Thursday, February 23, 2012

Not The Same Old Bull

From time to time, I plan to use this space to repurpose film reviews I wrote for several local independent newspapers during the previous decade:

THE OCTOPUS: 1999-2000
THE PAPER: 2003-2004
THE HUB: 2005-2006

During my tenure as a professional (re: paid) film critic, I wrote about both new releases and cult classics. The date provided below is the date the newspaper issue containing the review hit the streets.

This review has been slightly edited from the original published piece.

3 Stars
Rated PG
Running Time 1:28
First published July 7, 2000

First, the news you’ve been waiting for: THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE, Universal’s live-action remake of the classic ‘60s cartoon series ROCKY AND HIS FRIENDS and its spinoff THE BULLWINKLE SHOW, wisely captures the spirit of the original incarnations, spinning satirical political references, good-hearted adventure, and miles and miles of verbal wit into a reasonably likable facsimile which works best when the title characters are onscreen.

Although the film is severely hampered by an unconvincing performance by the beguilingly monikered Piper Perabo, whose future probably lies in Tic-Tac commercials rather than feature films, as the cartoon critters’ human pal and too many distracting and unfunny cameos by some high-priced Hollywood stars, such as Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg, it works well enough to charm those who are already fans of the late Jay Ward’s creation, and, hopefully, inspire less-exposed audience members to seek out the inceptive episodes in reruns.

Since their show was canceled by NBC in 1964, our heroes Rocket J. Squirrel (voiced by 80-year-old June Foray, who still has Rocky’s throaty patter down pat after all these years) and Bullwinkle J. Moose (Keith Scott, who also does double duty as the narrator in place of the late William Conrad) haven’t been doing too well. Their hometown of Frostbite Falls, Minnesota has become a ghost town, their paltry residual checks have dwindled to almost nothing, and a dejected Rocky has even forgotten how to fly.

Meanwhile, those dastardly villains Boris Badenov (Jason Alexander), Natasha Fatale (Rene Russo), and their fearless leader Fearless Leader (Robert DeNiro) have tunneled to Hollywood following the crash of the Iron Curtain, which, of course, drops literally right on their heads. In La-La-Land, they convince a dullwitted studio executive (aren’t they all?), played by Janeane Garafolo, to buy the rights to their story, and, in the process, they are sucked out of the television world and into ours as flesh-and-blood humans.

Once here, Fearless Leader plans to rule by launching a new cable network in New York called RBTV—Really Bad Television—and using its mindnumbingly awful programming to brainwash us into electing him to the presidency. Knowing that this Ghastly Trio can only be stopped by their archrivals, overly perky FBI agent Karen Sympathy (Perabo) hauls Moose and Squirrel into our world, where, strangely, they become three-dimensional CGI creations, rather than live-action figures. They set off cross-country from California to New York to prevent Fearless Leader’s nationwide broadcast, while dodging attempts on their lives by a bumbling Boris and Natasha.

I mostly had a good time watching a pair of my favorite cartoon characters interacting with real actors, but I couldn’t help asking myself, “Why?” Why go to the trouble and expense to bring Rocky and Bullwinkle into the real world, when a brand new animated feature would have been much cheaper and probably much better? Director Des McAnuff, scripter Kenneth Lonergan, and producers DeNiro and Jane Rosenthal are obviously fans of the original ‘toons, and have shown in this feature that they “get it.” There are so many gags and groaning puns in Lonergan’s screenplay that lie flat when spoken by actors that would undoubtedly be improved coming out of the mouths of animated characters. Although Alexander and Russo look and sound perfect, and DeNiro is ripely entertaining in a broad performance that makes Werner Klemperer look like Gregory Peck, there really isn’t anything to be gained by a live-action Bullwinkle movie that probably couldn’t have been better accomplished as a cartoon.

Still, there’s no question that the movie works on a nostalgic level, and it’s glorious to note that Universal has resisted the temptation to dumb down the material to make it more palatable for kids. Parents will enjoy the witty wordplay, while their little ones laugh at the slapstick hijinks. I certainly did, and, as I sat in the theater with a smile on my face as plucky Rocky regained his ability to fly in just the nick of time to save his friend from mortal danger, all I could think was, “Hokey smoke!”

No comments: