It's higher praise to say that Rocky and Bullwinkle does complete justice to its source. Director Des McAnuff and screenwriter Ken Lonergan completely "get" the original Jay Ward cartoon series. "Rocky and Bullwinkle" was never as slick as the Disney shorts or Looney Tunes, but the crudity of the animation was compensated for by a cheerfully anarchic sense of humor that appealed to young and old alike. Too silly and benign to be called truly "subversive," the "Rocky and Bullwinkle" show still had an absurd, anything-goes quality that made it a favorite for baby boomers, still wont to quote lines like "Fan mail from some flounder?"
You could call The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle fan mail from some filmmakers. Though the movie tends to emphasize its big-name actors and stunts, of greatest appeal are its characters and its mock-melodramatic sense of the absurd.
Things are tough in the 'toon town of Frostbite Falls, which has gone bust since "Rocky and Bullwinkle" went into reruns in 1964. The talking moose (voice of Keith Scott) and flying squirrel (June Foray, the original Rocky) have been living off their dwindling residual checks, and Bullwinkle, dismayed at local deforestation, takes up the cause of "wildlife conversation." The stentorian narrator (also Scott) points out, "Even their dialogue was hackneyed," and Rocky replies "No, it was always like this."
A sinister turn occurs when Cold War villains Boris, Natasha and Fearless Leader weasel their way into the real world, and "expensive cartoon characters become even more expensive actors," played by Jason Alexander, Rene Russo and Robert De Niro, respectively. Their scheme involves broadcasting television shows so bad that the American population turns into slack-jawed zombies. Spunky young FBI agent Karen Sympathy (Piper Perabo) is assigned to bring "moose and squirrel" into the real world to thwart their old adversaries, and Boris and Natasha, in turn, go after them.
As in Roger Rabbit, our animated heroes leave footprints, cast shadows and otherwise seem solid. But they're not so much inhabiting our reality as a live-action version of their own. The rules of cinema are flagrantly flauted -- Boris and Natasha track the heroes by stealing a map from the narrator -- while road signs announce destinations such as "Crymia River" and "Da Bitter, Ind." When someone in an Oval Office meeting exclaims, "It's almost as if there were a mole in the White House!" the camera pans to include, of course, a mole in a business suit furiously taking notes.
De Niro is one of the film's producers, and his performance as Fearless Leader suggests he wanted to do his own version of Mike Myers' Dr. Evil. Bullwinkle has a similar premise to Austin Powers, with campy 1960s icons on the loose in contemporary America, but Bullwinkle tends to have better jokes -- or at least, better bad jokes. It's akin to Airplane! in its full-bore commitment to frivolity, and you laugh not so much at the individual puns and one-liners as the willingness to crack such cornball jokes.
With numerous celebrity walk-ons (such as Whoopi Goldberg's "Judge Cameo") and elaborate car, helicopter and bi-plane crashes, Rocky and Bullwinkle can teeter at the brink of bloated, over-budgeted comedy a la It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. But the stunts aren't as memorable as the creative animation, as when an animated locale dissolves into a real one, or Bullwinkle literally surfs the Internet.
The villains prove especially amusing when, in a frenzy of self-satisfaction, they begin dancing to "Secret Agent Man" without warning. Russo is especially fun as the Garbo-esque femme fatale, with Alexander showing a bit more strain as Boris.
But the marquee stars are fully upstaged by the animated heroes, who prove surprisingly endearing. Common-sensible Rocky worries that he's lost his knack for flying, while Bullwinkle proves amiably oblivious to everything but right and wrong. And as Agent Sympathy, the little-known Piper Perabo manages to stay brave and spirited without being either too saccharine or ever winking at the camera. (I wonder if it's a coincidence that the actress' front teeth are nearly as prominent as Rocky's.)
The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle isn't interesting in its sweeping social commentary, although the moose gets confused by how generic American towns now appear. In a season when comedy either turns on being archly ironic or concocting new ways to gross viewers out, Rocky and Bullwinkle achieves a whimsical innocence that's an increasingly valuable commodity.