Joe Dante Calls the Toon

This appeared in the Chicago Reader on November 21, 2003. — J.R.

Looney Tunes: Back in Action

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Joe Dante

Written by Larry Doyle

With Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman, Steve Martin, Timothy Dalton, Joan Cusack, Heather Locklear, and the voice of Joe Alaskey.

Ever since the word “auteur” became part of the standard English vocabulary in the late 60s and early 70s there’s been some confusion about its meaning. In French auteur simply means “author,” and when François Truffaut started formulating a “politique des auteurs,” or policy of authors, in Cahiers du Cinéma in the mid-50s, he had in mind a critical policy that recognized the stylistic and thematic unity certain directors gave their films. And because politique means “politics” as well as “policy,” he was also implying a ranking of those directors.

In his early writings Andrew Sarris transformed these ideas into an “auteur theory” that focused less on policy and politics. This is where the confusion started, because it wasn’t clear to most people whether this was a theory about how films were made or about how they should be viewed and interpreted. Because the mainstream discourse centered on the powerful Hollywood studios, the theory came to be understood as focusing on how films were made, with the emphasis on film as a business. How they were viewed and interpreted — film as art — wound up being more the concern of academic film study, which was just getting established in the late 60s and early 70s. Still, the popularity of French ideas about cinema at the time forced those in the business to start thinking — or at least pretend to start thinking — about film as an art form, something they hadn’t done much since the 20s. Within a relatively short period the screen credit “a film by,” typically assigned to the director, became a commonplace in Hollywood movies rather than an occasional affectation; its use was even written into contracts.

It’s remarkable that Joe Dante, one of the most personal directors working in Hollywood, has never had or sought to have such a credit on his pictures. He says he finds it easier to do what he wants without this sort of claim or exposure. For the same reason he, unlike most of his colleagues, has never hired a personal publicist. The idea of a “Joe Dante movie” or a “movie by Joe Dante” is mainly a presumption of his fans, myself included, rather than a product sold by his employers. It’s worth observing that this modesty is also honest: he, like most of the directors who use the credit “a film by,” doesn’t control the final cut of a movie. His last feature, Small Soldiers, was one of the most personal pictures released by any Hollywood studio in 1998, but the final cut belonged to Burger King.

I don’t know who controlled the final cut on Looney Tunes: Back in Action — which seems even more personal than Small Soldiers — and the screen credits don’t tell us much. Dante also avoids taking any writing credit on his movies. According to a New York Times story by David Edelstein, the only credited writer on this movie, Larry Doyle, “pulled out of [the film] in February after vehement disagreements over animation, character voicing and jokes,” and 28 other writers, none of them credited, “were involved in varying capacities.” So it’s hard to say who deserves credit for authoring Looney Tunes, especially when one considers that the cartoon characters that dominate the action come mainly from the work of Tex Avery, Robert Clampett, Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, and Frank Tashlin — all dead and uncredited. And one has to be careful not to limit the cast list to the on-screen actors, because one actor, Joe Alaskey, furnished the voices of the two leads, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, and those of three secondary characters, Beaky Buzzard, Mama Bear, and Sylvester. In any case, Dante’s stamp is evident on almost every frame, in part because he’s not simply a creator but a creative filter, assiduously minimizing all elements that aren’t Dante-esque.

What does his stamp consist of? For one thing, a faithful reliance on a stable of secondary actors, the most prominent of whom include Dick Miller (as a security guard), Roger Corman (as a Warners director), and Kevin McCarthy (returning briefly as the hero of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers) — all of them associated with Dante’s experience as a movie fan in the 50s and 60s and an employee of Corman’s in the 70s. For another thing, there’s a reliance on horror and SF movies of the 50s and early 60s — from The Man From Planet X and This Island Earth to Forbidden Planet and Psycho — as well as Warners cartoons dating back to the 30s, all supplemented by other pop-movie references. (From 1968 to ’73 Dante worked as a film reviewer for a trade magazine, and many of those reviews are being reprinted in the magazine Video Watchdog.) Finally there’s an affection for both monsters and cartoon characters and a cheerful contempt for powerful institutions and what they commonly represent — a position that becomes full of contradictions once it’s directed at such powerful institutions as Warner Brothers and Acme, the generic manufacturer of products ordered by Wile E. Coyote in Road Runner cartoons. These two multinational entities are mocked more than others in Looney Tunes; a Wal-Mart that appears in the Nevada desert gets only a cameo: “Is it a mirage or just more product placement?” asks Bugs.

