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November 24, 2003

Sunday Afternoon at The Movies


Yesterday I took my 12-year-old daughter to see “Looney Tunes, Back in Action.” Since I had fortunately been inoculated against thinking I was going to see something wonderful by some bad reviews, I actually managed to enjoy myself. (It’s amazing what the power of low expectations can accomplish in watching movies, isn’t it?)

Sure Reminds Me of the Louvre

The film actually does have some clever tossed off jokes and asides--and one sequence of genius. At one point, Elmer Fudd chases Bugs and Daffy through the Louvre (which, since the filmmakers obviously couldn’t get permission to shoot in the real museum, was relocated to what looks like the lobby of a 1970s Burbank office building). What seems like a predictable chase sequence takes a brilliant turn when the cartoon characters run through a series of paintings and the animation takes on the corresponding visual style. In Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” where clocks droop like melted cheese slices, Elmer Fudd can’t keep his gun-barrel straight enough to blast our heroes. In Suerat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte” the characters chase each other directly into the tree-dotted view (ignoring Suerat’s modernist denial of depth) with the pointillist effect getting more pronounced the further into the painting they go (and the smaller our heros get from the spectator’s point of view.) In Munch’s “The Scream” Elmer, Bugs and Daffy are rendered in the painting’s swirling miasma of form. It’s priceless to see Elmer’s crazed and delighted expression rendered a la Munch when he thinks he finally has Bugs trapped. The contrast of facial expressions between the infantile triumphalism of Elmer and the anxt-ridden "screamer" of the painting (who of course gets in the way) is insanely witty.

Regrettably, one probably cannot get such an expensive enterprise financed purely on ticket sales to the art-buff market, so the plot rapidly descends from this lofty plane to a completely trivial exercise in preventing the evil head of the Acme corporation from taking over the world.

Only after the film was over, and, while waiting for my daughter to get out of the john, did some semi-serious thoughts cross my mind.

First, it dawned on me how much the characters, plots, and, well, just general feeling of the classic Warner Brother’s shorts depended on their restriction in time. Thinking about putting those characters into any kind of feature film plot made me realize whenever you see Bugs Bunny in a movie longer than six minutes you have already, in some way, violated his essence. The extreme concision and emotional concentration such a format demands are immediately lost in the cavernous emptiness of a feature film.

Second, it dawned on me how strange it was that “Looney Tunes, Back in Action” had worked so hard to reduce the seriousness of the original characters. In “Back in Action,” Bugs Bunny's and Daffy Duck’s rivalry is treated as a matter of star billing, limousines, and their standing with the executives at Warner Brothers. This is an incredible come-down from their relationship in the classic Warner Brothers shorts. I mean, in the old days Bugs and Daffy were rivals the way my older brother and I were rivals; the fact that my brother was 2-and-a-half years older and thus, in some mysterious way, automatically the star of the show while I was stuck being the second banana was a conflict that was woven into the very fabric of my childhood universe. It is this sense of rivalry as cruel fate that suffuses the classic “rabbit season, duck season” exchange that is reprised in “Back in Action.” In the original, Elmer Fudd is out hunting, only to be confronted by Bugs, who claims it is duck season—hence, Elmer should be hunting Daffy—and by Daffy, who of course maintains the reverse. Bugs outwits both Daffy and Elmer and maneuvers Daffy into getting blasted by Elmer’s shotgun. Now, although the cartoon carries on surrealistically from this point (so that ultimately Bugs and Daffy combine forces to hunt Elmer who has been declared “in season”) in reality we all know how this would have turned out. To wit, that the intelligent Bugs, in order to save his own neck, manipulated matters so that the overly emotional Daffy gets killed. And this submerged reality floats underneath the rest of the classic short, giving force to its Depression-era political thesis that the conflict between average-Joes like Bugs and Daffy really just benefits the big bosses, symbolized by Fudd. Whereas, “Back in Action” uses the sequence to show that the Bugs brand can’t really work without the Daffy brand, and hence they should be kept together for Warner Brother’s financial benefit. This not only trivializes the original sequence emotionally but inverts the politics of the original as well.

So, oddly, “Back in Action” does underline some interesting things about what makes the classic Warner cartoons work. Regrettably, it does so by screwing things up, but—hey, what do you expect for a lousy $8.00?



P.S. My daughter's reaction was "I didn't like that as much as I expected to." Short, and to the point.

posted by Friedrich at November 24, 2003


That's sad. 12-year olds get to see so few movies. They should like them at least as much as they expect to.

Posted by: j.c. on November 24, 2003 3:59 PM

Dont feel too bad, j.c. The LOTR part three is coming out in a couple weeks and I would bet she will be among the ranks of teeny boppers heaving sighs and giggling every time Orlando Bloom wanders onto the screen. That crowd is almost as entertaining as the movie.

Posted by: Deb on November 24, 2003 5:54 PM

The Wife and I caught the movie too, and liked it without either of us thinking it worked very well, or much at all really. I liked the museum sequence you liked but guess I responded differently to the premise, because I enjoyed the "Player"-like opening of the film. Having Bugs and Daffy squabbling over studio affairs (and seeing the other Loony Tunes characters complain about how hard it is to do comedy in an age of poltical correctness, for instance) struck me as a very funny way for the filmmakers to take a few stabs at what's become of contempo filmmaking. I mean, if even such legends as Bugs and Daffy are reduced to this ... So I was sorry when they let go of that idea and headed off onto a long action-adventure story.

