No one could ever mistake a Jay Ward cartoon for being serious, not that they pandered to the preschool cheap seats either. Oh yes, The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, The Dudley Do-Right Show, and George of the Jungle had animated safes falling on animated heads and enough puns to violate the Geneva Convention, but that was only half the fun. Ward told his writers, “Just write sharp stuff for yourself and the audience will get it.”
As a result, Jay Ward Productions took crudely animated aim at everything from dirty politicians to clean Canadians, from television itself to celebrities stolen wholesale (the villains in the George of the Jungle pilot are Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn from The African Queen). Whenever Moose, Squirrel, and Co. would catch their latest second wind on cable or home video, the voice of Bullwinkle, Bill Scott, said it best: “We’re corrupting another generation.”
When Tiffany Ward, Jay’s daughter and eventual president of Ward Productions, signed a licensing deal with Universal Studios in 1991, the same year a big-screen adaptation of the kid-and-adult-friendly Addams Family surprised everyone at the box office, it was only a matter of time before Rocky and his friends went Hollywood. But it was only a matter of circumstance that the resulting Ward works were released almost back-to-back-to-back, and the first wasn’t even a Universal movie.
Produced under a separate agreement with Disney, 1997’s George of the Jungle had to be a Brendan Fraser movie. Who better to play a pure-of-heart, simple-of-mind Tarzan riff than the actor who got his big break as a reheated caveman and seemed like he’d be happy to help your mom with her groceries? From the animated prologue to everything in George’s backyard, the movie pays its source respectable tribute. Often outsourced to cheaper studios in Mexico, Ward Productions were notorious for some of the most limited animation on the air. When George is in his soundstage jungle, the movie looks like a cheap cartoon given life, even mocking its own expense as the announcer intones over obvious stock footage: “Meanwhile, on a very big and expensive waterfall set…”
When the legally mandated fish-out-of-water plot takes George out of the jungle, that charming artifice is left behind. It trips into what-will-the-parents-think romantic comedy that means just shy of nothing to tinier viewers. George still goofs his way through circa-1996 San Francisco, but it gets awfully serious for a feature that has a Greek chorus of Swahili trail guides explain the cause-and-effect relationship of toilet humor and the giggles thusly: “Bad guy falls in poop: classic element of physical comedy. Now comes the part where we throw our heads back and laugh.” And lo, they do.
Directed by Sam Weisman of the second Mighty Ducks movie, George of the Jungle might feel like a standard Saturday afternoon confection of its time, but it’s smarter than that: smart enough to play dumb, but not dumb enough to think it’s smarter than it is. Sentimentality gets in the way, but at least George is still a well-sculpted dunce.
“The naïf cum babe-in-the-woods cum new-guy-in-town cum man-boy cum visitor-in-an-unusual-environment conceit was very, very good to me,” said Brendan Fraser when asked about George recently. His time on the vines turned into a worldwide hit, conveniently lining up another nice-guy-from-nowhere role based on a Jay Ward cartoon: Dudley Do-Right (1999).
It opens with an admirable update of Ward’s Fractured Fairy Tales before settling into a re-creation of the Dudley we know and love, now with an animation budget probably bigger than the sum of his entire Mountie career prior to 1999. When the cartoons give way to flesh and blood, Dudley Do-Right makes its first mistake — a backstory. Dudley, the fair Nell, and the unfair Snidely Whiplash were all childhood friends until their mostly name-based destinies drove them apart. What follows is an hour and a half of Nell (a sold-short Sarah Jessica Parker) hemming and hawing over which fella she likes more. Once again, the Jay Ward sense of humor is watered down into romantic comedy, this time for the duration. Dance numbers are mistaken for automatic laughs. Dudley accidentally shows his dark side by screaming at Nell when Snidely forcibly kisses her and choking out his mentor in a misguided jealous rage. Dudley intentionally shows his dark side when the movie makes him learn how to be a badass. If you’ve ever wanted to see a legendarily dumb Canadian Mountie threaten someone at buzzsaw-point or weave through tank fire on horseback, why? At one point he jumps a 100-foot chasm on a dirtbike, and the soundtrack thinks we should be glad he made it. The only worthwhile gag in Dudley’s attempt at anti-heroism is when he humiliates Whiplash by pointing out his suit is not actually black, but very dark blue.
Dudley never gets better than its momentary lapses into the absurd. Long after he spilled water on it and longer after it should’ve dried, Dudley’s hat is still a waterfall when he opens the door to greet Nell. Regis and Kathie Lee have Eric Idle as a guest and he’s delighted to hear that Bette Midler is on next. In the time since Dudley’s pined for her, Nell graduated from Harvard and worked as U.S. ambassador to Guam, not that he pays attention when she tells him.