The putative human heroes in any Dante work tend to be bland and dumb, while the putative human villains tend to be regarded with amusement rather than rancor. The main human heroes in Looney Tunes are Brendan Fraser, playing an aspiring stunt man for Brendan Fraser, and Jenna Elfman, playing a Warners executive. The main villain is Steve Martin, playing Mr. Chairman, the mad, scheming head of Acme. It’s no surprise that the Warner brothers — much closer to bluenose villains than good guys — are played by Dante semiregulars (identical twins Don and Dan Stanton) and are much less lively than Mr. Chairman. It might seem curious that the Warners company employs Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck (along with Fraser and Elfman), while the Acme company employs Wile E. Coyote (along with the Tasmanian Devil, Ron Perlman, and Dante regular Mary Woronov); but these two institutions, unlike their employees, are offered as parallel monolithic and monopolistic enterprises rather than as competitors. The ultimate aim of Acme, we discover, is to turn everyone on earth, except Mr. Chairman, into monkeys that can provide cheap labor to churn out products, then back into humans who can buy these products. The ultimate aim of the Warner brothers is to turn everyone except them into monkeys that churn out Looney Tunes: Back in Action, then back to humans who can buy tickets and ancillary products. That Fraser, whose character works for Warners, also supplies the voices of the Tasmanian Devil and She-Devil, who both work for Acme, only underlines this moral equivalence.

According to Jerry Beck and Will Friedwald’s 1989 reference book Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: A Complete Illustrated Guide to the Warner Bros. Cartoons, Bugs Bunny has appeared in more than 160 cartoons, not counting a dozen “cameo” appearances, and Daffy Duck has appeared in more than 130. Most of the time they appear separately; the most memorable of their joint appearances are probably in three Chuck Jones cartoons — Rabbit Fire (1951), Rabbit Seasoning (1952), and Duck! Rabbit! Duck! (1954). In these films, critic Richard Thompson has pointed out, “the continuing gag has Bugs trying to convince Elmer [Fudd] that it’s duck season, and Daffy telling him it’s rabbit season” — the opening gag of Looney Tunes.

Thompson goes on to argue that these cartoons refined the traits of both characters as they were played off each other, so that Bugs (an unflappable winner modeled on the prototype of Groucho Marx) is partially defined by Daffy (a highly flappable loser who is himself a prototype) and vice versa. Thompson doesn’t say anything about the class orientations of these characters, but I think one could argue that cool Bugs is more upscale, as demonstrated by the comforts of his well-furnished rabbit hole, while the hysterical Daffy often has no pond or other habitat to call his own and usually is treated as a second-class citizen.

This hierarchical distinction seems to be the basis for pairing the two as a competitive comedy team in Dante’s feature, in which Abbott and Costello, Crosby and Hope, and Martin and Lewis also provide models for their relationship. Bugs is the star of their shared cartoons; Daffy protests his second-fiddle status at a Warners executive meeting and gets thrown off the lot. Executive Kate Houghton (Elfman) does the official firing, and DJ Drake (Fraser), a security guard, is given the job of ejecting Daffy. When Daffy protests indignantly, “This is Daffy Duck,” Kate replies, “Not anymore — we own the name.” In the process of removing Daffy, DJ gets fired too. DJ and Kate eventually become a standard-issue romantic couple, which might seem unlikely given their apparent class difference; but we quickly learn that DJ is actually the son of Warners’ biggest live-action star, Damien Drake (Timothy Dalton), so the apparent difference is deceptive. Daffy’s inferior status relative to Bugs is ultimately made to seem equally deceptive — particularly when DJ is paired with Daffy (as if to further justify his surname) and Kate (whose surname is derived from Katharine Hepburn’s middle name) is paired with Bugs as they drive off in separate cars for Las Vegas. All four characters prove to be Hollywood to the core.

