At one point during the endless-seeming shenanigans of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Robert De Niro, embodying the cartoon character Fearless Leader, faces the camera, smirks, and utters a few familiar lines: “Are you talking to me? Are you talking to me? Well, I’m the only one here….”
Would that he were. But no, as Fearless Leader, De Niro is surrounded by minions and in fact, speaking not to his mirror but to the most famous minions, Boris and Natasha via a video-cellphone. Outfitted with a monocle, cigarette holder, and prosthetic chin, De Niro gives an appropriately bloodless performance as this minor cartoon villain. And while this moment might conceivably evoke a sense of nostalgia or even in-jokey geniality, it’s more likely saddening to see the mordant cultural resonance of Travis Bickle has descended to cheap gaggery. Certainly, this joke or a similar one has come up before; Taxi Driver‘s signature psycho-line circulates freely in pop culture. And De Niro is a famous good sport about his own oversized image (for example, the psychotherapized gangster in Analyze This). But Fearless Leader well, the trick is tired before it begins.
The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle
Rene Russo, Robert De Niro, Jason Alexander, Piper Perabo, Randy Quaid, Kel Mitchell, Kenan Thompson, voices of June Foray and Keith Scott
However De Niro’s self-mimicry strikes you and it’s likely that it won’t strike you at all if you’re the film’s ideal 10-year-old viewer the humor in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle never develops beyond this puerile and rather retro level. This despite the fact that its first few minutes are all about its own datedness. A brief introduction recalls the TV series’ cancellation in 1964 as a momentous event equal to LBJ’s reelection or the New York World’s Fair, after which you see the resulting economic and spiritual decline of Rocky and Bullwinkle’s hometown, Frostbite Falls, Minnesota. According to the narrator (“voice mimic” Keith Scott, who also does Bullwinkle), this toontown has been “crippled by years of reruns,” to the point that he’s been reduced to “narrating the events of his own life,” demonstrated by a snarky play-by-play description of his mother basting a turkey.
Such wise-assness is short-lived, however, and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle quickly devolves into a slow-moving save-the-free-world plot. Rocky and Bullwinkle are summoned by U.S. President (James Rebhorn), when Fearless Leader and his most famous minions, Boris and Natasha (fleshed out by Jason Alexander and Rene Russo) concoct a plot to zombify TV viewers with RBTV (Really Bad Television), transmitted from NYC. Um, yawn. Perhaps needless to say, the ex-George Castanza in half a mustache and black spy-hat doesn’t offer quite the same camp factor that the cel-animated Comrade Badenov did back in his heyday. This is partly because the original TV series’ Cold War humor doesn’t hold up, and partly because the script, attributed to Kenneth Lonergan, is lame times 12. The plot, such as it is, involves Boris and Natasha trying to destroy “Moose and Squirrel.” To this end, they run about in Keystone Cops-ish fast-motion, grouse and fall down some, and repeatedly exhibit their ineptitude with some cartoon-killer app called CDI (Computer Degenerating Imagery, or something like that). Meanwhile, the good guys dispatch FBI Agent Sympathy (Piper Perabo) to carry our heroes to New York in her Volkswagen bug because only they can stop Fearless Leader’s dastardly RBTV transmission.
During the ensuing road trip, you’re left with far too much time to wonder how this movie got made. It’s true that the original series was never quite squarely aimed at either children or adults, and might be understood in this way as a forward-thinking precursor for sassy shows like The Simpsons or King of the Hill. The film, however, remains boggled in a demo-neverland, appealing only to the very zombie audience it thinks it’s satirizing. Everyone knows it’s hard to act with blue screens, and the humans throughout this exercise appear baffled and disconcerted, especially compared to the much livelier Rocky and Bullwinkle, who inexplicably remain animated while everyone else turns into flesh-and-blood. While it’s obvious that up-and-comer Perabo signed up for the film because it is a) produced by De Niro’s once high-minded Tribeca Productions, and b) has a raft of Big Name Talent attached, including depressing appearances by Jonathan Winters, Janeane Garafolo, John Goodman, and the ever-hapless Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell.
Not to mention Whoopi Goldberg’s weak appearance as “Judge Cameo” in a courtroom scene, where Bullwinkle wears a white powdered wig and interrogates Agent Sympathy. It’s hard to know what to say about this particular embarrassment, except to note that, at least Goldberg didn’t produce the film, like someone else whose initials are Robert De Niro.
It could be that The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle suffers from a kind of timewarp, similar to the one that beat down the two Flintstones movies, which is to say, what used to be funny is no longer. Or it could be that the movie suffers from very standard movie problems, tedious characters and situations, poor pacing, lackluster direction (by Des McAnuff, a one-time stage director whose first film was the overheated costume drama Cousin Bette). But The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle is actually more wrongheaded than such a list of usual movie-weaknesses allows. What may be most troubling about The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle is that, like Howard the Duck or some such legendary Hollywood disaster, it is so manifestly careless and so willfully blind to its offenses.
This even as the film offers a big-winky look at how movies get made. To suck Rocky and Bullwinkle into three dimensions, Agent Sympathy has to penetrate a studio lot and, decked out in a sleek Tom Cruise-stealth-outfit, make her way to the Green Light Tower. Here the mystery of how expensive and inane projects are “greenlighted” is turned into a negligible joke, as you watch Sympathy select a couple of genres and throw a couple of big levers to get the thing done. Such self-consciousness sometimes passes for insight. In this case, however, it’s just what it appears to be, noise and effects, signifying not much at all.