"The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" is the latest feature film to be inspired by the cartoon shorts of the late Jay Ward. Jay Ward's wonderfully irreverent animation first made the jump to the big screen in the live-action "Boris & Natasha" back in 1992, an uninteresting caper-comedy centering around Rocky and Bullwinkle's nemeses that starred Dave Thomas and Sally Kellerman. Mainstream success came in 1997 when the witty script and the enthusiastic performance of Brendan Fraser ("The Mummy") helped "George of the Jungle" become the sleeper hit of that summer. Last summer, Fraser returned again in another Jay Ward-inspired outing, "Dudley Do-Right", but this time around, the film quickly disappeared from theaters, the victim of bad writing and audience ennui. In the case of the Ward's latest big-screen transition, "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle", the end result is somewhere in-between the three previous efforts. Though "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" hits all the right notes in paying tribute to the Sixties cartoon (which will certainly appease the show's fans), the film quickly loses momentum at the half-way mark after its five-minute skit premise runs out of ideas.
Using the cheeky voice-over narration and cheap animation that are indelibly associated with the old cartoons, the film's opening sequence fills the audience in on events of the past three decades. It seems that the cartoon world has fallen on hard times since audiences last tuned in to the television show. Rocky (voiced by June Foray), the flying squirrel, and Bullwinkle (voiced by Keith Scott, filling in for the late Bill Scott), the kind-hearted yet dim-witted moose continue to reside in Frostbite Falls, though the town has fallen on hard times since the cancellation of "The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show" in the mix-Sixties. Even the cartoon's narrator (also voiced by Scott) has been reduced to moving back in with his mother and narrating his own life.
The tiny Eastern European dictatorship Pottsylvania has also fallen on hard times, following the collapse of the Iron Curtain. With few opportunities for expansion, Pottsylvania's fearless leader, Fearless Leader, hatches a plan to invade the real world with the help of his two inept assassins, Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale. Tapping an under-appreciated development exec at a Hollywood studio (Janeane Garofalo of "Mystery Men"), the three evildoers are able to escape their cartoon domain by 'attaching' themselves to a development deal. Thus, as the narrator observes, 'expensive animation characters are transformed into even more expensive movie stars!', as Robert DeNiro ("Ronin"), Jason Alexander ("Seinfeld"), and Rene Russo ("The Thomas Crown Affair") fill the live-action shoes of Fearless Leader, Boris, and Natasha respectively.
After breaking the confines of their two-dimensional prison, the evil triumvirate head out into the wide open spaces of America, and begin their dastardly plan. This time around, they are buying up cable television stations across the country in order to set up a new network, RBTV (Really Bad Television), which will use mindless television shows to turn the United States into a nation of mindless zombies (judging from the most recent CBS offerings, it seems that it's already happened).
Fortunately, like the cartoon plots of Rocky and Bullwinkle's halcyon days, it's up to the moose and squirrel to foil this evil plan. The FBI realizes this, and Assistant Director Cappy Von Trapment (Randy Quaid of "Hard Rain") sends rookie agent Karen Sympathy (Piper Perabo, who will be appearing in "Coyote Ugly" later this year) to get the two would-be saviors out of retirement. Unfortunately, Fearless Leader realizes the danger that Rocky and Bullwinkle represent, and he sends Boris and Natasha to stop their meddling.
The film starts off strongly, sparkling with punny wordplay (sorry about that), self-referential wit, and blatantly-contrived plotting, and fans will certainly appreciate how faithful scribe Ken Lonergan ("Analyze This") has remained to the structure of the old show. In describing how Rocky & Bullwinkle have fallen on hard times, the narrator quips, "Even their wordplay had become hackneyed and cheap." When the heroes are in danger, Rocky suggests that they 'cut to a commercial'-- when it doesn't work, he wonders if they're now on PBS (American public television). When Fearless Leader's is questioned about a new anti-cartoon weapon as being similar to a plot device in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?", Fearless shouts back, "Shut up! This is totally different!" Finally, when Boris and Natasha are unable to locate their quarry, they simply steal the map from the narrator. Adding to the film's jokey tone are a number of recognizable cameos, the best being John Goodman ("What Planet are You From?") as a sheriff who retorts Karen's claims of being an FBI agent with "Yeah, and I'm John Goodman".
Unfortunately, the cleverness and freshness of "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" begin to wear thin at the halfway mark. The contrived plotting and deliberately bad jokes start to become more of a nuisance, and the lack of new ideas leads to the insertion of filler material, such as a sequence where everyone in Fearless Leader's headquarters spontaneously burst into the Pottsylvanian national anthem, or a cameo where Whoopi Goldberg shows up as the appropriately-named Judge Cameo. Though Lonergan sticks with the "Rocky and Bullwinkle" formula, it seems that he forgot that he was writing a feature-film versus a five-minute long cartoon. Without anything truly at stake in the story or any engaging characters to latch onto, the film ends up being emotionally distant and there is no sense of pay-off by the time the end credits roll. It's a shame that "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" couldn't maintain the promise of its strong opening.
Performance-wise, the voices of Foray and Scott are perfectly suited for the moose and squirrel, though the computer-animation could have been better (the scenes where they interact with elements in the real world could have been more seamless). Perabo, as their human sidekick, is certainly charming, but her thinly written character is a bit bland. De Niro, who also produced the film, goes over-the-top in his 'separated at birth' portrayal of Fearless Leader, though I could have done without the lame send-up to his famous "You talkin' to me?" line from "Taxi Driver". Alexander and Russo, playing Boris and Natasha, do a passable job, but are far from memorable in their roles.
Fans of the Jay Ward shorts will certainly get an initial kick out of "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle", as it brilliantly migrates the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the big-screen. Unfortunately, the filmmakers solely rely on this aspect to carry the entire film, which it does not, and the story quickly loses its spontaneity and energy. "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle"? No, it's more like "The Misadventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle".