Who Framed Roger Rabbit? appeared back in 1988,
there's been a modest upsurge in that sub-genre of the
animation film I'll pretentiously call "cross-reality
toons" -- movies where filmed actors and drawn
cartoon characters interact in a cinematic context that
is an amalgam of the world of the cartoons and the "real"
human world. Examples that spring to mind are Ralph
Bakshi's Cool World and the lesser-known Monkeybone.
These films utilise variably high-level SFX technology
to allow, say, Brad Pitt to be seduced by a cartoon
vamp or Brendan Fraser to grab a cartoon monkey by the
neck and jam it into his "real-world" bag.
the sort of trick photography needed was used before
Roger Rabbit. Just recently, thanks to a newly
released collection of re-mastered classic Warner Bros.
cartoons, I got to see Hugh Harmon and Rudolf Ising's
test-run cartoon "Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid"
from 1929, in which the cartoonist, Ising himself, and
his creation Bosko discuss what it is that Bosko can
do to entertain the audience. Likewise, many of the
classic Warner Bros. Looney Tunes shorts are aware of
the fact that cartoons can generate the sense of an
artificial "reality" peopled by self-motivated
sentient characters having a pseudo-life of their own,
so that Daffy can argue with his creator in "Duck
Amuck" even as he is rubbed out, re-drawn and artistically
manipulated. In assorted movies, dream (or daydream)
sequences give the live stars a chance to interact with
cartoon characters, such as Dick Van Dyke singing and
dancing with cartoon penguins in Mary Poppins.
In other films, the live-action, or the cartoon elements,
provide a sort of framing narrative. Examples are endless.
most of these do not give the cartoon characters a co-existent
status that creates the sense of an alternative reality
in which the two worlds are joined. Because it brings
together divergent cinematic conventions, the "cross-reality
toon" can be a tricky genre and, as diametrically
opposed critical responses show, it relies on the viewer's
willing suspension-of-disbelief to a higher degree than
is normal. Yet it shouldn't be too big an ask. To many
viewers, the members of the Simpsons family are more
"real" as personalities than the human inhabitants
of your average sitcom.
fantasy stories generally, "cross-reality toons"
must create their own rules, exploiting the difference
between the "rules" of the cartoon world and
those governing straight live-action films to generate
humour and/or suspense. The best of them call upon a
sort of cultural cartoon reality that exists beyond
and across each individual cartoon tradition. It's also
essential that such cartoon/live-action hybrids capture
the qualities of the cartoon world in their live-action
aspects (while maintaining a sense of the latter's essential
difference). This is especially true when it comes to
mixing the unique wackiness of the Looney Tunes universe
at its best into a "real-world" context.
my opinion, Looney Tunes: Back in Action succeeds
admirably in these areas. While drawing on an extensive
and much-loved cartoon tradition, it plies the audience
with endless cartoon sight gags, verbal wackiness, SF
film references and Looney logic. Even the live stuff
feels like a Warner Bros cartoon. Joe Dante is the perfect
choice to direct this sort of thing. He understands
and loves the ethos and has illustrated his grasp of
popular entertainment culture many times in the past,
in films such as Gremlins, Gremlins 2,
the superb Matinee and Explorers.
Some critics seem to think that he went too far or lacked
restraint here. Others that he didn't get the "feel"
of the classic cartoons at all. Forget 'em. They don't
know what they're talking about. And even if they do
know what they're talking about, in this case they're
talking through their armpits -- a manoeuvre that would
work more convincingly in a cartoon world!
someone with a love of animation, and in particular
the "short film" form that was in its heyday
during the 1940s and 1950s with the likes of Tex Avery,
Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng and Robert McKimson
at the helm, I approached Looney Tunes: Back in
Action with some natural scepticism. I hadn't actively
disdained the earlier effort, Space Jam, but
it hadn't worked very well for me either. The animation
had seemed wrong (as regards the Looney Tune tradition).
The story was childish in a negative sense that the
classic cartoons themselves avoided. The SFX were poor.
Tunes Back in Action avoids
all these pitfalls and presents itself as both innocent
and knowing, childish and grown-up, exploitative and
genuine. It even pokes fun at Warner Bros., the cartoon
(and film) industry and its own product placements in
a way perfectly compatible with the satirical verve
of the classic shorts. The SFX are excellent. The plot
is perfectly silly, of course, its logic that of the
cartoon world -- but that's how it should be. The film
is simple, yet rendered complex through its cultural
referencing, much of which is thoroughly integrated
into the plot. Even the tour de force scene
that throws Daffy, Bugs and Elmer into the worlds created
by famous paintings hanging on the walls of the Louvre
is not only thematically appropriate, but totally in
tune with the sort of proto-postmodernism regularly
practised by Chuck Jones and the other Warners Looney
Tunes directors well before postmodernism itself became
de rigueur. To carp about Dante's rabidly self-conscious
cultural referencing is to miss the point. Such referencing
was always a part of the classic cartoons and not only
is, but should be, in a film that celebrates the Looney
original Looney Tunes creators deliberately structured
their shorts around characters. I think it was Tex Avery
who pointed out that it didn't matter what Bugs Bunny
looked like, it was his character -- the way he acted
and spoke -- that defined him, so that he could be in
disguise or drawn in some divergent manner (as happened
over time), but the audience would still recognise him
as Bugs. In other words, Bugs and Daffy and company
became "real" personalities (in an artistic
sense), in the end becoming more real to some of us
than, say, our local politicians.
this they are in Looney Tunes: Back in Action,
too. The SFX -- the blending of the cartoon world with
the live-action world -- is done so well and with such
invention that you forget that there's any essential
difference between Brendan Fraser and Daffy Duck. They
both belong there in that created world. That's quite
Looney Tunes: Back in Action isn't Who
Framed Roger Rabbit? Nothing is ever going to be.
But in its own terms it is well-executed and superbly
entertaining film experience, worthy of its cultural
Looney Tunes: Back in Action was always going
to divide critics -- just like the "cross-reality
toons" that came before it. Reading the critical
evaluations comparatively (which you can do by following
the link to the Rotten Tomatoes website), it
is obvious that the film provokes opposing responses:
it is said to be hilarious/its attempts at humour fall
flat; its complexity is rich and wonderful/its complexity
is pretentious, confused and dull; it captures the Warners
spirit/it fails to capture the Warners spirit, etc.
etc. (Most agree that the film looks good, however.)
In the end, I suspect your response will depend on two
things (speaking simplistically, of course): your willingness
to drop the more common expectations we have regarding
the nature of film reality and accept the legitimacy
of its "cartoon" metaphysics; and the degree
to which you think cartoons are the sole province of
I note that these days Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
has (quite rightly) become the yardstick for excellence
in this sub-genre. The interesting thing about this
is that, when it first came out, the critics weren't
nearly as unified as regards Roger's worth
as they appear to be now. Oh well. Time heals all wounds.
The old Looney Tunes cartoons were often characterised
by 'pun' titles, such as "A Star is Bored",
"One Froggy Evening", "Carrotblanca",
"Peck Up Your Troubles" and "Fresh Hare".
So, to maintain this tradition, surely Looney Tunes
Back in Action should have been called Looney
Tunes Back in Quacktion or Looney Tunes
Beak in Action?
TUNES -- BACK IN ACTION