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'Rocky And Bullwinkle' Reboot Is Good — Just Not As Great As The Original

May 21, 2018
Originally published on May 29, 2018 11:16 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. A season of new episodes of the old cartoon series "The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle" has been produced by DreamWorks and Jay Ward studio and has been released on the Amazon Prime Video streaming service. Our TV critic David Bianculli has a review of the new series and some thoughts about the old one.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE AND FRIENDS")

BILL SCOTT: (As Bullwinkle) Today's lesson is mighty important, remember?

JUNE FORAY: (As Rocky) Bullwinkle is a...

SCOTT: (As Bullwinkle) Not that lesson, this lesson.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: I get why on television and in the movies, we're bombarded by remakes and reboots of things that have been popular before. It's much harder to market an idea - and a film or TV show - from scratch than to mount a revival of something the audience already knows and hopefully is curious about revisiting. All the Marvel comics and DC superhero movies are fueled by this, and so are the still-continuing "Star Wars" and "James Bond" film series. And on TV, reboots are a much better bet than trying something new. ABC's new version of "Roseanne" is the best evidence of that right now. But there's also Netflix's new "Lost In Space," Showtime's recent "Twin Peaks" and, starting this month, Amazon's new "Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle."

This new series comes from Jay Ward Productions - which gives it the lineage of the cartoon's original creator, the late Jay Ward - and from DreamWorks. Those two studios previously combined on a 2014 animated movie called "Mr. Peabody & Sherman," based on one of the many unforgettable continuing elements of the original series. It had the same quick wit and bad puns of the original and boded well for a full-bore revival of the original series. But based on the first season's 13 episodes, this new "Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle" is hit-and-miss. The new animation is a bit more stylized but is loyal to the static simplicity of the old series.

The old cartoons we collectively know as "Rocky And Bullwinkle," originally presented as ABC's "Rocky And His Friends" in 1959 and NBC's "The Bullwinkle Show" in 1961 were never about the animation anyway. Among the first shows made expressly and cheaply for television, they were all about the writing and the jokes - and the voices, which is the one area where the new series hits a home run. In the old days, the voices of both Rocket J. Squirrel and Cold War spy Natasha Fatale were provided by June Foray. And series co-creator Bill Scott provided the voices of not only Bullwinkle J. Moose but Mr. Peabody and Dudley Do-Right. All those middle initial Js, by the way, were tributes to Jay Ward and so, years later, was the middle initial of Homer J. Simpson - put there by one of "Rocky And Bullwinkle" biggest fans "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening.

In the new series, the voices of the main characters are uncannily similar. Brad Norman is Bullwinkle. Tara Strong is Rocky. Rachel Butera is Natasha. And Ben Diskin is Boris. They sound right. And sometimes they even act right - breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly and going out of their way to make some very good, very bad jokes. In this scene, Boris and Natasha disguise themselves as airport security guards to intercept Rocky and Bullwinkle.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE")

BEN DISKIN: (As Boris) Airport security is perfect disguise, right?

RACHEL BUTERA: (As Natasha) Seems a little obvious to me.

DISKIN: (As Boris) Obviously perfect. Ah, here they come. You two, shoes off.

BRAD NORMAN: (As Bullwinkle) But we're not wearing...

DISKIN: (As Boris) Uh-uh, it's the law. Nothing, we'll have to body scan.

NORMAN: (As Bullwinkle) Body scan? Now, I know my rights, and this is profiling. And I've got a great profile.

BIANCULLI: But there's more emphasis in this new version on action than on quirky comedy. And I miss the show's weird mixture of simple and sophisticated. I watched the original "Rocky And Bullwinkle" as a little kid. But I was in my 20s before I discovered the name Boris Badenov was a pun about an actual opera named "Boris Godunov." The new show alludes when it can to the old. The opening adventure is about Bullwinkle's family pie recipe - a pie so smelly, it might be used as a secret weapon. It's a reference to the opening adventure in the original "Rocky And His Friends" when the batter in Bullwinkle's cake recipe ended up being strong enough to serve as a powerful new jet fuel. And there are occasional fake commercial interruptions which break up the action the way Bullwinkle himself used to, as with this brief fake ad from the Norway Tourism Bureau.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Come to beautiful Norway. We have everything, like this fjord and this fjord. Oh, that's a nice fjord. And remember this fjord? Here it is again. Norway, it's out of the fjord-inary (ph).

DARAN NORRIS: (As Narrator) And now back to our show.

BIANCULLI: That's all very good. But in this new show, Rocky and Bullwinkle carry the entire load, which is a shame. The old show had other cartoons as a crucial part of the package - Dudley Do-Right, for example, and Sherman and Peabody and Edward Everett Horton narrating "Fractured Fairy Tales," in which their version of "Sleeping Beauty" had the prince refuse to wake her up. And the prince - if you look closely - looked a lot like Walt Disney, who had recently opened a little theme park called Disneyland.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Prince) Sleeping Beauty, I've come at last. With one kiss, I shall waken you and - wait a minute. Awake, she's just another princess. Asleep, she's a gold mine. I can see it now - "Sleeping Beauty" comics, "Sleeping Beauty" hats, "Sleeping Beauty" bubble gum and, biggest of all, "Sleeping Beauty" Land.

BIANCULLI: I'm glad Amazon has brought "Rocky And Bullwinkle" back even though it's not nearly as good or as commendably twisted as the original. And what makes me really happy is that presented alongside these new cartoons on Amazon are the complete seasons of the old shows from more than 50 years ago. The new "Rocky And Bullwinkle" shows are good. But the old ones, even after all these years, are great.

GROSS: David Bianculli is the editor of the website TV Worth Watching and is the author of "The Platinum Age Of Television." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR - "A Feminist Journey Through The Science And Culture Of Pregnancy." My guest will be journalist and mother Angela Garbes. In her new book, she writes about the incomplete research into the effects of alcohol and antidepressants on the fetus, what the placenta does, what's really in breast milk and the anatomy that makes childbirth so difficult and painful. She also shares her own experiences of pregnancy and a very complicated birth. I hope you'll join us.

Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE MOLE'S "IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST FRONT TITLES" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.