Elmer Fudd (far left), Bugs Bunny, Brendan Fraser, and Jenna Elfman in a scene from Looney Tunes: Back in Action. (courtesy photo)

An irreverent take on some of America's favorite 'toons

Here's the only good news about Looney Tunes: Back in Action: Taking a family to the movies is expensive. Parents who do some mental arithmetic before heading to the multiplex may suddenly find that the new four-disc DVD set of the original cartoons is not such an extravagance after all; those who opt for the small screen over this big-screen travesty might actually introduce their kids to something they will treasure forever, instead of boring them to distraction.

Okay, "travesty" is a harsh word. Judging from interviews with the filmmakers, many of the people who worked on Back In Action have a genuine love of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the brilliant artists who brought them to life in the '40s and '50s. Sadly, that appreciation doesn't make them capable of recapturing the series' magic.

Maybe the problem is faulty assumptions. The people who put this together seem to feel that the only way to make us care about cartoon heroes is to match them with live-action ones. But 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit? wasn't successful because it paired human and 'toon actors; it worked because its screenplay echoed the sass and savvy of the classics that inspired it. Back in Action, on the other hand, has a story that is weak even compared to Spy Kids. And the filmmakers don't know who their stars are - they inexplicably favor the humans, turning Bugs and company (who have been earning belly laughs since Brendan Fraser's parents were in pre-school) into sidekicks. What - playing second-fiddle to a basketball player in Space Jam wasn't degrading enough?

Looney Tunes:
Back in Action

Dir. Joe Dante; writ. Larry Doyle; feat. Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman, Timothy Dalton, Steve Martin, a bunch of voice actors who aren't Mel Blanc (PG)
In Fraser's defense, it isn't his fault that there is not a single solid laugh in the screenplay. The gags are so broad and off-key that it's impossible to imagine screenwriter Larry Doyle laughing while he wrote them - as opposed to, say, Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century, the '50s classic where the sense of fun is palpable.

If the jokes are broad, the direction is worse. Joe Dante has steered good comedy to the screen, but if it weren't for the cameos he throws to old cronies like Roger Corman, you would never guess he was the one behind this camera. He shepherds Steve Martin into possibly the worst comic performance of his career, a set of tics and mannerisms that are a ghostly pale reflection of his work in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Dante also flops when it comes to integrating his 'toons with the real world. Over and over, the actors' sightlines seem to shoot right through their cartoon counterparts. It's hard to act with an empty space where your costar is supposed to be, but Dante ought to be able to make it look easy.

In the end, the film simply has no desire to flex to suit the legends it has borrowed. Original Looney Tunes animators like Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, and screenwriters like Mike Maltese, presided over a world in which 2-D animals could take charge of any environment.

Any environment, it now seems, but this one. •

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