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"THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE"
(2000) (Piper Perabo, Jason Alexander) (PG)

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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: A rookie FBI agent recruits the legendary Rocky and Bullwinkle after their lifelong archenemies manage to escape from the cartoon world into reality and plot to take over the country.
PLOT:
It's been more than thirty years since their TV show was cancelled and the most famous residents of Frostbite Falls, MN - better known as Rocky J. Squirrel (voice of JUNE FORAY) and Bullwinkle J. Moose (voice of KEITH SCOTT) - have since been stuck in perpetual reruns.

That changes when their longtime archenemies and overall No-Goodniks from Pottsylvania -- Fearless Leader (ROBERT DE NIRO) and his two bumbling assistants, Boris (JASON ALEXANDER) and Natasha (RENE RUSSO) -- manage to escape into the real world. By broadcasting their RBTV (Really Bad TV) programming signals across the country, Fearless Leader plots to turn everyone in America into mindless zombies incapable of independent thought, and then make them vote for him as the next President.

That doesn't sit well with the current chief executive, President Signoff (JAMES REBHORN) and so FBI agent Cappy Von Trapment (RANDY QUAID) assigns rookie agent Karen Sympathy (PIPER PERABO) to find the only characters capable of stopping such a diabolical plan - Rocky and Bullwinkle - and get them to New York City before Fearless Leader makes his executive broadcast to the nation.

After retrieving the two cartoon characters into the real world, Sympathy, and her two animated companions, then set out on a cross-country trek to stop Fearless Leader. As they do so, however, they must contend with various complications and obstacles, including those introduced by Boris and Natasha who've been assigned to stop Rocky and Bullwinkle at any cost.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
There have always been valid reasons for the existence of cartoons and animated shorts & features. For starters, their unique and usually colorful appearance obviously appeals to their main target audience of kids. They also allow animated filmmakers the opportunity to tell stories and introduce characters that - until the relatively recent advent of decent computer graphics - would be impossible to do in a live action film.

After all, while one can accept and enjoy the antics and/or drama of talking animals and the injurious effects of run-ins with various ACME products, the sight of that in a live action film isn't as easy to buy and often looks silly when not outright stupid. For that reason, many live action remakes of established cartoons or animate features just don't work that well.

For years, animated entertainment and its live action counterpart peacefully coexisted but never appeared in the same feature. Then in 1945's "Anchors Away," Gene Kelly did a little dance number with Jerry the Mouse (from "Tom and Jerry") and changed everything. Such interaction occurred again in 1964's "Mary Poppins," and while certainly not realistic looking, both instances did manage to entertain audiences, mainly from the sheer novelty of it all.

That changed in 1988 when director Robert Zemeckis delivered the breakthrough hybrid, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" Not only were its animated characters made to look as real as possible (but still appear as cartoons), but they also physically interacted with their surroundings and human costars in a believable fashion (casting shadows, moving real objects, etc.).

The technology employed for all of that led to special effects innovations that are still used today, but any further intermingling of animated and real characters - notwithstanding the awful and cheesy looking "Cool World" - rarely if ever occurred again due to related costs and improvements in computer-generated characters.

That all changes, however, with the release of "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle." Based on the 1960s era animated TV show, the film is an interesting hybrid in that not only does some of it take place in a completely animated setting (reminiscent of what original producer Jay Ward created on the show), but also because some of the original animated characters have been given the live action makeover, while the titular characters have remained in animated form.

Of course, creating a realistic, live action version of a talking, bipedal moose and his flying squirrel companion would have been difficult and expensive, not to mention hard for audiences to accept. Besides, part of the original characters' charm was their very distinctive appearance, as well as that of their voices. Fortunately, director Des McAnuff ("Cousin Bette") and his effects team opted to keep Rocky and Bullwinkle's look relatively intact (beyond giving them more of a three-dimensional shape), while vocal impersonator Keith Scott and the original voice for Rocky, June Foray, maintain the sound of the original characters.

All of that said, the true decisive test is whether this big screen adaptation is any good and/or lives up to the quality of the original series. After all, while Ward's program might not have impressed anyone from a visual standpoint, its writing was always topnotch and designed to appeal equally to both kids and adults alike.

