Rene Russo, Jason Alexander, Robert De Niro, Rocky, and Bullwinkle in The Adventures of Rocky & BullwinkleTHE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY & BULLWINKLE

One of the happier surprises of last summer was the release of South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut, a marvelously written musical comedy that transcended its source material and shot off into a madcap animated universe all its own, raising the bar for all future TV-show-turned-feature-film projects. And while it would be great to report that the film version of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle approached South Park's level of cinematic exuberance, the filmmakers are facing an uphill battle: The animated series this one is based on is already such a whirligig of action, cliffhangers, and verbal and visual puns that raising the ante on it as a movie seems kinda pointless. (Clever and funny though it often is, the South Park TV series has nothing on the brilliance of the original R & B series.)

Having said that, though, you'd be surprised at how well this new Rocky & Bullwinkle works. Though the live action inevitably slows down the action, director Des McAnuff shows a real gift for cartoonish buffoonery, the wordplay is as cheap and delightful as ever, the sight gags are often laugh-out-loud funny, and the whole production has a cheesy, go-for-broke spirit that's infectious. Just like the TV show.

Thankfully, the storyline is as goofball as ever. Having freed themselves from the world of animation and leaping into our own, Fearless Leader (Robert De Niro) and his half-witted assistants Boris (Jason Alexander) and Natasha (Rene Russo) seek world domination, this time by their creation of Really Bad TV. (The brief examples of this station's series' are hysterical.) The viewing of Really Bad TV will zombify anyone watching it; soon, the baddies hope, all of America will be under their control. Out to save the save, of course, are our sweet-tempered heroes, Bullwinkle J. Moose and Rocky the Flying Squirrel, assisted by a feisty FBI agent (Piper Perabo).

Director McAnuff, best-known for his staging of the musical The Who's Tommy on Broadway, doesn't seem able to do much with the roster of guest stars - including Jonathan Winters, Whoopi Goldberg, Janeane Garofalo, and Randy Quaid - that occasionally pop in and out; at times you might be watching a Muppet movie. However, he gets terrific comic work from De Niro and especially Russo (who only gets one big speech and still manages to steal the show), and he and his screenwriting team have a field day with the escalating jokes and visual riffs; my favorite is the nod to the show's creator, where a hospital annex is named the "J" ward. And Rocky and Bullwinkle themselves are still just about the most engaging and lovable animated characters America has yet produced. (The game Piper Perabo, with her exaggerated facial expressions and delightful, gee-whiz demeanor, is practically animated, too.) The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle isn't worth analyzing in-depth, or even worth thinking about for too long, but it's a jazzy, completely enjoyable romp; you can enter it in a blah frame of mind and exit feeling totally refreshed. It's a wonderful 90-minute summertime elixir.


Mark Wahlberg and George Clooney in The Perfect StormTHE PERFECT STORM

Though I'm sure it would love to be something more memorable and more stirring, the eagerly awaited The Perfect Storm turns out to be the Deep Impact of the summer of 2000, a cliché-ridden, oddly edited, mostly messy work that still manages to be entertaining and occasionally thrilling. Based on Sebastian Junger's true-life best-seller, The Perfect Storm tells of the crew of the swordfishing boat the Andrea Gail, which faced the mother of all oceanic events in the autumn of 1991. Looking for a hugely profitable catch of fish, the crew (played here by, among others, George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly, and William Fichtner) instead fought the most terrifying storm in the history of the North Atlantic, and the film details their struggles, the plight of the Coast Guard rescue team sent after them, and the worried friends and lovers of the Andrea Gail crew back in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

The best-rendered of these plotlines is the story aboard the Andrea Gail. One of the things movies almost never do well is the depiction of people at work, but director Wolfgang Petersen shows in great detail the responsibilities, and occasional terrors, of being a seaman; he and the cast members make swordfishing look like the most demanding, and often most heroic, career imaginable. Petersen is also sensational at staging mini-traumas before the "perfect storm" transpires, such as when a worker is accidentally thrown off the ship or when they mistakenly pull a shark on board, one that's alive and none too happy about his current whereabouts. By the time the storm actually hits, you're well-acquainted with the crew and their situation, which makes the inevitable barrage of waves and water-effects (most of them quite impressive) not just exciting and scary on a visceral level, but an emotional one, which is what all good action-thrillers should strive for.

But, oh, the things you'll have to endure before that time! A mere week after railing against the head-poundingly annoying clichés in The Patriot I'm forced to do it all over again: the too-phony-to-be-true puppy-love story with with Wahlberg and Diane Lane (who's really grating here); the he-man battles between Reilly and Fichtner; the respect-masked-as-rivalry between captain Clooney and a talented upstart (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, the best performer in the film); the portentous speechifying by a local meteorologist (Christopher McDonald), who actually takes deep, solemn breaths before uttering lines like, "It would be... the perfect storm." Added to this silliness is some truly bizarro editing about halfway through the film, when we are suddenly plunged into the plight of a different crew of sailors who are facing the storm in another part of the ocean. With no introduction whatsoever, we are expected to be caught up in their traumas as well (it doesn't help that the crew is played by recognizable actors Bob Gunton, Karen Allen, and Cherry Jones... why did they agree to play these non-characters?), and the cutting between the Coast Guard's rescue of them and the hardships aboard the Andrea Gail is confusing and often downright disorienting.

No matter. Like Deep Impact, and even much better films like Jurassic Park and Aliens, there's more than enough about The Perfect Storm to keep you engrossed, whether it be the tremendous wave effects or the taut direction or the really interesting performance by George Clooney, who might have achieved a kind of Captain Ahab grandeur if he had better lines. Clichés and all, it's a strong, utterly watchable experience, a rare box office hit that deserves to be one.

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