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'Looney Tunes' scatters the laughs
Pity poor Daffy Duck, eternal also-ran of Warners' world.
He tries so very hard, sputtering and shouting, boasting and plotting, and yet his best is always second-best -- at best.
As we see in Looney Tunes: Back in Action, the desperate duck resents playing second fiddle to Bugs Bunny, who doesn't even consider Daffy competition.
While Daffy is working his tail feathers off to outmaneuver our "cwazy wabbit," Bugs plays it cool, displaying an almost aristocratic assurance in his top-toon status. Just as Mickey Mouse is untroubled by the outbursts of Disney's duck, Donald, Bugs knows that, at Warner Bros., he's the king of cartoon comedy.
As Back in Action begins, we find Daffy at a corporate powwow, attempting to convince the Warner brothers (who, here, look like Larry "Bud" Melman twins) that he's meant for finer things than being Bugs' perpetual stooge. But the brothers and their top execs are having none of it.
Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman), their humorless V.P. of Comedy, feels that Daffy's fan base is limited to "angry fat guys in basements." She insists that the duck be canned. And thanks to her winning track record, including such hits as Lethal Weapon Babies, he is.
Daffy recovers quickly and heads off to Las Vegas, where adventure awaits. Meanwhile, Bugs, who is smart enough to know he needs Daffy as a foil, sets out after him.
Back in Action, then, becomes a "road picture" -- The Road to Vegas (By Way of Toontown)? -- in the free-and-easy tradition of the ones starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Ski-billed Daffy, of course, is Hope to Bugs' cottontail Der Bingle.
As you may have gathered, this is the sort of movie, like Space Jam and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, in which toons and humans mingle. So both Daffy and Bugs are saddled with people as sidekicks. (The tradition also includes You Ought to Be in Pictures, the 1940 short in which Daffy persuades Porky Pig to quit cartoons.)
Traveling with Daffy is DJ Drake (Brendan Fraser), a security-guard-cum-stuntman whose surname means "a male duck." With Bugs is Kate, who has had a change of heart about Daffy and whose overbite gives her a rabbity look.
DJ's father, Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton), turns out to be a movie star who is famous for such 007-type adventures as More is Never Enough and Licence to Spy. Damian is also a real spy who has been captured by evildoers.
So it's up to DJ and Daffy, eventually aided by Kate and Bugs, to save him.
It's implicit that their mission also includes making us laugh. And in a scattershot way, they accomplish that.
Back in Action, which opens today, is too long by at least 20 minutes and is hampered by too many cameos, both toon and human. Cartoon characters from Pepe Le Pew to Marvin the Martian to Yosemite Sam pop up when you least expect them, as do such human stars as Joan Cusack and Heather Locklear.
Steve Martin tries a bit too hard in the role of the fiendish, foppish chairman of the Acme Corp., which, you will recall, makes all those faulty contraptions that Wile E. Coyote uses to no avail against the Road Runner. It's the chairman and his henchmen, we discover, who have kidnapped DJ's dad.
The plot is overly convoluted: There's something lame in there about the elusive Blue Monkey Diamond and its ability to make people go ape.
Still, at times, the film is achingly funny.
You have to laugh, for example, when you see the stuttering Porky and the Mexican Speedy Gonzales sitting together in the studio commissary and complaining about what political correctness has done to their careers.
A takeoff on the shower scene in Psycho is funny, as is a passage in which our heroes spot a Wal-Mart in the desert.
"Is it a mirage," someone asks, "or just product placement?"
There's also a visually impressive sequence, set in the Louvre, in which Daffy and Bugs find themselves transported into - and transformed by -- such classic, highly stylized works of art as Dali's "The Persistence of Memory" and Munch's "The Scream."
Back in Action was directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins), who understands the antic spirit of cartoons but has less of a grasp of the rhythms of a feature-length film. In a perfect world, he would be making innovative animated shorts.
The ramshackle script is by former Simpsons hand Larry Doyle: That Wal-Mart gag, among others, seems culled from the playbook of Homer & Co.
By the end of the movie, you realize that, for once, Bugs has taken a back seat to Daffy. That in itself makes this film a sort of landmark.
In fact, at its funniest, Looney Tunes: Back in Action is so much fun that you dearly wish it all could be that good.
You leave the theater smiling, but also with a question:
That's all, folks?
Jay Boyar can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5492.