Worst of all, he’s barely in his Mountie outfit. Pound for pop culture pound, that’s at least as bad as Stallone taking off his helmet in Judge Dredd. Ward’s magic formula was animating for kids and writing for adults. In a blunder worthy of its hero, Dudley Do-Right gets it backwards, writing in too many shopworn pratfalls and shooting it like a middle-of-the-road 1990s action movie.
As the first Universal production to come out of the Ward partnership, Dudley Do-Right should’ve been an easy success. The Mummy, Universal’s blockbuster smash of that same summer, turned Fraser into box office gold. Hugh Wilson of Police Academy fame was fresh off directing The First Wives Club, 1996’s biggest surprise hit. They even made it relatively cheap, with a budget less than half of George’s. Trouble is, Dudley made less than half of that, too, bringing in just shy of $10 million in North America. It went straight-to-video in most foreign markets.
But Universal had an ace in the hole. At the same time, it was producing a big ol’ tentpole adaptation of the most prized Ward property of all. The summer of 2000 would belong to someone else. As the poster promised: This summer it’s not the same old bull.
But it’s at least familiar bull. Like its predecessors, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle has a Ward-standard narrator, this time the same one (Keith Scott) from George of the Jungle. The plot teeters wearily between a lesser Muppet movie and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which they tackle head-on with an extra mentioning it by name so Robert De Niro can shout, “SHUT UP THAT IS TOTALLY DIFFERENT!” But when you introduce a special device that permanently murders cartoon characters, no amount of rib-nudging makes it look like anything but theft. Not that its conflicting inspirations, as Muppets and Toons are treated in entirely different ways, ever fit for more than a scene at a time.
The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle creaks with contrivance to bring a then-40-year-old cartoon, that famously didn’t have much time for sense to begin with, into the live-action Real World of 2000. According to the writer, Kenneth Lonergan, who’d later earn Academy Award nominations for Gangs of New York and Manchester By The Sea, it’s not his fault. “I think Rocky and Bullwinkle was injected with a saccharine sweetness which I tried too hard to keep out of it, even though they told me to put it in,” he said in a painful post-mortem the following year.
Nobody believes in ol’ Bull and Rock anymore. The Flying Squirrel forgot how to fly. The trying-to-be-tough FBI agent assigned to them is (literally) suppressing her inner child. It’s all a fatal misunderstanding of its source material. Lessons and personal growth took a backseat to bad disguises and bombs that said BANG right on the side. The reason the show endured and still does is because you can’t age out of it. In the Schrodinger’s Cartoon Real World of the film, where cartoons are decidedly fictional but there’s a one-off joke with an anthropomorphic mole in the President’s cabinet, these misshapen messages mean even less.
When those pesky feelings aren’t getting in the way, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle has its moments. The cameos count a dozen too many, but they’re worth it to hear John Goodman’s two-scene cop brush off our heroes’ bizarre story with “And I’m really John Goodman.” The wordplay occasionally does its heritage proud. Rocky asks Bullwinkle if he can rappel and Bullwinkle reminds him, “I’ve been repelling viewers for years!” The word “hospitability” is an assumed mispronunciation, but then defined as “the ability to put you in hospital.” I will defend a sight gag for the summer’s hottest sequel, Love Story 2000, till the day I die. Robert De Niro, who’d been trying to get this genuine passion project made since 1992, has one of the strangest good times you’ll ever see on film.
It’s ultimately too slipshod to stand alongside the movies it so shamelessly copies. There’s a kernel of righteous intent and tomfoolery at its core — Rocky and Bullwinkle are only pulled into the real world because an unnecessary reboot is given the greenlight — but it’s really an excuse to cram in-jokes about Hollywood executives into a story ultimately about network television. And in the end, who would believe a cartoonish pseudo-Russian agent with bad hair could hijack a national election through the power of bad TV?
The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, the slickest of the trilogy, makes the worst argument for translating Ward’s work into live-action. I’m not suggesting Rocky and Bullwinkle should look bad, but they should certainly never look that expensive.
And expensive they were. On an estimated budget of $76 million, Rocky and Bullwinkle barely pulled in $35 million worldwide. Until a recent renaissance with new adaptations of Mr. Peabody and Sherman, George of the Jungle, and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Ward Productions went silent. The TV-to-movie trend died around the same time, leaving this curious trio in its wake.
George of the Jungle, Dudley Do-Right and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle may be the only trilogy linked by nothing but sense of humor. The jokes work almost interchangeably. The narrators puncture the fourth wall in the same radioman brogue. The heroes are cut from the same nincompoop cloth. At best, these movies feel like strangely realistic episodes of Ward classics. At worst, they make an accidentally convincing case against live-action remakes of any cartoon. They shouldn’t need to grow up to work for kids and adults. They shouldn’t have to complicate themselves to tell a “worthwhile” story. They shouldn’t need a third dimension to be taken seriously. Any belief to the contrary just doesn’t respect the power of animation or a well-timed falling safe.