The latest and least of three recent features based on vintage animated series produced by the late, great Jay Ward, “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” scarcely seems worth the expenditure of time, money and talent. The sporadically funny and punny wordplay in this modestly amusing trifle might please baby boomers with fond memories of the early ’60s TV show, but even the stunt casting of Robert De Niro as the live-action version of a classic cartoon villain isn’t likely to generate much want-to-see buzz among younger ticketbuyers. Expect a relatively brief theatrical run, followed by longer and slightly more profitable exposure on VHS and DVD.
Thin scripting by Kenneth Lonergan (“Analyze This”) and direction by Des McAnuff (“Cousin Bette”) make one appreciate how much effort and imagination went into the making of the sleeper hit “George of the Jungle” (or even the subsequent Ward-inspired pic, “Dudley Do-Right”). Obviously, it’s not easy to stretch a three- or four-minute cartoon short to feature length.
Just as obviously, state-of-the-art special effects don’t help very much when, somewhere around the midway point, a comedy begins to run out of gas. Maybe they should have figured out a way to outfit “George” and “Dudley” star Brendan Fraser with antlers or a bushy tail.
For the benefit of those who tuned in late: Rocky, a dauntless flying squirrel, and Bullwinkle, a well-meaning but thick-witted moose, are best buddies who cohabit in the tiny town of Frostbite Falls. During their first-run heyday in the Cold War era, the two fought the good fight against enemy agents from Pottsylvania: Boris and Natasha, two inept and heavily accented bad guys, and their short-fused Fearless Leader.
As “Rocky and Bullwinkle” begins, the eponymous heroes are eking out a meager living on residuals from their long-ago TV show. But Fearless Leader is determined to make a comeback — with, of course, a little help from Boris and Natasha.
The cartoon villains contrive to transform themselves into flesh-and-blood entities by literally attaching themselves to a development deal signed by a midlevel Hollywood exec (Janeane Garofalo). Once in the “real” world, Boris (Jason Alexander), Natasha (Rene Russo) and Fearless Leader (De Niro) launch a plan for world domination as showbiz moguls.
Rocky and Bullwinkle are called out of retirement by FBI bigwig Cappy Von Trapment (Randy Quaid), to keep the bad guys from brainwashing Americans with a cable television network of mind-numbing sitcoms. (“Gee,” Bullwinkle notes as he views the insidious programs, “TV really hasn’t changed all that much over the years.”)
Our heroes continue to be two-dimensional cartoons, however, even as they interact with three-dimensional humans. When someone makes the inevitable comparison to “that ‘Roger Rabbit’ movie,” Fearless Leader explodes: “Shut up! This is totally different!” And it is, though not for the better.
For a good half-hour or so, there is an attention-grabbing novelty value to the near-seamless mix of animated characters and human co-stars. Production designer Gavin Bocquet and art director Bill Rea enhance the interplay by striking a satisfying balance of realism and stylization, especially when rendering the RBTV (Really Bad Television) headquarters of Fearless Leader.
Unfortunately, the gimmick isn’t enough to support an entire feature and the filmmakers don’t have many other tricks in their bag. The action grows increasingly fast and frenetic without becoming appreciably funnier. And the touches of tongue-in-cheeky sentimentality — Agent Sympathy must get in touch with her inner child, Rocky must believe in himself to be able to fly — are too heavy-handed to get laughs. Worse, Piper Perabo’s performance as Agent Sympathy is charmlessly bland.
At its infrequent best, “Rocky and Bullwinkle” trades in the kind of sly, self-referential humor that has made the TV reruns such cult-fave raves. Early on, Bullwinkle patiently explains that he, Rocky and Agent Sympathy can’t take a jet from Hollywood to New York, because “this is a road movie.” Later, Boris and Natasha are able to locate the good guys by snatching a scene-setting map from the unseen narrator (Keith Scott, who also does the voice of Bullwinkle).
Between the flashes of comic inspiration, “Rocky and Bullwinkle” kills time with swathes of narrative padding, deliberately bad puns and cameo appearances by actors who are a little too eager to demonstrate they are good sports (though Jonathan Winters gets the most out of three thinly written bit parts).
Alexander and Russo fail to convey, or even closely resemble, the Boris and Natasha of Ward’s cartoons. (Where, oh where, is Natasha’s trademark slinky black dress? What’s with the eggplant-purple attire? And why is she wearing eyeglasses?)
But De Niro rises to the occasion and engages in some playful self-mockery, while slicing the ham and chewing the scenery as Fearless Leader. Pic was produced by De Niro’s Tribeca Prods., indicating a strong personal interest, if not starry-eyed nostalgia, on the part of the much-revered actor. Hokie smokes!
June Foray, who provided the voice of Rocky in the old TV show, returns to speak for the flying squirrel in the little critter’s bigscreen debut. It’s great to have her back, even in a movie that, unlike Rocky, seldom manages to soar.