The character of Pepe Le Pew has been reportedly pulled from Space Jam 2 – but he was all set to get his own feature less than a decade ago.

Last month, a story bubbled up that the animated character Pepe Le Pew had ended up on the cutting room floor of the upcoming movie Space Jam: A New Legacy. A sequence featuring him was apparently put together, but was dropped.

Given the way the character acts – he’s been described, not unreasonably, as a sexual harasser in cartoon form – you’re likely to have seen the last of him in a Looney Tunes production.

This about-turn from Warner Bros comes five years after Max Landis had been hired by the studio to pen a Pepe Le Pew feature for the studio. The news was confirmed at San Diego Comic-Con back in 2016, where as this report confirms, Landis pitched an idea to the studio which Warner Bros in turn liked and duly stumped up for.

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The project – that had been in gestation at Warner Bros since 2010 in one form or another – died a quiet death for reasons never openly confirmed, but that overlooks the fact that the script was actually written. A draft was turned into the studio entitled Pepe Le Pew In City Of Light, at the end 2016. At one stage, Landis was mooted as director too.

It should be put into context as to where reports about Landis were at that time (appreciating serious allegations have been levelled against him subsequently). Accusations and serious allegations about his conduct arose in earnest at the end of 2017 – that he’s not admitted to – although he’d shown the world a glimpse at who he was in a 2013 interview where he said that “the most fucked up thing was that i cheated on a girl who i also gave a crippling social anxiety, self-loathing, body dismorphia, eating disorder to” [sic].

You can read that interview there.

None of this stopped Netflix paying megabucks for Landis’ screenplay to its first movie star-headlined blockbuster Bright (starring Will Smith), nor did it stop BBC America hiring him for the TV show Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

It’s unclear against this backdrop as to why his Pepe Le Pew feature didn’t get much further in Hollywood, but we’ve been sent the screenplay that he wrote by a couple of people now. I’ve sat on this story for a little while as I ascertained whether it was the real deal or not. Without going into sources, it is. And I think it makes for some reading as to just where the potential movie was half a decade ago.

Copyright law prevents me posting large chunks verbatim, but it does allow thankfully for comment and critique under fair use principles. I think it’s an interesting slice of modern Hollywood history, demonstrating just how recently material of this flavour was doing the rounds within the studio system, and hopefully as a contrast with a more rounded view of the predatorial Pepe Le Pew character now.

As such, I’m just going to demonstrate the direction this particular project was going with some excerpts from the screenplay. I’m sat in front of the entire 106 page document here, which introduces Pepe quickly (he parkours up a drainpipe on the second page). He gets into a chase, and notes a “a group of sexy FRENCH PIGEONS” on the following page. Pepe laments when they notice him “Ugh, these animals! They treat me like an object! But then again, it is fun to be art for the right eyes”.

I do appreciate that there’s a degree of taking quotes and lines out of context here. There’s no easy way around that, but also, whilst a lot of the film is standard chases and wisecracking as you’d expect from a studio animated movie, there’s stuff that just, well, I’ll let you decide.

Back to those pigeons, then. Pepe winks at them. They faint. The chase continues. He next ends up in a café with a chalkboard, where he gives a speech. The script then has Pepe saying: “Perhaps she [sic] show interest in the thing you’re saying and she make eye contact and she laugh and look down and she touch your knee – something’s cooking! But Pepe you say, what is she does now know I am interested, should I touch her knee?”

Penelope – I’m coming to her – replies, with the emphasis replicated here from the script “NO! NEVER TOUCH HER KNEE! She knows you’re interested, you buffoon: You are a man. (calms) What’s important, is to listen”.

Penelope Blanc, then, we meet for the first time on page nine. She’s the lead female character in the film and I’m going to suggest that writing female characters is not a strength of the writer concerned. She’s described in the script with these words: “a fluffy black cat with a white belly. Look, I don’t want to just describe her physically; that’s lazy screen writing, and arguably sexist or cat sexist or what have you, you freak, but at this point, the less you know about this feline, the better.”

Penelope is revealed to be a crook, something she has in common with another character, Claude, who in turn is described by Landis as “a nervous, sketchy weirdo”.

Eventually, for plot reasons, Penelope disguises herself a skunk with the help of a tin of spray paint. “She looks like a skunk”, it confirms. “A sexy, single skunk, speaking in a accent about as French as the fries at Burger King”.

