Looney Tunes: Back in Action

Bugs Bunny puts it best in his new film: “If you don’t find a rabbit in lipstick amusing, you and I have nothing to say to each other.”

I believe this sums up the merry, slapstick appeal of the old Warner Bros. cartoons, some of which is recaptured (and some of which is most assuredly not) in “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” a Roger Rabbit-ish blend of live action and animation in which the humor is sometimes as heavy as the anvils, and other times as subtle as Porky Pig’s gay subtext.

It’s a mixed bag, and even those of us who DO find a rabbit in lipstick amusing won’t love every minute of it. Looney Tunes characters were meant to appear in shorts, not feature-length films, and their charm is not generally sustainable in anything more than short bursts. An irascible duck is daffy for six minutes; after 90 minutes, he’s a headache.

The film is set in the present, in a version of reality where cartoon characters are actual beings who exist in the same world as humans. Bugs Bunny is Warner Bros.’ top draw, which irks Daffy Duck, prompting the latter into a fit which gets him fired by exec Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman). He is removed from the studio lot by security guard DJ Drake (Brendan Fraser), whom he attaches himself to as his new best friend and agent.

Daffy discovers that DJ’s dad is Damien Drake (Timothy Dalton), Warner Bros.’ most popular human and star of numerous spy films. (Dalton played James Bond in the 1980s, so you see where they’re going here.) Dad’s been taken captive in Las Vegas, however, and sends a message for DJ to come rescue him. He sets out, accompanied by Daffy and pursued by Bugs and Kate, who needs to rehire Daffy, since the ol’ comedy act isn’t working without the foil.

Whew. Turns out Dad is the hostage of Mr. Chairman, head of the evil Acme Corporation, played with exceeding fey goofiness by Steve Martin, who is clearly thinking as though he were actually a cartoon.

The plot, clearly, is not the film’s strong point, having been borrowed from “Spy Kids,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and numerous others. Still Larry Doyle’s (“Duplex,” TV’s “The Simpsons”) script is rather clever in the way it manufactures opportunities to encounter classic WB characters. Sending everyone to Las Vegas means they can run into Yosemite Sam, who now operates a Wild West-themed casino (of course!), and subsequently get lost in the desert, where they’ll naturally meet Wile E. Coyote. A trip to Paris gets them hopping through paintings in the Louvre (one of the film’s more creative sequences), and also puts them on Pepe Le Pew’s home turf.

The screenplay is packed with jokes, too, many of them in the same anarchic spirit of pop-cultural referencing as the old Looney Tunes shorts, plus some self-reference thrown in for good measure. In a lab where aliens are kept, we see a black-and-white Kevin McCarthy running through carrying a pod, crying, “They’re here! You’re next!,” just like he did in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956). Michael Jordan pops up briefly, a reference to the awful “Space Jam” (1996), which also joined WB ‘toons with humans. And when DJ gets in his car, a Gremlin, we briefly hear the music from “Gremlins” (1984), which, like this film, was scored by Jerry Goldsmith and directed by Joe Dante. (That last one’s a subtle joke; how many people even remember the music from “Gremlins”? I caught it, but how many equally subtle jokes did I miss?) There are a zillion references to a zillion movies — not rip-offs, like the plot, but references, and funny, juicy ones at that.

Dante treats the beloved characters with appropriate levels of respect and mischief. He does not betray who they are, but neither does he worship them. The various actors who provide the voices — Joe Alaskey, Bob Bergen, Billy West and June Foray among them — acquit themselves well, especially considering Foray, as the voice of Granny, is the only original cast member still alive, and the rest are doing impersonations.

It is not an outstanding film, and surely not as good as these fantastic characters deserve. But, as I said, they don’t deserve entire films at all. They deserve shorts, as those are where their assets can be best capitalized upon. But if we are to have full-length movies, then we could do worse than this one. The jokes are plentiful and not generally puerile. (Although, this being the 21st century, there simply MUST be a fart joke — well, not a joke, really. Someone farts; that’s it. More of a fart incident than a fart joke, I guess.) The personalities of these old childhood friends of our come to life outstandingly, and the humans who accompany them on film manage to avoid injury.

B- (1 hr., 30 min.; PG, some mild crude humor.)