Universal Pictures presents, in association with Capella/KC Medien, a Tribeca Production of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, a live-action/animated extravaganza directed by two-time Tony Award-winner Des McAnuff (The Who's Tommy (1975)), and starring Rene Russo (Thomas Crown Affair, The (1999)), Jason Alexander (Seinfeld), Randy Quaid (National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)), Kel Mitchell and Kenan Thompson (Nickelodeon's Good Burger), screen newcomer Piper Perabo and Robert De Niro. Kenneth Lonergan's (You Can Count on Me (2000)) original screenplay was inspired by the classic television series developed by Jay Ward.
Legendary cartoon vocalist June Foray, who originated the voice of Rocky in all 326 TV episodes, is the voice of Rocky and Australian comedian-mimic Keith Scott voices both Bullwinkle and the film’s omnipresent, wry Narrator.
The behind-the-scenes crew for The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle includes: cinematographer Thomas E. Ackerman, A.S.C. (George Of The Jungle (1997)); production designer Gavin Bocquet (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) ); Oscar® - nominated film editor Dennis Virkler (Batman Forever (1995)); composer Mark Mothersbaugh (Rushmore (1998)]); and costume designer Marlene Stewart (Space Jam (1996)).
Rocky and Bullwinkle, grace the screen through the pioneering wizardry of the Academy Award® - winning Industrial Light & Magic with David Andrews (Mars Attacks! (1996)) as animation supervisor and Roger Gyuett (Saving Private Ryan (1998)) as visual effects supervisor.
The film also features: John Goodman (Flintstones, The (1994)), as a highway patrolman who temporarily disrupts FBI agent Sympathy's quest; Whoopi Goldberg (Ghost (1990)) as Judge Cameo, who presides over a trial at which Bullwinkle acts as defense council; Billy Crystal (Analyze This (1999)) as a Chicago mattress salesman; and Janeane Garofalo (Mystery Men (1999)) as Phony Pictures Studio executive Minnie Mogul, who accidentally brings the trio of villains from the reel world into the real world.
In addition, a number of notable performers make cameo appearances, including: Carl Reiner (The Dick Van Dyke Show) as Mogul's boss, P.G. Biggershot; David Alan Grier (In Living Color) as Measures, the President's campaign manager; and Jonathan Winters (The Andy Williams Show) in a trio of roles that includes an old-time farmer who helps moose and squirrel escape from the inept Pottsylvanian spies.
A Cartoon Legacy
The characters of Rocky and Bullwinkle and their bumbling, ineffectual adversaries, Boris and Natasha, first appeared in Jay Ward's series Rocky and His Friends on ABC-TV's afternoon lineup on November 19, 1959. In 1961, the program (renamed The Bullwinkle Show), moved to NBC's primetime Sunday schedule, and finally landed on NBC's Saturday morning slot before the new shows ended in 1964. The series returned to ABC in reruns from 1964-73, and since that time has remained a television staple in syndicated or cable reruns. The original episodes currently air on The Cartoon Network.
In addition to the adventures of the plucky squirrel and the droll moose, Ward's half-hour program (326 episodes in all) also included such popular segments as Fractured Fairy Tales, Aesop's Fables, Peabody's Improbable History, The Adventures of Dudley Do-Right and Bullwinkle's Corner. Each 30-minute program was book-ended with a 3 1/2-minute installment featuring the antics of Rocky and Bullwinkle.
"My father's animation was really a comic strip brought to life," daughter Tiffany Ward and one of the film's executive producers observe. "In creating the first cartoon ever for television, Crusader Rabbit, Jay Ward and a childhood friend, Alex Anderson, came up with this concept of taking a comic strip, keeping the backgrounds kind of the same and having very limited (character) movement. They subscribed to the concept that the animation could be very simplistic, and that the writing was the most important thing."
"The key to Rocky & Bullwinkle was that sharp, witty writing," Ward continues. "You had to pay attention to the words in the script to get it all. As my dad always envisioned it, the adults would get all the jokes, and the kids would get the joy of seeing a moose and a squirrel with those incredible voices. He also said he was writing for adults and the kids would get it. He didn't believe in talking down to children. He thought you should put intelligence out there and have the kids reach to grasp it."
June Foray, the incomparable vocal talent who originated the boyish, chipper voice of our heroic squirrel (as well as other Ward characters like Natasha, Dudley Do-Right's girlfriend Nell and Ursula of George Of The Jungle (1997)), echoes Ward, saying, "It was an adult series that really wasn't intended for children. But, there was no condescension to children. They loved it because of the funny situations, the strange voices, and because Boris and Natasha always got their comeuppance. Kids also wondered why their parents laughed when they weren't laughing. The parents got the jokes and the puns."
