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Since 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.

Sure, 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.

But 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.

Like 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.

In 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!

As 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.

Looney 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 Tunes inheritance.

The 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.

And 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 an achievement.

Sure, 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 heritage.

Clearly, 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 kids.

Postscript: 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.

Note: 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?





Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Year: 2003

Studio: Warner Bros.

Language: English

Running Time: 87 mins

Director: Joe Dante

Writer: Larry Doyle


Brendan Fraser
Jenna Elfman
Steve Martin
Timothy Dalton
Heather Locklear
Joan Cusack
Bill Goldberg
Don Stanton
Dan Stanton
Dick Miller
Roger Corman
Kevin McCarthy
Jeff Gordon
Matthew Lillard
Mary Woronov
Marc Lawrence
Bill McKinney
George Murdock
Robert Picardo
Ron Perlman
Vernon Wells
Leo Rossi

and others, including:

Daffy Duck
Bugs Bunny
Yosemite Sam
Marvin the Martian
The Coyote
The Roadrunner
Porky Pig
Elmer Fudd
The Singing Frog
etc. etc.

Rating: 8/10


Internet Movie Database

Movie website

Rotten Tomatoes

An excellent (and intelligent!) review from Gary Westfahl on Locus Online.

Daffy and some of the aliens inhabiting Area 52

copyright©Robert Hood 2004

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