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A Wile E. plan from the Warner franchise factory

November 05, 2002|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

"AAGGHH!" Jenna Elfman lets out a lusty, blood-curdling scream as a huge gorilla wearing a diving helmet picks her up and strides across a facility that looks like a cross between a retro sci-fi laboratory and a futuristic pet store. The gorilla lurches to a halt, just in front of a sign that reads "Area 52: Keeping things from the American people since 1947."

Elfman and her co-stars, who include real-life actor Brendan Fraser and, to be added later, cartoon characters Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, have been under attack most of the day from a variety of sci-fi monsters -- in actuality hot, sweaty men dressed in sci-fi monster suits -- playing characters that date to such vintage sci-fi low films as "The Day of the Triffids," "Forbidden Planet" and "The Man From Planet X." Director Joe Dante seems to know every sci-fi movie ever made, so I ask him if there's a secret to directing movie monsters. "You just yell at them," he says. "Yell really loud."

Dante stares fondly at the Metaluna Mutant from "This Island Earth." "That's the guy who gave me nightmares as a kid," he says. "So now I'm getting my revenge."

Call it sweet revenge. For the last two months, Dante has been here on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, making "Looney Tunes: Back in Action," a $100-million-plus film that is perhaps the most ambitious combination of live action and animation since "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" in 1988. Bugs and Daffy aren't here today -- they won't come to life for six more months -- so for now the movie's focus is on its live-action actors and monsters.

With an infectious laugh and a swirl of swept-back graying hair, Dante has the fast-talking energy of a cartoon schemer out of the pages of Mad magazine. If anyone was born to make a comedy populated with the entire gallery of Warner Bros. cartoon characters, from the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote to Tweety, Sylvester and the Tasmanian Devil, it's Dante, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of cartoon movie history and has already worked cartoon characters into nearly all of his movies, which include "The Howling," "Gremlins," "Innerspace" and "Small Soldiers." "Looney Tunes" is such a vast undertaking that even after Dante finishes his 68-day shoot later this month, the film will be in post-production for nearly a year as animators create the cartoon characters and a visual-effects team assembles roughly 1,200 special-effects shots. The film's current release date -- Nov. 14, 2003 -- speaks volumes about its position in the Warner Bros. firmament. 2003 is the year Warner Bros. doesn't have a "Harry Potter" film, so it's counting on "Looney Tunes" to provide the studio with a big holiday season family hit.

"Warners is looking at this picture as a way of helping the studio own the Christmas season next year," explains Bernie Goldman, one of the film's producers. "And at a studio, let's face it, there's nothing better than a family-friendly franchise filled with characters that people love and adore."

In the last few years, Warner Bros. has been Hollywood's most single-minded franchise factory, persuaded that franchise films, though rarely artistically satisfying, represent the safest way for a media conglomerate to wring extra profits out of its home video, cable TV and consumer products subsidiaries. In addition to "Harry Potter," the studio has been churning out sequels to "Cats and Dogs," "Scooby-Doo," "The Whole Nine Yards" and "Analyze This," as well as new "Superman" and "Three Stooges" movies and remakes of such films as "The In-Laws" and "Around the World in 80 Days."

Spirit of anarchy

When it comes to "Looney Tunes," the brash spirit of anarchy that populates the original cartoons seems to have infected the otherwise blandly efficient Warner Bros. assembly line. In fact, the more time you spend on the set, the more you feel like you've stumbled onto a bunch of guys who've somehow convinced a studio to let them spend $100 million on a madcap Marx Brothers movie.

For years, the studio has been trying to revive the Looney Tunes characters, who were largely wasted in "Space Jam," a 1996 film that made them Michael Jordan sidekicks. The characters remained dormant until "Simpsons" writer-producer Larry Doyle pitched Warner Bros. last year on the idea of making a new collection of "Looney Tunes" short films. After agreeing to move ahead, the studio asked him to take a whack at a feature too.

"The problem in the past was that the studio wanted all of the characters to go through personal growth and have a character arc, but cartoon characters don't change. That's part of their appeal," explains Doyle, who has a team of writers from "The Simpsons," "Futurama" and "King of the Hill" producing a dozen six-minute shorts that will debut early next year in front of Warner Bros. features.

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