Cinema: A Flashback to Frostbite Falls

Rocky and Bullwinkle are retired. Boris and Natasha are three-dimensional. What is the world coming to?

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It's never easy for actors when their TV series is canceled--especially if they're a moose and a flying squirrel, which doesn't leave a lot of room to stretch beyond type. We learn in the opening moments of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle that the eponymous heroes of Jay Ward's beloved (and weirdly iconic) '60s television series have retreated to their home turf, Frostbite Falls; that their typical residual check has dwindled to 3.5[cents]; that the pretty forest where they once romped has been reduced to stumps.

Bullwinkle J. Moose, in his amiable, lunkhead way, remains perversely optimistic about the future. But Rocky has developed a psychosomatic inability to fly. Luckily for them, in far-off Hollywood a development girl (Janeane Garofalo) dreams of a feature film that will restore their fortunes. Carl Reiner's studio boss is dim on that--"I hate moose movies," he snarls, in one of the film's many self-referential lines, a tradition that was one of the hip glories of the original TV show. But by this time an actual movie, directed by Des McAnuff and written by Kenneth Lonergan, is off and running.

Or, should one say, limping. For the decision to make Bullwinkle and Rocky's old nemeses--Boris, Natasha and Fearless Leader, the scourges of Pottsylvania--into live-action characters was unwise. Jason Alexander, Rene Russo and Robert De Niro, respectively, do their best to act cartoonishly, but the Russian-accented villains were funnier when they were drawn. And when they were satirizing cold war paranoia.

This time Fearless Leader's plan is to hypnotize the American citizenry via "Really Bad Television" and then command it to elect him President. It doesn't quite wash--though Bullwinkle, naturally, thinks TV is as excellent as it was when he was a star. It suffices only to get the pair off on a cross-country odyssey aimed at thwarting the bad guys. Conducted by a naive FBI agent (Piper Perabo), they do encounter some fitfully funny comic actors (John Goodman, Jonathan Winters, Whoopi Goldberg), but neither the guest stars nor the sublimely numb Bullwinkle manages to rescue the picture from its too comfortable reliance on retro charm. It's great to have the Moose back, but it would be greater still to see him in a humorous context fully worth of him.

--By Richard Schickel