Rocky and Bullwinkle (and Friends): Introduction with Episode 1, Jet Fuel Formula parts 1 and 2 - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Rocky and Bullwinkle (and Friends): Introduction with Episode 1, Jet Fuel Formula parts 1 and 2

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Flashback: 1992, Universal Studios, Orlando Florida, and an 8-year old me has the honor of sitting next to a living legend. The legend is one Dudley Do-Right of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who climbed all the way to the top to greet me and my mother while enjoying a live-action version of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show together. Dudley Do-Right deftly answers lightly teasing questions from my mom about where Horse and Nell are while my attention is split between a living cartoon sitting next to me and the one playing out on stage. It all ends with a bang, Boris Badenov gets shot out of a cannon meant for Rocky and Bullwinkle, and I turn to see a smoky Boris stuck in an adjacent building while the show wraps up and Dudley gives me a salute before he goes off into the credits.

Dear readers, it was at that moment I learned magic exists and my adult mind remains steadfast that Dudley Do-Right is real, and strong, and my friend. A quick trip to the gift shop and a small plush facsimile of Rocky came home with me to be my companion as I wore down the multiple VHS copies of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show we owned. Sometimes I'd get up early enough to catch a syndicated glimpse of the stories that didn't make it to VHS, such as "Metal-Munching Mice" or "Bullwinkle's Testimonial Dinner".

Put differently, and why I'm going to be spending the next couple of months writing about The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, there is no "me" without the moose and squirrel. It introduced me to serialized storytelling, metafictional fourth-wall breaking, snappy dialogue, animation that made the most of a limited budget, and an unyielding reservoir of positivity with an excellent feel for puns. 2018's been a difficult year and trying to keep up with art that hasn't excited my senses, combined with a litany of horrible things that just kept happening, and the cumulative affect of the last few months has left me adrift in my depression.

After re-watching a few episodes to determine if this is a good way of spending my time I can safely say there is nothing like The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. I'm not planning on watching or writing about the new series that launched but with enough time and distance into this project, maybe I'll give it a shot.

For now, as Bullwinkle put it, there's always room for one more! So please join me on this episode-to-episode breakdown of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Jet Fuel Formula Part One

In which the world is introduced to Rocky and Bullwinkle after they jet down from the moon in a rocket powered by Bullwinkle's grandmother's cake recipe.

It took about fifteen years between my flowering love of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle to catch up with the storyline that kicked off the show in 1959. "Jet Fuel Formula" never got a VHS release because it took 20 episodes to complete and, despite the Rocky and Bullwinkle renaissance of the early '90s, it wasn't popular enough to warrant a two VHS pack to tell the whole story. Because of this, the only way to watch "Jet Fuel Formula" was for me to wake up early enough Saturday mornings in the hope that the syndicated run of Rocky and Bullwinkle would show parts of it.

What surprised me watching this first part to "Jet Fuel Formula" thanks to the DVD set in 2004, and revisiting it now fourteen years later, is how fully-formed Rocky and Bullwinkle came right out the gate. Between the rapid-fire jokes about the leading scientific community of eggheads and chrome-domes lay a playful give-and-take with the viewer's knowledge. This is a show that benefits greatly from having more knowledge of art and culture outside the world of Rocky and Bullwinkle than just watching the show.

Heck, Rocky and Bullwinkle helped fuel the myth of Orson Welles' panic-inducing broadcast of The War of the Worlds with The Mercury Theater thanks to a stand-in named "Dorson Belles" telling listeners, "Please feel free to panic." If you smiled at that name then the rest of Rocky and Bullwinkle's humor is going to settle quite nicely with you.  If you didn't, then give the episode a couple more beats for two deadpan workers on the train to talk about the impending invasion as, "So what else is new?" Those two beats are  emblematic of Rocky and Bullwinkle's success - if the overtly silly stuff doesn't pull you in, then Rocky and Bullwinkle will toss in some sly or weary jokes for the others.

Rocky and Bullwinkle, voiced by June Foray and Bill Scott, also emerge from the rough animation mostly intact. They're both founts of positivity but Rocky tends to think more about the predicament they're in than Bullwinkle. My heart always goes to Bullwinkle though, as he haplessly finds himself in the midst of international espionage because he screwed up his grandmother's quick-rising cake recipe. The explosive cake is but one of many firm nods to the ongoing Cold War where just about anything could become a tool for international struggle in the right (or wrong) hands.

Speaking of those wrong hands, series foils Boris and Natasha didn't start Rocky and Bullwinkle as fully-formed as their adversaries. Natasha comes closest to modeling the femme fatales of old but her tuffet is inflated to a ridiculous degree. Boris, on the other hand, basically gets plastic surgery and some eye drops between his first appearance in "Jet Fuel Formula" and how he'll look in just a few episodes."Yikes" is the best reaction between first draft Boris and the later edition. Neither really lines up with Boris' pun inspiration, Boris Godunov, but for those in the audience who specialized in Russian history the nod is a nice surprise. I'm also sure that there are some who wanted the tiny evil Zorro look of Boris to remain, but rounding out Boris' face and elongating the little points of his hat makes him look more like a small pale fox forever hunting the moose and squirrel.

You don't need to start with any specific storyline to garner an appreciation of Rocky and Bullwinkle and this first part of "Jet Fuel Formula" has enough style quirks to make it an odd one. That said, between the chatting train folks and Orson Welles homage, it works just as well if you want to start now.

