'Looney Tunes': Daffy Genius
Friday, November 14, 2003
Th-th-that's not all, folks.
"Looney Tunes: Back in Action," the crazed and wonderful continuation of the great Warner Bros. cartoon tradition at feature film budget and length, is delightful, delicious and destructive. It makes one indisputable point, rich in philosophical and political meaning, a vast epiphany that we ought to all, every last one of us, understand and memorize: It's Daffy Duck's world and we're just visiting.
Mr. Duck is in fine form, and his considerable intelligence informs and illuminates "Looney Tunes"; moreover, it's wonderful to watch him relate with his co-star Bugs Bunny.
Redford/Newman, Matthau/Lemmon, Laurel/Hardy, Duck/Bunny -- we are talking fabulous screen pairings, the exquisite, instinctive pas de deux of ego as reflected in sublime comic timing, physical awareness and interspecies mind-meld.
As for the humans in the cast -- hmmm, were there any? Oh yes, if memory serves, Brendan Fraser has a good-hearted lark as the lunky D.J. Drake, a wanna-be stuntman who was formerly Brendan Fraser's stand-in but was fired by Brendan Fraser for getting too much screen time in "The Mummy" (that's typical of this film's inside-movies sensibility). Then there's Jenna Elfman, who looks like Ann Coulter chilled on Prozac. She's a studio exec -- the "vice president of comedy" -- who fires Duck and then, when the new Bunny film just doesn't seem to work, must rehire him for the Brothers Warner (played by the identical Stanton twins, Don and Dan, who were, respectively, an asylum guard and his T-2000 duplicate in the twin-rich "Terminator 2: Judgment Day.") But Duck has vanished.
Actually, he's headed off to Vegas with Drake to rescue Drake's father, the movie actor and spy Damien Drake (Timothy Dalton), who has been kidnapped by agents of Acme Corp., an evil corporation headed by psycho CEO Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin), who . . .
Well, a watched plot never boils, so let's let this one simmer away as it morphs into a completely meaningless parody of a globe-hopping, lesser Bond picture. The primary virtue of "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" is the dexterity with which it captures the spirit of the great Warner Bros. cartoons of the '40s and '50s, wherein the director-animator Chuck Jones, the preeminent Bunny and Duck auteur (Mel Blanc just did the voices), really invented the cartoon as narrative-busting, frame-shattering, gravity-defying bomb. He brought a spirit to the flickers that could only be expressed in one word: anarchy. That impulse toward helter-skelter, an oft-troubling thing, representative of the nihilism the bitterly disconnected feel toward the world about them, does have its uses, but almost none of them is political. In the context of the animated film, it is a most wondrous force. As director Joe Dante (no stranger to anarchy -- "Gremlins" was his great hit) unleashes it, it destroys everything and makes us laugh all the time.
Thus, at its best, "Looney Tunes" is a hymn to chaos, and Duck and Bunny its high priests. These boys can wreck anything, and have a good time doing it. To see them loose in the Louvre, that citadel of the permanent, the valuable, the sacred and the perfect, is priceless. As animated creatures, they are free to enter the paintings on the wall and, within those paintings, to absorb those painters' styles. To see a cartoon icon screaming next to Edvard Munch's iconic yellow-green wailer on that bridge in a duet of angst is a pure, fabulous toot. And we get the following delirious spectacle: a pointillist Bugs being pursued through "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" by a pointillist Elmer Fudd, amid women in bustles and monkeys on leashes and lounging dogs and French-looking guys in weird jockey hats. Somewhere Georges Seurat is spinning in his grave, but I know of a guy who grew up with a copy of that painting hanging in his living room who hasn't stopped laughing.
Another gambit gets the characters to Area 52, which, as someone explains, is the real top-secret research site in the Nevada desert; Area 51 was merely the cover story. Anyhow, in this place they come across and are eventually attacked by a fleet of cheap '50s movie monsters, including the guy in the gorilla suit wearing the diver's helmet. Why, even a black-and-white Kevin McCarthy, carrying a pod and screaming, "They're coming!" wanders in, seemingly straight off the set of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
The movie is made technically possible by computer-generated imagery, which enables -- as in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" -- the animated characters to acquire depth, weight and substance. In olden days, combining the animated and the real never quite worked because the dimensionality was strikingly different: Here, Mr. Bunny and Mr. Duck can occupy the same space as Mr. Fraser and Ms. Elfman in a totally captivating illusion. It seems real in the movie sense -- that is, as if you are watching a photographed document.
But possibly the true genius behind this movie is an old-fashioned kind of genius: That would be the writer's. Larry Doyle gets animated humor and timing to an exquisite degree, possibly honed by all his years writing for "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill." He brilliantly works in fabled figures from the Warner canon, including Tweety Bird and Sylvester, Pepe Le Pew and of course that Sysyphian figure of futility, Wile E. Coyote, who, as he must, continually disappoints his employer, Mr. Chairman. Doyle and Dante are clearly guys who get the sound and the fury of the Looney Tunes world, and we're all the better off for it.