Grade: D-

The (deliberately) idiotic plot of this bigscreen version of
the beloved old cartoon series involves a television network
programmed to broadcast shows so bad that they will “zombify”
the entire population of the U.S. Presumably if such a network
becomes a reality, it will show this picture regularly, perhaps
rotating it with that similar disaster from a previous era,
1986’s “Howard the Duck.”

One might have thought that the failure of last year’s “Dudley
Do-Right” would have alerted filmmakers to how difficult it is
to transfer a Jay Ward animated short into live-action feature
terms, despite the modest success of the earlier “George of the
Jungle” (1997). Generally speaking attempts at live-action
reworkings of old TV cartoons are a bad idea, but Ward’s
pieces, with their incessant punning and situations designed
to provoke groans as much as laughs, were designed to be short
and sweet, not dragged out interminably for ninety minutes,
so stretching them out to feature length is especially tricky.
(It’s revealing that the only good part of “Dudley” was the
animated Fractured Fairy Tale that preceded the feature.)
The “Rocky and Bullwinkle” franchise should have been approached
with particular care, since an earlier effort, the infamous
“Boris and Natasha,” was so awful that it wasn’t even released
upon its completion in 1988 (it eventually showed up on cable
in 1992, where it promptly disappeared–mercifully).

Of course the current flick is a much bigger production, with
the support (and participation) of Robert De Niro, but that
just makes it a greater fiasco. Actually the first five
minutes will offer some amusement to those brought up on the old
series; they’re animated in the style of the show, and the
gags, while obvious, keep its spirit, too (especially those
dealing with the “retirement” of moose and squirrel). Then,
unfortunately, we’re brought into the modern era, and while
the two animals are kept in (computer-generated) cartoon form,
everybody else becomes “human.” So Jason Alexander and Rene
Russo play Boris and Natasha, and De Niro Fearless Leader.
People like Janeane Garofalo, Carl Reiner, Jonathan Winters,
John Goodman, Nikolodeon’s Kenan and Kel, David Alan Grier,
Jon Polito and Don Novello show up for cameo bits, many with
little more than a line of dialogue and a few seconds of screen
time. And Randy Quaid and Piper Perabo are introduced as the
FBI director and one of his agents who undertake to recruit
R&B to foil their old enemies once again.

But despite the presence of all this talent, “Rocky” never
takes wing. There are any number of reasons. For one thing,
the moose and squirrel were always the least interesting
figures in the old show, and here, interacting with live-action
beings in the fashion of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988) or
“Space Jam” (1996), they’re no funnier than they ever were–
especially Bullwinkle, whose extra-dumb act grows stale
awfully fast. Then, while a picture like “Roger Rabbit”
succeeded by creating a distinctive universe in which “toons”
and “humans” credibly interacted, Kenneth Lonergan’s script
never manages to offer any even amusingly stupid rationale
behind the juxtaposition here. Finally–and most
destructively–the real people in the picture are simply
dreadful, flesh-and-blood individuals with cartoon mentalities
who must careen through utterly insipid situations and dialogue.
Alexander and Russo prove no better at being Boris and Natasha
than Dave Thomas and Sally Kellerman did in 1988–which means
they’re excruciating. But De Niro is even worse. Perhaps
Bob thought it would be amusing for him to recite the best-
remembered line of “Taxi Driver” with a bad German accent in
a leather military outfit, but he was wrong; quite simply,
the picture loses whatever energy it might have had every
time De Niro comes on the screen, with deadening effect. None
of the other non-cartoon performers survive the debacle, either
(John Goodman comes closest); but then they weren’t given any
reasonable chance of doing so by the inane, dull-witted script.

The picture was directed by Des McAnuff; in the spirit of
Bullwinkle’s incessant punning, let’s just say that he doesn’t
DoAnuff to give the piece the slightest hint of sparkle or
imagination. Like “The Flintstones,” “Inspector Gadget,” and
“Dudley Do-Right” before it, “The Adventures of Rocky and
Bullwinkle” doesn’t so much celebrate the old series on which
it’s based as cause you to wonder why you look back on it with
affection in the first place. Still, those opening five
minutes have a certain nostalgic charm. Just be sure to leave
when they’re over.