Nostalgia is powerful, especially when decision makers choose what to remake. It works to get long time fans in, but an original’s target audience may be far younger than the fans have become. Today, a look at once such case, 2000’s The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle from Universal Pictures.
The characters of Rocket J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose first appeared in 1959 on Rocky and His Friends, airing in black and white on ABC. In 1961, NBC picked up the series and aired it as The Bullwinkle Show in colour until cancelling the show in 1964. In syndication, the series became known as The Rocky Show, The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, and The Adventures of Bullwinkle and Rocky. While the series had low-quality animation from an outsourced studio and a small cast of voices, the writing featured puns, satire, and self-deprecating humour.
A typical episode of the show would have two parts of an ongoing story featuring Rocky and Bullwinkle acting as bookends. Between the two chapters, other shorts appeared, including “Fractured Fairy Tales”, retelling classic fairy tales with a twist; “Peabody’s Improbably History“; “Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties”, a parody of older melodramas; “Aesop and Son”, fracturing fables instead of fairy tales; “Bullwinkle’s Corner”, where Bullwinkle mangles poetry; and “Mr. Know It All”, where Bullwinkle demonstrates what not to do in different situations. All of this – the two chapters featuring Rocky and Bullwinkle and four other shorts – fit into a half-hour episode, including commercials.
The main draw, the actual adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, featured a small number of voice actors. June Foray portrayed Rocky and every female character that appeared, including Pottsylvanian spy Natasha Fatale. Bill Scott played Bullwinkle and Pottsylvania dictator Fearless Leader. Paul Frees took on the roles of Pottsylvanian spy Boris Badenov and Captain Peter “Wrongway” Peachfuzz. The narrator of the chapters was William Conrad. The writing kept things moving at a brisk pace, allowing for a hurricane of puns. Rocky and Bullwinkle would start off in a misadventure that would lead to a cliffhanger. Along the way, Boris and Natasha would get involved and try to eliminate Moose and Squirrel in ways that would backfire on them.
While the series lasted only five seasons, syndication ensured that the show would last through reruns. Rocky and Bullwinkle appeared on over-the-air broadcast stations and cable-only channels, entertaining several generations. The show’s influence can be seen in series like The Simpsons. Naturally, this level of popularity meant that a studio executive would eventually see the benefit of a Rocky and Bullwinkle film adaptation.
In 2000, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle picks up thirty-five years after the original series’ cancellation. Rocky and Bullwinkle have returned to Frostbite Falls in a forced retirement; the town, though, is suffering from deforestation. The Narrator has returned to his home, where he narrates aspects of his daily life, much to the annoyance of his mother. Pottsylvania has turned into a democracy after the Cold War, leaving Fearless Leader, Boris, and Natasha out of power and out of work. The animated world looked bleak.
Fearless Leader, though, did not take being out of power sitting down. With Boris and Natasha, he convinces Minnie Mogul, played by Janeane Garofalo, to sign a contract to bring back The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. When Minnie pulls the contract out from animated Pottsylvania, she finds that the villains are attached to the project. The three Pottsylvanians go from being animated characters to live-action characters, with Robert De Niro as Fearless Leader, Jason Alexander as Boris, and Rene Russo as Natasha. Despite the unforeseen attachments, Minnie still tries to get the project approved, but studio head P.G. Biggershot (Carl Reiner) hates moose movies shuts the film down.
Six months later, Fearless Leader has RBTV, Really Bad Television, set up over all available cable channels. Using the power of television, he will turn every American viewer into a zombie to command as he wishes. The FBI, though, knows that Fearless Leader is up to something. The chief, Cappy von Trapment (Randy Quaid), assigns Agent Karen Sympathy (Piper Perabo) to get the two people who have had the most success stopping Fearless Leader – Rocky and Bullwinkle. The mission must succeed, at any cost. Karen flies to Hollywood and breaks into Phony Pictures Studios to greenlight The Rocky and Bullwinkle Movie as a fantasy adventure road trip film.
