Madcap comedy is harder than it looks, especially when the task involves stretching what normally plays as a controlled burst into feature length. That’s the challenge that ultimately derails “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” a not-inventive-enough romp that belches out gags at a rapid-fire clip but connects so sporadically as to leave the audience enervated but only sparingly entertained. While seeing some of the Looney Tunes characters is always fun, and pic is diverting enough for small fry, adult appeal is limited, which should inhibit box office amid a spate of pre-holiday releases aimed at the family crowd.
Director Joe Dante’s love affair with Warner Bros. cartoons has been evident since “Gremlins” and his portion of “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” and he clearly brings considerable enthusiasm to this blend of live-action and animation. Even what might be called his repertory company — Dick Miller, Kevin McCarthy and director Roger Corman — tags along for the ride.
Yet redundant as it might sound for a project that showcases good ol’ 2-D cell animation, for the most part, “Looney Tunes” comes across as flat as Wile E. Coyote after a boulder lands on him, unable to sustain the merriment better encapsulated in a six-minute cartoon format.
Moreover, it’s been 15 years since “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” with similarly themed fare such as “Space Jam” and “Scooby Doo” in between. So with the novelty of seeing Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and their resilient brethren interact with flesh-and-bone actors relatively old hat, the story requires more giggles — and not just the odd knowing smile — than Dante and Larry Doyle (the one credited writer) deliver.
The premise again involves a world where animated characters live alongside human counterparts, with Bugs and Daffy representing two of the Warner Brothers’ (played by twins Don and Dan Stanton) contract players. The studio’s icy VP of comedy Kate (Jenna Elfman) decides to fire Daffy, ordering studio guard DJ (Brendan Fraser) to eject him. When that process goes spectacularly wrong, she fires DJ, who ends up with Daffy on the road to Vegas, trying to rescue his dad (a self-spoofing Timothy Dalton) — another Warner Bros. star who, in fact, is a secret agent.
With Kate realizing she’s made a mistake, she and Bugs pursue them to woo Daffy back. Quickly reunited, the quartet ends up on a series of adventures trying to thwart a plot by Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin), head of the Acme Corp., the unfortunate outfit from which Wile E. has been acquiring those ineffectual weapons of missed destruction all these years.
“Looney Tunes” aspires to play on two levels, delighting kids with mayhem, while adults are supposed to laugh at the loving movie parodies and Hollywood references. Certainly, a “Psycho” homage is unlikely to be fully appreciated around the playground, any more than a glimpsed photo of Daffy with Richard Nixon and Bob Hope.
The film’s pace and volume, however, are a bit too relentless for adults, with not enough of the kind of inspired bits they can truly appreciate — including Bugs and Daffy leaping into and out of paintings in the Louvre, or Porky Pig and Speedy Gonzalez lamenting a modern world of political correctness.
As for kids, there’s certainly plenty of action, but few of the jokes reach the heights of zaniness likely to completely satisfy them.
That’s the case despite a technical proficiency that won’t be fully appreciated, in part because it looks so effortless. From the fluid animation (complete with shadows that add dimension to the cartoon characters) to some of the elaborate stunts and computer-generated constructs — with a parade of monsters at a secret government facility tapping into Dante’s love of ’50s sci-fi — this is a deftly realized world. Yet like Lucy’s conveyor belt of confections, most of it zooms by too fast to take in.
Cinematographer Dean Cundey worked on “Roger Rabbit,” and if this doesn’t feel like another leap forward, as the production notes proclaim, it’s still a well-articulated vision — augmented, to the extent it can be, by the always reliable Jerry Goldsmith’s score.
As for the real-life actors, they’re not surprisingly a bit overwhelmed by their co-stars. Martin at least gamely gets into the spirit (his voice sounds vaguely reminiscent of a “Saturday Night Live” sketch), despite having precious little material with which to work and limited screen time.
Fraser, meanwhile, adds to his cartoon portfolio after “George of the Jungle,” “Dudley Do-Right” and “Monkeybone” (it’s a long way back to “Gods and Monsters”), while Elfman has yet to parlay her charming “Dharma & Greg” persona beyond a roster of forgettable films.
Dante’s passion regarding Warner Bros. is well known, including past cameos for the late animation legend Chuck Jones. Yet that creative flair has frequently given way to off-putting excess — perhaps best exemplified by “Twilight Zone” and “Explorers,” a film where visiting aliens arrive and all they can do is parrot old TV shows.
“Who’s laughing now?” Martin’s Mr. Chairman bellows at one point in “Looney Tunes,” striking a bit too close to home by following up with, “Apparently, no one!”
The film isn’t quite that bad, but like an Acme product, its headlong pursuit of laughs too often misses the intended target.