Remove the Duck: Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)
Joe Dante. His name brings to mind images of gremlins, far out concepts and visuals, and breaking from the Status Quo. He's a filmmaker who's work is always its own thing, never feeling like anything but a Joe Dante film. So who better to resurrect the Looney Tunes for a new generation back in 2003? Sure they'd always been in the public consciousness, but it had been a few years since the box office juggernaut of Space Jam and the time was right, or so thought Warner Bros.
A love letter to longtime fans of the Looney Tunes, Looney Tunes: Back in Action is a classic action/adventure featuring everyone's favorite rabbit and duck, Bugs Bunny & Daffy Duck. Much like 1996’s Space Jam, these iconic characters are thrown into the real world, interacting with human actors using state of the art visual effects. But unlike the aforementioned Michael Jordan vehicle, these Tunes act like those we know and love. Dante understands the Looney Tunes like few others and it shows. Whereas Space Jam does not exactly hold up in retrospect, Back in Action most definitely does. Space Jam made modern and “hip” changes to the characters that didn't sit well with longtime fans but Dante's picture treats them with a reverence that was lost in their previous outing. Sure the star power of Brendan Fraser and Jenna Elfman can't really match up to Michael Jordan, the most popular athlete in the world, but they're more in tune (pun intended) with Chuck Jones and Tex Avery's creations.
Essentially a spy movie starring the Looney Tunes, Back in Action tells the hilarious story of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck trying to rescue super spy Damien Drake (Timothy Dalton) from the evil clutches of Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin) head of the nefarious Acme Corporation. Dalton is great here playing a straight up parody of his James Bond character, far more over the top than his iteration ever was. It's such a delight to see him back in the role of a super spy that you can't help but smile. Steve Martin on the other hand is certifiable as Mr. Chairman. Basically playing a live action cartoon, a 10 year old in an adult’s body, he's a powerful buffoon of the highest order. With his ridiculously exaggerated voice and boardroom of Dante regulars as his underlings, he's clearly having the time of his life here barking orders at Yosemite Sam and Wile E. Coyote. It's the way that Dante employs these classic villains that make the whole film worthwhile, you can just sense the love on the screen.
With a crazy production history that started as a follow-up to Space Jam, it was changed to Spy Jam after Jordan declined to come back for a sequel. Spy Jam would've starred Jackie Chan, but that was also cancelled with Warner Bros. not sure what to do with their characters. Meanwhile throughout the 90s Dante was trying to make a Chuck Jones biopic over at HBO which lost steam when WB wanted to update their property with Space Jam, throwing a wrench in all of Dante's plans. Eventually WB came to Dante for their Space Jam follow-up and even though a lot of his original ideas were dashed by the company brass, he was thankfully able to keep the original personalities of the Tunes and stuff a ton of gags into the film. From a rousing heist in Las Vegas, to a painting jumping sequence in the Louvre, Back in Action is pure Looney Tunes through and through.
That Louvre portion of the movie is legendary and with good reason. Bugs and Daffy are cornered in the famous museum by Elmer Fudd and to escape they jump from painting to painting, taking on the art styles of the masterpieces they hide in. It's visual fantasy that's tough to beat and leads to some of the best jokes in the Looney Tunes canon. From there we get even more exciting action and chase sequences as the Tunes chase the Blue Monkey, the film's MacGuffin, all around the world and to outer space! This takes us to my personal favorite part of the movie wherein Daffy takes on his Duck Dodgers persona to go against Marvin the Martian (my favorite Looney Tune). Here we get a hilarious space battle that brings to mind their battles from the Jones and Avery days.
Unfortunately Back in Action wasn't a box office success and only received middling reviews upon release. Making about ten million dollars shy of its 80 million dollar budget, it would be the last film released by Warner Bros. Animation, a casualty of a studio with exactly no idea how to handle their legacy. For Dante it was a torturous production and marked the end of big budget filmmaking for one of the most visionary directors of his generation. In recent years Back in Action has received a bit of a critical reappraisal and has been more embraced by fans of the classic cartoons. It really is a wonder of a cinematic experience and if you love the Looney Tunes as much as I do, it'll be hard not to succumb to its charms.