Ward is overwhelmed by the amount of fan support for Rocky & Bullwinkle, which borders on cult status. Last year the series celebrated its 40th anniversary on American television, a landmark in itself, and a fitting tribute for an American classic.
"I once heard a statistic that 93 percent of Americans knew who Bullwinkle was," Ward says. "What a great honor for my father to have as a legacy...to have created and developed something that so many people know."
Upon Ward's death in 1989, his only daughter (who grew up in the house that Moose and Squirrel built), assumed the duties of preserving the legacy of Jay Ward, along with her mother, Ramona Ward. She decided, as a tribute to her father, to bring the characters into a realm that he had never taken them. When Ward's daughter first met producers Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro in 1992, they pitched her on a feature film based on the original cartoon series. Rosenthal, who has been partnered with the two-time Oscar® - winning actor De Niro (Raging Bull (1980), Godfather Part II, The (1974)) in Tribeca Productions since 1988, first had the idea to pursue a feature adaptation after receiving a boxed-set of Rocky & Bullwinkle videos from her husband.
"I watched the show as a kid, and from a child's perspective, I just enjoyed the little squirrel and the big dumb moose," Rosenthal remarks. "But when I saw the videos again, I realized how incredibly smart and sophisticated the satire was in each episode, which you missed completely as a kid."
Rosenthal continues, "It's charming, topical, savvy and funny, and after doing movies with gangsters, serial killers and such, we finally found something that we could do for our kids. That's what convinced us to try this as a feature."
Rosenthal, a successful production executive at several studios and networks prior to co-founding Tribeca, was determined to land the movie rights to the enterprise when she visited Los Angeles on business in 1992. She landed at LAX and immediately visited the Dudley Do-Right Emporium on Sunset Boulevard. Opened by Jay Ward in 1971, it was the first character-oriented retail outlet outside of Disneyland. "I walked into the Dudley Do-Right Emporium and it was then that I knew Rocky & Bullwinkle could be a live-action/animated movie," Rosenthal recalls. "I really didn't have a story idea other than taking these characters from the '60s into the contemporary world."
Fortunately for Rosenthal, Ward and her family had been exploring the possibilities of a movie for the lovable cartoon characters since 1991 when they first began their association with Universal Studios (where Rocky and Bullwinkle can be seen roaming the grounds of the studio's hugely popular theme park and CityWalk attraction in Los Angeles). In bringing these cartoon characters from the small screen into movie theaters, Rosenthal and Ward first approached some of the show's original writers for story ideas.
"The old writers really couldn't see this as a live-action movie, just didn't get the concept," Ward remembers. "I also had a number of concerns, particularly regarding Boris and Natasha now that the Cold War was over, and how were we going to bring Rocky and Bullwinkle from the '60s into the '90s?"
Last seen in 1964, what had these beloved characters been doing the last 36 years? The possibilities were endless, and Rosenthal recruited New York playwright Kenneth Lonergan for the daunting task. The screenwriter responsible for such box office hits as Analyze This (1999) and award-winning plays like This Is Our Youth and The Lobby, Lonergan set out to pen his first draft, hoping to echo the voice of Ward's original shows.
"My audition for the writing job was to come up with an idea for the movie version of the TV show," Lonergan relates. "Jane and I both pitched it to Tiffany and Universal and they liked it, and now five years later here we are."
In writing his script, Lonergan managed to capture the flavor and spirit of Rocky & Bullwinkle, peppering the script with ubiquitous puns while satirizing such sacred institutions as the U.S. Presidency, higher education, movie executives and television.
"I watched the show when I was little and looked at several episodes to at least imitate it," he relates. "I tried to do what Ward did...and tried to be faithful to certain aspects of the show. Hopefully I got some of that in the movie."
Guiding the entire enterprise was another stage veteran, two-time Tony Award-winning director McAnuff, one of the theatre's most honored talents over the past two decades. The film marks his second behind the cameras following his feature debut on the 1998 black comedy Cousin Bette (1998). He also produced last year's critically-acclaimed animated feature Iron Giant, The (1999) . And, McAnuff, whose second big screen effort improbably took him from Balzac to Bullwinkle, is no stranger to reinventing icons, having been honored with Tonys for his memorable stagings of the Huck Finn-inspired musical Big River and his distinctive reincarnation of The Who's famous rock opera Tommy (1975)
"I've always had a real penchant for pop culture and rock-and-roll," the Canadian-born talent explains. "And, while The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle isn't exactly rock-and-roll, there's some kind of cartoon parallel. We parachute these two pop icons from the Cold War into our own age."
