Friday June 30, 2000

     The best thing about "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" is that Rocky and Bullwinkle are the best thing about it. Despite the presence of name actors like Robert De Niro, Rene Russo and Jason Alexander, all eyes are on a chatty animated squirrel and a 6-foot, 7-inch animated talking moose.
     Which, as the many admirers of the much-loved Jay Ward-Bill Scott TV series will attest, is as it should be. Possibly the most gleefully sophisticated cartoon show in TV history, "Rocky and his Friends" and "The Bullwinkle Show" ran for a combined 326 episodes between 1959 and 1964, combining arcane cultural references, all manner of wicked wordplay and endless battles with the evil Eastern European trio of Boris Badanov, Natasha Fatale and Fearless Leader.
     Given how ineptly another Ward-Scott character, Dudley Do-Right, was transferred to film, moose and squirrel fans had reason to worry about this half live-action, half computer-animated adaptation, but in the great cartoon tradition, things have turned out fine in the end.
     A film of modest aims, pleasing moments and genuine smiles, "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" is completely in the spirit of its progenitor. Though it suffers from having to have a plot willing and able to be dragged out to feature-length (88 minutes versus 3 1/2 for the original adventures), this attempt is closer than you might imagine to sharing the qualities that made the original such a long-lived success.
     It's fortunate that director Des McAnuff, who seems to do his best big-screen work with cartoons (he produced Brad Bird's "The Iron Giant"), understands the sensibility that animated the original show and is able to meld the work of real and imaginary actors to replicate it.
     But if this film has a secret weapon (aside from the return of voice-over legend June Foray, who originated Rocky on TV), it's screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan, whose soon-to-be-released "You Can Count on Me" was easily the best-written film at the last Sundance festival.
     Lonergan has practically channeled the spirit of Ward and Scott, knowing just which modern phrases the guys would have leaped on ("let the healing begin," Bullwinkle says at one point) and smartly capturing the self-referential nature of the dialogue. After a tepid exchange between our heroes early on, the narrator (the excellent Keith Scott, who also does Bullwinkle) tartly comments, "even their wordplay had become hackneyed and cheap."
     These particular adventures start with Rocky and Bullwinkle living in shabby-genteel two-dimensional retirement in Frostbite Falls, Minn., trying to stretch ever-diminishing residual checks (one comes in for 3 1/2 cents) and lamenting the fact that "the world doesn't need us." Rocky, if the truth be known, has even forgotten how to fly.
     Halfway across the world, in the sovereign state of Pottsylvania, Boris, Natasha and Fearless Leader, also still in animated form, are occupied doggedly tunneling to Hollywood. There they sign the rights to their story over to studio development executive Minnie Mogul (Janeane Garofalo) and are promptly transformed into real people Alexander, Russo and De Niro because, Fearless Leader explains, "we are attached to the project."
     That is the first of many inside Hollywood references in Lonergan's script, including an amusing visit to the Green Light House, the top-secret nautical structure where films literally get the green light. There are also several references to specific films, the funniest being De Niro doing the Fearless Leader version of his famous "You talkin' to me" speech from "Taxi Driver."
     Now that he is flesh and blood, Fearless Leader hatches a plan to become America's president. The idea is to unite all of this country's cable stations into the RBTV (as in Really Bad TV) network, with programs that turn citizens into mindless zombies who could be hypnotized into voting for Fearless for president.
     Working with Rocky and Bullwinkle to stop this menace is quasi-intrepid FBI agent Karen Sympathy. Nicely played by ingenue-of-the-moment Piper Perabo (who will be operating in quite a different ambience--the raunchy New York bar scene--in the forthcoming "Coyote Ugly"), Karen remains the sweetest, most cheerful operative in the history of the bureau despite encounters with scene-stealing cameo players Carl Reiner, John Goodman, Whoopi Goldberg and Jonathan Winters.
     Though it has the virtue of not taking itself too seriously, "Rocky and Bullwinkle" does go on too long, leading to inevitable dead spots. And though Alexander, Russo and De Niro are acceptable, their cartoonishness goes only so far. It's Rocky and Bullwinkle, even in their fleshed-out, computer-generated form, we want to be hanging out with. It feels good to see the boys out of reruns and in the spotlight where they belong.


The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, 2000. PG, for brief mild language. In association with Capella/KC Medien, a Tribeca production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Des McAnuff. Producer Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro. Executive producers Tiffany Ward, David Nicksay. Screenplay Kenneth Lonergan, based on characters developed by Jay Ward. Cinematographer Thomas Ackerman. Editor Dennis Virkler. Costumes Marlene Stewart. Music Mark Mothersbaugh. Production design Gavin Bocquet. Art director Bill Rea. Set decorator Hilton Rosemarin. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes. Rene Russo as Natasha. Jason Alexander as Boris. Piper Perabo as Karen Sympathy. Randy Quaid as Cappy Von Trapment. Robert De Niro as Fearless Leader. June Foray as Rocky. Keith Scott as Bullwinkle, Narrator.