This weekend's "Mr. Peabody and Sherman," a feature-length, 3D animated film from DreamWorks Animation, is already notable in the sense that it's the first film based on characters from the classic series "The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show" that doesn't look like it's going to be a huge financial disaster.
The spritely story of time traveling dog Mr. Peabody (this time voiced by Ty Burrell) and his "pet" human Sherman (Max Charles) is adapted from the "Peabody's Improbable History" segments of "The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show," and was directed by Rob Minkoff (it's his first animated feature since a movie we've never heard of called "The Lion King").
With "Frozen" finally exiting theaters and "The Lego Movie" losing some of its staying power, it looks like "Mr. Peabody and Sherman," a brightly colored, lively movie that will probably rake in some big box office. The premise is appealing and a number of parents will undoubtedly be taking their kids to see the film, spurred largely by nostalgic curiosity.
And while this might end up being the most successful "Rocky and Bullwinkle" adaptation, it's far from the first. There have been numerous attempts to bring the cartoon to the big screen, and they have uniformly failed.
Let's look back at the long, sad history of movies being made from "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show" characters.
"Boris and Natasha" (1992)
The first attempt at making a movie out of "Rocky & Bullwinkle" characters was also the most forgettable. This lame duck comedy, starring Sally Kellerman and Dave Thomas (wait who?), was tied up in licensing issues that prevented the filmmakers from directly referring to the Rocky & Bullwinkle characters (however, some are referred to as "Moose" and "Squirrel"). Kellerman and Thomas don't attempt to replicate their animated counterparts, a pair of Russian spies who, in the original series, are continually thwarted by Rocky and Bullwinkle. This decision is one of a million bad decisions made on the part of the filmmakers, which probably explains why the movie, budgeted at around $1 million, was supposed to open wide theatrically but ended up quietly debuting on Showtime, a channel in the pre-"Dexter" era that was known primarily for its soft-core erotic thrillers.
In the New York Times review of the eventual TV movie (it aired a full two years after it was supposed to premiere theatrically), John J. O'Connor hypothesizes that the cable network had second thoughts about letting the MGM production sit on a shelf after an early-'90s VHS release of "Rocky & Bullwinkle" sparked renewed interest. The review goes on to evaluate the film fairly, although it doesn't engage with the fact that the movie was directed by Charles Martin Smith, aka the nerdy guy in Brian De Palma's masterful "The Untouchables" who gets killed in the elevator, or that John Travolta shows up in a brief cameo as himself (he wants to take Natasha out on a date). This movie isn't even one that is so bad that it has to be seen to be believed. You can never in your life watch it and still recognize that it's absolutely awful.
"Dudley Do-Right" (1999) In 1997, Brendan Fraser starred in Disney's "George of the Jungle," a surprisingly funny and charming live-action feature based on a cartoon by Jay Ward, who also created "Rocky & Bullwinkle." Two years later, Universal, now in control of most of the properties, decided to try and capture lightning in a bottle again. It did not work. Fraser plays the title character: a goofy, square-jawed Royal Canadian Mountain Policeman who is desperately in love with Sarah Jessica Parker's Nell Fenwick and, with Alfred Molina idly essaying the role of the villainous Snidely Whiplash (the one part of the original cartoon that everybody remembers).
As directed by "WKRP in Cincinnati" creator Hugh Wilson, the movie seems listless and unable to commit to the movie's general conceit. Is it an action comedy? Is it a "Naked Gun"-style spoof? Is it a living cartoon? The summer release earned back less than $10 million of its $70 million budget, and critics savaged it accordingly (it currently holds a 17% on Rotten Tomatoes). It should be noted, however, that this is takes place in the golden era of Brendan Fraser wigs, which is really saying something. Look at how naturally it flops! The same could be said of the movie.
"The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" (2000) Replacing the ampersand with an "and" isn't the only change that Universal made when adaptation the series into a live action/animated extravaganza (with a reported production cost of nearly $80 million). Maybe the most incredible part of "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" is that Universal knew how awful "Dudley Do-Right" was going to end up and they went ahead with the movie anyway. This movie isn't a complete disaster, mostly thanks to the wicked wordplay and occasional successful sight gag located in Kenneth Lonergan's script, but it's awfully close.
The movie bizarrely adapts a "Who Framed Roger Rabbit"-style meta-textuality, with Rocky (once again voiced by June Foray) and Bullwinkle (this time provided by Australian voice actor Keith Scott) appearing as animated characters while a bunch of movie stars fill in for Fearless Leader (Robert De Niro, who even riffs on his "Taxi Driver" persona), Boris (Jason Alexander), and Natasha (Rene Russo).
It's unclear why Universal chose Desmond McAnuff, a Broadway director, to helm this unusually complicated production, or why they instructed effects house Industrial Light & Magic to create the animated characters in "2-and-a-half-D," which at the time, was kind of nifty but now gives off the effect of a half-rendered video game. Worse yet is the decision to give the female lead to Piper Perabo, who Hollywood was desperate to make "The Next Big Thing," but whose charisma in this film is on low boil. At 92 minutes, the movie is unnecessarily frantic, and, at the same time, unbelievably slow. It did better than "Dudley Do-Right" at the box office, bringing in over $26 million domestically, with critics reacting more kindly than they should have (42% on Rotten Tomatoes).
You can tell Lonergan tried his darnedest to capture Jay Ward's anarchic spirit, but it feels closer to the lame duck "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" than a classic "Rocky & Bullwinkle" joint.
[Photo: Showtime Networks / Courtesy Everett Collection]