I feel so bad for Joe Dante. He was a director that really had the makings to be a huge blockbuster filmmaker with films like "Gremlins" as well as his great segment in the troubled and flawed "Twilight Zone: The Movie". Yet sadly he was constantly held back by Hollywood executives and was never really given the chance to spread his wings and show what he was truly capable of. This was really evident while I was watching "Looney Tunes: Back in Action", the final film he made in the Hollywood studio system before leaving it behind vowing never again to make a film in Hollywood. Watching this film, I could really see that he was someone that truly understood the Looney Tunes and it truly had moments of greatness that showed what the film could be capable of. However, it's a film that feels very held back at times and doesn't seem like it reaches its full potential and it's often quite sad to watch.
Frustrated with being overshadowed by Bugs Bunny (Joe Alaskey), Daffy Duck (also Alaskey) gets into a feud with Warner Brothers executive Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman) over his popularity and ends up getting fired. After a chase through the lot, Daffy ends up getting security man DJ Drake (Brendan Fraser) fired as well and hitches a ride home with him to discover he's the son of action star Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton). When the two get home, the two discover a message from Damian that he's been kidnapped by the ACME Corporation led by Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin) who's after a hidden Blue Diamond somewhere. Together the duo set off for Las Vegas to try to find some answers while Bugs and Kate eventually come along after Kate gets fired as well for firing Daffy and desperate to get her job back.
This film had so many of the right puzzle pieces that would've fallen into place. Dante was someone who clearly understood the Looney Tunes as he was friends with Chuck Jones and often collaborated and paid tribute to him in his prior films and was desperate to make a film that was better than "Space Jam" which didn't portray the Looney Tunes very well to honor his late friend. Bless his heart, he definitely tried his best and I do think this film is better than both "Space Jam" films, yet it feels so restraint at times and far from its full potential. Mainly because it was. Warner Bros Animation executives often clashed with Dante who got in the way over what the full film could've been and he has stated that he isn't proud of the final film as a result. In fact, the film did poorly at the box office that Warner Bros hung up the coat for making in-house animated films and wouldn't attempt another one for eleven years with "The Lego Movie". I do think this film is often pretty decent and I do think the story shows that. The film is clearly trying to be a B-movie action flick with silly sci-fi elements thrown in and for a Looney Tunes film, I think it works quite well with that. The idea of Daffy being frustrated with being overshadowed by Bugs and trying to prove himself as his own hero is such a clever idea and I think the film takes advantage of it at times. It also helps that the humor for this film where the Looney Tunes truly get to shine is truly the scene-stealing moments of the film. Some great examples include the scene where Daffy and Bugs are being chased by Elmer Fudd (Billy West) through several of the paintings on display at the Louvre as well as a hilarious climax that I won't spoil if you haven't seen it. Stuff like that shows the Looney Tunes clearly shine. However, where the film stumbles is when it focuses on the human characters and the situations have to go through. It's not that the characters are bad per se and I do think the actors do a well enough job which I'll get to in a bit, but it mainly comes down to the fact that I came to a Looney Tunes film expecting to see the Looney Tunes and not human characters I really don't care about. They do have a couple of occasional funny jokes, but most of the film sadly focuses on them and I'm just not as interested. As far as the animation goes, it really does capture the original cartoons perfectly. Warner Bros hired Disney animator Eric Goldberg to direct the animation for this film and he couldn't have been the more perfect choice especially given his animation of the Genie from "Aladdin". It has a lot of crazy and over the top shenanigans and it really blends so well into the live-action environments which mainly come down to hiring cinematographer Dean Cundey who also did the cinematography for "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" though he goes more for an action feel here compared to the latter's noir feel. Needless to say, it really works and moments where the animation truly gets to shine are where the Looney Tunes get to show their full potential. Speaking of which, let's talk about the characters. I do really enjoy the dynamic between Bugs and Daffy. They both have this love/hate relationship with each other over their popularity and have some great moments together including a fun small scene where the two talk in the Nevada desert. That was funny. There are also some funny moments with the other characters like having Yosemite Sam run a Las Vegas casino and even have Wile E. Coyote in the desert trying to stop our heroes with ACME equipment and failing miserably. Stuff like that is just pure joy to watch. Unfortunately, the human characters are another story. I do think some work well. Joan Cusack has a fun cameo as a head scientist and Steve Martin is hilariously over the top as Mr. Chairman though he probably could've done without that terrible wig. DJ and Kate however are just not as interesting. I do think Fraser and Elfman are trying their best and they do have some moments together that work well, but their characters sadly don't stand out compared to Bugs and Daffy. Compared to Eddie Valiant in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" who was such an interesting character and had a great backstory and personality to work off of, DJ and Kate fade out.
Honestly, "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" has its moments even if it is a bit restrained. The story is definitely looney and often funny, the animation is top-notch and blends in well with the live-action, and the Looney Tunes characters are still their fun quirky selves even if they drastically overshadow the humans. I do think it's a film that is worth watching and the best out of the non-compilation Looney Tunes films, but it doesn't reach its full potential as it should. I feel so bad for Dante because he clearly had a lot of passion to work on this film, and even if Warner Bros sadly didn't let the film be as looney as it should, it still does have its fun.