Tuesday, February 5, 2013

in defense of...
The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle

As we all know, the big studios are constantly in search of the next big kid-friendly franchise, regardless of the age of the source material.  In recent years, the box office was even kind to big budget adaptations of The Smurfs, Alvin and the Chipmunks and even to some extent The Muppets.

But for every Lorax there are more than a few Dark Shadows.  And that was just last year.  There was also a slowly fading Diary of a Wimpy Kid installment and even the more kid friendly Snow White adaptation Mirror Mirror failed to reflect its good intentions.

Although it has ramped up in the last twenty years especially, the merchandising of past pop culture for a summer or winter tent-pole has always been met with mixed results.

One of my favorites is the almost immediately dismissed mixed bag from 2000, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.  Produced by Universal in an attempt to bring the popular early 60s animated series to the big screen for the first time (a failed 1992 Boris and Natasha did not pass go and went directly to Showtime), the movie flopped pretty badly.

Thanks to reruns of the series on television and a pretty extensive VHS release in the early 90s, I went into seeing the movie with a good level of expectation.  I'd imagine though that the majority of audiences were in the dark though.  

What 2011's The Muppets got right in slyly reintroducing newbies to the property was to mix the nostalgia with the storytelling.  You were both watching a reboot and a sequel.  TAORAB is extremely fun for kids and adults, but it is heavy on the in-jokes and nostalgia.  

Not that this movie doesn't work.  Its pace is fast from the get go, acknowledging its self-aware style with a very funny animated introduction.  If the entire film had remained animated, ironically something that would have been decided in today's Hollywood, it probably would have been safer.  But this film doesn't play it safe.  

Less than 5 minutes into the film, a soulless "Hollywood executive named Minnie Mogul" (played by Janeane Garofalo) tosses hundreds of scripts to the side ("too intelligent"), shows interest in a pitch from people she doesn't know and signs a contract giving her all rights to the original series.  


The minds at Jay Ward Productions mixed with Robert De Niro's Tribeca Productions to forge this Frankenstein creation of a movie.  De Niro probably isn't the first name that comes to mind when you think of Moose and Flying Squirrel, but I'll be damned if it doesn't feel like a labor of love.  

Even the movie's heavy handed plot device, in which "expensive animated characters are instantly converted into even more expensive motion picture stars," is a target with a jokey reverence to original show's spirit.  It's almost like every and any opportunity for a moment of blatant irony is written into the script via dialogue, sight gag or narration.  At one point, a minor character points out to our villain a similarity with the plot to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, to which he screams, "this is totally different!"

Although the film diverges into a (purposely) routine Road Comedy plot to carry it through to its finale, it makes a wise decision in casting then-newcomer Piper Perabo in the, well, sympathetic role of FBI agent Karen Sympathy to get audiences through it all.  She's ridiculously charming in this film, and it fits her ridiculous character (aimed with the ridiculous task of getting Rocky and Bullwinkle out of reruns and their movie a Green-Light). 


If you've never seen The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, and you grew up watching the cartoon, I highly recommend this movie version.  But if you've not even heard of the original show, I think you would be in for a surprise.  It's not as heavy handed as more recent attempts to bring back classic characters (like last year's The Three Stooges), and it is interesting to watch something that relies more on practical effects mixed in with its CGI.

You have to wonder if the film was perhaps a little before its time, in our now commonplace snarky television like Robot Chicken and Family Guy.  We're certainly more pop-culture savvy as a culture now, and Hollywood industry in-jokes are common to the point that Nickelodeon/Disney Channel shows have sitcoms driven by them.  Then again, it was the more successful, but far less sophisticated big screen version of George of the Jungle (1997) that might have fast-tracked TAORAB into production. The lowbrow adaptations of beloved characters since (Garfield, Transformers, Scooby Doo) seem to have a higher level of success.  Thanks, audiences.

If nothing else there the movie has some big name cameos (including Carl Reiner, Jonathan Winters, Kenan and Kel, David Alan Grier, Whoopi Goldberg, John Goodman, Randy Quaid and Billy Crystal), the original voice talents of June Foray (the original Rocky) and, for some really strange reason, the great obscure Supertramp tune "Dreamer" played more than once.

THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE is now available to watch instantly on Netflix for subscribers.


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