In searching for the ten best films of the decade, I’ve taken a special interest in two genres that I feel are routinely given short shrift when generally thinking about the “best” films: animation and comedy. So I was happy to follow the recommendation of Keith Uhlich to watch Looney Tunes: Back in Action as part of the Best of the Decade Derby. Keith assures me that this film is highly likely to make his own top ten list (I think I know Keith well enough to predict what his list will look like: A.I., Five, Generation Kill, The House of Mirth, Inland Empire, Miami Vice, The New World…). It was fun listening to Keith take on a personal tour through Looney Tunes, especially after having watched The Incredibles, two films that seem diametrically opposed in their philosophies towards form, structure and sensibility in mainstream feature animation, as different as, say, the classic era of Warner Bros. vs. Disney. Given that I’ve been increasingly seduced by classical Hollywood form and craft (something that my re-watching of The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein shook me out of, at least momentarily), it was good for Keith to remind me of how when I was a kid I preferred the manic anarchy of Warner Bros. over the impeccable prettiness of Disney. This opposition was definitely on Joe Dante’s mind when he made this film, as Keith’s liveblog comments (with my occasional interjections) bear out:
Keith in blue (me in black):
PRE-SCREENING REMARKS BY KEITH:
Man, this DVD menu is shoddy. It reflects Warner Brothers corporate attitude towards their properties – they’re just out to cash in and make a quick buck, which Joe Dante makes as his target. This film was posited as Joe Dante’s retort to Space Jam. Once Looney Tunes became corporatized by WB, which Space Jam epitomizes, the anarchic spirit of the original was lost, and that’s what Dante is trying to recapture.
Another thing this film is about Bugs and Daffy as polar opposites. When we think about Looney Tunes, we think about Bugs Bunny and how cool he is and how he always wins in the end. This film is interesting because it’s more from the POV of Daffy, the perennial loser, which I think Dante identified with. And here I should bring up Mel Blanc. One special thing about Blanc is that he did both Bugs and Daffy, which is a really interesting duality. It’s interesting that he was able to capture the god like omnipotence of Bugs and the patheticness of Daffy just through minor modulations of his voice.
After Mel Blanc died in the 90s it’s no longer Blanc doing the voices, and I always felt there was something lacking in the replacement artists doing the voiceovers, there was always something off about them. But I think why it works here and why I don’t miss Mel Blanc’s voice in Looney Tunes: Back in Action is because of the timing. The tempo of this film is sped up and manic just like the old Looney Tunes. If you notice in recent Looney Tunes productions you notice that characters speak at normal speed and things are toned down. So Dante is trying to redress that as well.
Also, what amazes me about this film is that it plays like a grand anarchic tour through 20th century animation, fine art, music and culture at large. You really have to scour every single shot. And a lot of this should be credited not only to Dante but to animation director Eric Goldberg.
SCREENING PLAY BY PLAY:
0:01 – They were originally supposed to begin with a Batman parody but I’m glad they didn’t. Instead they jump into a reenactment of an old Looney Tunes cartoon, and they comment on it critically, with this quick montage of Daffy getting his head blasted over and over.
0:02 – This is Jenna Elfman’s best role. And I love how these two identical twin actors play the Warner brothers. And this shot of the shelf with the Lethal Weapon Babies sequel poster on the one side and the Maltese Falcon on the other. Dante is just throwing one thing at you after another. And with this kung fu demonstration, it shows Daffy has to overcompensate for everything, whereas Bugs can shut Daffy down with just the flick of his finger.
0:03 – Look at this box of Daffy’s. There’s a picture of Daffy with Nixon and a Bugs voodoo doll. It’s on the screen for just a second but it has so much going on.
0:04 – Brendan Fraser’s character gets developed through an interesting way here. He’s talking to Dick Miller and in the background is a billboard of Timothy Dalton in an action hero movie. And Dick Miller points at the billboard to identify Dalton as Fraser’s father. In a way it’s Dante saying that these screens and these images are our father, they are what we’re raised on. At least it’s true for him.
0:05 – This chase is just amazing.
KBL – It’s really good at taking the anarchy of the animation into live action.
0:06 – I love the idea of Roger Corman directing a Batman movie.
0:07 – And here’s where Dante’s anti-corporate anarchy sets in with the Batmobile knocking down the WB water tower. And this dig at Finding Nemo is where I fell in love with the movie.
0:08 – This moment here is great because you see Dick Miller dressing down Brendan Fraser. And then the camera pulls out and you can see Miller stepping down from an apple box. You can barely see it. And that’s what I love about this film, that Dante isn’t waving all the things he’s doing in your face. You get to pick them out yourself.
0:10 – In this dialogue Bugs is resisting his being commodified, so he’s taking Dante’s lead as well.
