Carry a Toon
I’d never seen the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon, so I prepared for its new film version by watching a couple of episodes. Maybe it’s one of those things you need to have acquired a taste for in childhood, but I didn’t see what the big deal is. The vaunted satire is so horribly dated that it’s no longer funny, though I’m sure legions of the show’s fans would disagree with me.
The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle instantly dates itself, too, with its satirical swipes at the Internet, celebrity mania, cable television, the presidency, Hollywood, and the general dumbing down of America, and it likely will cease to be amusing, except in retrospect, in only a few years. But right at this moment, it’s pretty darn funny.
Cleverly convoluted and self-referential, Rocky and Bullwinkle knows it’s a movie based on a classic TV series. Rocket J. Squirrel (credited “as himself,” actually the voice of June Foray: Mulan) and his dumb-as-a-post sidekick, Bullwinkle J. Moose (also “himself,” actually the voice of Keith Scott: George of the Jungle), are scraping together a living off the residuals of their show, canceled 35 years ago. Their home base of Frostbite Falls, Minnesota, is decimated by years of reruns. Their archenemies — Fearless Leader (Robert De Niro: Analyze This, Ronin, having a ball), Natasha Fatale (Rene Russo: Lethal Weapon 4), and Boris Badenov (Jason Alexander) — have been ruined by the fall of the Soviet Union. They’re the “most terrifying villains in history of children’s television,” says a Hollywood studio executive to whom they sell the movie rights to Rocky and Bullwinkle. That’s how evil they are: they’ll resort to cavorting with movie executives.
A silly but amusing gimmick transforms Fearless Leader, Natasha, and Boris from “expensive animation to even more expensive movie stars,” and F.L. launches his plan for domination of America: he takes over every cable television network in the country and broadcasts RBTV on every channel. Really Bad Television, that is — the joke is, How can you tell the difference? F.L. plans to zombify the entire nation, and when they’re totally hypnotized, he’ll command them to vote for him for president.
Okay, so it makes no sense whatsoever: If F.L. has control of the airwaves, he’s already got more power over the American public than the president ever could. But go with it. Squirrels can’t really fly either… and real moose are probably a lot smarter than Bullwinkle, too.
After three veteran FBI agents fail in their attempts to stop F.L.’s nefarious plan, rookie FBI agent Karen Sympathy (Piper Perabo) is brought in. Her mission: get the Rocky and Bullwinkle movie greenlighted in Hollywood, so that she can get the assistance of the only creatures ever to stop F.L. and his henchmen, Boris and Natasha. (This makes less sense looking back, but it works onscreen, really.) With Rocky and Bullwinkle transported to the real world, but as cartoons, they head off on a crosscountry road movie with Karen to Fearless Leader’s headquarters in New York. Along the way, they’ll encounter numerous fun celebrity cameos, groan-inducing puns, falling safes, bundles of TNT, “product placement” for famous brands like the Beefy Buns fast-food chain and Cheapo Rent-a-Car. They’ll make a stopover at Wossamatta U, talk back to the snarky Narrator (also Scott), play with the conventions of moviedom, and won’t even let the film’s sentimental message get by without some ironic tweaks.
The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle works for the same reason that the recent The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas didn’t: It acknowledges that its characters are cartoons let loose in the real world, milking absurd humor from the disjoint between “real” and “cartoon” physics and winking at its own animated television roots. When a live-action Fred Flintstone gets up on his tippy toes to hurl a bowling ball down the alley, it’s an embarrassing attempt to shove a cartoonism into what had previously been presented to as us “real.” But when Boris steps off a water tower into thin air, it’s hilarious that he can hover there for a few seconds before remembering that he’s no longer a toon, and hence subject to the laws of physics as we humans know them. By making us conspirators in the humor, by constantly breaking the fourth wall — the one between the movie and the audience — to remind us that this is a movie about a movie about a kids’ cartoon TV series, Rocky and Bullwinkle surprises and delights.