A Moose with "Mooscle"
If you're a rabid fan of Rocket J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose from Rocky and His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show - the shows which introduced the flying squirrel and punning moose to the world - The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle may not feature quite enough of the wacky animals to satisfy you. But if you're willing to take your toons surrounded by live-action antic comedy and more pointed political satire than the subtle series offered, the new film is a delight.
The main characters can't always compete with live-action Boris and Natasha, deliciously played by Jason Alexander and Rene Russo, plus their Fearless Leader, fearlessly played by a bombastic Robert de Niro. The film is dotted with acting cameos and sight gags aplenty, plus 3-D animation from ILM so seamless that you forget you're watching sophisticated computer graphics, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle stands on its own merits, both for longtime fans and those who found the original a little formulaic.
The story begins in 1964, when Rocky and Bullwinkle get stuck in syndicated rerun hell. Trying to live off tiny residual checks, the squirrel is no longer able to fly. As Bullwinkle attempts to muddle out the difference between conservation and conversation, the narrator realizes that even their dialogue has become hackneyed and cheap.
But things are about to change! Fearless Leader, along with traditional evil cronies Boris and Natasha, pitch Phony Pictures exec Minnie Mogul a Rocky and Bullwinkle revival, and come to life when she accepts because they're "attached to the script." Freed from animated limitations, the trio launch a plan to put Fearless Leader in the White House by brainwashing Americans with RBTV - Really Bad Television, a slate of mindless spy shows even worse than UPN's. Fearing potential intervention, Boris and Natasha set out to neutralize the squirrel and moose.
But idealistic young FBI agent Karen Sympathy has already gotten the green light to bring the duo to New York to save the country. "Bullwinkle, I don't think we're on television anymore," stammers Rocky. Shocked that they don't fade to a commercial at the first sign of menace, the pair must get used to other inventions of the late 20th century, like Taco Bell ripoffs in every town. Since this is a road movie, Sympathy and her charges experience the usual roadside hazards - bombs and diversion signs planted by their enemies, traffic cops, college kids on spring break (the latter played by Nickelodeon's Kenan and Kel).
Rocky tries valiantly to remember how to fly, Sympathy tries to balance her inner child with her responsibilities as a stoic government agent, Bullwinkle fights for protection of forests and the right to create horrible puns. But when Fearless Leader learns the moose is loose, he exposes them to the hazards of digital degradation - turned into a super-weapon by an elementary school girl who understands CGI far better than Boris or Natasha. After some run-ins with the law and an aborted romance between Sympathy and the stupidest hunky prison guard in the Midwest, the group makes its way to New York...except that Bullwinkle can't understand when the White House got moved to Manhattan.
Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the new movie features many cameos - but in this case, it's comedians rather than cartoons who pop in. The likes of Billy Crystal and Carl Reiner, Whoopi Goldberg and John Goodman, plus Jonathan Winters as three different bumbling characters. It also features some cameo filmmaking - a segment of reality cop drama titled Made-Up Stories From the Real Highway Patrol, a romantic flight past the moon a la Superman - and a chorus of "Hail, Hail Pottsylvania" that sounds suspiciously like the University of Pennsylvania fight song.
In general the music is well-chosen: "Secret Agent Man," "Hooray For Hollywood," "America the Beautiful" at appropriate moments, Paul Simon's "America" during the road trip, Supertramp's "Dreamer" as Rocky tries to fly. The costumes are terrific as well, particularly Russo's vampy fashion, though all-American-girl Piper Perabo disappears into the woodwork a bit overmuch as Sympathy.
Yet casting alone proves there's no question that this is the villains' movie. De Niro produced it and eats up the screen when he's on, screaming in an outrageous voice that's part Hitler in Triumph of the Will, part Khruschev having a shoe-banging incident. Alexander's cute as Boris Badenov but he's no competition for Russo, who's deliciously sexy whether she's putting together a build-it-yourself water tower or lounging in a hot tub with her gloves on. The cannons and roadside diversions are "traditional," explain Boris and Natasha gleefully as they try with moderate success to stop Rocky and Bullwinkle from reaching New York, holding their ears as they wait for the boom.
Hollywood takes a lot of bashing, from the producer who discards scripts because they're too intelligent to the president's inability to distinguish between deadly Really Bad TV and the standard network fare. Yet this film is both affectionate and nostalgic. When Bullwinkle is protested as a commencement speaker at his alma mater because he's animated, his speech is so confusing that the students end up cheering. Yet the judge in Sympathy's speeding-theft-impersonating-an-officer trial takes one look at her traveling companions, squeals, and dismisses the case. President Will Signoff, who takes his cues from General Foods and General Store, has less on the ball than the Hollywood exec who refuses to back a moose picture.
The animators have done a superb job keeping the essential look of Rocky and Bullwinkle while making them more dimensional. The characters seem less "flat" than those in Roger Rabbit, casting shadows and making contact with the live people, plus a superb sequence at the beginning as Fearless Leader tries to get Minnie Mogul to free him from her television set and keeps wavering between looking like a toon and de Niro. One of the less sophisticated yet cleverer animated sequences shows Bullwinkle - who ends up getting e-mailed, so it's a good thing he remained a digital cartoon in a live-action world - surfing the information superhighway, coasting past giant billboards for brand-name products and alluring dot-coms.
There are no sex sites; for that matter, there's no sex at all, so it seems odd the film got a PG rating though some of the jokes will fly over the heads of children. Natasha does have a brief traditionalist fantasy of retiring to raise little bad guys, but Boris quickly decides he'd rather stay a spy, even if they're terrible at it.
The Boris and Natasha schtick gets a little old on the television show, sort of like Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, but it seems fresh and witty in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, like the moose puns and the dry political satire. You may be frustrated when Rocky's screen time gets swallowed by Sympathy, but you'll appreciate it all the more when Bullwinkle proves he's not quite as dumb as Really Bad TV.