This is a tale of two movies. Both combined live action and animation. One was a massive success at the box office. The other was not. One was a witty and well-done valentine to classic cartoons. One was a massive piece of product placement/vanity project for a sports star.
If this were a just world, the massive piece of product placement would have been the one to bomb. But, as we know all too well, this is not a just world. Yes, 1996’s Space Jam, that testament to Michael Jordan’s ego and warehouses full Hanes undergarments, Nike sneakers and Bud-Lite, made over $240 million worldwide. This, in spite of its quality or lack thereof.
When a movie grosses as much as Space Jam did, you gotta have a sequel. But plans to make Space Jam 2 ended up in limbo. Eventually, it was re-conceived as Spy Jam which would have starred Jackie Chan. When he opted out, the project went in a different direction. After the project spent years in development limbo, Joe Dante was asked to direct. This was a good sign.
Dante, who helmed both Gremlins films, Innerspace, the cult film Matinee and The Howling is a guy that loves cinema and cartoons. So he was a great choice to direct a Looney Tunes movie. Previously Dante had been offered Space jam and turned it down. When he was offered the chance to direct the next Looney Tunes movie, he signed on figuring here was his chance to make the anti-Space Jam. He and screenwriter Larry Doyle intended Looney Tunes: Back In Action as an homage to the classic cartoons they loved.
The movie had a loose plot that involved all the Looney Tunes characters alongside human co-stars Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman, a barely recognizable Steve Martin and Timothy Dalton in a cameo. Here the product placements were done humorously and there were various stabs at other pop culture mainstays like Star Wars and the recent dismal cinematic version of Scooby Doo.
Warner Brothers properties were especially ripe for the picking. Here’s a scene in which Fraser’s character wrecks the Batmobile while apprehending Daffy Duck on the WB lot:
Looney Tunes: Back in Action was much more appealing than the crass, commercial Space Jam. But unfortunately, it did not live up to that film’s success. On a budget of 80 million, it made 68.5 million. Reviews were mixed, but many critics were appreciative of Dante’s attempt to bring the Looney Tunes back to their animated roots.
The film’s failure meant that the Tunes were only back in action for one movie. Warner Brothers decided that there wasn’t enough interest in feature films featuring the likes of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Warner Brothers didn’t just scrap plans for follow-ups, they shut down a series of Looney Tunes shorts which were already in production. Back in Action ended up being the final film released by Warner Brothers Feature Animation.
Why did Looney Tunes: Back In Action fail so badly? There are a few likely explanations. For one, Warner Brothers didn’t really promote the film that well. Many audiences weren’t even aware the movie was intended as a follow-up to Space Jam. Also, despite that movie’s popularity, Looney Tunes fans who were disappointed by Space Jam may have been reluctant to try out another Looney Tunes movie seven years later. From a creative stand-point, there were reports that Dante clashed with the studio which had learned its lesson about giving the director complete creative control on Gremlins 2.
Fortunately, Looney Tunes: Back In Action remains available for viewing and it has developed something of a cult following.
To quote Outkast: Let’s break this thing down.
How many movies in the series? 2
How many of them were good? 1
Health of the franchise before it died? Space Jam was hugely successful, but six years old, the Looney Tunes are perennial,but there wasn’t a great demand for a new Bugs Bunny movie
Likelihood of a reboot? There’s constantly rumors of a Space Jam 2, but a direct follow-up to Back in Action is about as likely as Wile E. Coyote catching the Road Runner.
Any redeeming value? Lots, especially if you’re a Looney Tunes fan or a movie buff. Or both. Forget Space Jam and enjoy this one.