Moviegoers seeking respite from ponderous three-hour action epics could probably do worse than The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, a hyperactive update of the 1960’s cartoon series featuring the flying squirrel and the dim-witted moose. The movie is like a fifty car pile-up of pop culture references, celebrity cameos, and gags both inspired and stale. Mostly stale, truth be told, at least from an adult’s point of view. For kids, Bullwinkle 2K may hold some of the same appeal as the original Rocky and His Friends series – humor that sails almost, but not quite, over their heads, allowing them to feel like they’re in on the joke.
The Jay Ward cartoons didn’t earn their following through dazzling animation; their appeal rested largely on witty wordplay and mildly satirical absurdity, as well as Bullwinkle’s amiable boneheadedness. As the new movie opens, our titular heroes are "stuck in reruns" in their classic hand-drawn habitat of Frostbite Falls, as low-tech, flat and stilted as ever. When villains Fearless Leader, Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale escape the land of cartoons and invade the real world, it’s up to Rocky and Bullwinkle – now upgraded to 3-D Industrial Light and Magic status – to stop them once again. The trio’s evil plan involves RBTV, or Really Bad Television, a 24-hour network designed to hypnotize the people of America into electing Fearless Leader as president. What’s more, Fearless Leader has acquired the power to destroy moose and squirrel once and for all, utilizing Computer Degenerating Imagery technology.
Rocky and Bullwinkle are assisted in their mission by FBI agent Karen Sympathy, played by newcomer Perky Pipsqueak…er, Piper Perabo. Jason Alexander and Rene Russo are on hand as Boris and Natasha, while Robert De Niro reveals a rarely-tapped willingness to get silly as Fearless Leader. The temptation to refer to these performances as two-dimensional is almost overpowering, particularly in the context of reviewing a movie as pun-heavy as this one. It’s not really the fault of the actors, though; Rocky and Bullwinkle is too hectic to allow any breathing room for characterization, not even the minimal amount required for live-action cartoons. Alexander huffs and puffs, Russo poses and speaks huskily, and De Niro reprises his "You talkin’ to me?" bit from Taxi Driver in an over-the-top German accent, an idea that no doubt sounded hilarious at the time. The computer generated leads are far more convincing, though Rocky sounds a bit run-down at times (the flying squirrel is voiced by June Foray, who originated the character in 1959). Bullwinkle remains a singularly appealing buffoon (his distinctive vocal stylings are perfectly replicated by Australian actor Keith Scott), although it seems an inexplicable oversight that he never attempts to pull a rabbit out of his hat.
Director Des McAnuff and screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan draw inspiration not only from the original TV show but also rapid-fire jokefests like Airplane! and The Naked Gun. But if those comedies were the cinematic equivalent of Mad magazine, with every frame of film overstuffed with sight gags and verbal hijinks, Rocky and Bullwinkle is more like Cracked, Mad’s more juvenile, less funny rival. It’s the kind of movie where someone says, "There’s a mole in the White House!" and you know exactly what you’re going to see next. It also provides plenty of opportunities to play Spot the Movie Reference – Thelma and Louise, 2001, and The Terminator, among others – as well as Spot the Special Guest Star (the many celebs with bit parts include Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, John Goodman, Jonathan Winters, Randy Quaid and of course, Janeane Garofalo, because that’s the law). In the end, it’s all very harmless and instantly forgettable entertainment for short attention spans – a summer heat mirage that evaporates right before your eyes.