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The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle   C

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Des McAnuff
Writer: Kenneth Lonergan (based on characters developed by Jay Ward)
Cast: Rene Russo, Jason Alexander, Randy Quaid, Kel Mitchell, Kenan Thompson, Piper Perabo, Robert De Niro, June Foray, Keith Scott.

Review by Rob Vaux
"Now here's something we hope you'll really like."
--Rocket J. Squirrel

You're not kidding, Rocky. After disastrous live action versions of George of the Jungle and Dudley Do-Right, fans of the late Jay Ward needed something to look forward to. Ward's gleefully subversive animated cartoons influenced an entire generation and set the stage for groundbreaking shows like South Park and The Simpsons. So it would stand to reason that Hollywood would pull out his greatest creations -- Rocky the flying squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose -- to finally deliver a proper film adaptation of his work. Unfortunately, despite a valiant effort, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle doesn't cut the mustard.

The start is promising enough. Director Des McAnuff wisely chooses to focus on the title characters and make sure they're portrayed properly. The first 10 minutes is animated in the precise style of the old Ward shows, and immediately captures the same combination of corny puns, easy banter and biting satire. We first catch up with Rocky and Bullwinkle during their rerun-imposed exile in Frostbite Falls, Minnesota. Time hasn't been kind to our heroes: their hometown has turned into a sludge pit and they're surviving on diminishing residual checks from their old show. As the omnipresent Narrator explains, "even their dialogue had become hackneyed and cheap." But their spirits are still up and as we quickly learn, the pair's easy charm hasn't been damaged a bit. Rocky's original voice, June Foray, returns for another outing, with Keith Scott filling in for both Bullwinkle and the Narrator. Both succeed wonderfully in resurrecting their cartoon alter egos, tattered but still standing after all these years.

They're not the only ones going through tough times. The fall of the Iron Curtain has rendered their eternal nemeses -- Pottsylvanian spies Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, and their fearless leader, Fearless Leader -- with a lot of time on their hands. They promptly begin tunneling to Hollywood, a place whose twisted magic can transform their cartoon selves into flesh and blood (or more specifically, Jason Alexander, Rene Russo and Robert De Niro). Once freed from the confines of animation, Fearless Leader begins an unholy scheme to brainwash America through bad television, then march to the presidency on their zombified votes. Horrified at the prospect of an uninformed electorate, the FBI dispatches Special Agent Karen Sympathy (Piper Perabo) to retrieve Rocky and Bullwinkle from retirement, for only they can stop such a fiendish plan.

The film works best when it stays true to the original Ward material. Besides the wonderful appeal of the main characters -- which never diminishes for the entire 90 minute length -- the script by Kenneth Lonergan has a good sense of bite and delightfully toys with narrative conventions much the way the cartoons did (our heroes constantly argue with the off-screen Narrator, who himself is quick to point out the impossibilities of the plot, which are often caused by breaking the fourth wall, and so on).

The difficulty comes with the live action sequences (i.e. everything not directly related to Moose and Squirrel). Many of the gags which work so well in cartoon form fall flat here, and aren't helped by the naturalistic confines they want so clearly to break. The problem isn't with the actors (it's De Niro up there, after all), but rather with the fact that they're asked to do overtly cartoonish things. When a cartoon Boris and Natasha build an instant rifle tower, it's funny; when Russo and Alexander to it, it's dull and awkward. The director tries to compensate with a lot of silly sound effects and sped-up action, which only exacerbates the problem. Perabo has charm but is easily outclassed by her cartoon co-stars and a slew of cameo performances fail to make any lasting impressions. The cartoon/reality merger is an ugly fit which ultimately sinks the film: you find yourself asking why they didn't just animate the whole thing while eagerly waiting for the only two cartoons in sight to return to the forefront.

Rocky and Bullwinkle has its heart in the right place and deserves a tip of the hat for bringing two great characters back into the spotlight. But its status as an event picture and insistence upon live action mar what should have been a delightful romp. A terrible ad campaign seems to have hurt it at the box office, but there may not be enough to save regardless. Die-hard Jay Ward fans should go just to see the boys in action again; the rest of us have to wait for something we really like. I'm not holding my breath for Super Chicken: The Movie.

Review published 07.07.2000.

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