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'Rocky and Bullwinkle': Pun for All

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 30, 2000


    'The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle' At wit's end: Rocky, Robert De Niro, Jason Alexander, Rene Russo and Bullwinkle. (Universal)
I don't think I ever truly appreciated the subtleties of Rocky and Bullwinkle as a child. Attending a mid-1980s cartoon marathon of the flying squirrel and moose's TV show (including the Edward Everett Horton-narrated "Fractured Fairy Tales" and the adventures of Peabody and his boy Sherman) at the original 9:30 club, it was not until the third or fourth Bass Ale that I and the audience of post-ironic twenty-somethings were fully able to savor the nuances of such highbrow repartee as:
"Allow me to be frank . . . "
"Well, allow me to be Bullwinkle . . . "

Brilliantly effervescent though the writing may have been on late creator Jay Ward's old 1959-1964 series (first "Rocky and Friends" on ABC then "The Bullwinkle Show" on NBC), deep thought was not its strong suit. The rapid-fire humor was Marx-Brothers quick and peppered with sharp puns, but its Cold War-era satire of Eastern Bloc villains Boris and Natasha doing battle with a talking moose and a rodent in aviator goggles was too sophisticated for only the youngest of crumb-snatchers.

Ward's daughter Tiffany puts it like this: "As my dad al ways envisioned it, the adults would get all the jokes, and the kids would get the joy of seeing a moose and a squirrel with those incredible voices."

That pretty much sums up the pleasures of "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle," the new part live-action, part animated feature executive-produced by the younger Ward (along with David Nicksay) and directed by theater vet Des McAnuff. The plot – in sane, inane and illogical – will be familiar to anyone who has seen a single installment of the old "R&B" series.

The fate of America hangs in the balance as the slow-witted Bullwinkle (voiced by Keith Scott) and his overly patient pal Rocky (voiced, as in the original, by June Foray) attempt to stop Pottsylvan ian archvillains Boris (Jason Alexander), Natasha (Rene Russo) and their fearless leader, Fearless Lead er (Robert De Niro), from turning the citizenry into a nation of zombies with a fiendish device that produces nothing but Really Bad Television (such is the level of irony here). They are assisted in their battle by FBI agent Karen Sympathy (Piper Perabo), a fresh-faced piece of cheesecake who nei ther contributes nor detracts from the film very much.

While our heros are still animated, however, interacting with the live-action world in the manner of the 'toons from "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" – a film to which "Rocky and Bullwinkle" is heavily in debt – Boris, Natasha and Fearless Leader are now flesh and blood bad guys, thanks to a crossover production deal they've inked with a mercenary studio exec.

The film is littered with hip cameos from the likes of Janeane Garofalo, John Goodman, Don Novello (of Father Guido Sarducci fame), ur-stand-up Jonathan Winters, Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal. Inside jokes and sweetly painful wordplay abound (more than you could ever count or possibly care about), such as the labeling of a college infirmary building the "J" Ward or a sign identifying the Crymea River. And, as in the original series, characters talk back to the sonorous narrator (Keith Scott again), grab on-screen graphics when they're in a jam and comment sarcastically on the highly improbable plot line.

After so many cartoon-to-film flops ("The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas" comes most immediately to mind), "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" is a modest sip of bliss. The animation is first-rate, the acting over the top without ever losing its footing and the old-fashioned esprit of the original survives the transition to celluloid intact if tempered with a dash of modernity (faxes, e-mail and a very funny parody of the "Cops" TV show figure prominently). But best of all and bless its silly little heart, "Rocky and Bullwinkle" never asks its target audience of self-referential baby boomers and their littles bundles of joy to take it more seriously than it takes itself.

THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE (PG, 92 minutes) – Contains cartoon violence.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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