This doesn’t feel too far from the source material, in fairness. This was always the kind of tone of Pepe material I can recall watching in my younger years.

Around a quarter of the way through the script, we then meet Cecil Turtle.

I confess I struggled with what came next.

When we meet him in what was presumably posited as a family feature, he’s swiping through profiles on his dating app. He’s in conversation with Pepe as he does so. The stage direction reads ‘Cecil turns, as Pepe comes down over his shoulder, grabbing the phone away and Right Swiping about fifty girls in a row as he casually strolls the space’.

Cecil and Pepe are friends. Pepe sees a sea turtle on the app and is pleased. As he explains to Cecil, “Adventurous! Exotic AND aquatic: horizon broadening, if you know what I mean”.

I can’t remember too many family movies where a character is basically swiping away on Tinder, and then another character comes along to help. Could it be that it was a moment like this that put a script reader at Warner Bros off? That’s just me guessing, but I’d suggest this would have jarred in 2016, yet alone in 2021.

I hope it jarred anyway.

There’s some discussion of the main plot – involving some diamonds – but then comes the moment when Penelope and Pepe meet for the first time. Due to circumstances, Pepe catches a fainting Penelope. And then Landis conjures up the words to describe how Pepe feels about this new woman he’s just met.

Again, the emphasis is his.

“… BAM IT HITS PEPE LIKE A BULLDOZER-

AMORE! Love! Yes, love, love love love, casting Penelope in spirals and light this woman in his arms so small and fragile but somehow having complete power over him, everything frozen and eternal in this glorious moment here in an abandoned subway car but forever in space and time, a moment of sheer magnitude not unlike an atomic bomb exploding inside every atom of your body and your mind lighting on fire and then transcending fire and shifting into pure light a cosmic vortex that yanks you endlessly onward and though we are but mortal we touch  something undying and eternal since THE DINOSAURS and the FIRST ROCKET LAUNCH and the Cavemen that discovered FIRE and the PYRAMIDS, something that contains us even as we contain it, yes

Love! Love! And this is a cartoon so you better believe we see literally all of that.”

After an action sequence involving the two of them, the screenplay then turns its attention to a moment of romance between the pair. Firstly, Penelope tries to walk away but ‘Pepe keeps snaking around her, blocking her at every turn, not touching but in full on romance mode’.

Penelope is not yet charmed though, and thus Pepe moves in with some dialogue to try and woo here. He explains to her “you are a muffin and I the wrapper that envelopes the muffin completely”.

He doubles down on this. “Except that most precious part of the muffin, the muffin-top; in this case, your face!” He asks “let me kiss your muffin top”.

This conversation is not yet complete.

She says yes. “Let me cover you with the creamy frosting of my affection”, Pepe adds.

In fairness, Penelope is horrified by all of this. We learn a few pages later that she already has a boyfriend, but Pepe brushes this off, arguing “he sounds temporary”, and then starts comparing her to his old girlfriends. She remains uninterested, until a page or two later when he walks away and she reminds him he’s just declared his love for her.

“If you’re not interested in that, then why should I continue to harass you?”, he replies.

Again, copyright law determines that I offer some commentary here, but I’m struggling a little. There’s a grand tradition of family movies that work on different levels for children and their parents, but this – from the outside looking in – reads closer to the tone of infamously uncomfortable supposedly-child-friendly features such as Nine Lives and Show Dogs.

The story moves on, with Wile E Coyote making an appearance, and then Sylvester the Cat arriving. Sylvester seems to give voice to a stereotypical man complaining how the world is changing and not revolving around him anymore. Whether Landis was making a satirical point here I couldn’t tell you. But I can say that the conversation and relationship between Sylvester and Penelope is uncomfortable.

The pair in the screenplay have an argument, and it’s broadly implied that they used to have a thing. Sylvester says the following.

“Well how am I supposed to feel! And now I hear you’re running around with some handsome crook! TYPICAL! You would end up as some rich skunk’s trophy wide, while
(Full Anne Hathaway)
I STRUGGLE FOR MY LIFE IN THE STREETS!”

I admit I don’t understand the ‘Full Anne Hathaway’ bit. But that notwithstanding, what ensues is Sylvester accusing Penelope of trust issues, of pressuring him, of attacking him for being ambitious and being a bully. “You might be a New Jersey eight but you’re a Paris four!”, he laughs at her, adding “Suffering suckatash, you can’t act like you’re the queen of everything out here, cause I’m the only one who cares if you live or die … no one will ever love you the way I do”.

