Every kid's favorite cartoon Moose and Squirrel magically transported into the real world? Why if that's not a sure-fire gimmick for a movie studio to make a quick buck, I don't know what is.
Welcome to "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle," another TV-to-big screen transition that must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
In fact, it seems like a good idea for the first half hour of the movie, too. The "Roger Rabbit"-style cross-over story begins in good ol' Frostbite Falls, the sleepy 'toon town where Rocky the squeaky flying squirrel and Bullwinkle the dumb-yuk-yuk moose have been trapped in re-runs since their show was cancelled in the 1960s, living on "diminishing residual checks" -- so says the show's booming and lampooning narrator, who similarly has been reduced "to narrating his own life."
A tide of such trademarked self-mockery gives this "Bullwinkle" flick a good running start of laughter. But soon the our heroes are yanked into the real world, and the movie tries to coast to the closing credits on a thin trickle of similar japes.
Boris and Natasha, those incompetent spies from Pottsylvania, have crossed over ahead of them, having suckered a desperate Hollywood studio junior exec (Janeane Garofalo) into signing a magic contract. "And the expensive animated characters," crows the narrator, "were transformed into even more expensive live-action stars!" Namely Jason Alexander, Rene Russo and -- get this -- Robert De Niro as Fearless Leader (talk about your perfect casting!), who has a plan to take over the United States by turning Americans into TV-watching zombies. I mean, you know, more so than they already are.
Occasionally hilarious, but more frequently flavorless, "Rocky and Bullwinkle" consists largely of pop-culture spoofs (notably "COPS" and "Roger Rabbit," to which it winkingly acknowledges a large debt) set against a ridiculous road trip story that finds R&B driving cross-country to stop Fearless Leader from being elected president by zombified voters.
With a deadpan bent, director Des McAnuff ("Cousin Bette") happily embraces the absurdity of it all, as do the characters, who often break the fourth wall to comment sarcastically on the paper-thin plot.
De Niro goofs on "Taxi Driver," Alexander and Russo ham it up with gusto, and several celebrity fans have small parts in the picture (Garofalo, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, Carl Reiner, Jonathan Winters, John Goodman). Everyone is obviously having tons of fun.
But decreasing snippets of that their frivolity make it off the screen as the movie wears on, and it has one quite significant flaw: Way too little Bullwinkle, way too much Piper Perabo.
Piper who, you ask? Exactly my point.
Perabo is a forgettably pretty Generation Y cutie from central casting, given the movie's real lead role as Karen Sympathy, an FBI agent who has lost touch with her inner child.
She's the one who coaxes our lovable-as-ever Rocky and Bullwinkle into crossing over -- they've defeated Fearless Leader before, see? -- by getting a movie green-lit at a Hollywood studio (industry gags abound). But while the movie takes pride in poking fun at most of its own foibles, it turns a blind eye to the fact that this character is 1) a cheap metaphor, 2) a story-crippling script crutch that serves only to slow down the laughs, and 3) has about as much charisma than a supporting player on "Saved by the Bell."
Making a good movie as deliberately dumb as "Rocky and Bullwinkle" -- not to mention one with so many built-in expectations -- is a difficult balancing act, to be sure. Want proof? Just look at the last two movies adapted from Jay Ward cartoons: "George of the Jungle" -- milk-out-your-nose funny. "Dudley Do-Right" -- walk-out-of-the-theater awful.
This deliberately dumb movie falls somewhere in between. When it's on a full-court press of snickers and grins, it's as comical as the screwy old cartoon ever was. But when it pauses for plot, it goes to pieces because McAnuff and screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan (he worked on De Niro's "Analyze This") seem unable to get the story and the satire to co-exist.
Production compaines: Universal Pictures, Capella International, KC Medien AG, Tribeca Productions
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Director: Des McAnuff
Starring: Rene Russo as Natasha, Jason Alexander as Boris, Piper Perabo as Karen Sympathy, Randy Quaid as Cappy von Trapment, Robert De Niro as Fearless Leader, Jonathan Winters as Whoppa chopper pilot / Ohio cop with bullhorn / Old Jeb, June Foray as Rocky / Cartoon Natasha Fatale / Narrator's Mother, Keith Scott as Bullwinkle / Narrator / Cartoon Boris Badenov / Cartoon Fearless Leader, Janeane Garofalo as Minnie Mogul, Carl Reiner as P.G. Biggershot, John Goodman as Oklahoma Cop, Kenan Thompson as Lewis, Kel Mitchell as Martin, David Alan Grier as Measures