Even with splashy special effects from Rhythm & Hues and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, “The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas” has the look and feel of a second-rate direct-to-video sequel in which pennies are pinched and bets are hedged. It’s actually a prequel to the 1994 live-action feature based on the popular animated TV series. But whereas the first “Flintstones” pic — which scored more than $ 300 million in worldwide grosses — made at least a token attempt to amuse ticketbuyers old enough to recall firstrun telecasts of the 1960-66 sitcom, the excruciatingly lame followup is aimed squarely at grade-schoolers. Silly script, broad slapstick and overstated lead perfs by B-team cast might be acceptable to target audience. But lack of cross-generational appeal will curtail this prehistoric romp’s long-term theatrical prospects, hastening its evolution to ancillary venues.
Set a decade or so before the previous live-action opus, “Viva Rock Vegas” focuses on the often rocky courtships of Fred Flintstone and Wilma Slaghoople — the couple destined to become a modern Stone Age family— and Barney Rubble and Betty O’Shale. This time-tripping dodge allows the producers to recast the lead roles with slightly younger — and, presumably, less expensive — leads. Mark Addy (“The Full Monty”) and Kristen Johnston (TV’s “Third Rock From the Sun”) replace John Goodman and Elizabeth Perkins as Fred and Wilma, while Stephen Baldwin and Jane Krakowski sub for Rick Moranis and Rosie O’Donnell as Barney and Betty. (Listen closely, and you’ll hear O’Donnell as the voice of — no kidding — an octopus masseuse.)
The world of the Flintstones is rife with prehistoric beasts that serve as pets, servants and low-tech equipment, and as in the previous pic, the intricately detailed puppets and computer-generated creatures are as animated, and almost as charismatic, as their hand-drawn equivalents in the old TV show. (Best sight gag: a squawking, smart-mouthed bird that’s employed as a remote-control device.) But it’s hard to shake the impression that some of the big-ticket f/x, such as the roller-coaster ride atop interlocked dinosaurs, are just so much product placement for upcoming rides at Universal theme parks.
Indeed, even more than the previous pic, “Viva Rock Vegas” forces you to question the whole point of making a live-action version of an animated cartoon. As you marvel at the production design and special effects, you still may find yourself responding to the whole enterprise the same way you would respond to a scale-model of the Eiffel Tower constructed with Popsicle sticks.
Four scribes are credited with cobbling together the tissue-thin plot. Under the direction of Brian Levant, who also helmed the first “Flintstones” feature, “Viva Rock Vegas” is far more frenetic and simplistic than an average episode of the relatively sophisticated ’60s TV series. Wilma turns out to be a poor little rich girl, the discontent daughter of the fabulously wealthy and snidely snobbish Pearl Slaghoople (Joan Collins). Pearl wants Wilma to marry Chip Rockefeller (Thomas Gibson), the handsome scion of a respectable old-money family. But Wilma has her heart set on settling down with Fred, so she brings her intended, along with Barney and Betty, to a lavish birthday party for her doddering father, Col. Slaghoople (Harvey Korman).
When Fred inadvertently ruins the celebration, Chip appears to take it all in stride, and graciously invites Fred, Wilma, Barney and Betty to the opening of his new resort hotel in Rock Vegas. Once the two couples arrive in the party-hearty city, however, Chip manages to make things less than pleasant for Fred.
To fully insure that younger tykes will laugh at the madcap goings-on, “Viva Rock Vegas” adds a shamelessly kid-friendly gimmick to the mix. Alan Cumming lends his face and voice to the f/x rendering of The Great Gazoo, a pint-size extraterrestrial who flits in and out of the plot. (Cumming also plays, to even less amusing effect, a Brit rocker named Mick Jagged who briefly woos Betty.) Gazoo, who can be seen only by Fred and Barney, wants to study the mating habits of primitive Earthlings. His periodic observation of Fred and Wilma cues some strenuously unfunny one-liners and a lazily conceived deus-ex-machina climax.
But Gazoo isn’t the only telltale sign of desperation on the part of the filmmakers. Pic resorts to tired jokes about dinosaur farts, pies in faces and Fred and Barney in showgirl drag. One of the few clever touches: Ann-Margret, who starred opposite Elvis Presley in “Viva Las Vegas” (1964), sings a revised version of the title song on the soundtrack here.
The four leads vacillate between bland competence and charmless bluster. Addy sounds more like Ralph Kramden than Fred Flintstone, but at least he’s closer to the mark than Baldwin, who turns Barney into a total numskull. Johnston and Krakowski are cartoonish in the worst sense of the term. Which, come to think of it, could be said about the pic as a whole.