McAnuff continues, saying, "As with the old series, there's many levels of satire and irony that have to do with current events and how much the world has changed in 35 years."
McAnuff loved Rocky and Bullwinkle as a child, as many people did, so it was important to him that the script honored Ward's creations.
"I was very enthusiastic about Kenny's writing, as it was a very smart script," he says. "It combined different kinds of comedy, from farce to satire to the very broad comedies of manners, and Jay Ward's aesthetic was to combine a lot of those layers. That's what most interested me."
Bringing A Cartoon To Life
Now the question on everyone's minds was who could possibly embody the former Miss Transylvania Natasha Fatale and fellow No-Goodnik Boris Badenov on the big screen?
"When Kenny and I were working on the script, we had always envisioned Rene in some way, so we were thrilled to find out she was interested."
"At the table reading, I was so nervous," Russo recalls. "I walked in the door and there was June Foray. She did the original voice of Natasha and I thought, 'Oh good, they have June here to make me look like an idiot. I asked June if she could read a couple of lines for me, and she did, she was so gracious. So I got the accent down, the Russian accent, for which I lowered my voice."
And there were just a handful of people who could emulate Boris in a real specific way," continues Rosenthal, "but when we looked around, Jason was our first and only choice."
As the resident villain, "the world's greatest No-Goodnik," who has never quite been able to rid the world of Moose and Squirrel (poor schnooknik!), the role of Badenov presented Alexander with quite a challenge.
"It was very hard to work with Rene. She's very tall, and I find that difficult," jokes Alexander, who may have been born to play the bumbling European rogue. "Actually, we were like two little kids. It was very similar to working with Julia Louis-Dreyfus on Seinfeld, the difference being that Julia and I had nine years of rapport. Rene and I had about nine weeks!"
Russo compares their pairing to, "a classic comedy team. Jason's just so easy to work with, so responsive. If I did something improvised, he was right there. He's great with improvisation. When we started the first day, I realized we were good together, that we played it well together, and that was fun!"
Alexander continues, "It was a very nice, easy, loose, fun relationship. And, thank God, because we we're joined at the hip for the entire film." The role of the demonic dictator - one of the nastiest villains in the history of children's television - whose plan for world domination hinges on the elimination of Rocky and Bullwinkle and the creation of a TV network so awful, that its programming will vegetate viewers, was not an obvious choice for De Niro.
"When we developed the project, I always told Bob, 'You can be Fearless Leader,' just thinking that it could be a role that he could have fun with," Rosenthal admits. "Remember, a number of actors had done the Batman movies and Dick Tracy (1990) , and Bob always thought it would have been fun to do those kinds of characters, cartoon-like roles. So, I guess we always had him in mind.
Like his fellow actors, De Niro had limited interaction opposite his invisible co-stars. "Actually, Boris and Natasha were pretty fortunate in that we didn't have too much exchange with Rocky and Bullwinkle," Alexander submits. "You know, stage training kind of prepares you for that. If you're doing monologues, talking to people that aren't really there, it's not that daunting."
"I've had some experience with material like this," Alexander continues. "I don't know that Bob ever has, so for him, it was a whole new world and maybe required more effort for him to be silly. I can be silly at the drop of a hat. And, my reputation was not on the line. His was, so I think he was a little "verklempt" as we say. But we had a really fun time with him. He did become a rather imposing Fearless Leader."
Adds Russo, "I was fortunate because I got to do most of my work with Jason and Robert. I think the harder work was for Piper, probably because she had most of the work to do with Rocky and Bullwinkle."
Piper Perabo, who plays idealistic FBI agent Karen Sympathy, had the daunting task, in her first starring role, of not only performing opposite the film's animated stars who would not be added to the frame until the film's post-production period, but sharing the screen with another legend, Oscar® - winner De Niro.
Regarding her scenes opposite her unseen co-stars, she explains, "First, we went to the storyboard, then we (rehearsed) with puppets. A lot of the time, the ILM guys would stand in for Rocky and Bullwinkle and act the scene out with me, especially if Rocky and Bullwinkle were off-camera for a scene. They would rehearse with me, walking around like Bullwinkle and even talking like him. Once we did it a bunch of times, we just took everything away and did (the scene) with nothing there."
Perabo's character also has a relationship with the audience, in that she talks to the camera and they go through the journey with her.
"Befriending the audience is a lot of what Karen's about," she says. "She's also a real person, not a cartoon like Boris and Natasha. But that kind of cartoon was in the air, and it was fun to be a person who felt the zaniness around her."
