The Untold Story of Termite Terrace, Joe Dante’s Unmade Love Letter to Looney Tunes

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Space Jam: A New Legacy always had to attract a built-in audience after years of anticipation, but a man who has always been unlikely to be in that audience is Joe Dante. The Gremlins Director is a lifelong Looney Tunes fan (his early ambition was to become a cartoonist) but the original Space Jam couldn’t win him. Rumor has it that Dante despised Space Jam so much that he nicknamed his own Looney Tunes movie. Looney Tunes: Back in Action, the “Anti-Space Jam” during production. Aside from his own tastes and prejudices about the Looney Tunes, this hostility on Dante’s part could well have been influenced by his friendship with another director: Chuck Jones.

As an animator and director, Jones spent most of his career at Warner Bros., working for Looney Tunes from the 1930s until the animation division closed in the 1960s. He was the director behind some of Looney Tunes’ most famous short films A froggy evening and the Coyote / Road Runner series for the “Hunting Trilogy,” which brought the world the conflict between duck and rabbit seasons. Jones was a key force in developing the personalities of characters like Bugs Bunny, and as a director, his focus was more on personality than on gags. This led Jones to be a bit careful about what the Looney Tunes characters he worked with could and could not do; his list of eleven rules for Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner (embellished over time) has been circulating in animation circles for decades.

Space Jam went far from Jones’ stage concepts for the Looney Tunes when it premiered in 1996, and while Jones didn’t run a major publicity campaign to denounce the film, he wasn’t shy with his opinions among his peers. Artist Terry Thompson reminded Jones to sum up the film with a brief but clear review: “Oh, I thought it was horrible.” A key theme for Jones was the premise of the film. For Jones, Bugs Bunny was a combination of Groucho Marx, Henry Higgins and Douglas Fairbanks, the ultimate trickster hero. He would never need or condescend to ask Michael Jordan, or even another cartoon star, for help dispatching a handful of aliens, nor would he need a feature film to do so; seven minutes would be enough. The (admittedly brief) instances of toilet humor in the film didn’t go well with Jones either. According to Thompson, when Warner Bros. Jones asked to speak to the then animators’ dinner, around the time Space Jam was released, Jones argued in front of the assembled artists. Studio security escorted him from the parking lot.

But Space Jam was also a lost project for Jones and Dante. The two became both co-workers and friends in the 1980s; Jones made a brief appearance in Dante’s Gremlins and directed the animated segments of Gremlins 2: The New Stack. And in the early 1990s, the directors worked with the writer of Gremlins 2 Charlie Haas on a script for a very different attempt to bring Looney Tunes to the big screen than we did: Termite terrace.

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Image via HBO Max

RELATED: ‘Looney Tunes: Back in Action’ deserves the admiration piled on ‘Space Jam’

Named after the dilapidated bungalow that housed the animation department of Warner Bros. in the 1930s, Termite Terrace was to become part comedy and part biopic by Chuck Jones. The script was based on Jones’ own memoirs and from the memories of the original Warners animators of production problems, personality conflicts and encounters with movie stars on the Warners premises. Names were changed and characters were merged, but the core of the plot was Jones’ evolution from animator to director, with the creation of Bugs Bunny (and other characters) taking place in the background.

Dante was very happy with Haas’ script and feedback from his colleagues was positive too; Dante said that Steven Spielberg told him, “This is a perfect movie for you.” Unfortunately, opinions were more reluctant from the one source that mattered: Warner Bros. As the owner of the Looney Tunes characters that would be popping all over the Termite Terrace, Dante had no choice but to take the project to Warners, and into the In the early 1990s, there was no appetite among Warners executives for a historic film that celebrates the past of its cartoon stars. Also as small-screen projects like Animaniacs regularly paid tribute to past cartoons and films, and Warners’ priority for the Looney Tunes was to “rename” them for contemporary settings and marketing purposes. That approach led to a Nike ad campaign that paired Bugs Bunny with Michael Jordan, and that campaign grew into Space Jam. The Space Jam blockbuster cemented that approach among executives to managing their “brand,” and that approach left no room for Termite Terrace.

But attempts to follow Space Jam with a sequel proved difficult, and a second Looney Tunes film lingered in development hell for years as studio management and marketing disagreed over how a sequel should be developed. Chuck Jones died during this time, but Joe Dante remained interested in working with the characters. Warner Bros. approached him with an offer – not to revive Termite Terrace but to direct Looney Tunes: Back in Action. As a tribute to Jones, Dante accepted. Together with animation director Eric Goldberg, Dante tried to at least preserve the personality of the animated characters, Jones’ commodity: Bugs as an unshakable trickster, Daffy as a desperate neurotic and so on. But Back in Action at Warner Bros. remained caught between nervous forces that placed significant restrictions on the filmmakers (up to 25 gag writers were brought in to work on the script). Dante later said of Back in Action that “the finished film has a different beginning, middle, and ending than the one I originally made.” The lack of box office hit was the last nail in the coffin of the possibility that Termite Terrace would ever produce would be. What lesson Dante learned from his entanglements with the Warner Bros. animation legacy? “Don’t develop a script based on characters you don’t own.”

The owners of these characters eventually returned to the idea of ​​a direct successor to Space Jam and after 25 years they got what they wanted.

READ ON: ‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’ lives up to the original by being awful too | Verification

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