Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle

By Marc Savlov

JULY 3, 2000: 

D: Des McAnuff; with Rene Russo, Jason Alexander, Robert De Niro, Randy Quaid, Kel Mitchell, Kenan Thompson, Piper Perabo, Janeane Garofalo, Whoopi Goldberg, John Goodman. (PG, 88 min.)

Rocket J. Squirrel (voiced by June Foray) and Bullwinkle J. Moose (voiced by Keith Scott) return after a 35-year absence in this wildly uneven but occasionally hilarious updating that takes the animated duo and pits them once again against their arch-nemeses Natasha Fatale (Russo), Boris Badanov (Alexander), and Fearless Leader (De Niro) ­ though this time the baddies are, obviously, flesh and blood characters. Jay Ward's original Rocky and His Friends show, which ran in various incarnations on ABC between 1959-65, was very much a product of its times, featuring not only insufferably bad punning (a Ward specialty) but also a clear Cold War mentality, displayed to fine effect in the villain's oversized Eastern European accents and drab trench coats. That chilly conflict is long-since past, of course, and so scriptwriter Ken Lonergan (who, perhaps not coincidentally, scripted De Niro's other recent film comedy Analyze This)has crafted a tale in which Fearless Leader schemes to win the White House by "zombifying" the American television public with really bad television. Not so far-fetched, is it? Naturally, Rocky the flying squirrel, with his blue aviator's cap and goggles, and dull-witted Bullwinkle come to the rescue, with an assist from FBI agent Karen Sympathy (Perabo). Fans of the original series, and I count myself among them, will find that little has changed on the surface. Despite the live-action background and supporting characters, this is pure animated silliness through and through. Ward's work was always notable for its surreal and subversive qualities, and this film plays those up in spades. Taking a shot at overt product placement in current films, Bullwinkle is seen shooting through a cyberspatial landscape littered with giant ad banners for Pepsi, Best Buy, and other national brands. The Internet, hip hop music, and, well, pretty much everything comes in for a ribbing, parody, or satirizing, even De Niro's trademark "You talkin' to me?" line. Ward apparently never had any sacred cows, and neither does this update, thankfully. There's layer upon layer of bad punning ­ both visual and verbal ­ from a seriously bizarre Supertramp (!) gag to countless riffs on politics, mass consumerism, and the media. Much, if not all, of this is likely to go over the heads of younger viewers who probably aren't even familiar with the original show to begin with. That shouldn't discourage adult fans, though admittedly the filmmaker's balancing act between kiddie-pop fare and intellectual subversion gets a bit bewildering at times. Is it better than last year's other Ward updating, Dudley Do-Right?Most definitely, and it almost tops 1997's surprise hit George of the Jungle, another Ward creation. De Niro is clearly enjoying himself here, and as his Tribeca Pictures produced the film, I'm suspecting this is something of a vanity project for him. (How else to explain those extended Travis Bickle jokes midway through?) As scattershot in its humor as the original ABC program, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle is hit-or-miss comedy at its best and worst: When it connects, the belly laughs are long and loud, but when it misses, the groans you'll be hearing are your own. As for me, though, I'm still awaiting the Sherman and Mr. Peabody movie. "Quiet, you."

2 Stars

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