Anyone who works in the popular arts knows that the mass audience
is capricious and incomprehensible. Sometimes, though, that audience
rewards work that is personal and deeply felt and rejects the meretricious.
Such happy outcomes may be rarer now, given the prevailing crassness,
but there was one in the fall of 2003, when sales of the Looney
Tunes Golden Collection DVDs
far exceeded expectations, and the combination live-action/animation
feature film Looney
Tunes: Back in Action tanked at the box office.
in Action was conceived and executed as farce. Farce, in the
words of one dictionary of literary terms, is "little concerned
with subtlety of characterization or probability of plot."
The best Warner Bros. cartoons, by contrast, are almost wholly concerned
with subtlety of characterization and probability of plot. The new
DVD set is full of excellent examples. Set Chuck Jones's Long-haired
Hare alongside Back in Action, and my case is made. To
speak of the Looney Tunes' "zaniness" or "craziness"
in the way so many ostensible admirers of the Warner cartoons do
is to reveal a crippling ignorance of the films themselves.
("Probability of plot" should not be confused with mere
probability. What happens in Long-haired Hare is probable
not in the real world, but on the terms set by the cartoon itself.)
Joe Dante, who directed Back in Action, is from all accounts
a great fan of the Warner cartoons, but there's scant evidence of
his affection in the feature, apart from sporadically amusing cameo
appearances by dozens of Warner characters, some of them (like Cottontail
Smith from Super-Rabbit) truly obscure. Rather, the film
seems to be constantly glancing toward Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,
another misbegotten combination of live action and animation. Back
in Action credits Larry Doyle, a veteran of The Simpsons,
as screenwriter, but the script reportedly passed through many,
many hands, and the film has the written-by-committee aura that
so often clings to expensive box-office duds.
Roger Rabbit at least benefited from an amusing premise:
that "toons" lived alongside human beings, as second-class
citizens. In Back in Action, the existence of cartoon characters
in the human world is a given, but their "zaniness" constantly
strains credulity. The cartoon characters are so completely free
of our world's physical constraintsat one point, Daffy Duck's
head is sliced off, a minor inconvenience as it turns outthat
they might as well be djinn. The characters are not completely absent,
thanks mainly to Joe Alaskey's very good re-creations of Mel Blanc's
original voices, but there is no confusing these shoddy knock-offsimpostors
is probably not too strong a wordwith the originals.
The film's effectively supernatural animated characters have been
shoehorned into a foolish spy story that fails to offer even the
two or three belly laughs that can rescue the lamest farce (as with
the Naked Gun series). Almost invariably, such gags are cheerfully
obscenemost notoriously in There's Something About Mary,
a weak film turned into a hit by one astonishing jokebut such
gags were off-limits in this film aimed at a juvenile audience.
There is of course a flatulence gagwhat children's film could
do without one?but the sex is limited to glimpses of Jenna
Elfman's fetching cleavage.
Back in Action is so poorly conceived that even inspired
animation couldn't rescue it, but the animation, mostly hand-drawn
(with computer-generated shading) and directed under Dante's wing
by Eric Goldberg, is unceasingly frantic, and often guilty of the
arbitrary distortion that erodes any sense of the characters' personalities.
(The distortion in the best Warner cartoons, by contrast, seems
to originate within the characters themselves and reveal their state
of mind.) Timing issuesso often the major obstacle to a successful
combination of animation and live actionare not of much importance
here, because the animation is so poor otherwise.
When Goldberg was a Disney animator and director, I never felt
the admiration for his work that I wanted to feel, given his imposing
skills. His Genie in Aladdin, although obviously Warner Bros.-inspired,
looked to me like a Bob Clampett character that had been animated
by the Chuck Jones unit: a Clampett-like energy had been subdued,
but with no corresponding gain in Jones-like precision. His Rhapsody
in Blue segment of Fantasia 2000, so highly praised,
struck me as an updated version of Bobe Cannon's too-sweet, too-gentle
UPA cartoons of the early fiftiesanimated with the fluidity
of Cannon's animation for Jones in the forties, to be sure, but
still a bore. Goldberg also co-directed Pocahontas, probably
the worst of the Eisner-era features.
Like Richard Williams, for whom he worked on The Thief and the
Cobbler more than twenty years ago, Goldberg asks for animation
on onesthat is, a new drawing for each frame of filmbut
animation on ones turns to goo when there's no grasp of the characters,
as was emphatically the case in Back in Action. Animation
on twos, the standard practice at the Warner cartoon studio, can
impose a sort of discipline: because the individual drawings are
more important, more needs to go into themand more can be
gotten out of them, if the director and animator are intelligent
enough to seize the opportunity. In Back in Action, such
discipline is wholly lacking.
Back in Action is the second attempt to make a Looney Tunes
feature (I managed to avoid the first, Space Jam, when it
was released in 1996), but it is only one of many attempts to revive
the classic Warner characters. Even before the cartoon studio closed
in 1963, the characters had been reduced to shadows of themselves,
and all subsequent attempts to bring them back to life (some by
their original directors) have failed, sometimes grotesquely. Revivals
of the classic Disney characters, as on the current House of
Mouse TV series, have been no better.
It may be natural to think of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck not as
analogues to actors, but as animation's equivalent of great theatrical
rolesLooney Tunes' answer to Prince Hal and Falstaff, character
designs waiting for inspired directors and animators to revivify
them. Even when the Warner cartoon studio was active, after all,
Bugs Bunny differed subtly in the cartoons of the different directors.
But Jones, Freleng, Clampett, Frank Tashlin, and Bob McKimson all
worked under the same roof, and their awareness of what their colleagues
were doing meant that no one's Bugs was going to get too strange.
The differences between, say, Chuck Jones's Bugs and Friz Freleng's
Bugs, when both directors were at their peak, are microscopic compared
with the differences between either of those Bugses and the Dante/Goldberg/Doyle
The great cartoon characters of the "golden age" are
not empty costumes, waiting for someone new to step into them. They
are as much creatures of their time as the great actors who were
their contemporaries, the John Waynes and Clark Gables and the rest.
To revive Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in a new film is as much a mistake
as it would be to generate a computer-animated John Wayne to star
in a new western. Bugs and Daffy are alive and well, but only in
cartoons like those in the Looney Tunes Golden Collection.
The characters bearing their names in Looney Tunes: Back in Action
are zombies, and the public has done well to shun them.
[Posted November 26, 2003]