0:10 – This is kind of the 60s spy section. You see a portrait of Timothy Dalton who plays Fraser’s dad, and he’s playing a version of himself, a spy movie actor.
0:12 – This delusional rant by Daffy just nails his schizophrenia. And the film really takes off from that spirit.
0:13 – Here at the end of Dalton’s message, and the earlier meet-cute between Fraser and Elfman, there’s a moment when the film threatens to verge into sentiment, but Dante very quickly pulls out of that.
0:14 – This audio of the sputtering car (which by the way is a Gremlin, get it?) is from a vintage Mel Blanc recording, a nice touch.
0:17 – This is pure Frank Tashlin, the use of the split screen being pushed back and forth.
Now one of the problems that people have with this film is Steve Martin’s performance, which we’re about to see.
KBL: What problem do people have with Martin here?
It’s him doing his wild and crazy guy schtick. It’s very broad and Jerry Lewisy.
In this board meeting you get some random cameos – you get Mary Woronoff from the Warhol movies, you get Ron Perelman. I love how Dante is taking this big corporate Hollywood budget and lampooning it so broadly.
0:21 – This scene is a pure psycho parody, complete with a meta reference to the behind the scenes details.
KBL: It’s an example of Dante commenting on pop culture from multiple perspectives in just a matter of seconds.
“Why do you torture me” and this whole film is an act on torture on Jenna Elfman – she’s like a live action version of Daffy Duck.
Meanwhile Bugs is so carefree, that’s what I love about him. But there’s also something distancing about his power that we can’t relate to.
It’s just perfect that Bugs tells Jenna Elfman that she has no soul. Too true.
0:24 – And just the endless resourcefulness of Bugs – this is what Space Jam got wrong. Like Matt Zoller Seitz said, why would the Looney Tunes characters need Michael Jordan’s help?
0:25 – This Yosemite Sam casino – for a second I have to do a double take, because I was convinced that there is a Yosemite Sam casino in Vegas. It’s another case of the film showing all the ways that corporate entertainment can cash out on its properties.
0:27 – This movie treats Heather Locklear like a cartoon, which is just perfect.
0:28 – Look at this shot. Even when he’s focusing on plot, Dante is always trying to refocus your attention on different parts of the screen.
“How many galoshes did it take to make that luscious number?” That’s my favorite line.
0:29 – The interaction between the human and the animated characters is so effortless and transparent. It’s different than in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which kind of wears its effort on its sleeve – you can see them always commenting on the fact that the animators had to do all this work.
0:30 – I think this action sequence is amazing because you get all these different layers and depth to the set. And again, the interaction of live and animation is effortless.
0:31 – And here’s Nasty Canasta in a cameo. And a “Dogs Playing Poker” shot with all the Looney Tunes dog characters. Dante seems like he wants to include about as many Looney Tunes characters as possible.
0:32 – And there’s this great stop-on-a-dime rhythm throughout the movie. We have Yosemite Sam busting into the casino in a fury, but then taking a quick moment to kiss a rug with his picture.
0:33 – And here we have a NASCAR appearance, which is another way for Dante to acknowledge how everything is being commercialized and commoditized. And he uses this car to wreak havoc on half of Las Vegas. Like with the Batmobile, he’s turning commercialism against itself.
0:34 – “You, me, her, him” again the timing is everything in this.
0:36 – this is such a random gag – “Mother!” It’s just moving everywhere.
0:38 – Again, another case of the movie jamming our expectations of where conventional cues are supposed to take us. Here the scene is fading to black, but Jenna Elfman says “but it doesn’t work that way” and it comes back from the black.
0:38 – Now we have this scene with the two couples. And Jenna is feeling nostalgic for Dalton. But then Dante says let’s go back to Bugs and Daffy. He never wants to get too comfortable with the human characters.
KBL: Which is really challenging, and maybe why people couldn’t latch on to the movie so well, unlike with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Where you identify mainly with Bob Hoskins and you see the cartoon world through his eyes. Here you don’t have that ground to stand on.
0:39 – Here Dante shows how deft he can be with his character development – he let’s Daffy drop this quick line to Bugs: “You just munch on your carrot and people love you” and just like that Dante moves on.
This movie feels like a Technicolor movie even though it wasn’t shot on it. This shot of Jenna Elfman in a pink dress walking across the desert is just gorgeous.
0:40 – And this Wal-Mart reference is just fabulous. “Nice of Wal-mart to provide us these Wal-Mart beverages in exchange for us mentioning Wal-mart so many times.” That’s Dante having his cake and eating it too.
0:42 – And now we’re in the Wile E Coyote / Road Runner segment, and it’s flawless.
