Almost three decades before "The Simpsons," network television gave up some of its precious prime time to animator Jay Ward, who came up with "Rocky and His Friends," which quickly metamorphosed into "The Bullwinkle Show." Sort of hosted by its stars, the lightheaded and flighty Rocket J. Squirrel and the lumbering Bullwinkle J. Moose, it was a haven for the unlikeliest collection of cartoon creatures this side of Charles Addams.
They included Russian spyskis Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, bumbling through the lighter side of espionage; Dudley Doright of the Canadian Mounties, his hopeless girl Nell and archenemy Snidely Whiplash; Mr. Peabody and his boy Sherman; Commander McBragg and Hoppity Hooper.
Last year, parts of the 375 episodes were compiled for "A Salute to Rocky and Bullwinkle" and proved to be a hit on the art house circuit. This being the '90s, there's a sequel. Despite several good moments -- notably two "Fractured Fairy Tales" -- this collection wears thin very quickly. It's not well put together, either, though that's in the spirit of the original: Minuscule budgets caused the series to be made in Mexico using "limited animation" techniques with plain backgrounds and little motion by the characters.
Of course, there was no limitation on the dialogue, and that's where Ward and his compatriots went appropriately nuts, surrendering to every pun possible and generally wreaking nonstop havoc on the language. Many of the jokes seem dated now ("Here's a ruble for your troubles." "No sir, not one red cent!"), and there's a certain histrionic energy that makes many others annoying rather than entertaining. It's mostly talk and some action.
The most sustained humor comes in the "Fractured Fairy Tales," which turn the familiar into the absurd. "Sleeping Beauty" involves an opportunistic prince who turns Beauty's castle into a theme park and tourist attraction ("DOZ DOLL DUZ WIZ BIZ," screams a Variety headline) only to have to deal with a wicked witch who wants 50 percent of the gross; "Red's Riding Hoods" involves a manipulating city girl trying to outfox a wolf as it maneuvers through those scary Holly Woods.
Dudley Doright is also on hand, as are Aesop and Son and most of the other comic castaways who made the show so popular with both adults and children. There's also a wraparound "Rocky and Bullwinkle" serial involving an improbable misadventure in Shanghai (along with some clumsy ethnic stereotypes typical of that era). Blown up to the big screen, the show's production limitations are quite noticeable, but those who seek pun-ishment will have no problem overlooking them.