Sunday, April 30, 2017

Joe Dante, part XIII: Dante Jam


A lot of good jokes, an obvious respect for the legacy of the characters being exploited, and one overwhelmingly great centerpiece sequence more than balance out all the parts that make you groan (even if there are a lot of those, too).

Directed by Joe Dante
Written by Larry Doyle
Joe Alaskey (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and so forth), Brendan Fraser (DJ Drake), Jenna Elfman (Kate), Timothy Dalton (Damien Drake), Heather Locklear (Dusty Tails), Joan Cusack (Mother), and Steve Martin (Chairman of the Acme Corporation's Board of Directors)

Spoiler alert: moderate

You know, as wonderful as it is, Who Framed Roger Rabbit has much to answer for.  Thanks to Zemeckis' weird cartoon hybrid, we got Ralph Bakshi's abomination, Cool World—and then, God help us, we got Space Jam, which isn't even necessarily worse, but also doesn't come with the compensation of being a deranged work of personal art.  But if we're going to talk about Joe Dante's eleventh theatrical feature, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, then we're going to have to talk about the Jam, too—that is, the first time Warner Bros. took their Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies characters and mashed them up with a bunch of real people for an hour and a half.  True, 90s nostalgia has given Jam a flabbergasting staying power, but we should never, ever overlook what a crass thing it is.  As a feature-film adaptation of a series of TV commercials, it's somehow even more awful than that description must already make it sound.

And so, Jam's plotted backwards, with the laziest sense of grim efficiency, in order to get the Looney Tunes into a position where they and Michael Jordan can play some gladitorial basketball against a team of cosmic monsters.  In the process, it makes almost no effort to even pretend to care about the classic Looney Tunes characters; instead, it flattens them out into an undifferentiated mush of quipping slapstickers (and even on these reduced terms, they're still not funny).  It features a miserable and untalented central performance from Jordan.  Frankly, it's unpleasant in enough ways that it would take a full review to really get to the bottom of all of them.  However, if you'll permit me to continue with just one further example of Jam's irritating errata, of course there's Lola Bunny—a clumsy attempt at laying some gender diversity upon the Tunes that inevitably backfires when the best idea the design team could come up with was to make a version of Bugs Bunny that people could feel more comfortable masturbating to than the original model in drag.

If I despise Jam, though, imagine how Dante, that Looney Tunes superfan, must've felt.  It was hatred that armored him when he arrived upon the chance to helm the Looney Tunes' second spin around the cartoon/live-action hybrid format in 2003, eight years after the original made its mark (which is also to say about six years too late to capitalize upon its success).

And I think we'd all be curious to know exactly how Dante even got the gig; I've looked, and haven't found any straightforward answer.  It's romantic to think that Dante just willed himself to power, smashing through the studio's walls (no doubt leaving a person-shaped hole behind him), to take command of their Looney Tunes movie—but this doesn't seem likely.  I suspect that it has more to do with the rumor that Warners' movie division simply didn't especially care.  As that story goes, the only reason BiA even exists in the first place is because Warners' merchandising division was unusually gung-ho about the project, perhaps because a new movie would remind white trash to buy more ugly T-shirts.  Under these circumstances, it would be easier to imagine a reluctant exec giving Dante one last chance—for the director's enthusiasm had never once been in question—in the hopes that, this time, Warners' risk might finally reap some kind of reward.

Boy, would our fictional executive have been disappointed.

Which isn't to say that BiA is bad.  600 words in, I should probably voice some kind of opinion—and well, my opinion here is that it's a total mess, and kind of great anyway.  It's easily the best of Roger Rabbit's twisted descendants—and massively better than Space Jam in every possible respect, except the one.  Sadly, the Looney Tune feature tradition of offering a plot that's more-or-less unacceptable continues apace, serving to remind you just how remarkably solid Zemeckis' cartoon Chinatown actually was.

Nevertheless, we start quite well enough, with an extended prelude in Roger Rabbitland—that is, with the Looney Tunes existing as "actors" who work for Warners.  (Why, BiA even cold opens with its own cartoon-within-a-cartoon, and it looks gloriously vintage in many of the ways Roger Rabbit's opening number actually didn't.)  And soon we find our first favorite Tune, Daffy Duck, vying once more with our fourth or fifth, Bugs Bunny, for top billing.  This is traditional territory indeed, though in strictly mechanical terms, it exists only to set off the real plot, which kicks in right around the time that Daffy gets himself fired by our soulless executive, Kate.

Unwilling to go quietly—it's Daffy, so maybe this goes without saying—the duck wrecks half the lot while being chased by our moonlighting security guard, DJ Drake, which gets him fired, too, stripped of all his badges of office by a glowering Dick Miller.  And so Daffy goes home with DJ—for, as Bob Hoskins discovered before him, it's awfully hard to get rid of a toon once he's decided he likes you.  Presently, Daffy discovers that DJ's father is Damien Drake, mega-star of a series of Bondian spy films (DJ wanted to make it in Hollywood on his own merits, you see—evidently because DJ is a noble idiot, but good for him); and, at pretty much the same moment, DJ discovers that Daffy's stream-of-consciousness blathering about Damien pretending to be an actor, who pretends to be a spy, in order to conceal the fact that he is a spy, turns out to be completely true.


