- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2003

That’s not all, folks. Not if Bugs, Daffy and company have anything to say about it. Reports of cell animation’s death may be greatly exaggerated. Either way, the medium should get a boost from the loopy, self-referential “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” directed by Joe Dante (1984’s “Gremlins”).

On paper, “Back in Action” sounds like so much opportunistic synergy, a shrewd marketing ploy to capture an audience two generations wide. But like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988) before it, this new feature filters live action and animation through an adult sensibility to create a hip and intermittently hilarious romp through animation’s greatest hits.

The illusion doesn’t always click, but the action moves so fast it hardly matters. Only a furiously overplotted final reel prevents “Back in Action” from completely bridging the generational gap.

We’re reunited with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, here hashing out their latest project with a roomful of wan studio executives. Daffy can’t stand being second fiddle to Bugs the superstar and threatens to walk. The studio gleefully obliges him, summoning a lowly security guard named DJ (Brendan Fraser) to put him out on his feathery patootie. In the ensuing ruckus, DJ himself gets the boot, too.

The first of the film’s many incredible twists has DJ’s father (Timothy Dalton) — the star of the studio’s spy franchise — living a secret life as an actual agent. And now the screen spy is in real-life trouble, requiring DJ and his new best friend Daffy to rescue both him and the rare diamond DJ’s dad was pursuing when he went missing.

Reviewing dailies back on the studio lot, Warner Bros. quickly realizes its error and sends poker-faced executive Kate (Jenna Elfman) along with Bugs on a mission to bring Daffy back.

Let’s not forget Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin, hamming it up under a silly, stringy auburn wig), the head of the evil Acme corporation bent on snuffing out Daffy, DJ and anyone else who comes between him and the precious diamond.

Screenwriter Larry Doyle clearly learned from his days toiling for “The Simpsons.” He packs so many gags into every scene the film demands a second viewing in a format with a rewind button. Some of Mr. Doyle’s bits are inspired: When Kate cries in disbelief as an animated baddie brandishes a stick of dynamite, Daffy comments coolly, “Welcome to my world.”

Many jokes are aimed squarely at the cartoon medium itself, either at its violent subtext or its improbable realities.

Inside jokes proliferate. Product placement gets its comeuppance, and B-movie king Roger Corman scores a cameo as a tightwad director.

So, too does Matthew Lillard, who debates his performance as Shaggy in “Scooby Doo” with the animated Shaggy in one of many throwaway moments.

The vocal performances dutifully evoke the late Mel Blanc, who voiced the bulk of Warner Bros.’ animated stars. The assembled actors, particularly Mr. Martin, are wisely content to serve as straight men to their animated peers.

Bugs Bunny may get all the glory here with his Bronx-born bluster, but it’s Daffy’s show all along.

“Looney Tunes: Back in Action” is a baby sitter par excellence, but don’t be surprised to see more than a few adults basking in the nostalgic glow of its comedic fireworks.

***

WHAT: “Looney Tunes: Back in Action”

RATING: PG (Mild slapstick violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Joe Dante, written by Larry Doyle.

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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