It's been 35 long years since our favorite animated flying squirrel and dimwit moose were unceremoniously yanked off the TV airwaves, and as "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" begins, they're feeling the loss as deeply as any of us. Rocket J. Squirrel (voiced by June Foray, reprising her role from Jay Ward's '60s small-screen series) and Bullwinkle J. Moose (Keith Scott) have little to do but sit around waiting for their minuscule royalty checks to come in. Even their surroundings don't offer solace, as their beloved forest has been reduced to acres of lonely tree stumps.
The meta-satiric idea to let the mismatched duo in on their boob-tube origins is the central conceit of director Des McAnuff's feature-film adaptation, a gentle comic delight that sees animated characters and live actors taking turns at a script that's packed with all of the witty repartee of the original -- and then some.
A bogus newsreel fills us in on the events that have transpired since the show's sad cancellation. "Yes, even their wordplay had become hackneyed and cheap," the ever-present, wiseacre narrator (Scott) says of the now-colorless activities of the retired good guys. With their humdrum daily reality less than worthy of continuous explication, he's reduced to waxing lyrical about the mundane events of his own life, which he now spends at home with his aged mom.
But fate soon sets our heroes on a vitally important mission. The duo embark on a march toward Washington, intending to take their concerns about their habitat's environmental devastation to the White House. That goal, alas, is thwarted when FBI agent Karen Sympathy (Piper Perabo) enlists the buddies in an effort to foil the evil plans of their old nemesis, Fearless Leader (Robert DeNiro), and his loyal henchpersons, Boris Badenov (Jason Alexander) and Natasha Fatale (Renee Russo). Sympathy's orders come directly from the President, his military advisers (General Foods, General Store and General Admission), and the tough FBI director, Cappy Von Trapment (Randy Quaid).
The Pottsylvanian villains -- still in possession of the fractured accents that were once intended as Cold War mockery of the Russians -- have been brought to flesh-and-blood life by Minnie Mogul (Janeane Garofalo), a script reader for a major movie studio. In a clever sequence that might once have been lauded for its technical achievement, she pulls the trio out of the TV screen.
"We're attached to the project," promises Fearless Leader, played by DeNiro with comedic gusto (and not a hint of slumming). He and his minions -- with Alexander in full apoplectic fury and Russo as chilly and elegant as a runway model -- plan to turn America into a nation of zombies, thanks to the lame-brained, awful programming the bad guys will present on the RBTV (Really Bad Television) network. Any resemblance to an actual network's schedule, of course, is purely coincidental.
It remains to be seen if this affable update of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" will appeal to young viewers, many of whom may only be familiar with the characters via home video. Older folks with fond memories of the original series' run -- or its second life in syndication -- may be charmed by the string of groan-worthy puns: A college named Wossamatta U, a body of water known as the Crymia River and towns called Shuram, Ill., and De Bitter, Ind., figure in the story.
There are also particularly inspired references DeNiro's key scene in "Taxi Driver" and the true-crime TV show "Cops," the latter lampoon complete with blurred-out faces and a replay of the "Bad Boys" theme.
We also get to witness brief appearances by Jonathan Winters, John Goodman, Carl Reiner, Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell (of TV's "Kenan and Kel"), David Alan Grier and Billy Crystal. Whoopi Goldberg dons judicial robes for a bit as Judge Cameo, dispensing this dictum: "Celebrities are above the law."
Well, no they aren't -- not really -- and neither are Hollywood retreads of TV favorites. "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle," several cuts above last year's movie version of Ward's "Dudley Do-Right," nevertheless acquits itself nicely.