Soon after the comedy "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" opens, Daffy Duck riffles through another script in which he gets the short end of the carrot stick. Seated at the head of a mile-long table lined with strikingly inanimate human movie executives, Daffy erupts in a lathering outrage. As a warhorse in the Warner Bros. animation stable, the fowl has a right to be stewed, but because Daffy is fated to play the sidekick — the loner, the loser, the spluttering existential dupe — the duck will again be plucked within a feather of his life.
Daffy gets a reprieve from his usual sidekick ignominy in this latest Warner Bros. animation, if for no other reason that he gobbles up far more screen time than his friendly fluffy-tailed foe, Bugs Bunny. Director Joe Dante ("Gremlins") likes Bugs plenty, but his sympathies clearly lie with Daffy, the greatest anthropomorphic creation to come out of the studio's cartoon department. Introduced in 1937, the crazy duck with the breakaway bill quickly became a studio fixture, a whir of neurotic tics and fears with an escalating near-death wish. Indeed, Dante opens "Looney Tunes" with a reprise of the Chuck Jones cartoon in which Bugs hoodwinks Daffy ("rabbit season, duck season!") into getting his head repeatedly blasted by Elmer Fudd's shotgun.
Despite nearly losing his head a few times, the duck never goes truly amok in this cartoon-human hybrid, but at least he isn't playing sidekick to a pair of buck teeth and a carrot — or egregious product placements. (Except that shameless plug for Wal-Mart and, of course, Warner Bros. itself.) Enlivened by sly jabs and almost enough unabashed movie love to plug the plot holes, Dante's movie signals a distinct improvement over the dreary synergy of "Space Jam," principally because of the gentle good humor of its director, goofy nonsense from screenwriter Larry Doyle (a "Simpsons" alum) and its state-of-the-art wizardry. Pitched wider and lower than "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," "Looney Tunes" doesn't have much on its addled mind other than pure entertainment, and on this level it succeeds quite nicely.
The story is the least of it. Brendan Fraser plays a Warner Bros. security guard with delusions of stunt man grandeur, while Jenna Elfman, another actor with a ductile kisser and fine comic timing, plays the witchy studio executive who fires Daffy, setting the film's lumbering Rube Goldberg plot in motion. There's more — Steve Martin and the glorious Joan Cusack included — but mostly there are just giggles, most of which seem pitched to the boomers and post-boomers who will presumably be escorting the film's youngest fans to matinees. Austin Powers would yawn at the limp James Bond riffs, and so will the kids, but the nostalgic nods to the likes of Robby the Robot are winning, as are the jolts of movie mania. (When else has Warhol superstar Mary Woronov shared the screen with Tweety Bird?)
One of the richest gags features Dante's onetime mentor, producer Roger Corman, directing a Batman flick on the Warners lot. The idea that the King of the Bs would be entrusted with one of the studio's biggest franchises is pretty funny, but as a meta-commentary on the realities of modern moviemaking, which finds studios like Warners principally dedicated to producing wildly inflated B movies, it's divine.
"Looney Tunes" is less overtly personal than Dante's under-appreciated 1998 comedy, "Small Soldiers," in which some toys wage real war on their enemies and lay bare the hypocrisies of armchair warmongering. Dante and Doyle crack wise about monkey-like consumers, product placement and even child labor in this new film, but there's only so far they can push such lucrative studio brands as Bugs and Daffy. The original Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies characters were among the most subversive creations ever unleashed by a studio and however amusing their retooled progeny pale by comparison. As Porky Pig — oops, I mean the Weight-Challenged Swine — wistfully confesses at one point, it's tough being politically incorrect these days. As Dante knows from experience it's even tougher when you're correct.
'Looney Tunes: Back in Action'
MPAA rating: PG, for some mild language and innuendo
Times guidelines: No more racy than the old Looney Tunes
Brendan Fraser ... D.J. Drake/himself
Jenna Elfman ... Kate
Steve Martin ... Mr. Chairman
Timothy Dalton ... Damien Drake
Joan Cusack ... Mother
Warner Bros. Pictures presents a Baltimore/Spring Creek/Goldmann Pictures production, released by Warner Bros. Director Joe Dante. Producers Paula Weinstein, Bernie Goldmann. Writer Larry Doyle. Director of photography Dean Cudney. Production designer Bill Brzeski. Editors Marshall Harvey, Rick W. Finney. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes.
In general release.