Within three paragraphs, Sylvester has then stopped hitting her with all of this and instead proposed to her, positing it as some kind of a reward for her. “Penelope, love isn’t just given: it’s earned. And you have almost done enough to deserve mine”, he explains.

She’s about to accept this proposal too, but obviously it’s all a trap. A sack is duly put over her head and she’s delivered to one of the film’s antagonists.

I don’t think that Penelope is treated very well in this script.

We’re into the second half of the film here, and this is where the script goes a little bit closer to what could have been expected from a Looney Tunes feature. I remember the underrated Looney Tunes: Back In Action, directed by the brilliant Joe Dante, that was willing to mine all sorts to try and entertain its audience. Even Daleks turn up at one point in that one, as Dante treated the world with glee, and with a little bit of a playground feel.

Here, the script brings in other Looney Tunes characters for a cameo here and there, and I’d imagine this is the part that would have worked the best, to my untrained eyes.

Once again though, there’s a discomfort when we get back to the main characters. I watch a lot of family films with my kids, and tonally, this one just seems a bit difficult. I accept that subsequent events make some of this more troubling to read that I have to assume it would have been seen five years ago.

Even so.

In the story then, Pepe eventually has to rescue Penelope from Notre-Dame Cathedral. Penelope is very grateful for this, remarking that “after everything I said to you, why would you still-“. Pepe interrupts her, explaining “words aren’t always law, sometimes they’re a product of the moment”, and then we head into a bit of his origin story. Penelope likes this. Action sequences ensue.

But the problem is that Penelope has told the evil villain – Versailles – that Pepe is her boyfriend, and Pepe doesn’t like this at all. It makes him unhappy, and he shows this. “That’s not fair! Please, Pepe, just trust me! It was just a stupid mistake!”, Penelope explains to him. No use. He gets captured, she returns to Sylvester instead.

After a to and fro conversation, Penelope’s affections then abruptly alter, at least on the surface. She says to Sylvester that he’s “My hero! My one true WUUUUV! Who I’ll be with FOREVER AND EVER”.

Sylvester replies “Right, love, right- we can talk about commitment and- uh, rules-later. I’m glad you’ve come to your senses and settled out of all this hysteria. Not ALL men are creeps”. She hits him with a frying pan, as her friend Claude says “WOW GOOD FOR YOU GO GIRL YOU SEEM REAL EMPOWERED SLAY QUEEN YAAAS?”

Pepe has been captured while all this is going on, sitting in an animal control cell lamenting “What’s the point? What’s even the point of being a debonair playboy operating in grey legal areas if someone can still just hurt your feelings and make you sad?”.

He learns a lesson here about the difference between falling in love and being in love. Pepe and Penelope ultimately get back together – with help from a Penelope flashback sequence – and the pair help one another.

Here’s the big moment. This is verbatim.

THEY KISS! OMG! THIS IS SO GREAT OMG I DON’T EVE CARE THAT THEY’RE NOT THE SAME SPECIES THIS IS SO BEAUTIFUL IT DOESN’T HAVE TO MAKE PRACTICAL SENSE!

OH GOD I’M SOBBING AND IF YOU’RE NOT SOBBING WHEN YOU ACTUALLY SEE THIS MOVIE AS OPPOSED TO JUST READING IT HERE AFTER ALL THIS ACTION, GODDAMN YOU FAKE IT BECAUSE THE OTHER PEOPLE AROUND YOU ARE CRYING AND IF YOU’RE THE ONLY ONE NOT CRYING THEY’LL THINK YOU’RE HEARTLESS, JUST PLAIN HEARTLESS.

There’s then a post-credits sequence that doesn’t feature Nick Fury, but does set up another film.

I think it’s a very difficult skill to write any movie, but the finest of family movies I feel have a balancing act and a half. To keep the younger audience entertained is hard enough. To give the adults who’d taken them along to the cinema a completely different challenge. The films that manage to do both I have the utmost admiration for. I’m not sure this particular production was on the path to doing so.

Now of course this script will have ultimately gone through the studio system, executives and its eventual director had it come to the screen. It doesn’t appear to have got very close to production, but I have no insight there. Presumably, though, Landis pitched a take at some point, and Warner Bros liked the idea enough to pay him to write it.

Just not enough to make the eventual screenplay…

Images: Warner Bros, BigStock

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