“Dudley Do-Right” comes galloping into the megaplexes just in time to qualify as one of the summer’s more pleasant surprises. A silly bit of tiptop tomfoolery with cross-generational appeal, this live-action version of the long-popular Jay Ward cartoon should perform impressively, if not heroically, in theatrical and ancillary venues. Indeed, pic might have generated even bigger B.O. had it been released before the spate of mid-August school reopenings throughout North America.
Much like the smashingly successful “George of the Jungle,” another comedy based on a Ward-produced animated cult fave, “Dudley” does right by showcasing Brendan Fraser in the title role. This time, instead of swinging on vines and crashing into trees, the hunky young actor is a dim but dashing Royal Canadian Mountie who always gets his man (usually with the aid of his considerably brainier horse). Dudley Do-Right is nothing if not dedicated as he keeps the peace in the Canadian Rockies community of Semi-Happy Valley. But he is seriously outmatched in a duel of wits with the wicked Snidely Whiplash (Alfred Molina).
After a long and eventful career as a traditional bad guy in black, Whiplash — a duplicitous do-wrong with a weakness for miniature golf — no longer is content with robbing banks and foreclosing mortgages. Truth to tell, he isn’t even thrilled by tying folks to railroad tracks anymore. Seeking nothing less than total control of Semi-Happy Valley, he salts the local streams with shotgun blasts of stolen bullion, setting off a feverish gold rush. As thousands of would-be prospectors flock to the area, Whiplash methodically transforms the valley into a garish combination of pioneer boomtown, Disneyesque theme park and Branson, Mo.
The locals are so grateful for the economic upturn that they gladly rename the community Whiplash City. Dudley isn’t so easily beguiled by Whiplash’s machinations, but the effervescent Nell Fenwick (Sarah Jessica Parker), Dudley’s childhood sweetheart, warms to Whiplash when she returns to the area after a long absence. And when Dudley continues to rock the boat by digging into Whiplash’s dirty work, our hero is fired by Nell’s father, Inspector Fenwick (Robert Prosky).
Working from his own witty screenplay, director Hugh Wilson (“Blast from the Past,” “The First Wives Club”) remains true to the tongue-in-cheek tone of Ward’s cartoon shorts, even to the point of using a stentorian narrator (Corey Burton) to provide seriocomic commentary. Wilson also adds a few effective oddball touches of his own.
Occasionally, Dudley and Nell channel the spirits of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald by breaking into a heartfelt duet of “Indian Love Call.” And they get to kick up their heels during a big-band dance sequence that is typical of Wilson’s anything-goes approach.
But the most lavish production numbers are performed by some extremely dubious Native Americans in “dinner theater” extravaganzas that combine Las Vegas flash and “Riverdance” footwork. (Choreographer Adam Shankman deserves special credit for his contribution to the funny business.) As the chief of the Brooklyn-based tribe known as Kumquats, Alex Rocco suggests that Moe Green didn’t really die in “The Godfather,” but simply donned a ceremonial headdress and moved to the Great White North.
As Dudley, Fraser, with his near-beatific smile, once again exudes an air of blissfully naive sweetness without seeming cloyingly fey or overbearingly cute. There’s never a trace of wink-wink, nudge-nudge self-awareness in his eager-beaver earnestness and purposeful stride, even when he takes his umpteenth pratfall. And he’s all the funnier for never appearing to grasp that he is the butt of the joke.
Like his co-stars, he makes little effort to replicate the voice of his cartoon counterpart, but then again, there is little need to.
Molina exuberantly devours the scenery as Whiplash, Parker camps coquettishly as Nell, and Monty Python alumnus Eric Idle steals every scene that isn’t nailed to the floor as a hard-drinking prospector who teaches Dudley Do-Right to, occasionally, do wrong. Kathie Lee Gifford and Regis Philbin come across as good sports as they play themselves while welcoming Idle’s character to their TV show.
At a snappily paced 77 minutes, “Dudley Do-Right” stops sufficiently short of wearing out its welcome. Wilson relies a bit too heavily on production-value pyrotechnics in the final scenes, as pic veers perilously close to standard-issue action-adventure spoofiness. But as live-action cartoons go, this one — unlike, say, “Inspector Gadget” — comes across as a real movie, not a protracted stunt.
As a curtain-raiser for the feature, Universal Cartoon Studios has produced a new five-minute episode of another Jay Ward classic, “Fractured Fairy Tales.” The amusing parable, “The Phox, the Box & the Lox,” was produced and directed by Oscar Moore, written by Bill Scott (who also penned almost all of the original “Rocky and Bullwinkle” misadventures), and executive produced by Tiffany Ward, the late animation mogul’s daughter. Listen closely, and you’ll hear the voice of June Foray, who also provided vocals for Rocky, Natasha and Nell in the original “Rocky and Bullwinkle” series.