The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle

| July 6, 2000

The end of the Cold War allowed most Americans to breath a collective sigh of relief, but it spelled disaster for the industries that had thrived and prospered under the threat of mutually assured destruction. While most Beltway Bandits scrambled to restructure their business and renegotiate lucrative defense contracts, Hollywood has plowed on fearlessly, tweaking plot premises in a most subtle manner to retain Eastern European figures as the perfect villains in Us against Them movies. Even so, “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” the quintessential Cold War cartoon, seems an unlikely choice for a full-length feature film.
When I first heard that production of The Adventures Of Rocky and Bullwinkle was in the works, I was somewhat confused about what sort of project was being created. The show was cancelled in 1968. Despite frequent reruns on Nickelodeon (this is how little Robin watched the show in the mid ’80s) and the Cartoon Network, Rocky is not a staple of the kiddie cartoon diet, so we know it will not get the lucrative Pokémon draw. Neither did the show develop the cult following that propelled The Flintstones to box office success. Ten years past the Soviet coup, the only Cold War films left are spy/action flicks with the Cold War as the center piece for action and conflict, not the backdrop for character and comedy.
Perhaps the producers intended to tug at the nostalgia of those of us who have enjoyed “Rocky and Bullwinkle” in its various installations of airing and syndication. Unfortunately, the producers, writers and directors did not make a clear choice in audience and purpose. At some moments the movie is a Sunday afternoon with the kids, at others it is an “inside joke” between us and the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” we grew up with. At other times the film pokes fun at Cold War movies. This leads to final product that is fun and enjoyable, but which lacks a unified purpose and clear direction. Because this film was not intended to be art, I suppose that my criticism translates into the following: it gets really old really fast.
The premise is simple. Boris (Jason Alexander), Natasha (René Russo), and Fearless Leader (Robert De Niro) have escaped from the land of cartoon reruns into year 2000 America. They begin to buy up all of the air time on network and cable stations in order to broadcast mind numbing TV which will hypnotize all Americans into voting for Fearless Leader in the next election. Thus, our hero, FBI Agent Karen Sympathy (Piper Perabo) retrieves Rocky and Bullwinkle to help her foil the Pottsylvanian’s plans. The movie (at its best in spoof and satire mode) even has a scene in which Agent Sympathy programs “road trip” and “cartoon” into some sort of genre-plot machine to literally generate the story. We follow Boris and Natasha and the hapless protagonists in a cross-country chase from Hollywood to New York in order to save America.
The plot is unnecessary, but we know this and appreciate the comic moments it sets forth. Besides reviving the old team comedy antics of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show including the duo’s infamous word-plays, the movie gently and effectively satirizes many aspects of American culture. My favorite gag, for example, are the series of vacuous, chain-store ridden highway towns through which the heroes travel prompting Bullwinkle to inquire on several occasions, “Hey, haven’t we been to this town before?”
Rocky and Bullwinkle are loveable cartoon characters who are animated very nicely into their live-action surroundings. Correspondingly, newcomer Piper Perabo does a good job of interacting with the cartoons, a task that occupies a great deal of her screen time. Jason Alexander and René Russo are deliciously villainous, but without a doubt the MVP of this movie goes to De Niro. It was fantastic to see De Niro step outside of his gangster roles and appear to truly enjoy himself as the master-mind villain. The energy, care, and pure delight that he brings to each scene make us hope that he will find other comic and caricature roles in the near future. A host of cameos (Whoopi Goldberg, John Goodman, and Billy Crystal) pop up to make us laugh (and groan) at every juncture. By the end of the movie I felt like these appearances were there to distract us from the fact that the plot and characters were getting repetitive.
This movie is sure to amuse a variety of audiences. I wish that I could have written about a film that entertains at a variety of levels. Instead, we have a movie that ultimately aims in too many directions for its own good.

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