How'd you respond to the mixture of live action and animation? Since I wasn't laughing much, I stared at it and tried to understand why I usually find it rather upsetting -- cognitively more than emotionally. What I decided finally is that I find it hard to imagine these characters inhabiting the same frame. I mean, there they are, in the same frame. But my mind performs different stunts -- to process a human character, it looks into and past the screen. To process a cartoon character, it lies back and lets the cartoon pop out at me. So when I look back and forth between them during, say, a dialog sequence, I'm having to shift gears 'way too often. I had the same trouble years ago with "Roger Rabbit" ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 24, 2003 11:20 PM


Don't worry, my daughter somehow found the strength to carry on.


Actually, although my 12-year-old is a big fan of LOTR, it's my 15-year-old who swoons for Orlando Bloom.


The political correctness gag was pretty funny, but the studio politics didn't do it for me. Actually, Daffy (being supremely petty) functions pretty well in a bureaucratic environment, but Bugs is a far more aristocratic character. Matter of fact, I thought the movie more or less completely failed to do Bugs as a character. Almost the only sequence that worked for Bugs was the space-swordfight with Marvin the Martian, where Bugs nonchalantly parried Marvin's thrusts while simultaneously reading "The Force for Dummies."

Actually, I spent a fair amount of time trying to crack the mystery of Jenna Elfman. She's a gorgeous gal, of course, but she has no discernable talent as an actress. Oddly, her 'talent' seems almost to be a sort of determination not to act, but to be herself on screen. (She makes it seem like an affirmation: 'See, I managed to become myself.') I wonder why she decided to become an actress at all; one would think a good deal of pleasure in taking on other people's identities would be sort of a prerequisite.

And then, of course, there's Brendan Frasier, who is interesting because his career has no precedent in Hollywood terms that I can think of.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 25, 2003 2:12 AM

You aren't a Jenna fan? I love her, although she wasn't well-photographed in the movie. She strikes me as one of those bubbly personality gals who doesn't need to do anything more than show up. As far as I'm concerned, her fizz and prettiness (those slightly crooked teeth are adorable) both deserve Oscars. And I'd like to be the one to present it.

Describing Bugs as "aristocratic" -- that's very good!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 25, 2003 2:20 AM

I'm actually quite well disposed to Ms. Elfman in movies--I couldn't handle "Dharma and Greg." I'm not kidding when I say that she makes being herself seem like an affirmation. But she needs a very different vehicle than anything I've seen her in to really make her "bag" work.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 25, 2003 2:25 AM

There is a series of children's picture books based precisely on the idea of "entering" paintings in the Louvre, by a guy named Mayhew (I think). They involve a little girl named Katie -- hence the titles "Katie Meets the Impressionists" and the like. My daughter loves them.

Posted by: Jaquandor on November 25, 2003 8:59 AM

Speaking of swooning: "And then, of course, there's Brendan Frasier, who is interesting because his career has no precedent in Hollywood terms that I can think of." What do you mean by this? Is Mr. Frasier's path markedly unlike, say, that of Keanu?

Posted by: j.c. on November 25, 2003 10:03 AM

I've watched a lot of vintage WB cartoons in the last few years, and I recall quite a few that ventured into Bugs vs Daffy vs Elmer vs Porky as Hollywood rivals. In _You Ought to Be in Pictures_, Daffy goads Porky into leaving the animation studio to try for 'dramatic' roles - so he can take Porky's place. Daffy and Porky are shown against real Hollywood scenes and personalities, such as "Termite Terrace" head Leon Schlesinger, shown agreeing to 'tear up Porky's contract'. See

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on November 30, 2003 4:41 PM

In some of the later Friz Freleng shorts, Daffy and Bugs are showbiz rivals, and it's all about the clothes, the fame, the limos, etc. Freleng was much more even-handed with the Duck than Chuck Jones, and Looney Tunes: Back in Action certainly gives Daffy his due. But I think the film really wants to invoke the spirit of Bob Clampett, which fits in with director Joe Dante's manic sensibility. (Freleng would have been a better choice; of all the WB directors, he had far and away the best timing.)

Just about every major scene in Back in Action can be traced to an old Warner Bros. cartoon. Alas, most of them were funnier the first time around.

There's a brief, brilliant outtake after the end credits which suggests that the film's best gags may have been left on the cutting-room floor.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on December 3, 2003 9:38 PM

PS: I didn't like the scene at the Louvre -- I thought it would have been a laugh riot at five minutes, but at barely a minute and a half it was too frantic. The hallway chase, with multiple versions of Bugs, Daffy and Elmer popping out of the paintings, should have lasted for a full minute at least, starting slowly and building to a frenzy. See Tex Avery's "Lonesome Lenny" (the last Screwy Squirrel cartoon) to find out how this sort of thing ought to be handled.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on December 3, 2003 9:43 PM

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