIKED the movie, not LOVED it). Steve Martin is a sore, sore spot in this film. His over-the-top performance is so far over the top it’s gone into the valley on the other side and dug a hole straight to Hell. While the Looney Tunes villains all get their moment to shine in the film, the Tasmanian Devil gets a huge set up and then is a huge let down. He doesn’t really do anything…except break wind in a revoltingly lowbrow moment that would seem more at home in a Disney movie nowadays.

Should you see this movie? Sombrero Grande sez: “I don’t know.” I really enjoyed this as Looney Tunes fan as opposed to a connoisseur of fine cinema. This isn’t a “fine” movie by any stretch of the imagination, but what it is instead is a surprisingly clever tribute to the kind of old fashioned Looney Tunes cartoon mayhem that most of us grew up on. It’s also highly more appropriate for kids than, say, Who Framed Roger Rabbit. No sex, no grizzly murders…come to think of it, I’m not even sure why Looney Tunes Back In Action got a PG rating. Bugs dresses up in drag and Daffy whistles at some girls, but if that’s “inappropriate” enough now to warrant a suggestion of Parental Guidance, put me at the anti-P.C. table with Porky and Speedy any day. Th-th-th-that’s all, folks!


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