It’s characteristic of Dante to be brazenly yet offhandedly honest rather than cynical about these discrepancies. What makes him unusual as a satirist is that he’s an equal-opportunity ridiculer, showing just as much affection for Beau Bridges, the putative villain of his 1997 TV movie The Second Civil War, as for any of the more sensible characters. Though he clearly cares more for the cartoon characters here than for any of the live-action ones, he gamely allows Steve Martin to try to compete with them by mugging his head off — though of course the poker-faced reaction shots of Bugs and Wile E. Coyote always elicit more laughs. Indeed, viewers are likely to come away from Looney Tunes concluding that the cartoon characters are far more real, substantial, and sympathetic than any of the humans–not my conclusion after watching Robert Zemeckis’s much slicker Who Framed Roger Rabbit. This superiority is less peculiar than it sounds: after all, many more human hours — adding up to decades rather than weeks — have been invested in the creation, elaboration, and perpetuation of the cartoon figures. As collective creations, they make me think of Chartres — which paradoxically makes Dante’s appreciation of them singular and not at all collective.

My only regret about the screen space accorded these favorites is that some of them don’t get more. Porky Pig and Speedy Gonzales turn up at the Warners commissary just long enough to explain how political correctness has ejected them from the movie, blustery Foghorn Leghorn gets shoehorned into cameo slots as a nightclub emcee and casino dealer, and volatile Yosemite Sam gets turned into a secondary villain. (Heather Locklear as Dusty Tails, a live-action showgirl-spy, gets upstaged by the cartoon cameos, but who cares?)

Apart from Hollywood and Las Vegas, the main settings of this romp are the Nevada desert, a secret government laboratory (“Keeping things from the American public since 1947”) presided over by Joan Cusack, Paris, the wilds of Africa, and outer space — though as critic David Ehrenstein has suggested, it might be argued that the characters never really leave Las Vegas, since all the other locations essentially look like Vegas theme-park hotels. In Paris, for instance, the Louvre — where Bugs, Daffy, and Elmer Fudd go on a wild chase through famous paintings by Dali, Munch, Seurat, and Toulouse-Lautrec — is right across from the Eiffel Tower. We also get glimpses of posters for two lesser-known Jerry Lewis movies, and one of them, Which Way to the Front?, is given a fake pidgin-French title rather than the correct French title, Ya, ya, mon géneral. (For my money, a more apt Lewis tribute is Perlman’s brief impersonation of The Nutty Professor’s Julius Kelp before and after he’s turned into a skeleton.) And on a remote mountain peak in Africa is a sign reading “Lifeguard off duty, no swimming” that seems straight out of a Bill Elder panel in a 50s Mad comic book. In any case the film’s universe and its logic belong to the animated characters more than the live-action ones: the Acme headquarters, which starts out as a surveillance satellite hovering over the Nevada desert, becomes the top floor of a city skyscraper at the end of the same sequence.

The film on which Dante had the most freedom and control, to the best of my knowledge — Gremlins 2: The New Batch — is set inside another skyscraper. This 1990 gag fest is a pleasurable, footloose ramble, but it lacks the satiric bite of his so-called war trilogy — Matinee (1993), The Second Civil War, and Small Soldiers — which I regard as the peak of his work to date. As a comedy, Looney Tunes is closest to Gremlins 2, though I doubt Dante was given such a free hand with it. And it’s hard to tell whether it will have as much meaning for kids who don’t catch the film references and don’t know or care who Dante is; its life in the marketplace probably depends more on its status as an anonymous factory product than its charm as a nostalgic personal manifesto. (This was also true of Small Soldiers, though that movie generally scored better with kids than with the uptight adults whose taste for war it ridiculed — which is probably why it did better on video than in theaters.)

In a related way, the difference I see today between two Bob Hope comedies littered with in-jokes — Frank Tashlin’s Son of Paleface in 1952 and Hal Walker’s Road to Bali of the same year — is probably less apparent to people simply looking for laughs than it is to auteurists like me. I loved both movies as a kid, but today the Tashlin looks snappy and sweet, while the Walker looks tired and sour. That’s partly a consequence of how Tashlin and Walker made their films, and partly the result of my reading their films differently today. But I won’t have to wait another 50 years to see that Looney Tunes is lovable and Who Framed Roger Rabbit is only likable. Robert Zemeckis isn’t a Hal Walker, but Joe Dante’s right up there with Tashlin, Avery, and Jones.

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