And that sound you hear, of course, is the real plot awkwardly, awkwardly spooling up: the elder Drake has been captured on a mission to stop the evil chairman of the Acme Corporation from (sigh) using a magical artifact to turn the entire human race into monkeys, and it's up to DJ and Daffy to follow his traces and save the world.  Hot on their heels are Kate, sent by the Brothers Warner to rehire Daffy after they remembered that they actually needed him to finish their movie, and Bugs, who knew this all along, but who is, and always shall be, a stinker.

It's arguable, but probably true, that the only time that BiA is consistently firing on all cylinders is when it's still on the WB lot: here, it's funny and sharp and wonderful in every way you could possibly hope for, from its basic conflict down to its cameos.  (Porky Pig commiserating with Speedy Gonzales regarding the eclipse of their stereotypical characteristics—stuttering and being Mexican, respectively—is as finely-honed as a knife.)

And what BiA does best it's already doing out of the gate, for it has seized upon not just the most beautiful of the old Looney Tunes dynamics, but also the one least likely to get tired after exploring it for 93 minutes.  That's the ancient rivalry between Daffy and Bugs—both played by Joe Alaskey, whose impression of Mel Blanc talking to himself in a sound booth is tremendously advanced—and it's this picture's heart, inasmuch as it has any heart in the first place.  Friz Freleng might've perfected the theme all the way back in 1957's "Show Biz Bugs," but it certainly hasn't stopped being interesting, and BiA is somehow even more explicit in taking Daffy's side.  It's a movie that recognizes the facts of the matter: Bugs has always been almost insufferably arrogant, a showman rewarded with laughs essentially for just existing (and his single most infuriating quality is that he clearly knows it, though, perhaps more infuriatingly still, he often pretends he doesn't); meanwhile, Daffy, for all his delusions and all his greed and all his many other magnified human flaws, works harder, and is at least as funny, yet gets rewarded with silence and (in Kate's words) a tiny fanbase consisting of overweight men living in basements.

I have a BMI of 24, thank you.

The abiding charm of BiA is that it never completely forgets that the ignominy of the underduck is what it's actually "about," although once we've left the Warners lot, the honest thing to do is to admit that, yes, it stops being about much of anything for any extended length of time.

Clearly, Jam's screenplay is worse in its fundamentals; but you're almost willing to spot Jam its outrageous offenses, if only because Jam's bewildering premise is so utterly resistant to any actual story being told about it.  BiA, on the other hand, merely needs to put a maguffin in front of Daffy Duck and Brendan Fraser in order to get them to go on a road trip/fetch quest together.  It seems like this ought to have been the easier of the two propositions.  Yet BiA is scarcely more sensible than its predecessor—although, on the plus side, BiA's story at least fits these characters.  (It's something of a riff on the best of Daffy's solo shorts, "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery," this being the one where he gets lost in a Dick Tracy fantasy; it's a distant echo, but one that Dante must've absolutely heard, since he makes a sly little reference to it.)

Anyway, BiA's spy tale avowedly exists as the thinnest possible line upon which BiA's zillion screenwriters (though only producer Larry Doyle is credited) can hang their jokes.  The way it goes about doing that is typically dumb, and often excruciatingly arbitrary—it is sometimes quite oppressively clear that BiA began life as a quease-making notion called "Spy Jam"—but one can't say with a straight face that BiA, as it stands, doesn't feel right, since "hanging jokes upon a basic framework" was the defining mode of the classic shorts, and most of those are pretty good.

Or all-time masterpieces of comedy and animation.  Whatever you want me to say.

The problem is that, at 93 minutes, it results in a terrifically uneven film that whipsaws back and forth between very funny and likeable and kind of embarrassing and terrible (and it has the misfortune of swinging back toward the latter in its climax, a Star Wars parody so upsettingly bad it might make you like Star Wars less, and which only redeems itself a little once the screenwriters recall that Daffy and Bugs' space operatic adventures have roots that dig further back than just 1977).  All the while, we keep returning to Acme Headquarters, where Robert Picardo and Mary Woronov and (of all people) Ron Perlman look nervously at a staggeringly off-the-rails Steve Martin, who appears to have been hired as the villain because Martin Short's audition for the role was just too sedate.  Of the whole human cast, it's only Fraser who actually shines; but Fraser, whose star fell too quickly, always was at least half-cartoon, and hence bound to slot in easily amidst his fellows.

