This time they’ve gotten it right. After the modest disappointment of 1996’s “Space Jam,” which made the mistake of putting the Looney Tunes cartoon characters in a basketball-themed story with Michael Jordan, Warner Brothers has turned the reins of this new effort melding the human and the animated to the perfect director–the hugely underrated Joe Dante, whose fanatical love of both the old shorts and Hollywood hokum in general is combined with a twisted sense of humor not unlike those of the old masters Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng and Frank Tashlin. The simple title “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” seems absolutely just.

Dante’s peculiar sensibility fits the project like the proverbial glove. His “Gremlins” movies were essentially live-action cartoons (the hilarious sequel more so than the first); “Explorers” was an even more perverse example of the same; and his segment of “Twilight Zone: The Movie” looked like a comic book brought to life (as did “Innerspace”). Even his failures–“The ’Burbs” and “Small Soldiers”–followed much the same formula. And his assiduous mining of old movies and TV shows, evinced most clearly in “Explorers” and “Matinee,” is no different from the pop culture references continuously inserted into the old WB shorts. Working from Larry Doyle’s script, Dante has now fashioned an endlessly inventive tribute to the classic Tunes, a full-length combination of live-action and animation that actually captures the spirit, energy and zany allusiveness of the old shorts.

As befits such an effort, “Looney Tunes” is a chase movie. Daffy Duck, who’s been canned once again once again by the Brothers Warner (deadpan twins Don and Dan Stanton) and their “vice president of comedy” Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman), heads off to Las Vegas with D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser), an inept studio security guard fired for wrecking the lot pursuing Daffy, on an important mission: to rescue Drake’s dad, superstar spy (and real secret agent) Damien Drake (Timothy Dalton, spoofing his old James Bond persona), who’s been captured while battling the evil Acme Corporation, headed by loony Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin), for information about how to track down a mysterious object called the Blue Monkey with strange and magical powers. While this pair moves from wacky adventure to wacky adventure, they’re in turn pursued by Kate, who’s anxious to rehire them both and is accompanied by the ever-wisecracking Bugs Bunny. Eventually, of course, the four join up and are drawn into an escapade involving a trip to a secret government facility called Area 52 (so named to distinguish it from the non-existent Area 51) that deals with extraterrestrial research, an African safari, and an outer-space expedition featuring satellites and an evil Acme plan to take over the world.

Structurally the picture is like a succession of Looney Tunes shorts in which different characters are spotlighted. The first segment is a Bugs-Daffy piece, and afterward the two not only act as constant presences, individually and in combination, but periodically do their old routines in new ways (the most notable example being a sequence in the Louvre in which they’re chased by Elmer Fudd into various paintings–a nice twist on the sort of imaginative surrealism the old directors sometimes embraced). But elsewhere other cartoon figures enter to take their turns. There’s a Yosemite Sam sequence and a Wile E. Coyote one, and Marvin the Martian takes a prominent part in the finale. Still others–Porky, Pepe le Pew, Foghorn Leghorn, Tweety and Sylvester, The Tasmanian Devil–show up for mere cameos (watch particularly for the cafeteria sequences, which are hilarious). Throwaway lines and gags are scattered throughout; as in the old shorts, you have to watch the edges of the frames and keep a sharp ear to catch the references and jokes. (A Wal-Mart product-placement bit, in fact, may be a knock at the over-commercialized “Space Jam.”) But to all this Dante adds innumerable movie allusions, at times turning the picture into a trivia challenge for buffs. A “Psycho” scene starring Bugs is obvious, and so is an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” appearance by old friend Kevin McCarthy in the Area 52 sequence, and another by Robbie the Robot. But the other creatures that appear in that episode are like a litany of obscure beings from other ’50s sci-fi flicks (is that “Robot Monster”? “This Island Earth”?) And the good-natured Fraser takes the chance to spoof himself (especially his “Mummy” franchise), just as Dalton does. “Looney Tunes” is chockablock with in-jokes and inside references that should tickle adults who get them, while sailing above the heads of the tykes who will enjoy the frenetic cartoon action (though both will enjoy Bugs’s throwaway gag involving “Finding Nemo”). Among the human performers Fraser, Martin and Dalton enter the colorful world of the animated characters nicely, the way some guest stars on the old Muppet show easily interacted with the furry stars; Elfman isn’t as successful, coming across as strident, and in a smaller part Heather Locklear doesn’t seem at home, either. (Surprisingly, neither does Joan Cusack.) Technically “Looney Tunes: Back in Action” is spiffy from beginning to end–not innovative in the way that “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” was, but surprisingly faithful to the old Warner Brothers look.

So will you enjoy the movie? That depends. Youngsters should have a pretty good time, though this isn’t really a kids’ movie–full appreciation of it requires too much cinema savvy. If you share Dante’s obvious affection for the old Bugs Bunny shorts and believe that Daffy never got the respect or screen time he deserved, and if you’re as much an old movie buff as he is, probably. And if you’re in sync with his bizarre sense of humor, absolutely. For those of us who fall into all the requisite categories, the movie will be a treat.

An aside: Looney Tunes lovers, and especially Road Runner aficionados, who haven’t already encountered it should take the time to search out Ian Frazier’s hilarious little piece, “Coyote Vs. Acme,” that appeared in The New Yorker back in 1990 and gave its title to his later collection of humorous essays, published in 1996. It’s subtler than this movie, but every bit as funny.