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Rabbit-Proof Sense

Toon tale rewards the faithful

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The term "specialized cinema" has always referred to art-house features -- Merchant-Ivory period pieces, for example, or David Cronenberg freak shows -- but the live-action/animation hybrid Looney Tunes: Back In Action qualifies for that designation as much as any other movie that comes to mind. With its pleasures aimed at three specific segments of the movie-going population, this might prove to be a tough nut to crack for anyone not keyed into its frenetic frequency.

Obviously, children make up one of those three branches, and the question isn't whether they'll enjoy this movie but rather to what degree they'll enjoy it -- after all, kids pretty much like any moving images you project onto the screen in front of them (admittedly, Scenes from a Marriage is generally a tough sell). So while the wee ones won't go ga-ga over this, the animated antics of the familiar characters should be enough to win them over.

The second core audience is the die-hard Looney Tunes fan, comprised of those multitudes who've always appreciated this 73-year-old franchise for the way it caters to adults more than children. Take the scene in which Elmer Fudd hunts Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck through the corridors of the Louvre. The three characters jump in and out of classic paintings, absorbing the artistic style of each work they go through. Will children recognize the droopy surrealism of Dali's "Persistence of Memory" or the swirling, primal despair of Munch's "The Scream"? Of course not -- but their parents will bust a gut.

Finally, Back In Action qualifies as a must-see for cineasts, those movie-crazed buffs able to recognize the endless array of in-jokes that director Joe Dante and scripter Larry Doyle supply with relentless energy. The pair were naturals for this assignment: Dante's previous credits include cinema-savvy efforts like Matinee and The Howling, while Doyle is a former writer for TV's melting pot of pop culture, The Simpsons. Together, they manage to open filmdom's floodgates: a black-and-white Kevin McCarthy cradling one of those pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers; cameo appearances by Roger Corman, Robot Monster and the Daleks; Shaggy and Scooby lambasting Matthew Lillard for his portrayal of Shaggy in last year's live-action Scooby Doo; Jerry Lewis posters plastered around Paris. Sure, any gag involving the French's adoration of Lewis is bound to be older than the Easter Island statues, but take a look at the poster and you might realize that it's not some generic telethon shot but a publicity still from Which Way to the Front?, long recognized as one of Jerry's all-time worst movies. Clearly, somebody did their homework.

The film does have a plot -- probably more than it needs -- as Bugs, Daffy, bumbling security guard DJ Drake (Brendan Fraser) and studio suit Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman) try to rescue DJ's dad, secret agent Damian Drake (former 007 Timothy Dalton handles this role), from the clutches of a megalomaniacal nerd (Steve Martin) bent on ruling the world. Slapstick shenanigans, inspired non sequiturs and guest appearances by a dozen other LT regulars prevent the merriment from ever slowing down.

The last feature film to pair Looney Toons with humans was the unwatchable Space Jam, a misguided vanity piece which does nothing more than push the notion that Michael Jordan is God. Here, Jordan appears only for a split second at the most unlikely time, prompting Daffy to grumble, "This doesn't make a lick of sense." Maybe not for the uninitiated, but within its own established universe, it's as logical as a Pepe Le Pew fragrance line.

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