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Five Movies About the Real World and the Cartoon World Mixed Together

I assume that just about everyone who grew up in the 1980’s is familiar with the video for the A-ha song “Take on Me.” But even if you never saw the video playing on MTV, there’s a good a chance you’ve seen it parodied on Family Guy or watched the “literal version” on YouTube.

The concept of the real world and a cartoon world seems promising for a full length movie but, with one exception on my list, I’m not yet convinced that it works very well for anything outside of a 3 or 4 minute music video.

Cool World (1992) 

I found this movie to be a little confusing – not with respect to story or plotting, but in terms of tone and scope. But once I read a bit more about how this movie came together it made a bit more sense. Apparently the original creators had something rather adult (though not necessarily pornographic) in mind, but it ended up getting diluted into something that some movie executives thought would be more appealing to a broader audience. As it turns out, the neutered version of the original vision just comes off empty.


Ralph Bakshi’s style rocks, but the final story is underwhelming. The music and the frenetic animation promised us things that simply never come to pass.

Still, I think this movie is a little underrated, and I cut it some slack, because it takes some chances. Those risks generally don’t work out, but at least Cool World isn’t a movie masquerading as a public relations video like…

Space Jam (1996) 

Due to the presence of the timeless Warner Brothers cartoon characters, Space Jam is often mentioned in the same breath as Looney Tunes: Back in Action (included below). It’s true the Bugs and Daffy play big roles in both, but Space Jam felt like a tightly scripted NBA promo video, as carefully controlled and inoffensive (and uncreative) as anything else we’ve come to expect from David Stern. But it certainly didn’t feel like a movie.


I guess the biggest problem I had with the movie is imagining what happens if you happen to be ambivalent towards (or dislike) NBA basketball. In that case you’re not going to care much about a big portion what happens on-screen.

And if you are an NBA fan, then you’ll wonder why the bad guys were able to steal the skills of any five NBA players, and chose Muggsy Bogues and Shawn Bradley as two of the five. You might also scoff a bit when, before a basketball game that will decide whether the good guys get enslaved on a distant world, the ultra-competitive Michael Jordan says “Let’s just go out and have fun.” MJ is playing himself in this movie… is that really what he’d say?

Besides that, I was disappointed that the cartoon world and the real world have no interaction with each other until over half an hour in… and by that time they’ve lost me. (Goofy remakes of Steve Miller and Cheech  & Chong songs weren’t enough to get me interested again.)

Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003) 

The voices (Daffy and Bugs in particular) are noticeably better in Back in Action, at least in the mind of what this 40-something who grew up on Saturday Morning Bugs Bunny and Road Runner show. That’s good because Bugs and Daffy are developed more fully here than in Space Jam. The plot revolves around trying to find a supernatural diamond and has a James Bond dynamic about it, so there’s a more universal appeal, but that’s not what makes Back in Action better than Space Jam.


Instead of the cartoon characters being from an entirely different world, Back in Action starts with the characters right along side us, except that Bugs and Daffy are actually actors in cartoon movies. But they’re subject to different rules (cartoon world rules) of physics and physical destruction, so their reality isn’t quite the same as ours. This makes for some great scenes that help get the movie going on a strong note.

There’s some overkill — mostly the antagonist played by Steve Martin — as we’ve come to expect from movies that are meant to have an appeal for younger audiences. (Why do these horribly shallow characters keep showing up in movies aimed at kids? Does Hollywood think so little of young moviegoers?) But there’s still plenty of little things that older or more well-rounded viewers will enjoy seeing. Like a cameo of Kevin McCarthy in his most famous role, and the Jerry Lewis poster at the base of the Eiffel Tower.

Last Action Hero (1993) 

True, the cartoon characters from the movie world in Last Action Hero aren’t as two-dimensional as the other cartoons on this list… well, actually, they are. Jack Slater is a cliché of an action hero from the world of the movies, and he’s just as flat as Bugs Bunny when he comes into ours. For that matter, even the “real” character we’re supposed to see in Danny Madigan is two-dimensional and lifeless.


I like the idea behind this movie. It’s hard to argue that there aren’t similarities between the ultra-unrealistic world of too many action movies (True Lies, anyone?), and that of Tom and Jerry. Like Tom and Jerry, violence is the default way Jack Slater interacts with other people, and the full consequences of that violence are rarely shown. We could have a really good movie if those ideas were fully explored.

But the “movie world” and the “real world” in Last Action Hero weren’t quite different enough. In fact, aside from a few spoof element that seemed forced into the movie world, it was hard to tell them apart. I think the filmmakers wanted to have it both ways. They wanted to make fun of over-the-top action movies, and they did that in the beginning, but most of the time spent in the movie world played just like…. a bad action movie. Little jokes were thrown in here and there, but they felt like an afterthought (“oh yeah, we gotta remind people that we’re trying to satirize action movies…”). Perhaps if the time spent in the movie world had been cut back by 20 minutes, then a better distinction could have been made and the unrealistic nature of the action movie world could have been preserved.

I was hoping this Shane Black script would have yielded a better end product. Ten minutes into the movie there’s a seamless transition from a movie version of Hamlet to a Schwarzenegger version of Hamlet to a Road Runner cartoon. That got me in the right frame of mind, I think, but I still wasn’t able to enjoy the movie.When we see Death come to our world from The Seventh Seal, we wonder what we could have had if there was more of that kind of thing. Last Action Hero isn’t the bomb or a disaster that some people make it out to be. It’s just a disappointment because it could have been more.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) 

This is the diamond in the rough. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is creative, original, well-paced, and intelligent.


If we’re going to have cartoon characters that are essential to the plot, then they need to be real and have personalities and motivations and everything that a “real” character actor has. And in this movie they do. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? did the best job of any movie on this list at making two-dimensional characters come to life, and at showing us genuine conflicts between the two disparate worlds.

To the extent that Bugs and Daffy and the others were dynamic characters in the two Looney Tunes movies, it’s mostly because they were already established from their prior work – just like James Bond doesn’t need to be developed as a character in each movie because we already know him. Since we know the Daffy and Bugs play in their dysfunctional relationship with one another, we were able to take a shortcut directly into developing plot and action. We don’t have that luxury with Roger Rabbit, but he’s still developed into a rich character.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? also boasts a compelling story. There’s enough tension and drama (and genuine comedy) in the movie that the cartoon characters don’t need to resort to gimmicks in order to help the story along.

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About Me

In 1976 I went to see The Sting with my father and sister.

Unfortunately, we arrived at the theater an hour after the show started. We went in anyway, and watched the last half of the movie. After the movie was over we stayed until the next showing, so I eventually got to watch the first half of the film (already knowing how it was going to end).

I was struck by the magic of the movies, and how we could be tricked by the actors (and by our own assumptions of what's happening on the screen), and how this was a wonderful thing.