If there’s one thing that’ll always be true about Hollywood, it’s that it never learns its lesson. Tomorrow, DreamWorks Animation will release Mr. Peabody & Sherman, a CGI animated update of the '60s Jay Ward cartoon that aired as part of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. DreamWorks assures us that it’s the “Dogfather of all comedies” and has been running a concerted ad campaign all winter targeted at ... well, who knows? Because this is just the latest in a long line of films adapted from the Ward catalogue, essentially unknown to any modern-day child, and studios seem to keep forgetting how little audiences care about these properties.
Things started out well—Disney’s George of the Jungle (1997), based on a separate Jay Ward show, made $105 million domestic and officially launched Brendan Fraser to stardom. Two years later, though, Universal tried the same trick with Dudley Do-Right, which pulled in less than $10 million against a budget of $70 million. The aghast critical howls grew with every effort, culminating in 2000’s horrendous The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, a totemic cautionary tale for everything that’s bad about reviving beloved properties with a “meta” twist.
Fourteen years later, the craziest thing about the Rocky and Bullwinkle movie is the closing credits. This was no ordinary hack job. Directed by multi-Tony award winning theater director Des McAnuff, produced by Robert De Niro (who played the live-action Fearless Leader and considered the film a major passion project), and scripted by Kenneth Lonergan (nominated for an Oscar the very same year for You Can Count On Me), Rocky and Bullwinkle is choked with prestige. There’s a typical cavalcade of “star” cameos too, the likes of Kenan and Kel, Randy Quaid, Janeane Garofalo, John Goodman, David Allen Grier, and Whoopi Goldberg. The whole blessed nightmare is streaming on Netflix if you want to subject yourself to it.
What’s most depressing about the Rocky and Bullwinkle is that it tries to do so many things and fails so miserably at all of them: it’s attempting to recreate the anarchic fun of the original cartoon, appeal to the children in the audience and cleverly point out what a ridiculous modern update it’s doing. Early on, a stooge has to bring up Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, prompting De Niro to scream “Shut up! That was totally different!” The intention is for everyone to giggle at the ironic reference—it’s pretty much the same! Instead, you just wish you could switch over to Roger Rabbit right then and there.
Rocky and Bullwinkle often gets lumped in with De Niro’s general 21st century career decline, but this is no Showtime or 15 Minutes. He’s giving a committed performance, not hunting for a paycheck. He’s responsible for the best parts of the film, simply because you can’t look away when he’s onscreen. Everything else is dull and unwatchable, and Rocky and Bullwinkle barely get anything to do, spending a lot of time in a jalopy with Piper Perabo before "saving the day" by smashing up Fearless Leader’s zombifying TV network, which is so intentionally bad it turns the American viewing audience into vegetables. A.O. Scott wisely noted the shoddiness of the animation/live-action mix, saying the titular characters "look like half-inflated floats from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade."
Rocky and Bullwinkle made $26 million and was enough of a cautionary tale to keep studios away from Jay Ward for about as long as Hollywood has a memory. But in 2012, DreamWorks Animation bought the rights to the whole Classic Media brand. That includes Casper, Frosty the Snowman, and the VeggieTales, but it also includes the whole Ward catalogue. The first venture is Mr. Peabody & Sherman, but who knows what will come next? Hoppity Hooper? Super Chicken? Tom Slick?
Alarmingly, despite the irritating ad campaign and depressingly formulaic trailer (zumba jokes!), Mr. Peabody & Sherman got a decent write-up from Scott in the Times today, although he noted that much of the film’s humor is “action-, celebrity-voice-over- and excrement-based” and that there is “a dollop of strained sentimentality.” Box office tracking places the film a little above Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, which opened to $30 million last year. If that happens, we could be staring in the face of the worst-case scenario: Mr. Peabody & Sherman could be enough of a hit to clog 3D animated films with as many Gen X revivals as idiotic studios can find to greenlight. Because, after all, what does the animated family film genre need more than a bunch of uninspired reboots of faintly well-regarded “classics”?