THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE (2000) – Hey, Rocky, watch me pull a minor miracle outta my hat!

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It seemed impossible, but The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle is the first feature-length movie that has translated the wacky spirit of Jay Ward’s great TV cartoons to the big screen. Other such movies usually dwelled on dumb physical comedy or throwaway gags that should have been thrown away. But this movie breezes along, barely stopping to acknowledge some of the terrible puns that are posted on buildings and streets as though they were old Burma Shave ads.

I’ve also not seen a movie that could get away with spending a full 90 minutes of jokes referring to itself as a movie (even Wayne’s World didn’t get this carried away). The entire movie is based on the premise of Rocky and Bullwinkle escaping out of their TV show and into the “real world” after spending 35 years in reruns. (I swear I can hear Jay Ward chortling somewhere.) They enter the real world because Fearless Leader (Robert DeNiro!) and his flunkies Boris and Natasha (Jason Alexander and Rene Russo) are using a cable-TV network to hypnotize America into thinking that they should vote for F.L. as our next president. (Heck, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t┬ávote for him these days, even without hypnosis.)

Yes, the whole movie is just about this literal, and it doesn’t entirely succeed. As a helper for Moose and Squirrel, the movie employs a doe-eyed FBI agent (Piper Perabo) who is improbably named Agent Sympathy. This entire character, much like her name, is one of those jokes that doesn’t quite come off. And when the plot requires Bullwinkle to get a bogus degree from his old university (don’t ask), it’s hard to figure out why the university’s students are protesting the award when nearly everyone else in the movie is gaga over meeting their favorite cartoon character.

On the other hand, the movie makes you laugh at some of the obvious jokes and even harder at the less obvious ones. I laughed when Robert DeNiro did a flaky dance to his country’s national anthem. I laughed when Sympathy told her boyfriend he could hold her hand during a movie and he debated the merits of doing so while holding lots of refreshments. Most surprisingly, Jonathan Winters — not one of my favorite zany comics — appears in three different roles, and I laughed at all of them.

The voice work is wonderful. June Foray returns as Rocky — a little the worse for wear after 35 years, but she’s still got it. Bullwinkle’s original voice having long passed on, Keith Scott does the work here (doing double duty as the flustered narrator) and does it admirably.

The cartoon-cum-live-action characters are nice enough (though DeNiro does a scenery-chewing job on a par with Jack Nicholson’s in Batman). But the stand-out is Rene Russo. She gets Natasha’s voice down perfectly, and she’s proof that you can take sex appeal and dress it up in a purple wardrobe and cartoony writing, and it will still be sexy.

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