Franchise Killers: Looney Tunes: Back In Action

Brendan Fraser - Looney Tunes: Back in Action - 2003

Brendan Fraser – Looney Tunes: Back in Action – 2003

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.

Space Jam - 1997

Space Jam – 1997

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.

Looney Tunes - Shaggy and Scooby

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.

Looney Tunes Back in Action

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.

More Franchise Killers



Posted on September 18, 2015, in Franchise Killers, Movies and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. I’m okay with “Space Jam” (though I wasn’t a Chicago Bulls fan in that era, as they were too bandwagon-y; besides, I’m a Houston Rockets fan. Love & Rockets), but I just think this film has much more imagination and ingenuity.


    • I am ambivalent about Space Jam. It really felt like a commercial stretched thinly to 90 minutes to me. But it had just enough going for it that I was able to sit through it once and then never think of it again. Plus, Bill Murray. Bill Murray is always win. As someone who could give two hoots about sports, I couldn’t have cared less about the basketball tie-in. I recognized some of the player cameos from having seen them on late night TV talk shows. Jordan was a terrible actor even by the low standards of an athlete-turned-movie-star.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. IIRC, this was the final straw for Dante working for the big studios. Is it an urban myth or did Dante tell of a Warners suit who asked what’s with Bugs calling everyone “Doc”?


  3. As Jeff said, this is not a just world… and there is never anything so good that someone won’t find a way to ruin it.


  4. As a Franchise Killer, Looney Tunes: Back in Action fits into a grey area for me. It has its roots in the development of a Space Jam sequel. But I don’t really consider it to be a sequel to Space Jam. It’s a tough distinction. You could look at it as a failed attempt to start a Looney Tunes franchise. Or even a continuation of the compilation films that used to run in the 70s and 80s. But ultimately, however you are keeping score, it effectively ended attempts to bring the Tunes to the big screen.

    What will be ironic is if Space Jam 2 ever actually gets made. Then the Space Jam franchise will have survived while the Looney Tunes non-Space Jam series failed to take root.


    • Other than the combination of live action and animation, I’ve never seen these two pictures relating to one another (distant cousins, maybe. VERY distant, like Romania and Belgium). Boy, I hope there isn’t a “Space Jam” sequel. It will probably be a reboot, with a different basketball player. Overall, I want to believe this concept won’t fly.


      • Yeah, that’s the rumor. LeBron James has been pushing for it for years.


        • That’s the player that sprung to my mind. He’s a big name, and he has that cameo in “Trainwreck” too.


        • He also signed a deal with Warner Brothers. A Space Jam sequel starring LeBron James is actually a pretty safe bet at this point.


        • Huh, I didn’t know he signed a deal with Warner Brothers. In that case, the posters are probably already being printed then.


        • Over the summer, there were very strong rumblings that it was a done deal. But you know, nothing is certain until it is. While Jeff very clearly hated Space Jam, a lot of people feel differently. A sequel would not surprise me in the slightest. Although again, would it be a sequel/reboot/remake? These days, those distinctions are hard to make.


        • I’m going to have to go with reboot, especially since CGI has taken such a leap from 1997. I figure the studio would want to start with a blank slate.


        • I don’t figure Space Jam had enough of a story for it to matter. Any mix of basketball stars, a hit pop song, a few comedians and the Looney Tunes will do the trick.


  5. Okay, I’ll admit it–I’m a pretty big fan of Looney Tunes: Back in Action. As a whole, it doesn’t quite come together, but there are a lot of very good ideas and it does recapture some of the old Termite Terrace spirit. The Louvre scene, with Elmer chasing Bugs and Daffy in and out of various paintings, is absolutely inspired. It is worthy of the likes of Tex Avery, Bob Clampett or Chuck Jones at their best.

    A couple of other favorite segments are 1) the whole Las Vegas sequence, with Heather Locklear’s cameo, Yosemite Sam as the villainous casino owner, and effective usage of a pair of one-off Looney Tunes villains, Nasty Canasta and Cottontail Smith, as Sam’s hench-toons. The climax of this one is great–after Sam and Co. have commandeered a car from none other than Jeff Gordon, they find themselves inside said car along with a lit stick of dynamite:

    Sam: Throw it out the window! Throw it, throw it!
    Nasty: Innocent people could be hurt
    Sam: Throw it out the window!
    Cottontail: It’d send the wrong message to children
    And then–kaboom

    Another favorite is 2) the ending where Daffy becomes the hero of the picture: “What would Damian Drake do? What would Duck Dodgers do?…Wait a minute, I’m Duck Dodgers!” And then “Duck Dodgers to the rescue!” Kaboom!

    And a sequel may well be “about as likely as Wile E. Coyote catching the Road Runner,” but remember, Wile E. did actually catch the Road Runner once.


    • “And a sequel may well be “about as likely as Wile E. Coyote catching the Road Runner,” but remember, Wile E. did actually catch the Road Runner once.”

      In that case, it’s less likely than Wile E. Coyote catching the Road Runner. 😉


    • The creative spirit and fast paced dialogue of the original Looney Tunes really comes across in these clips (and others). I can’t remember if I’ve ever seen this in its entirety, but I have to now.
      Thanks for this reminder!
      Now I have seem to have 100 Eddie Murphy messages to catch up on..


  6. I believe the genesis of “Space Jam” derived from the popularity of that Bugs Bunny/Michael Jordan Super Bowl 27 (February 1st, 1993) commercial (Bugs: “Fresh buttered popcorn”. Bugs: “Get while it’s hot”. Jordan: “Get it while it’s buttered!”. Seconds later, KABOOM!!). I only recall this dang thing so well because I still have that game on tape. Okay, okay, I’m sure “Space Jam” would’ve been made ANYWAY, but I’m sure the commercial helped.
    Speaking of Eddie Murphy, I recently viewed “Meet Dave”. I actually thought it was okay, although over the years I have grown to accept sanitized Eddie Murphy a little.
    As for the Cruise cruise, Scientology is clearly the highway to the danger zone.


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