As such, the film starts off with a bang and quickly - but unfortunately and only temporarily - quells the cynic in all of us who believed the project was a bad idea from the get-go. With Scott mimicking the original show's narrator (just as he did in the live action version of "George of the Jungle"), the film has a fun and funny opening where we're quickly brought up to speed on what's occurred to the characters in Frostbite Falls and Pottsylvania since their show was cancelled in 1964. Such expository writing is sharp, clever and quite funny and gives one hope that the filmmakers might just pull off their attempt.

In addition, if one can get past the notion of Hollywood digging up the world of entertainment's graveyard once more for another potential hit, the basic underlying plot of having Rocky and Bullwinkle recruited into the real world to stop their archenemies isn't a half bad cinematic idea. It's not great, but it certainly could have been much worse.

Unfortunately, and beyond a few subsequent and scattered humorous and/or clever moments - that become scarcer as the story progresses - the film never lives up to its fabulous opening. As such, it ultimately, but not that surprisingly, turns into something of a disappointment.

To make matters worse, it has the unenviable task of being compared to the outstanding standards set by "Roger Rabbit." With a self-aware and sarcastic reference to that film (the head villain announces in one scene, "This is completely different!") being about the only good thing that can be said about this one when judging it based on that previous blockbuster, you know the rest of the comparisons won't be good.

And they're not. Beyond the fact that "Roger Rabbit" has a far better and cleverer overall concept regarding the intermingling between the animated and live action worlds, and despite the intervening years and technological improvements since 1988, that older film still looks far more impressive than this one. Here, the characters don't interact as much or as believably with their real physical surroundings and thus the effect of such a mixture is lessened.

The overall tone of the proceedings is also obviously more juvenile, thus similarly paling in comparison to "Roger Rabbit's" more sophisticated film noir style and substance. Considering the film's intentions and target audience, that's not a horrible distinction, but the exaggerated antics (sped up film, over the top acting, etc.) might get tiresome and/or irksome to most adult viewers and even older kids. As earlier stated, whereas such behavior is easily acceptable in cartoon form, comparable actions and mannerisms by live action characters run the risk of just coming off as goofy or stupid and that's what occurs here.

Considering such "cartoon" characters, only Robert De Niro's ("Raging Bull," "Cape Fear") performance is entertaining, and the normally serious actor seems to have a blast inhabiting the character, especially when he does a riff on his own "You talking to me?" bit from "Taxi Driver." While Rene Russo ("The Thomas Crown Affair," "In the Line of Fire") and Jason Alexander ("Pretty Woman," TV's "Seinfeld") may have the looks of sounds of their respective characters down pat - and despite getting a great deal of screen time - they're simply not that enjoyable to watch for eighty some minutes.

In her first starring role, Piper Perabo ("White Boys," the upcoming "Coyote Ugly") is okay for what's asked of her (which isn't much), but she occasionally looks uncomfortable and uneasy in the role. Nickelodeon "veterans" Kel Mitchell and Keenan Thompson ("Good Burger") can't do much with their extended cameos that are most notable for having the character names of Martin & Lewis, while the great Jonathan Winters ("The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming," "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World") isn't given the time or the opportunity to work his unique magic over any of the three characters he briefly plays.

Meanwhile, the likes of Janeane Garofalo ("The Matchmaker"), John Goodman ("The Borrowers"), Randy Quaid ("Independence Day"), Whoopi Goldberg ("Ghost") and even an uncredited Billy Crystal ("When Harry Met Sally") might give the film more of an established marquee value, but are similarly limited in what they can do in their supporting or cameo roles.

Much like most "Saturday Night Live" skits that work in short form, but fail (and often miserably) as feature length film, the road trip-based story here - as penned by Kenneth Lonergan ("Analyze This") - simply doesn't have enough material to sustain the film's length and consequently probably would have been better off as a short featurette (although it's obviously hard to get people to pay full price for such reduced material).

With a plot and related antics that go downhill after a promising start, not enough interaction between the narrator and the film's characters (which was part of the fun of "George of the Jungle") and clearly lacking in enough "adult" humor to offset the juvenile antics that dominate the proceedings, the film may have its moments, but once again proves the old cinematic adage that more isn't necessarily better than less.

Even so, it's better than 1999's "Dudley Do-Right" (which was spawned from the same source material), but nowhere near as innovative, clever, or fun as the spectacular antics and effects that permeated "Roger Rabbit." As such, "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" rates as just a 3.5 out of 10.




Reviewed June 27, 2000 / Posted June 30, 2000


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