It's the good parts that make up for its several obvious weaknesses, and that loose structure does allow the film to deploy all the classic villains in a way that makes decent sense.  Whatever else is wrong with BiA (plenty), it's not in its depictions of Yosemite Sam, Elmer Fudd ("I'm secwetwy ewil"), Wile E. Coyote, Marvin the Martian, or, in the film's least-expected gag of all, Number 23 himself.  All along, there arise genuinely great Looney Tunes jokes, both of the old-fashioned variety and a few jokes that take savage satirical aim at the problems of the classics—I'm thinking, particularly, of a certain exchange that finally acknowledges that Pepe Le Pew is a straight-up rapist.

Yet for all that BiA was a labor of love—if not an outright sacred duty—for old Dante, he's made no secret of how unhappy it made him, pushed around as he was by a legion of writers and two different sets of executives.  What he wound up with was, apparently, a film radically different than the one he'd pledged to make.  It's ironic, then, that a movie taken so far out of Dante's hands still seems, at turns, so much his.  The director appears to have vented his frustrations in a manner not well-calculated to please anyone but himself—namely by jizzing Dantean personality into every nook and cranny he could find, from the massive number of cameos for his friends, to that stunning sequence when our gallant heroes literally fall ass-backwards into "Area 52," a secret government facility run by Joan Cusack (who makes you wish she were the female lead) and quite blatantly conceived as a multi-million-dollar showcase for Dante's embarrassing love for the goofiest science fiction of the Golden Age.  If you can think of an obscure 50s movie monster, it's probably there, gussied up with modern practical effects and sitting in a giant mason jar next to poor little captive Marvin—which, itself, is maybe the cutest joke of the whole film.

If the movie Dante was making was worthwhile, though, it's the movie his director of animation was making that's actually special.  Perhaps you know the name of Eric Goldberg, and perhaps you do not, but you surely know the Disney vet's body of work.  (He was, amongst many, many other things, the supervising animator on Genie in Aladdin—notably the most Warners-style creation in the Disney canon till the studio dropped The Emperor's New Groove, to which Goldberg, naturally, also contributed.)  Goldberg, once an associate of Richard Williams as well as a Disney employee, had spent years trying to get Roger Rabbit 2 off the ground, and while (thankfully?) that never materialized, one surmises BiA served the same purpose for him.  It even united him with Roger Rabbit's indispensable cinematographer, Dean Cundey.  (Who, incidentally, hadn't worked with Dante since Rock 'n' Roll High School a quarter-century prior.)  BiA is obviously not operating on Roger Rabbit's rarefied level, but that's reflective of the fact that Cundey was on a terminal downslide, and Roger Rabbit was (after all) a halfway-serious film, whereas BiA is a goofy-ass lark.  It's still a handsome production anyway, doing the "sculpted shadows" thing far more naturally than Jam did, and while about a third of the cast fails to land a proper performance, at least none of the actors appear to be visibly confused like they were in Jam (except Jenna Elfman, I guess, although that's sort of her character here).

Yet BiA doesn't become its best self until it abandons humans entirely, and finally just commits to being a Goddamn cartoon.  About two-thirds of the way through, Goldberg justifies the whole endeavor, with an ecstatic, reality-bending pursuit through an art gallery—and into the paintings within that gallery—whereupon the animation takes on the idiosyncratic styles of Dali, Munch, and so forth.  It concludes with a leap into Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon, which gives Daffy and Bugs the edge, mostly because it's their movie, and Elmer just falls right apart once he realizes he's nothing more than a collection of pigmented dots.  It's as funny as any old Looney Tunes short ever was, and perhaps even more thrilling, formally speaking, than any of them; it could easily be the single best piece of 2D animation in any American cartoon of the entire 21st century.  Not so shabby for a movie whose signal quality, frankly, is an utter lack of self-awareness and judgment.

I love it anyway: the fun stuff is really fun, and while the failures do stick with you for their zany shrillness, they fail only because they want so earnestly to entertain you.  Finally, in one other respect, it's even a minor triumph: it truly is Daffy's movie, and this forgives so many sins.

Not, of course, that anyone important forgave its maker—when I started this thing, way back when, I said I wanted to know whatever happened to Joe Dante's career.  Well, the answer is simple: it died with a high-profile bomb.  Turns out when you make a movie for $80 million (which probably cost upwards of $150mm, in part due to Warners' pipe-dream synergies, including a whole new line of theatrical Looney Tunes shorts that wound up quietly shelved) and make back only $69mm, driving a famous franchise completely into the ground in the process, people will finally stop calling you.  But it's too bad: the idea that we actually live in a universe where Space Jam succeeded and Back in Action didn't is, honestly, a little bit fucking depressing.

Score:  8/10


  1. Finally, someone has spoken the truth to power about how terrible Space Jam is!

    I don't remember much about seeing Back in Action as a kid, except - for some reason - Joan Cusack's part, even though I certainly had no idea who she was at the time. I remember having fun though!

    1. Space Jam is one of the things I agree with Tim about pretty much 100%. The only thing I like about it is Bill Murray, and then only about half the time.

      And Joan Cusack's a treasure.