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Tuesday 18 November 2003

The Persistence of Memories:
A Review of Looney Tunes: Back in Action

by Gary Westfahl

Directed by Joe Dante
Written by Larry Doyle
Starring Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman, Timothy Dalton, Steve Martin, Heather Locklear
With the voices of Joe Alaskey, Jeff Glenn Bennett, Billy West, Erick Goldberg

Perhaps no other film in recent years is more likely to divide the generations than Looney Tunes: Back in Action. For products of the Baby Boom, or others who immersed themselves in the popular culture of the 1950s and 1960s, the film will project the warm ambience of a family reunion, as beloved icons enthusiastically return to the screen with results that are both wildly amusing and strangely moving. Younger viewers, however, may be baffled and bored by much of the movie, sitting in silence while wondering why the old man in the back row is laughing so often and so loudly at such stale and silly jokes.

From the perspective of someone who watched Warner Brothers cartoons in theaters, Larry Doyle's script is effective because he is visibly determined to replicate the strengths of those cartoons (as was not the case with the misbegotten and inchoate Space Jam). He identifies the best team of characters in the Warner pantheon — charming rascal Bugs Bunny and hapless Daffy Duck — and makes them the stars, along with obligatory human companions DJ Drake (Brendan Fraser) and Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman), relegating other familiar characters to supporting roles or cameo appearances. And he builds his story upon a powerful and recurring theme in the old cartoons: sinister technology versus appealing natural forces. The head of Acme Corporation (a gratingly over-the-top Steve Martin), assisted by minions like the gun-toting Yosemite Sam, gadget-laden Wile E. Coyote, and ray-gun-wielding Marvin the Martian, seeks to scientifically harness the power of an ancient jewel to transform the human race into monkeys — symbolizing, no doubt, how modern technology is debasing humanity. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, relying on spunk, incredible luck, and a magical ability to defy the laws of science, thwart his plans and maintain the human condition. Looney Tunes: Back in Action is thus a film that is both saturated with the tropes and imagery of science fiction and fundamentally hostile to scientific progress and all its effects. In this respect, of course, it is precisely faithful to the spirit of the 1950s science fiction films that it so respectfully references.

In other ways both overt and subtle, the film mounts an assault upon modernity. There is a poignant moment early in the film when Porky Pig and Speedy Gonzales lament the rise of political correctness, which has banished comical stutterers and Mexican stereotypes from the screen. Modern sensibilities are further ridiculed when Yosemite Sam's henchmen refuse to throw a stick of dynamite at Bugs and Daffy because "innocent bystanders could be hurt" and "it'll send the wrong message to children." The cult of celebrity is attacked with a dig at Winona Ryder — Daffy exclaims, "I'm allowed to steal! I'm a celebrity!" — and the now-common practice of "product placement" is lampooned with the abrupt appearance of a Wal-Mart in the Nevada desert, accompanied by Bugs's recitation of the company slogan. The modern Hollywood mentality is questioned when studio executive Kate meaninglessly advises Bugs that her role will be to "leverage your synergy" and later professes a desire to give up comedy to make "real movies about the human condition crammed with social relevance."

There is also special significance to the sequence that will be of greatest interest to science fiction fans: the visit to "Area 52," the secret installation where the government has long hidden the aliens from old science fiction films, such as Marvin the Martian, Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet (coyly called "Robert"), the Mutant from This Island Earth, The Man from Planet X, the pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the Ro-Man from Robot Monster, the Daleks from Doctor Who, and the flying brains from Fiend Without a Face. It is as if a soulless contemporary bureaucracy has suppressed and imprisoned not only some prominent representatives but the entire spirit of an earlier and appealingly simpler age. (The inclusion of The Man from Planet X is especially telling because, as those lucky few who have seen the film will recall, that alien was never menacing, only desperately seeking assistance for his dying race, though he was cruelly misused by the sleazy scientist he stumbles upon; today, fifty years later, he is only one of several victims of the modern scientific establishment, sealed in a Mason jar.) It is also ironic that, when I saw the film, the previews featured some of today's slick, sophisticated confections, which one might assume would appeal to the audience of Looney Tunes: Back in ActionHarry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Cat in the Hat, Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, and The Polar Express. Yet this film from director Joe Dante (who has in other films flaunted an unabashed nostalgia) fondly celebrates an era of filmmaking when special effects might involve a man wearing an ape suit and a diving helmet or a model of a brain on a string being yanked across the room to land on someone's face.

If the problem is unchecked technology and the accompanying burgeoning of the corporate mentality, the solution is to go back in time and recover the innocence and individuality of the past — which the film proceeds to do, in symbolic fashion. Fittingly, all filmed settings for the animated action are unapologetically phony environments — a Hollywood set, glitzy Las Vegas, and a stereotypical France and Darkest Africa — but there is a clear sense of backward movement. The characters seem to arrive in the Las Vegas of the 1970s, filled with neon lights, nonstop gambling, and racy shows, but lacking the theme parks and family-oriented attractions that have recently dominated the scene; one sees a sign for Treasure Island, but not its pirate ships engaged in staged sea battles. The film's Paris, introduced by grainy stock footage, is a compendium of clichéd images right out of the Pepe Le Pew cartoons of the 1950s — women in berets, men in striped shirts, sidewalk cafés, balloons, and little girls like Madelaine walking behind their Mother Superior. And the characters' trek through the jungle on an elephant's back to an ancient African ruin recalls the jungle films and serials of the 1930s and 1940s — just as the climactic battle in space recalls the silliness of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers far more than the realism of Destination Moon. This is a story about people and animals seeking guidance by returning to their roots — as announced when Tweety observes a flock of multi-colored Tweety birds while in Africa and says he has discovered his "roots."

