Daffy Duck is sick of playing second fiddle to cartoon superstar Bugs Bunny. Refused a salary increase, Daffy throws a tantrum and D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser), a security guard and aspiring stuntman, is ordered to throw him off the lot. The duck creates chaos on the set of Roger Corman’s Batman (!) and gets poor D.J. fired. However, Daffy and D.J. are soon embroiled in an adventure, as it transpires the latter’s father, Damien Drake (Timothy Dalton), is really a spy and being held captive by the evil Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin), head of the infamous ACME Corporation. To rescue his dad, D.J. must recover the Blue Monkey, a magical jewel that turns people into monkeys, before the ACME agents get their mitts on it. Meanwhile, cynical studio executive Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman) discovers Warner Bros. cartoons don’t work without Daffy. She and the ever super-cool Bugs trail Daffy and D.J. from Hollywood to Las Vegas, to the alien-infested “Area 52” (Area 51 being an elaborate hoax), and eventually into outer space.
Seven years after the lacklustre, but lucrative Space Jam (1996), Warner Bros.’ cartoon critters return to the big screen under the more capable direction of Joe Dante. Those of us who grew up loving Bugs and Daffy - and loathed seeing them play second fiddle to Michael Jordan - will find much to relish here. Bugs is as appealing as ever and does stuff (outfoxing a Dalek, duelling lightsabers with Marvin the Martian) straight out of childhood dreams. Daffy is finally done justice onscreen after far too long. Dante reconciles the duelling halves of his personality: the pre-Chuck Jones Daffy (irrepressibly zany) and post-Jones (neurotic loser) come together to create an intriguingly rounded personality. There is a certain pathos in Daffy’s lament that Bugs always outshines him, and the duck even gets to save the day. Regrettably, the script isn’t as ambitious or impeccably structured as Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), but does evoke the helter-skelter lunacy of the Warner shorts. Studio interference meant Dante had to redraft the story several times, while executives even questioned why Bugs has to say “What’s up, doc?”
Rather ingeniously, Dante turns these problems into gags and subtext. Kate’s scepticism clashes with Bugs’ cartoon logic, Yosemite Sam can’t throw dynamite because “It’ll send the wrong message to kids”, corporate thinking and product placement are spoofed (“It was nice of Wal-mart to give us these fine Wal-mart products in return for as saying Wal-mart all the time”, quips Bugs). Joe Dante was always a great blockbuster filmmaker. He delivers action (the car chase through Las Vegas, a leap off the Eiffel Tower), special effects (a nifty, giant robo-dog) and inspired visuals (the outstanding Louvre sequence) - everything audiences want from a big summer movie, but always packs in a little more. In-jokes include D.J.’s Gremlin car (accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith’s Gremlins theme music); a caricatured Paris with beret-clad Frenchmen, Madeline-like schoolgirls and posters for Jerry Lewis movies everywhere; and cameos from Dante’s repertory company of sci-fi icons: Kevin McCarthy (in black and white, clutching an alien pod from Invasion of the Bodysnatchers!), Dick Miller, Robert Picardo, Mary Woronov and Ron “Hellboy” Perlman.
McCarthy appears in the wonderful Area 52 sequence, sure to make many a genre fan smile with glee. Robby the Robot lends a helping hand as Bugs and Daffy tangle with Fifties/Sixties creature feature stars: the Man from Planet X, the Ro-Man from Robot Monster, Daleks, Triffids, and the mutant from This Island Earth. Joan Cusack does a stellar turn here as a kindly scientist (on familiar terms with Robby, so she calls him ‘Robert’). She fits so well into the spirit of the movie, one wishes she’d been the female lead. Jenna Elfman is saddled with a shrill, argumentative character she isn’t able to do much with. Brendan Fraser interacts better with his cartoon co-stars and Timothy Dalton musters moments of dry wit, even whilst slapping himself silly as a remote-controlled zombie. Heather Locklear’s brief appearance is a mystery, since she’s scarcely believable as a human being, let alone a country singing sensation/super-spy.
Steve Martin isn’t so much over the top as beyond the stratosphere. After a decade restraining himself in middle-brow fare he seems fit to burst. It’s an oafish, cartoonish performance, but then again, this is Looney Tunes. You want subtle, try Ken Loach.
The jungle sequence is where the movie really sags (although Dean Cundey’s cinematography remains exemplary throughout). Originally intended as the climax, Dante attempts to paper over the cracks of his rewritten scenario with some strained, nonsensical gags. Though he successfully skewers Space Jam via a split-second cameo from Michael Jordan (mocked by Daffy), Dante falls prey to that bane of modern blockbusters: a guest appearance from an irritating professional wrestler. Fortunately, things recover for the rousing, rewritten climax in outer space when Bugs and Daffy at last take centre stage. It’s a riot of flying saucers, rocket packs and Bugs’ twirling lightsaber.
Looney Tunes is more a brave effort than a total success. The scrappy nature of the final product reflects Dante’s struggles behind the screen, but faithfulness to the characters and a sincere desire to entertain family audiences count in its favour. It’s a step in the right direction, so here’s hoping the next Bugs Bunny movie gets things completely right.
American director of science fiction and horror, a former critic who got his big break from Roger Corman directing Hollywood Boulevard. Piranha was next, and he had big hits with The Howling and Gremlins. But his less successful films can be as interesting: Explorers didn't do as well as he had hoped, but illustrated the love of pop culture that is apparent in all his work.