Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose were cartoon heroes during the 1960s, but now they have been forgotten, living alone in Frostbite Falls. Poor, little Rocky is so dejected he can no longer fly. When their arch-enemy, Fearless Leader (Robert De Niro) and his spies, Boris (Jason Alexander) and Natasha (Rene Russo) escape into Real World with a plan to enslave humanity, Rocky and Bullwinkle bravely follow. Teaming up with cynical FBI rookie Karen Sympathy (Piper Perabo) - groan - the plucky squirrel and lovably dim moose try to save the world from the hypnotic powers of RBTV (Really Bad Television).
Jay Ward’s original cartoon series was a winning mix of zany fun and satirical strangeness. While children adored Rocky’s heroism and Bullwinkle’s surreal flights of fancy, jibes at the cold war, American politics and social activism made it one of the earliest cartoon shows to win over an adult audience. Robert De Niro must have been a fan since he both produced and starred in this patchy feature film revival. Written by playwright Kenneth Lonnergan (who made the acclaimed You Can Count on Me (2001)) and directed by Des McAnuff, whose previous movie was the Balzac adaptation, Cousin Bette (1996), this was clearly intended to be a cut above most family films. Lonnergan’s screenplay does its best to mimic the proto-Pythonesque, stream of consciousness structure of the original TV series, but the movie only comes alive when Rocky and Bullwinkle are onscreen. Elsewhere the movie is a bit of a mess with insipid celebrity cameos (worst offenders being Nickelodeon ‘comedy’ duo Keenan and Kel), wayward storytelling and dull patches with Boris and Natasha. Jason Alexander and Rene Russo embody their characters to a T, and though critics carped, De Niro looks like he’s enjoying himself immensely (and even sends up his famous Taxi Driver line: “You talkin’ to me?”), but the film grinds to a halt whenever they do a bit of schtick.
Piper Perabo has since proven herself to be a capable character actress, but here she’s stuck with a stock family film character: the disbeliever. As with too many live action/cartoon hybrids, Karen Sympathy whines and complains while the animated heroes provide the fun. In the history of the genre, only Bob Hoskins ever made anything worthwhile out of this role (although in Who Framed Roger Rabbit it was the rabbit who was irritating). Lonnergan and McAnuff poke fun at family film conventions by giving Karen a literal inner child (played by McAnuff’s daughter, Julia). Again, many critics failed to get the joke, but it’s an inventive visual and a clever way to both subvert and uphold sentimental clichés. On the other hand, Karen’s romance with a hunky, Swedish prison guard is a total waste of space.
So it’s down to Rocky and Bullwinkle to save their own movie. For fans it is a joy to see them on the big screen, with Rocky voiced by original actress June Foray and Bullwinkle given life by Keith Scott, author of The Moose that Roared, a guide to Rocky and Bullwinkle. Clearly, a fan’s dream come true, Scott also voices the narrator. Non-fans won’t be converted, but Rocky’s aerial antics and big, dumb Bullwinkle’s big, dumb jokes still raise a smile. Adopting the guise of an American road movie, the script manages a few winning satirical jibes at politics and the media. it’s the climax that plays best of all, as Bullwinkle surfs the net, Rocky takes flight and Frostbite Falls comes back to life. With no new series on the horizon, fans will cling to this like gold dust, even though it’s the kind of guilty pleasure one enjoys but cannot adequately defend.