Looney Tunes: Back in Action is also frankly backward-looking in its overall style of entertainment, derived from the pratfalls and puns of vaudeville comics, the perils of stage melodrama, and the songs and dances of the Ziegfeld Follies. It is not coincidental that Bugs at one point dons the glasses and fake moustache of Groucho Marx, or that a briefly-liquefied Daffy is described as "Duck Soup"; it is not surprising that one crisis involves DF's father Damian Drake tied to the railroad track while the train relentlessly approaches. Despite snippets of rock songs like "Play That Funky Music, White Boy" and "Viva Las Vegas," the film's music is generally that of the pre-rock era, like a show tune from Dusty Tails (Heather Locklear) and a bit of Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon." It is in these respects that the film will most likely alienate the young viewers usually regarded as the main audience for animated films; after all, how many eight-year-olds today know who Groucho Marx was and what he looked like, or recognize the voice of Frank Sinatra?

Despite the ways in which the film invites analysis as a rejection of the present and validation of the past, there is one other persistent theme that is hard to ignore: two-dimensional images and their impact on our lives. Throughout the film, whenever there is a wall or flat surface in the background, there are pictures of some kind to be fleetingly observed. The Warner Brothers offices are adorned with Bugs Bunny posters; outside, studio workers carry a large backdrop of a hallway, which Daffy enters into and DF crashes through; the walls of Damian Drake's house are covered with tapestries, paintings, and posters of his spy films, virtually providing a history of wall decoration; Yosemite Sam pauses while chasing Bugs and Daffy to kiss his own image on a casino rug; and French streets sport posters advertising Jerry Lewis movies, mocking that country's much-derided fondness for the comedian. These pictures we constantly see both reflect our influence and influence us. Three-dimensional people, by being photographed or filmed, are reduced to two-dimensional images; and in this film and in our imaginations, two-dimensional images can break free of their Flatlands and become three-dimensional beings. The ubiquitous comic device of a cartoon character being flattened by a steamroller or a falling object suddenly seems to suggest the first process, just as their inevitable bouncing back to normal dimensions suggests the second process.

The interactive relationship between creature and image is most clearly conveyed by the film's most striking sequence, in the Louvre Museum, when Bugs and Daffy are chased by Elmer Fudd into and out of some famous paintings, such as Salvador Dali's Persistence of Memory, Edvard Munch's The Scream, and George Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, briefly assuming each painting's distinctive style. When Fudd emerges from the last work still looking pointillistic, Bugs can blow him away like bits of dust with a small fan. For those who choose to think about such scenes, serious questions can arise. Can people really become images, and can images really become people? Can an actor like Brendan Fraser, increasingly devoting his limited talents to cartoon movies and cartoon-like movies, effectively transform himself into a living cartoon? Have the characters of Looney Tunes, by virtue of being such major figures in popular culture for so long, effectively transformed themselves in some sense into real beings? Is it less than entirely absurd, for example, to truly feel sorry for Speedy Gonzales, the one star of the classic era to be entirely exiled from recent revivals, and to fervently wish that he might be brought back into the fold in some sanitized form? Is this two-dimensional pageant of imaginary characters created by teams of artists in some circuitous fashion asserting its own reality?

Perhaps this is all critical hyperventilating, and the message here is far less provocative: just as the film displays works of art, and as its characters merge with works of art, we are invited to consider this film itself as a work of art. Certainly, if nothing else, Looney Tunes: Back in Action is a film that invites and even requires repeated viewings to appreciate all of its fine touches, some of them barely discernible even to the most careful of viewers. It is difficult to notice that Damian Drake has earned an MTV Movie Award, that the Acme vice president who asks a rhetorical question is identified as "VP: Rhetorical Questions," or that the African lava pit is fronted by a dusty sign, "Lifeguard Off Duty." But one example especially suggests the film's richness of detail: to explain the film's McGuffin, a character in the secretive Area 52 reaches for the top videotape on a stack of four videotapes, the one labeled "Blue Monkey," and that's all I saw on first viewing. Watching the movie again, I noticed the tape below that one was labeled "Moon Landing Rehearsal Tape," referring to another popular conspiracy theory. What the labels on the other two tapes say, however, will remain a mystery to me until I can watch the movie a third or fourth time — as I am sure to do someday, being a person on the right side of the generation gap to fully appreciate its many virtues.

Gary Westfahl is the author, editor, or co-editor of twelve books about science fiction and fantasy, most recently Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy and Unearthly Visions: Approaches to Science Fiction and Fantasy Art. He writes a bimonthly column for the science fiction magazine Interzone, and is the 2003 recipient of the Pilgrim Award for lifetime contributions to SF and fantasy scholarship.

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