KBL: And updated to a 21st century world. I love how Wile E Coyote orders his anti-Road Runner contraptions from the ACME website.
How many comedies, animated or otherwise, use the screen in so many ways like this?
0:44 – Now we’re in the sci-fi section of the movie. I think is the section closest to Dante’s heart. Here’s Robby the Robot and Joan Cusack as Robby’s mother. And Cusack’s line delivery here is priceless: “I’ve known you ever since you were… that doesn’t make sense does it?”
KBL: Elfman: “I can’t go back to LA with duck soup.” There’s a double entendre in there – Today’s Hollywood couldn’t handle the Marx Brothers.
Dante is just cramming all these references to sci-fi movies here: Marvin the Martian, the Dalleks, even Kevin McCarthy from the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
0:47 – This is a quintessential Steve Martin delivery.
0:48 – Did you notice how they painted in the reflection of Bugs walking past the jar containing Marvin the Martian? It’s amazing that they took the care to do that, even though most people probably wouldn’t notice it.
And here’s a mention of giant ants and you hear the ant sound effects from “Them” in the background. And this tape labeled “Moon Landing Dress Rehearsal” – ha!
0:49 – This Peter Graves Mission Impossible mission debrief animation - I think it has the style of Rocky and Bullwinkle, which had its own anarchic qualities.
0:53 – So here’s the transition to the Paris/ Louvre sequence – Someone asks, “How do we get there?” And Bugs picks up a corner of the screen and pulls it like a drape, and instantly we’re in Paris. This is Dante’s way of looking at the world - it’s all screens, planes and images.
0:54 – It’s a Paris of the imagination – classic post-war American in Paris era stock footage, a shot of the Louvre with Madeline and her children walking across it.
0:55 – Even the critics against this film admire this Louvre segment. It’s really a Louvre of possibilities, where it jumps into through all these immortal works of art and plays with them. And Goldberg animates the Looney Tunes characters in the style of each painting.
KBL: And there’s a connection between the Looney Tunes aesthetic to each of these works being referenced – Dali’s surrealism, Munch’s emotional expressionism, Toulouse Lautrec’s festive energy – these are all spiritual predecessors to Looney Tunes. And the music is the perfect match – Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
Here’s Georges Seurat doing a cameo – and look at how he reacts to the Looney Tunes characters romping through his landscape. I love Elmer Fudd’s gunshots here – the way it blasts the paint off the canvas.
0:58 – Here it just goes into overdrive. All these Looney Tunes characters dressed up as famous figures in paintings: Picasso’s guitarist, Whistler’s mother, Breughel’s hunter, the Vermeer’s girl with the pearl earring, I can’t even identify the rest.
KBL: And at the end Bugs has reconstructed himself fully while Daffy is using a paint by numbers dot technique to redraw himself. Ever the divide between them.
Here’s a Jerry Lewis poster and the red balloon – the Paris references keep piling up.
And here with these production values of this action sequence are incredible – you wonder why Warner Brothers put so much money. Dante had already screwed them with Gremlins 2, so he must have done something to get back on this project. But still this film bombed big time.
1:03 – Brendan Fraser did the voice of the Tasmanian Devil.
1:04 -Now we’re in the Africa sequence. This was supposed to be the climax of the film.
Coming up is a gag that Charles Taylor criticized as why the movie doesn’t work. When Tweety bird cries out “Cry Freedom” – He thought it should have been more of a comment on African politics, but Dante treats everything as a gag. I mean look here, he follows it up with an elephant ass gag.
KBL: It feels almost profound – everything gets mixed up into a neverending stream of phenomena, and they’re happening too fast for you to get hung up on any one of them.
1:08 – The humans are largely at the mercy of the animated characters.
KBL: Again, that’s also an inversion of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where the humans are the dominant class.
1:11 – The way this ends is crazy, the WWE wrestler Goldberg unveils himself as a Tasmanian She-devil and gets married to the Tasmanian Devil.
1:13 – And now this Martian sequence which is a total digression from what happened before. I think this got added in the final stages of post-production, and seems like it was just improvised.
1:14 – This is classic Looney Tunes, this assaultive comedy.
1:17 – The carrot lightsaber – genius.
1:18 – Now Dante is indulging in some of the cross cutting of Star Wars.
1:19 – And even with the heroic rescue, Dante ends the scene with Wile E. Coyote getting blown away – his sympathies lie with them.
1:20 – And because this is Joe Dante’s picture, Daffy finally gets to become a hero.
And of course the corporate executive is reduced to a monkey.
1:21 – Here’s the sentimental piece – but what’s that out the window? Again, Dante can’t resist any chance to destroy corporate space.
And the credits – this Junior Senior track works because like the movie it keeps encouraging to have fun and it pounds it into you.