By Owen Gleiberman
Updated July 14, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Recently, Hollywood has taken some of the most memorable children’s tales, like Stuart Little and Harriet the Spy, and turned them into zany, popping, media-age entertainments. These big-screen versions give you the characters without the soul. I’m tempted to say the same thing about The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, except that this time there’s a luscious irony at work: The zany, popping, media-age entertainment is the original cartoon series. The problem with the movie isn’t that it sells out Rocky and Bullwinkle — it’s that it can’t keep up with them.

Back in the ’60s, the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons were like Mad magazine for preteens: smart and dumb at the same time, full of delicious/excruciating puns (”What’s the matter? Haven’t you ever heard of…chicken catch a Tory?!”) and a lickety-split absurdism directed at everything from Sputnik-era politics to the very show you were watching. A generation before The Simpsons or South Park, these five-minute cartoons were madcap orgies of whiz-bang sub-referencing. Decades later, their short-attention-span delirium can still give you a bubbly high.

The movie, on the other hand, is as leaden as Howard the Duck. Rocky and Bullwinkle have to foil a plot, launched by Fearless Leader (Robert De Niro), to zombify the world with brain-dead TV programming. Rene Russo does an uncanny impersonation of Natasha’s raspy hauteur, and De Niro has some antic moments spitting out lines like ”We are the most terrifying villains in the history of children’s television!” But Jason Alexander is too cutesy for Boris Badenov; he just looks like a butterball in a black leather trenchcoat.

In theory, inserting our intrepid moose and squirrel into a live-action universe should work just fine, except that Rocky and Bullwinkle aren’t allowed to take center stage. They’ve got to share the spotlight with a dopey young FBI agent (Piper Perabo) who appears to be on hand as a sop to 21st-century girl power. At least the heroes’ voices are intact: Rocky with his oddly genderless sweet whine, Bullwinkle with his stupido clarinet honk — no one says more idiotic things with more quick-draw exuberance. But the decision to transform these two into glossy, nearly sculpted figures who actually cast shadows turns out to be a major mistake. The essence of the series was its skewed paper-cutout flatness; it seemed to be funneling the entire world into a proudly 2-D cartoon. The movie gains a dimension but loses the world. C-