Rocky and His Friends debuted in the ABC network’s afternoon lineup in the fall of 1959, and it quickly became a sensation. Co-created by innovative animators / entrepreneurs Jay Ward, Alex Anderson, and Bill Scott, the series took the hip, self-aware humor that, at the time, was becoming popular in comedy clubs and TV commercials, and applied it to the crudely animated adventures of a dim-witted moose named Bullwinkle and his resourceful flying squirrel pal, Rocky. One of the earliest television shows broadcast in color, Rocky and His Friends was clever, fast-paced, and funny, appealing equally to little kids, urbane sophisticates, and anarchic beatniks.
But who is Amazon Prime’s The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle for?
Co-produced by Jay Ward Productions and DreamWorks Animation and developed by Johnny Test / Big Time Rush creator Scott Fellows, this latest iteration of Rocky and Bullwinkle retains the original show’s scribbled designs and meta-comedy, with just a few nods to modern audiences. Longtime fans of the characters are unlikely to be offended, but when it comes to remaking a pop culture classic, is “not terrible” the best we can hope for?
Give Fellows and his creative team credit: they clearly understand what’s always been funny about these particular cartoon critters, and for the most part, they know to replicate it. Each episode of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle zips through 22 minutes of an action-packed serialized story, explained by a breathless narrator (Daran Norris), who tells the audience how Bullwinkle (Brad Norman) and Rocky (Tara Strong) keep innocently bumbling into international crises, bringing them into conflict with Pottsylvania secret agents Boris Badenov (Ben Diskin) and Natasha Fatale (Rachel Butera).
The show’s first story arc could almost have been cribbed directly from the original series. When Bullwinkle enters the prestigious culinary competition “Le Grand Yum Yum,” he and Rocky make their way to Europe, where they get caught in the crossfire between American and Pottsylvanian intelligence agencies. There are classic Jay Ward Productions-worthy gags aplenty throughout these early episodes — from a character breaking the fourth wall to demand that the animators do a dramatic “push-in and echo effect” to Boris and Natasha making a Shawshank Redemption-style prison break, then hiding their escape tunnel behind the poster for a movie called Don’t Look Here.
The new show makes a few changes to the source material, none of which are really an improvement. The original Rocky and His Friends included segments featuring other characters, which gave viewers a chance to breathe a bit between the busy chapters of the Rocky and Bullwinkle stories. Amazon’s series lets go of all the side stories. It does, however, feature celebrity cameos from the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Mario Lopez, and indulges in the occasional gross-out gag (as in one episode in which a seasick Rocky vomits repeatedly).
The overall tone of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle is wackier and less deadpan than the first version. It’s similar in approach to Animaniacs, The Ren & Stimpy Show, The Powerpuff Girls, and The Fairly OddParents (for which Scott Fellows was a writer). All of those projects, in turn, owe a debt to Rocky and His Friends. There’s a weird ouroboros effect here, as the new Rocky and Bullwinkle parrots the style of cartoons inspired by the old Rocky and Bullwinkle.
All of which raises the original question: what’s the purpose of a remake like this, beyond just cashing in on a familiar title?
It’s certainly not impossible to turn a mercenary bit of franchise-extension into something fresh. On the live-action side, the first season of Netflix’s Lost in Space was more polished and sophisticated (and better-acted) than its 1960s parent show. In animation, Disney has had remarkable success in recent years creating new Mickey Mouse shorts and a new Duck Tales series. Both those revivals respect their original properties while delivering something up-to-date. And lately, the whole internet has gone bonkers for the revamped Nancy comic strip, now written and drawn by Olivia James, who’s brought back the dry surrealism of Nancy creator Ernie Bushmiller, while also making jokes about youth culture and social media.
It’s hard to say what an inspired 2018 model of a Rocky and Bullwinkle show would look like. The Amazon version doesn’t fit the bill. It’s serviceable, sure — even enjoyable, for the most part — but it’s not essential.
To make an Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle that truly matters would probably require getting back into the heads of Ward, Anderson, and Scott at the end of the 1950s. Their creation was inspired by Cold War paranoia, dogged small-town American optimism, and the incessant pitching of Madison Avenue in the TV age. The remake is inspired by other cartoons. That’s fine, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough.