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Antlers of a dilemma
'Bullwinkle's makers try to make a fun film -- and don't
(CNN) -- There's rich, and then there's movie industry pandering rich, the kind of thing where people make enough money to build skyscrapers and buy sports teams and wear disposable mink underwear.
Robert DeNiro certainly belongs in the first category, and he's widely considered to be the inheritor of Marlon Brando's groundbreaking strain of method actor madness. It must irk him, though, to know that incompetent upstarts are getting a cut from movies that generate action figures while all he has to show for years of effort is several million dollars per picture and a couple of lousy Oscars.
If he had to sell out to the fullest - and it's debatable whether it was wise to go whole hog - DeNiro could have done much worse than "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle."
That's not to say that it's pleasing to see the man who so brilliantly embodied Jake LaMotta and Travis Bickle fly over his acting handlebars as Fearless Leader, the arch-nemesis of a pun-spewing moose and heroic, flying squirrel. It's actually pretty embarrassing, especially since DeNiro, who produced the movie, isn't all that good in what amounts to a highlighted token appearance.
Happily, though, "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" is more like an intermittently witty Muppet movie than an effects-heavy summertime blitzkrieg on the order of 1988's "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"
It's so grandly idiotic that the actors are allowed to smirk at the camera when they're done shticking it to us. The narrator also makes sarcastic remarks about the costly special effects, and all but suggests that what you're watching is fully disposable twaddle, regardless of the budget. Gee, if they'd just put snide, undermining remarks on the movie poster, everybody could stay at home.
The plot, of course, is just a reason to manufacture logo-embossed coffee mugs.
Janeane Garofalo (trying not to slouch, for once) is a dim-witted movie executive who accidentally frees Fearless Leader and his bumbling assassins, Boris and Natasha (Jason Alexander and Renee Russo), from their cartoon purgatory. This unleashes the monocled-one's evil on an unsuspecting public and finally gives DeNiro the chance to play that most challenging of all dramatic roles, Col. Klink. King Lear will undoubtedly be next, followed in short order by Scooby Doo and Cap'n Crunch.
Fearless Leader plans to take over the world by hypnotizing viewers with "really bad TV shows" that he'll broadcast via RBTV. This little ploy, far from being a fantasy, is the bread and butter of modern-day television programming.
Hey Rocky! We're real!
Rocky and Bullwinkle (voiced by June Foray and Keith Scott) have also been catapulted into the "real" world. They retain their animated form, although they're now fancy 3-D constructs. A preposterously young FBI agent named Karen Sympathy (Piper Perabo) joins forces with Rocky and Bullwinkle to stop the bad guys before it's too late.
Perabo is more than a little bit cute, and delivers endearing, innocent line readings when she isn't struggling to maintain eye contact with co-stars who aren't really there.
Fans of the "Rocky and Bullwinkle" TV series will be glad to know that its groan-inducing dialogue remains relatively intact. Unfortunately, the herky-jerky animation that anchored the original has been gussied-up out of big-budget necessity. An otherwise entertaining prologue that outlines the depressing, post-series activities of "moose and squirrel" is far too polished to compete with the real thing's funky charm.
But that's a minor quibble. The big problem is that episodic cartoons simply don't translate to feature length. And human beings - even if they're as talented as Alexander and Russo -- can't possibly convey the free-range lunacy of animated characters. That's why they animate them in the first place.
Cameos help pace
This isn't the first movie to unsuccessfully transform cartoon characters into real people. There was even a 1992 stinker called "Boris and Natasha: The Movie" (starring Dave Thomas and Sally Kellerman). Far and away the most offensive example is Hal Needham's poorly imagined "Road Runner" rip-off, "The Villain" (1979). "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle," even with its drawbacks, is nowhere near as monotonous as those films. Director Des McAnuff keeps the ball bouncing most of the time, but you can only handle so many puns and nudge-nudge references to the silliness of it all before you've had enough.
There are quick cameos from performers as diverse as Billy Crystal and Nickelodeon's Kevin and Kel, and they help a bit when things start to drag. And screenwriter Ken Lonergan obviously has real affection for the characters. His most inspired move is when DeNiro and company break into a good-humored musical number that owes a great deal to the "Hail Fredonia" sequence in The Marx Brothers' surrealistic masterpiece, "Duck Soup" (1933). That alone is enough reason not to hate "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle."
Just don't pretend that you love it because the studio marketing department tells you that you have to.
"The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" is aimed at kids, but many of the jokes will sail right over their little heads. The violence is soft and forgiving, and DeNiro somehow manages to avoid the F-word throughout. Foray, by the way, is the voice of the original Rocky. Her partner in enunciation, Scott, does double duty as both Bullwinkle and the narrator. Rated PG. 88 minutes.
Rocky and Bullwinkle
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