My World of Flops Fuck Space Jam Case File #119/My Year of Flops #16 Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)
If you consider Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies and the early short films of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck sacred, as I do, then the 1996 blockbuster Space Jam represents nothing short of cultural heresy. Those monsters took the purest icons of American anarchy this side of Groucho Marx and transformed them into soulless jock shills for Michael Jordan Incorporated and the Nike corporation.
I watched in horror and disbelief as Bugs and Daffy’s cherished legacy mutated into such strange beasts as the weirdly ubiquitous, beloved bootleg tee-shirts of Bugs Bunny and the Tasmanian devil posing in Hip Hop gear of the early 1990s, more specifically oversized cross-color style jerseys with their names on them, baseball hats and outsized jeans worn backward, Kriss Kross-style, that were somehow fashionable in my high school and group home despite objectively being some of the ugliest shit ever, and Space Jam, which was just as ugly and tacky on a spiritual and aesthetic level.
Despite desecrating what the mad geniuses of Termite Terrace created with Looney Tunes, Space Jam was a sizable hit at the box office, an even bigger smash on home video and a blockbuster in terms of merchandising. It left a big cultural footprint that enraged old-school Looney Tunes worshippers like myself because it was so hopelessly off-brand even if it was most assuredly an official production.
Space Jam’s creative crimes can’t begin to compare to the moral transgression of giving R. “I Believe I Can Fly” a whole lot of walking-around and sustaining-a-sex-cult money but they are formidable and unforgivable all the same. Jordan and director Joe Pykta, who infamously directed Space Jam, then descended back into hell, made a Looney Tunes movie for jocks, for sports fans, for conformists, for proud consumers. They made a Looney Tunes movie that was no kind of a Looney Tunes movie at all.
The proud, anarchic spirit of Looney Tunes cried out for revenge. It called out for a hero to restore the balance of the universe by creating a new Looney Tunes live-action/animated film good enough to atone karmically for the enduring insult that is Space Jam. Into the fray stepped Joe Dante, the beloved cult filmmaker who has blessed the world with Hollywood Boulevard, Piranha, The Howling, Gremlins, Innerspace, The Burbs, Explorers, Gremlins 2 and Matinee. In other words, a fuck ton of seriously good movies. Classics, even. Movies that make the world a better, colorful place, if only because the late Dick Miller was in all of them and that man was only ever a blessing.
Dante’s creative comeback movie for the tribe of animated icons people like Frank Tashlin and Robert Clampett and Chuck Jones helped make underdog, countercultural heroes would be the opposite of Space Jam. It would remove the gang from the incongruous and incorrect context of a big-screen sneaker ad/inspirational basketball movie for small children and put them on the much surer footing of a gleeful, post-modern satire lampooning movies, pop culture, consumerism, their corporate masters at Warner Brothers and themselves.
Dante reportedly enjoyed little to nothing in the way of creative freedom from a studio whose idea of a successful Looney Tunes movie was Space Jam. It’s a shame Dante had to fight the studio and its soulless, mercenary vision for the film but it was a noble fight and a fight that ultimately proved more successful than Dante might think.
The beloved cult auteur wastes no time putting his inimitable stamp on the material. Within the first ten minutes alone we have the requisite Dick Miller cameo, a Roger Corman cameo and a disgruntled Daffy waxing grandiloquently about Bugs Bunny being nothing more than a “miscreant perpetrator of low burlesque.”
Back in Action depicts Bugs and Daffy’s relationship, not unrealistically or unfairly, as an endless gauntlet of humiliations, kabooms and frustrations, with the Duck perpetually playing the fool. As the film opens, he’s angrily demanding to be treated with dignity and respect, and is promptly fired and tossed off the lot for his effrontery.
The unemployed waterfowl joins forces with D.J Drake (Furry Vengeance’s Brendan Fraser), the under-achieving security guard/stuntman son of Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton), who is at once an actor famous for playing a super spy like the actor playing him and an actual super-spy whose onscreen life as a 007-like secret agent mirrors his offscreen life as a glamorous crime-fighter.
Why was Dalton so oddly charmless, humorless and grim playing James Bond yet so consistently charming, funny and effervescent playing James Bond-like characters everywhere else, including here?