Fractured Fairy Tales: Rapunzel

The writing on Rocky and Bullwinkle ranged from the rapid-fire silly to a slow (relative to the show anyway) burn edge. The "Fractured Fairy Tale" portions of Rocky and Bullwinkle were where things slowed down a notch and the more adult-oriented humor would get a chance to take the spotlight. Stories told for the benefit of children got a sexy twist, or more adult concerns like income and ungrateful spouses became central to the retelling.

Pregnancy cravings and impatient desires form the core of this telling of "Rapunzel". The telling gets a bit of visual spice by putting the titular character in a strapless dress that wouldn't be out of place in Tex Avery's Red Hot Riding Hood. Amusingly, Rapunzel has little patience for the hapless Prince's fumbling attempts at courtship by responding to his long description of her beauty with, "I like you too," and admonishing his gravity-based plans for escape with a sardonic, "Some plan."

An interesting twist in the animation quality of Rocky and Bullwinkle is in how poorly the American offices thought the results were from Mexico as Rocky and Bullwinkle didn't do their animation in-house. There's a rough charm to moments like Rapunzel's witch captor singing, "that I may climb the golden stair" when Rapunzel's hair could only be considered gold with Mister Magoo's eyesight.  But there's enough evolution in the drawings to show the most character development possible in about three minutes with the eventually married Rapunzel trading her strapless dress for a more subdued number before asking for a salad made from that variety of European bell flower.

Bullwinkle's Corner: "The Swing" by Robert Louis Stevenson

Would it surprise you to learn I wasn't terribly into poetry until Rocky and Bullwinkle? It's not the heaviest stuff, no complicated sonnets or Bukowski gutter ramblings here, but the "Bullwinkle's Corner" segments brought its own touch of class to the adventure.

"The Swing" isn't the best example of "Bullwinkle's Corner" as it indulges in slapstick. The animation just wasn't good enough to do much action in Rocky and Bullwinkle and the chain of events from Bullwinkle's unfortunate mid-swing collision with a bull to him falling down a well sets a low bar for future installments to clear. All this break does is set up the idea that Rocky and Bullwinkle know that they're stars in a show called Rocky and Bullwinkle, adding some of the metafictional touch that would be more pronounced as time goes on.

Peabody's Improbable History: Show Opening

Mr. Peabody and, his boy, Sherman are likely the two most popular offshoots from Rocky and Bullwinkle. Their time traveling escapades continue in a new television show and 2014's poor theatrical outing. If the main Rocky and Bullwinkle storylines are silly, and the "Fractured Fairy Tales" have a slow edge, "Peabody's Improbable History" was the most dry that seemed designed to elicit groans more than laughs.

The standard structure for "Peabody's Improbable History" is to have Mr. Peabody and Sherman travel to witness an important historical event then tie the adventure up in the most painful pun possible. This being the first episode, there's no overarching historical narrative to tie their actions to, and the most we get from time traveling jokes involves a posh Roman selling chariots like a modern day used-car salesman. Amusing, but not exactly funny, and thankfully livened up by the world of "Peabody's Improbable History" acknowledging how weird it is that a talking dog exists and wants to adopt a boy.

If you think puns are the lowest form of humor than "Peabody's Improbable History" will either break you down to loving them or exist in an intolerable state. Mr. Peabody discusses his history like graduating from Harvard "Wagna Cum Laude" before dabbling in the stock market as the "Woof of Wall Street". Bill Scott's vocal performance as Mr. Peabody is a thing of dry wonder, delivering the (wonderful) awful puns straight with just a tinge of "I can't believe I'm being paid to say this." Walter Tetley, who voiced Sherman, differentiates his positivity from that of Rocky and Bullwinkle by injecting his lines with a lot of "Golly gee" spirit we think of as stereotypical of the '50s.

Unlike "Bullwinkle's Corner", this is a fine start for "Peabody's Improbable History" and I'm excited at revisiting the (awful) wonderful puns that end the episodes.

Jet Fuel Formula Part 2

In which Bullwinkle does not know what to do with the suspiciously ticking package a foreign spy hands to him.

Part of Rocky and Bullwinkle's unique approach to serialization was to hint at the next episode by providing two different titles for what was coming up. This was also one of the jokes not specifically played as a joke as the titles were usually melodramatic exaggeration and rarely had anything to do with the plot of the episode they ostensibly described. This was another spot for the writers to sneak in a bit of extra fun for the adults by playing with classic literature, radio plays, or (for the time) recent events.

Of the two, "Goodbye Dollink" is the more fitting since the bomb Natasha gives Bullwinkle at the end of part 1 ends up going off in Boris' face. But the more important joke comes from Bullwinkle's self-effacing humor while remaining completely oblivious to the danger he's in.  While looking for the key to open their door so Natasha can throw the bomb out, Bullwinkle sees his tiny hope chest key ("It's little 'cause I'm kinda hopeless") and when rushed by Natasha responds with a favorite line of mine, "I'm doing my level best."  That's both a good working frame for the show with its animation setbacks and not a bad way to consider life.

Even if the animation is slapdash for these first few episodes its unencumbered by strict logical restrictions and makes for fun quick visual gags. Whistler's Mother greets scientists from the confines of her painted frame while a well-meaning grandmother feels a drop of water localized entirely on her hand and warns another scientist to put on their rubbers (which, yowza, is a phrase that means something different nowadays).

"Jet Fuel Formula" isn't my favorite storyline and - if memory serves - goes on a bit too long. But this first step back into the world of Rocky and Bullwinkle brightened my day so I hope it will continue to do so in the weeks to come.

NEXT TIME: Bullseye Bullwinkle or Destination Moose

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Posted by Andrew

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