But how do Boris and Natasha actually get out of the cartoon and into the live-action? According to Alexander, "We as cartoon characters entice a movie executive into the notion that we could take over the world and that she would have the exclusive films rights to us doing that. We have to sign a contract. When she pushes the contract through the television screen, we grab it, and as she pulls it out, we come flying out with it, in the flesh."
Once Aleaxander, Russo, De Niro and Perabo had signed on, it gave the production "a seal of approval," as Rosenthal says, and a number of actors clamored to become involved.
The talented ensemble who signed on included: by Randy Quaid as the hard-nosed FBI Director 'Cappy' von Trappment, who is determined to undermine Fearless Leader's dastardly plan; and Kel Mitchell and Kenan Thompson as Martin and Lewis, students at Bullwinkle's alma mater Wossamotta U, who come to the aid of the FBI, the squirrel and the moose.
From Cel To Celluloid
In launching their search for the right movie magicians to animate the top-billed characters, producers Rosenthal and Ward looked to the industry's finest special effects experts, Industrial Light & Magic, to conceive the TV icons in an entirely new realm. "This was a key element to me as to how Rocky and Bullwinkle were going to look now that there's all this new technology," Ward states. "We've always seen them as 2-D characters. We wanted them to look very much like they did in the animated show, but we wanted to give them dimension."
The contributions of visual stylists David Andrews (animation supervisor) and Roger Guyett (visual effects supervisor) transcended the original show's somewhat crude drawings. Both movie magicians began their contributions to the project during pre-production, with each joining the shooting crew for its entire 15-week live-action schedule. Once principal photography concluded in late May, the partners returned to ILM's San Francisco base to begin their lengthy computer animation production. According to Guyett, "We had about a year's worth of work when we finally wrapped."
Andrews, a five-year ILM vet who supervised the animation on Small Soldiers (1998) and Mars Attacks! (1996) and was a computer graphics animator on Jumanji (1995) and Casper says, "You can't have limited animation like the original show. It just won't hold up to the live-action plate. You could compare this film to Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), but that still looks like a drawing, too. This will have more of a 3-D form to it."
Guyett adds, "People are used to looking at much more complex kinds of animation these days. The original was fairly limited animation with a particular look to it...two-dimensional animation that was hand-drawn or painted. With 3-D, you have a virtual camera inside the (computer) system that matches the camera used to shoot the actual photography. When they move around, the characters have much more of a sense of dimension, and are able to interact with objects or people within the scenes."
"Animation is composing a picture and getting a performance in that picture," Andrews conveys about his collaboration with his ILM colleague Guyett, who most recently completed similar chores on the Academy Award® - winning Saving Private Ryan (1998) . "The visual effects aspect of the plate shoot is the layout for putting the animation in the frame. To be succinct, Roger is like the digital cinematographer and I'm the digital performer," Andrews adds.
While Andrews focused on creating personalities for the digitally-enhanced heroes, Guyett concentrated on the more logistical elements necessary to marry the live-action plate to the computerized characters.
"My job entailed integrating Rocky and Bullwinkle into the shots, what sorts of shadows they cast and how they would interact with the world around them," says Guyett.
Andrews and Guyett also supervised the key plate shots on the set, which served as the background element, or layout, in terms of the animation.
"Back home, we did our animation layouts of the characters themselves, all the poses they would do," Andrews elaborates. "We composited them together with that background plate. After that, we put our computer graphics model, a virtual three-dimensional puppet, in there. Then we did a kind of stop-motion animation, a key frame animation technique, to bring them to life."
"We tried to find a way of updating the look of Rocky and Bullwinkle without losing the charm of the old '50s and '60s cartoon," Guyett continues. "Also, in the original cartoon, their screen time was limited. Now, we had to sustain the look and appeal of the characters across a much longer piece of work. It was really a fine balance...to bring them into the real world. We wanted to make it much more sophisticated than the original Jay Ward cartoon. But, sophistication doesn't necessarily mean that you lose the essence or charm of the original characters."
"Rocky and Bullwinkle are conglomerates of various artists," McAnuff offers, "almost like a multiple personality. Obviously, I'm involved. The writer was critically involved. There are the actual animators at ILM. In terms of getting these performances, I worked closely with Dave Andrews."
McAnuff continues, "As the animation director, Dave often physicalized Bullwinkle on the set for us. There was Keith Scott, the voice of Bullwinkle, and June Foray, the voice of Rocky. All that effort is what gave us the opportunity to develop these characters."