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'Rocky & Bullwinkle' review: Reboot has slicker animation, but lacks original's wit

The new "Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle"

The new "Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle"  streams on Amazon Prime. Photo Credit: DreamWorks Animation

THE SERIES “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle”

WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Amazon Prime

WHAT IT'S ABOUT This first TV adaptation of Jay Ward's original “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends,” which aired under various titles on ABC and NBC from 1959 to 1964, will once again star Rocket J. Squirrel (Tara Strong; voiced by June Foray in the original) and Bullwinkle J. Moose (Brad Norman; voiced by Bill Scott long ago) as they square off against the dastardly Natasha (Rachel Butera), Boris Badenov (Ben Diskin), and Fearless Leader (Piotr Michael). (Daran Norris is narrator.) The 13-episode season begins with an ill-advised cooking contest. (Gordon Ramsay, or his voice, makes a cameo.)

MY SAY Until “The Simpsons” arrived, “Rocky and Bullwinkle” was probably the best animated series in the history of television. “Probably” is probably right here because a 2013 TV Guide survey would place it no higher than sixth place, while a 2011 “EW” reader ranking didn't even acknowledge it. There is indeed room for debate, but there was something about the era — notably, the constant threat of nuclear annihilation — that made Bullwinkle, Rocky, Natasha, Badenov and Fearless Leader such essential companions. If someone – or in this case, Jay Ward and Bill Scott – could create something so ardently ludicrous, then maybe someone else could work out the world's bigger problems. By reducing the Cold War to a pun-happy cartoon, the stakes suddenly seemed manageable, or at least reduced.

Either that or the world truly had gone insane: Rocky and his friends made a compelling case for that as well.

While the influence was profound, a reboot was not forthcoming until now. There were a few reasons for that, but here are at least two: a misbegotten 2000 movie that dimmed future prospects; also, the animation was terrible. A Mexican-based studio haphazardly turned out error-riddled storyboards. Those quickly became part of the show's charm, and part of the joke, too. In any event, the animation was singular, for better or worse.

That's why viewers, or adult ones with long memories, will be suspicious of the prominent Dreamworks logo in the title card. Dreamworks isn't in the business of  making lousy animation, and it certainly isn't lousy here. This “Rocky and Bullwinkle” is slick and dazzling, but reminiscent of many contemporary animated series. 

The animation is vastly better — that's the easy part — but what about the rest of the show? The antic lunacy and sheer illogic of the original is not entirely missing, but it's faded somewhat. The puns are mostly gone too. That's a reasonable omission because this version is designed for young viewers, not necessarily their parents — although the ones that do watch won't be bored. In another obvious improvement, this “Rocky” has a diversified cast, most notably one Director Peachfuzz (Fuschia J. Walker). Kevin Michael Richardson of “American Dad!” and “Family Guy” is here too, as President Leader in a couple of episodes.

This reboot is good. What's wrong, however, is beyond its control. The original “Rocky” was an antidote to the madness. In 2018, no single cartoon can be an antidote to the madness. It's just another cartoon.

BOTTOM LINE This reboot of a cartoon classic does well by the original. But what's missing is its cultural cachet and wit.

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