Bullwinkle himself says it all at the end of the very first cartoon on The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, the new six-cassette series that marks the characters’ debut on home video. As our heroes plunge hopelessly off a cliff, a baffled Rocky observes, ”You can’t have a cartoon without a happy ending.” ”Yeah,” responds a resigned Bullwinkle. ”This must be one of those adult cartoons.”
No kidding. Rising unexpectedly from the swamp of ’50s kiddie-TV infantility, Jay Ward’s classic ‘toon series, originally called Rocky and His Friends, dared to treat kids and grown-ups alike as intelligent human beings. More than 30 years after its first telecast on Nov. 19, 1959, the show remains a sophisticated, sharp, and truly funny treat, a cartoon pillar of sophistication in the largely witless mélange of Barbie bait. Only one other animated series has even come close to Rocky and Bullwinkle’s sneaky smarts, and The Simpsons‘ creator Matt Groening has publicly acknowledged the influence of the Frostbite Falls gang on his own bent vision.
For two years at the cusp of the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras, Rocky and Bullwinkle kicked around ABC’s weekday afternoon slot as Rocky and His Friends; when The Flintstones, Hanna-Barbera’s cartoon Honeymooners imitation, proved successful in prime time, the renamed (and slightly revamped) Bullwinkle Show followed suit for one season. And now, all 156 hours of that pun-prone wonder are coming back as The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle. At last, grown-up baby boomers will have a chance to get the jokes they missed their first time around, such as the memorable Fractured Fairy Tales intro: ”Once upon a time there was a little village on a hill, called Daniels on the Rocks. ”
Long before the phrase was commonplace, Ward’s characters were ”knocking down the fourth wall,” addressing the audience with sardonic verbal winks and arguing with the strident narrator as if he were just another animated friend. And they didn’t shrink from highfalutin language, either. ”Kids are smarter than most people think,” Ward once noted, and sometimes he’d directly bait them. In one episode, Bullwinkle asks Rocky if he gets a joke he has just made about antihistamine. The squirrel says yes. ”Millions won’t,” the moose shoots back. That didn’t stop Ward and his writers from regularly dropping in obscure phrases like ”airy persiflage” without explanation. They also were bold enough to have a view of world politics, and it was, well, cartoonish. The arch bad guys Boris Badenov (”I hate those nogoodniks, Moose and Squirrel”) and Natasha Fatale (”Dahlink!”) sounded vaguely Russian, but their ”Fearless Leader” was clearly German. A cartoon that dared to goof on Cold War paranoia, however absurdly, was almost seditious in 1959.
Between the segments starring Rocky and Bullwinkle, the show featured other equally kooky Jay Ward cartoons — a tradition continued in the video compilations. There’s Dudley Do-Right (featuring the Canadian Mountie who can do no wrong), Mr. Peabody’s Improbable History (involving a persnickety dog and his ”pet boy,” Sherman), and Fractured Fairy Tales, which recast our most cherished children’s stories as mini-epics of cynicism. In the rewrite of ”Little Red Riding Hood,” no one lives happily ever after, and in ”Sleeping Beauty,” the handsome Prince refuses to kiss our heroine, preferring instead to make money off her unfortunate condition by displaying her to a thrill- seeking public.
This satirical approach is typical of all Ward’s cartoons (which include Crusader Rabbit, the first animated series created for television) and reflects his eccentric personal life. The late creator (who died in 1989 at age 69) once showed up on The Tonight Show dressed as Napoleon and brandishing a giant bologna. At his daughter’s wedding, rather than submit to a receiving line, he sent a lifesized dummy outfitted with a tape-recording saying, ”Hi, I’m Jay Ward, and this is costing me a fortune.”
The kind of man who would pull stunts like that is evident in every frame of The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle. Rocket J. Squirrel may be the eternal optimist and Bullwinkle J. Moose the perpetual dunce, but the show as a whole is the most unpredictably merry anarchy, and it liberates us through nonsense. These are cartoons that have already taught an entire generation the art of parody. If we’re lucky, the Rocky & Bullwinkle tapes will catch on with kids today, and we’ll have a whole new generation of nogoodniks.