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The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle
I'm not old enough to have seen The Bullwinkle Show when it originally aired but I used to watch it enthusiastically in reruns through out my younger days. That's where this movie begins. Rocky and Bullwinkle are still living in the now desolate town of Frostbite Falls, making due with the increasingly tiny residuals from their show. Meanwhile, their enemies Fearless Leader, Boris Badanov and Natasha Fatale have engineered their escape from cartoons to the real world.
The beginning of the movie is entirely animated and perhaps the best part of the movie. It captures nearly perfectly the spirit and intelligence of the original show. As the movie progresses however, things start to slide steadily in the opposite direction.
The primary problem is the combination of live action and animation. The beauty of animation is that absolutely anything is possible. The only limitations are the imagination of the writers and animators. It lends itself particularly well to humor because a rapid fire pace is possible that simply wouldn't be possible with live action. Furthermore the rules of the real world simply don't exist in cartoons, making anything possible. Some jokes can't be told any other way.
The great thing about the original show is that it was ruthless in its satire. It brutally lampooned popular culture and never took itself too seriously. There was lots of slapstick humor for the kids but it never forgot adults, slipping in endless puns and sly references. Most importantly it never tried to be cute and cuddly. That is exactly what the movie forgot. It keeps up the ridiculous word play, the sly references, the slapstick, and silly sight gags. Unfortunately it tacks on a sweetness that simply doesn't fit.
This sweetness is personified by newcomer Piper Perabo as FBI agent Karen Sympathy (say it out loud). She's cute and sweet and has to fight with herself to keep her sweet nature under wraps. Occasionally the camera closes in on one of her eyes, letting us see her inner child. Literally. That inner child kept giving me the urge to poke her in the eye and put an end to that bad idea. Sympathy spends much of the movie looking intensely constipated as she struggles with her morals and that annoying inner child. I'm not really blaming Perabo for this. It was just an intensely badly written character. She just had the misfortune of trying to make it work.
Visually the characters of Boris and Natasha were done perfectly. Jason Alexander and Renee Russo really looked and sounded the parts. Unfortunately they lacked the oily rottenness the characters required. They talked about being evil and sneaky but I never got the feeling that they really were evil and sneaky. Mostly they seemed to be dumb. I'll give those two partial credit for great voice work to impersonate the characters but zero points for making them believable.
Robert De Niro is in this movie. Much like when I heard that before the movie was made, I have trouble accepting that fact. He turns in his normal good work including a parody of his famous "Are you talking to me?" speech from Taxi Driver. Unfortunately that was played to death in ads, trailers and TV talk shows so by the time it appears in the movie all of its impact has been sapped. Whatever marketing genius was responsible for that blunder should be immediately reassigned to the oil industry as the person who gets to explain why gas prices are so high.
There are numerous cameos in the movie by folks such as John Goodman, Janeane Garafolo, Whoopi Goldberg, Carl Reiner and Jonathon Winters. For the most part these don't make for many laughs. The exception is the criminally underused Winters who actually plays several different roles. A better movie would have found some way to use him more.
The bright side of things is that Rocky and Bullwinkle survive the transition to movies well. They keep their identities intact and continue with their ludicrous dialogue with occasional breaks to talk to the audience. When the two of them, voiced by original actress June Foray and Keith Scott respectively, the pair light up the screen when allowed to occupy it alone. They generally steal scenes from any humans unfortunate enough to share the scene with them. Unfortunately their energy is frequently sapped by human actors. The well animated moose and squirrel seem to know it too, frequently exchanging annoyed glances when a human says something.
I think the main problem with the movie is that is intended to be something that kids and adults can enjoy together. In Hollywood that generally means dumbing down the plot. The original show never dumbed things down for kids. It respected their intelligence and rewarded them with sharp entertainment. This movie has a nugget of that sharp wit at its center but is coated in Hollywood formula, keeping it from shining.