The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle
Screenplay : Kenneth Lonergan (based on characters created by Jay Ward)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : : Rene Russo (Natasha Fatale), Jason Alexander (Boris Badenov), June Foray (Rocket J. Squirrel), Keith Scott (Bullwinkle J. Moose / Narrator), Robert De Niro (Fearless Leader), Piper Perabo (Karen Sympathy), Randy Quaid ("Cappy" von Trappment), Kel Mitchell (Martin), Kenan Thompson (Lewis)
I have always found it slightly disconcerting to see familiar two-dimensional cartoon characters realized in flesh and blood. It is a popular trend, though, as the recent slew of cartoons-turned-live-action like "The Flintstones" (1994) and its recent sequel, "George of the Jungle" (1997), "Mr. Magoo" (1997), and "Dudley Do-Right" (1999) continue to pour out of Hollywood.
The latest is "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle," which does not go quite as far as the previously mentioned films in realizing its once two-dimensional universe in three dimensions. In fact, following (self-consciously) in the footsteps of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (1988), it imagines that the animated world and the world of live action exist side by side. The conceits in the film used to bring the animated characters into the real world make absolutely no sense and play by no consistent rules, which in some ways is a cheat. But, if you can go with the flow, it doesn't really matter, anyway.
Wisely, in "Rocky and Bullwinkle," the titular squirrel and moose duo remain animated, although when they enter "the real world" they change from rough pen-and-ink drawings into more fully realized, computer-enhanced images. Their arch enemies, Natasha Fatale, Boris Badenov, and Fearless Leader, on the other hand, become flesh and blood in the form of Rene Russo, Jason Alexander, and Robert De Niro ("Expensive cartoon characters becomes even more expensive movie stars," the narrator announces).
The story concerns Fearless Leader's plan to fill the television airwaves with RBTV (Really Bad Television), which will turn all Americans into hypnotized zombies so he can brainwash them into voting for him for president. Because Rocky and Bullwinkle are the only ones who have successfully defeated Fearless Leader's schemes in the past, the FBI bring them into the real world and pair them with an idealistic young FBI agent named Karyn Sympathy (Piper Perabo).
Essentially, everything in the movie stays true to Jay Ward's original cartoon series, which aired in the early 1960s. "Rocky and Bullwinkle" cartoons, despite being crudely drawn, were always somewhat ahead of their time, from their use of self-reflexive irony in having the moose and squirrel interact directly with the narrator to the Cold War ideology that infused every frame.
Unfortunately, much of what made the TV show so magical simply does not translate fully to the big screen. The movie, which was written by Kenneth Lonergan ("Analyze This") and directed by Des McAnuff ("Cousin Bette"), attempts to maintain a cartoon sensibility, but the three-dimensional nature of the pranks rob them of their magic. Although Blake Edwards did it time and time again in his "Pink Panther" series, cartoon violence generally isn't as funny when it's happening to a live actor.
The performers fill their cartoon shoes well. Physically, Russo, Alexander, and De Niro look almost exactly like their cartoon counterparts, and their vocal imitations and physical mannerisms are dead-on (although you can sometimes catch a hint of Alexander's "Seinfeld" character, George Costanza, emerge every once in a while when Boris gets upset).
If the movie has a major weakness, it is in relative newcomer Piper Perabo. She has a fresh face and an engaging demeanor, but she is simply not a good enough actress at this point to fill Karyn's central role. She has the most direct interaction with the animated Rocky and Bullwinkle, and she is never fully convincing. Interacting emotionally with characters that are not there must be an incredibly difficult job for an actor. This is why Robert Zemekis was so wise to hire proven performers with good range like Bob Hoskins and Christopher Lloyd when he cast "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." Perabo does not have their strength or their range, and her dramatic scenes with the moose and squirrel (yes, there are dramatic scenes, and even a theme about staying true to your inner, idealistic child) don't work as well as they should.
That complaint aside, "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" is a generally a fun movie, especially for those who are familiar with the old cartoons (it may, in fact, be the ultimate in pandering to the yearnings of baby boomer nostalgia). The tone is updated just enough to give it a slightly 21st-century sensibility, and there are many familiar faces in cameos (including Whoopi Goldberg, Jonathan Winters, John Goodman, and Billy Crystal). But, the old charm, sly wit, and Bullwinkle's joyfully groan-inducing puns and malapropisms keep it true to the original source.
©2000 James Kendrick