Warner Brothers soon comes to see that despite everybody’s not wholly unmotivated dislike for Daffy Duck, they need that ineffable chemistry between Bugs and Daffy in order to succeed. So while Bugs is forever the marquee name in their double act Daffy is the one with the actual emotional arc here, although that sounds awfully grandiose for what is essentially a rollicking series of vignettes loosely connected by a search for the Blue Monkey diamond, a magical jewel with the ability to transform people into monkeys.
Bugs Bunny is consistent in wanting Daffy back from the start of the film to its close, which seems suspiciously magnanimous for the world’s biggest, best smartass. It's Daffy who needs to learn to put his ego and need to not to be continually humiliated aside for the sake of the team.
The Chairman (Steve Martin), the cartoonish head of Acme wants to use the diamond to transform humanity into monkeys for what is really a very poorly thought out plan involving selling humanity the things they themselves produce while in monkey form and is not shy about using cartoon conspirators to help him with his dastardly plans, including corrupt casino owner Yosemite Sam as well as a certain “desert operative” with a famously poor record for hunting roadrunners.
The older I get the more of myself I see in Daffy Duck. He’s painfully neurotic, perpetually overcome with jealousy, desperate for validation and attention and a goddamn mess most of the time. Bugs Bunny, in sharp contrast, is cool and collected, sarcastic, funny and unflappable. Bugs Bunny is who we want to be. He’s who we think we are in our fantasies. Daffy is who we actually are.
Back in Action is wonderfully dense with comic detail, like a throwaway gag where a despondent Daffy Duck packs up his belongings after getting the old heave-ho from Warner Brothers and nestled inside his box of shame is a photograph of a chummy, smiling Daffy with Bob Hope and Richard Nixon or having the famously cheap Corman, Dante’s mentor, fret about expenses in his cameo as the director of a Batman movie DJ crashes, or having the streets of Paris covered with posters for multiple obscure Jerry Lewis movies.
Paris is the setting for the film’s most sublime scene, a sequence that finds Yosemite Sam chasing Bugs, Daffy, DJ and into a painting of Salvador Dali, during which their perpetually flexible bodies drip and distort and mutate to match the surrealist’s style and then Munch’s “The Scream” and Seurat’s "Sunday in the Park.”
This bravura set-piece is nearly matched by an equally inventive one at Area 52, a secret base run by Mother (Joan Cusack) where the government keeps all of the aliens they’re hiding from society, including Robby the Robot and Marvin the Martian, who institutes a long-overdue rebellion against their human captors.
The technology in Looney Tunes: Back in Action comes in two forms: there’s the often faulty cartoon contraptions of Acme and there’s the actual contraptions of 2003, computers and flip phones and televisions so clumsy and weird-looking that it’s an absolute wonder that we as a civilization accomplished anything with such primitive computer tools at our disposal. Christ, we didn’t have iPhones we could stare at blankly for hours at a time, losing ourselves in an empty, frivolous online world in a desperate attempt to keep the horrors of the real world at bay.
Were we ever that young? Back in Action is a little lacking in star-power for a Looney Tunes movie of its budget. Space Jam had Michael Jordan, Bill Murray and Danny DeVito. This has an exceedingly game, likable Fraser in his element playing a big, goofy kid when not spoofing his Mummy adventure hero persona and Jenna Elfman as Warner Brother’s Vice President of Comedy back when she was totally a thing that was happening. In the flashy, ostensibly scene-stealing role of sexy spy/pop star Dusty Tails, Back in Action has to settle for Heather Locklear, who was a big soap opera star in the 80s and 90s but not at the peak of her star-power in 2003.
Watching Back in Action I couldn’t help but ponder what a non-compromised, raunchier and weirder 1970s version of this material with Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn in the human leads and Peter Sellers as the villain might look and feel like but for all of the compromise and frustration that went into making this box-office flop I was very happy with the movie we ultimately got.
I did not give Looney Tunes: Back in Action a terribly good review upon its theatrical release but I haven’t just warmed to it over time: I now love it. Then again, I think I’m a softer touch these days. When I worked as a professional film critic I came to movies like Looney Tunes: Back in Action with an eye towards finding something to criticize. When I write about movies like that today it’s almost invariably with an eye towards discovering something worth loving and celebrating unreservedly and Back in Action, for all of its imperfections, is very much worthy of that kind of affection and attention
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