In America, few intellectuals have time or inclination for “pop culture” auteurs, whether comic book artists, detective book writers, or low-budget movie directors. But here I was in Northern Italy, where, as in much of Europe, the educated are far more adventurous about aesthetics, floating happily from the high to the low. Therefore it was perfectly reasonable that the closing night crowd at the 21st Turin Film Festival honored, and much applauded, two incredibly disparate directorial talents: Russia’s modernist heir to Tarkovsky, Alexander Sokurov (Moloch, Mother and Son), and Hollywood’s genial genre-meister, Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins).
Sokurov flew into Turin from St. Petersburg for a monumental festival retrospective at Turin of his work. Dante came from LA to launch the mass launch across Europe of his Warner Brothers release, Looney Tunes: Back in Action. The latter combines, with Roger Rabbit abandon and imagination, live actors and animated action figures.
“Like many of you, I grew up on Tex Avery and Chuck Jones,” Dante said, introducing the Turin screening. “My movie is an antidote to the last ten years, when Bugs Bunny wasn’t up to snuff.” That includes, without Dante mentioning the ignominious title, Space Jam (1996), indifferently directed by Joe Pytka, in which Bugs, Daffy, and others were second bananas to basketball giant, Michael Jordan.
For Looney Tunes: Back in Action (hereafter “Looney Tunes”), Jordan comes off the bench for a few-second cameo. But Joe Dante, a well-known old-time movie lover and film collector, has more important, and personal, concerns. He wants to revitalize the immortal Warners cartoon characters for the new millennium, paying a sincere homage to Avery, Jones, and also to the other great animators, Bob Clampett and Frank Tashlin, through a non-stop barrage of hilariously stupid jokes and savory low-comedy sight gags. Just like in the 1930s and 1940s.
The adult audience at Turin which is attuned to classic American studio movies and also to animated humor, loved Looney Tunes. I wonder about the reception back home in the USA. Am I being cynical to believe that adults will steer clear, imagining the movie to be too silly and infantile? And ahistoric students, won’t they be confused and lost by Dante’s barrage of anarchic jokes? Children, perhaps rightly, will stay away. There are too many things blowing up and exploding every second, and there’s a dark, subterranean, un-childlike visit to Las Vegas, with Heather Locklear making an R-rated appearance as Dusty Tails, a lusty vamp.
From the beginning, Looney Tunes is a movie about movies. We’re on the actual Warner Brothers lot, where a high-powered, hyperactive studio executive (TV’s Jenna Elfman) convinces the brothers Warner (played by goofy, middle-aged twins, Don and Dan Stanton) to get rid of Daffy, who, these days, is only appreciated by “fat guys in basements.” In contrast, everyone loves, as always, Bugs Bunny. That’s what the demographics show.
That’s the setup for the comic-character world: for the rest of the movie, the exasperated, sputtering, ever-hot-tempered Duck struggles to reclaim his position as a Warner Brother star. In contrast, the unflappable Bugs gnaws on his carrot, makes funny, Groucho-like asides, and, once in a while, becomes a “drama queen,” feigning hysterics for the fun of it. Bugs also has a grand screaming fit, discovering himself suddenly in the middle of a funny, funny Psycho shower scene, including a sampling of Bernard Herrmann music.
Steve Martin, prancing about under a seedy wig and in a Peewee Herman outfit, is fairly witty as Mr. Chairman, the movie’s arch-villain. The best of the human cast is, however, Brendan Frasier as a gawky studio security guard who wants to be a stuntman. He blends easily and amiably with the animated characters and shows a Jerry Lewis-like talent at slapstick falls. That’s intentional from Joe Dante, who, in a movie bubbling with arcane movie references, includes a scene in a tune-filled convertible heading to Las Vegas, in obvious homage to a similar moment with Lewis and Martin in Frank Tashlin’s Hollywood or Bust (1956)
There’s also an animated Peter Lorre running about, plus – really terrific! – myriad minor Warners cartoon characters, including Granny, Tweety Bird, Marvin the Martian, and, greatest of them all, the frenzied Tazmanian Devil. There’s a sequence with horror filmmaker Roger Corman, and, running frantically through the movie, a paranoid Kevin McCarthy clutching a pod from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
Classic movie fans could bathe forever in Joe Dante’s fabulous flood of “in” jokes; and, post-Mel Blanc, there’s nothing to complain about with the myriad voices (Bugs, Daffy, Sylvester, etc.) of Joe Alaskey. What keeps Looney Tunes from being a great movie is the recognizable interference of today’s corporate Warner Brothers studio, imposing on the movie a confusing, wearying “quest plot” a la Lord of the Rings, a search for a blue diamond, and insisting – what else for 2003’s impatient adolescent audience? – on endless special effects. Dante’s spill of sight gags is enough, and when these are swarmed over by Warner Brothers implosive techno-tricks, the viewers (me included) get tired, our brains fried, our eyes drooping.
Joe Dante’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action is very OK, but, seeing it in Turin, I was so glad when, at last, Porky Pig claimed the screen to stutter, “Th-th-th-that’s all folks!”
© FIPRESCI 2003