The green light breaks through the dimensional barrier between the real world and the animated and pulls Rocky, Bullwinkle, and the Narrator out of Frostbite Falls and into the lighthouse where films are green lit. Rocky, still voiced by June Foray who also voiced all the animated women, and Bullwinkle, voiced by Kevin Scott, no relation to Bill Scott, who took on all the animated men, are now 3-D computer animation, though still recognizably themselves. The duo and Karen leave the lighthouse to begin their road trip fantasy adventure, with just forty-eight hours to get from Los Angeles, CA to New York City, NY and stop Fearless Leader and RBTV.
However, a mole in the White House warns Fearless Leader that Rocky and Bullwinkle are on their way. He orders Boris and Natasha to stop Moose and Squirrel, giving the spies a new invention created by one of RBTV’s whiz kids, the “Computer Degenerating Imagery” or CDI. In a demonstration on an animated weasel, Fearless Leader degenerates the victim, sending him where other degenerates go, the Internet. Boris, though, prefers the old ways, and loads up a RBTV van with weapons of cartoon mayhem.
Boris and Natasha catch up to our heroes in Oklahoma. They force Karen, Ricky, and Bullwinkle to leap out of their car using cartoonish bundles of TNT. With the heroes still recovering, Boris and Natasha try a more traditional method of stopping Moose and Squirrel, a cannon. Rocky and Bullwinkle use a traditional method of not being blown up – running away. Karen, though, berates Boris on his evil ways, flattering the spy and getting her close enough to put out the lit fuse. With Boris and Natasha waiting for the boom, Karen takes their van and gets Rocky and Bullwinkle in with her. Seeing all their gear on the road, Natasha starts reading the user manual for the CDI.
Temporarily foiled, Boris and Natasha give chase on foot until, through a wild coincidence, they have the opportunity to steal a helicopter. Once airborne, Natasha radios the Oklahoma State Police, telling them that they are pursuing a stolen van driven by a woman claiming to be Agent Karen Sympathy. A patrol car carrying two troopers and a cameraman from a Cops-like TV show pulls over the RBTV van and arrests Karen. She tells Rocky and Bullwinkle to keep going to New York as she’s being put into the cruiser.
The road trip continues, with Boris and Natasha still trying to stop Rocky and Bullwinkle. In prison, Karen befriends Ole (Rod Biermann), a young prison guard from Sweden who may be the only character more oblivious than Bullwinkle. The FBI agent promises to go to a movie with him if he helps her escape. Once out, though, she steals his truck after telling him that she’s just going to park it. Rocky and Bullwinkle get off track and wind up in Chicago, still pursued by Boris and Natasha. The duo also escapes and, in another wild coincidence, they meet up again, almost literally colliding with each other. Unfortunately, the police looking for Karen catch up, and our heroes are taken into custody.
Karen, Rocky, and Bullwinkle are brought before the court of Judge Cameo (Whoopi Goldberg) and are charged with one count of grand theft auto, one count of escaping prison, one count of impugning the character of a guard, four counts of talking to the audience, and eighteen counts of criminally bad puns. That number goes to nineteen thanks to Bullwinkle. The defense attorney, Bullwinkle, calls his first witness, Agent Karen Sympathy. Unfortunately, Bullwinkle forgets his the defense, not the prosecution, and makes the case for the prosecuting attorney. Judge Cameo, though, finally puts on her glasses and recognizes Rocky and Bullwinkle. Since celebrities are above the law, she dismisses the charges.
Time is running short. The fastest way to New York, NY, is by flying. Karen buys an old biplane and the threesome take off, leaving Boris and Natasha behind. The biplane can’t take the weight of everyone and loses altitude. Karen falls out of the plane. Rocky manages to catch her and flies her to New York, NY. Bullwinkle is left to fly the biplane and manages to make a wrong turn, crashing on the lawn of the White House.
