It’s no secret that Warner Bros. has fumbled the bag when it comes to some of its major franchises, as we’ve seen in recent years with the DC Comics and Harry Potter brands. But arguably more dumbfounding than either of those is how the studio seemingly just doesn’t understand its flagship contribution to film history: the Looney Tunes. (Yet if you ever happen to visit their production facilities in Burbank, statues of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck are there to greet you as you make your way to the main entrance.)
The characters are doing more than fine when it comes to television and streaming. Theatrically, though, it’s always been a mixed bag, and continues to be to this day (case in point: I’m writing this just as the studio announced it is shelving the already completed Coyote Vs. Acme). Successful though it may have been, Space Jam was not looked upon fondly by animation enthusiasts, with veteran Looney Tunes director Chuck Jones pointing out (correctly) that none of the characters’ personalities were true to the original shorts.
Which is where Looney Tunes: Back in Action comes into play. Released on November 14, 2003, it was conceived by director Joe Dante – a longtime animation aficionado and personal friend of Jones, who had passed away in the interim – as a love letter to the franchise’s golden era, and somewhat miraculously the studio gave it the go-ahead while still trying to figure out how to make a proper sequel to Space Jam (a film Dante loathes, naturally).
The director claims to have had little creative freedom on the project, but that doesn’t show in the finished film, a meta extravaganza about Bugs Bunny convincing Daffy Duck to return to the WB lot after the latter has decided he’s had it with always suffering humiliating fates on screen. Beyond that simple premise, the plot is just an excuse to present gag after gag, delightfully highlighting a concept the real-life executives never properly grasped: these characters aren’t heroes – they’re agents of chaos. Pure, unadulterated, wonderfully zany chaos.
It is therefore fitting that such chaos would also occur behind the scenes, much to Dante’s chagrin. Not that he was completely innocent when it came to engineering the creative mayhem: Billy West, who was originally cast as Bugs (a role he’d already played in Space Jam), was replaced by Joe Alaskey (who also voiced Daffy) halfway through production, reportedly because Dante wanted the voice to be a more straightforward imitation of the late Mel Blanc (West is still in the film as the voices of Elmer Fudd and the Looney Tunes version of Peter Lorre).
There was even a minor “diplomatic incident” when Steve Martin was cast as the deliciously hammy Acme chairman, the film’s main villain. The actor asked if a sequence set in Area 51 could include the Daleks from Doctor Who, one of his favorite sci-fi properties. Warners Bros. gamely complied, which led to an unintended legal dispute between the BBC (who own the overall rights to the series and had granted permission) and the estate of Dalek creator Terry Nation (who own the copyright to those specific characters). Because of Martin’s innocent request, the Daleks came dangerously close to being omitted from the 2005 Doctor Who revival.
Such an event is a perfect byproduct of a movie that, at its core, returns to the origins of the Looney Tunes and uses them to mercilessly mock Hollywood itself, in what is essentially a companion piece to Gremlins 2: The New Batch (fittingly, the latter also featured Bugs and Daffy, albeit briefly). There’s even an oddly prophetic gag early on, where working on a Batman film (an inside joke, since Dante was briefly attached to what eventually became Tim Burton’s 1989 movie) causes serious damage to the studio. And the resulting mess is nothing short of hilarious for the remainder of the movie.
It was, perhaps, too good to be true. And so Warners Bros. – despite officially hoping Back in Action would reignite audience interest in an increased theatrical presence for the characters – essentially buried the movie with sloppy marketing (I was already a regular moviegoer in 2003, and didn’t see a trailer until the week before release). The disappointing box office results killed Dante’s mainstream career, partially stalled Brendan Fraser’s, and put the Looney Tunes on big screen ice for almost two decades. And then it was time for Space Jam: A New Legacy, another eerily prophetic work where an artificial intelligence wants to wipe out chunks of WB history just because it can. Ain’t he a stinker?