In New York, people have been zombified by RBTV’s broadcast. Rocky and Karen infiltrate RBTV to try to shut down the broadcast but are caught and hooked up to the zombifier and turned into vegetables. In Washington, DC, Bullwinkle has had his chat with President Signoff (James Rebhorn). When von Trapment arrives, he sees both Signoff and Bullwinkle staring at the TV and fears the worse. Bullwinkle, though, is too thick to be affected by the broadcast. With just seconds to go before Fearless Leader’s speech, the fastest way to send Bullwinkle to New York is to scan him and email him, letting the moose surf the web to RBTV HQ where he prints himself out.
Fearless Leader starts his speech, instructing viewers to vote for him in the upcoming election. Bullwinkle, though, accidentally disrupts the broadcast then rescues Rocky and Karen. With Fearless Leader, Boris, and Natasha defeated, Bullwinkle tells the viewers to vote for whoever they want, tells whoever wins to reforest Frostbite Falls, and tells everyone to turn off their TVs. RBTV stops being Really Bad Television and becomes Rocky and Bullwinkle Television. Agent Sympathy gets a commendation from von Trapment and goes to a movie with Ole; Frostbite Falls is reforested; and the Narrator returns home to his mother.
Much like the original cartoon, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle has elements in it for both children and adults. The kids can enjoy a road trip featuring goofy cartoon characters with situations that aren’t too much different from what could be seen in reruns. Adults can also enjoy that or get into the self-deprecating humour, the puns, and the satire. Throughout the film, Rocky and Bullwinkle wink at the idea of a fourth wall, talking back to the Narrator and generally have fun with the idea of being characters. Bullwinkle’s last line in the real world compares Really Bad TV with Rocky and Bullwinkle TV, noting that there isn’t much different. In the original, similar humour comes up. For example:
Rocky: “A-bomb! Do you know what that is, Bullwinkle?”
Bullwinkle: “Yeah! That’s what they call our show!”
The film rewards a wide knowledge of movies. At one point, Fearless Leader does an impersonation of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver; essentially, De Niro parodies himself. Elsewhere, as Karen is arrested by a Oklahoma State Trooper for grand theft auto and impersonating an FBI agent:
Rocky: “But that really is Agent Karen Sympathy.”
Trooper (John Goodman): “Yeah, and I’m really John Goodman.”
The puns come from everywhere. Character names, like Agent Karen Sympathy, Signoff’s military advisors General Admission and General Store, and Minnie Mogul. Place names, like Cow Tip, Okla, and De Bitter, Ind. Even Frostbite Falls had Veronica Lake. At least a third of Bullwinkle’s lines involved a bad pun. Even visual puns were used, like the green lighting of the movie.
The movie is shameless in its satire. Its main target is Hollywood, both film and television, particularly itself. Viewers of RBTV are turned into zombies, a common accusation against all of television. Minnie Mogul rejects scripts for being “too intelligent.” Celebrities are above the law and are never found guilty, though this works for the heroes. Outside the entertainment industry, President Signoff boldly stands in the middle of the road, kissing babies. The same cluster of fast food restaurants and gas stations appear every so often along the highway.
Casting a live-action adaptation of an animated work is difficult. The animated characters have a specific look that audiences are familiar with, but the characters don’t have to obey the laws of physics in their designs. Boris is far smaller than Natasha and is closer to Rocky’s height. Even given that Rocky is large for a flying squirrel, it’d be difficult to find an actor that size. The casting for the movie did well, though. Jason Alexander needed a few extras – fake mustache and eyebrows – to look like Boris. Rene Russo only needed to change her hairstyle and add makeup as Natasha. The costuming department did the rest, matching the actors’ outfits to the animated characters’. De Niro as Fearless Leader needed a bit more work; the character also went from Pottsylvanian dictator to ruthless entertainment executive and his look reflected the change.
The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle made an effort to be a continuation of the original series. The initial problems – the deforestation of Frostbite Falls and the escape of the Pottsylvanian villains to the real world – were just catalysts for the main thrust of the movie, the road trip adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Once the duo reached the real world, the usual antics could be shown and played with. It’s not the destination that counts; it’s the journey. The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle may not have been a critical success, or even a box office success, but it did get to the heart of the original series and brought it out on the big screen.