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"Rocky and Bullwinkle" Season 4: A Rocky Road

Rocky and Bullwinkle is a difficult show to grade as a whole. When it’s “on”, it can be a riot. But when it isn’t, you sit there stone faced. Such is the case with season 4, which contains 19 half hour episodes.

For those unfamiliar with the show, here’s a quick summary: It’s a kind of anthology show, showcasing different short series. The main feature is “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle,” which is a serialized comedy adventure starring Rocky, a flying squirrel who functions as the brains/straight man, and Bullwinkle, a dimwitted (yet occasionally clever) moose. They always get into various adventures and are tailed by foreign spies Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, who want to foil their plans, both because they enjoy being bad and also to impress Fearless Leader, the dictator of the Soviet-esque Pottsylvania, from which they hail. Describing the action (often in great detail) is the narrator, excitedly played by William Conrad.

Luckily, these story arcs still hold up after fifty-some years. While the very limited animation (and mistakes therein) may be seen as a negative, its dialog, quick pace, and self-referential, fourth wall-breaking nature make up for it. In a way, “Rocky and Bullwinkle” proves that while animation is important, if you have a solid script and engaging voice actors who can keep you interested in the action, it can be easy to adjust to such shortcomings. And the genre-savvy cast of characters is proof that the writers were having fun with their material. More impressive, this is decades before another series, The Simpsons, mastered the combination of defying audience expectations and playing with conventions. One of my favorite moments comes during “Banana Formula” when the narrator is tied up by two government agents because he gave away part of the plot.

This set contains five R&B story arcs from the 1962-1963 season: “Painting Theft”, “The Guns of Abalone”, “The Treasure of Monte Zoom”, “Goof Gas Attack”, and “Banana Formula”. Each segment is about five minutes long (there are two R&B segments per episode), always ending with a cliffhanger. Of the five arcs, I enjoyed “Monte Zoom” and “Goof Gas” the best. They made me laugh the hardest, as they seemed the snappiest with the humor, and the plots were the most fun to follow.

Alas, the other segments are a mixed bag. “Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties” (a parody of Victorian melodramas) is usually pretty amusing, with the same back-and-forth wit that the R&B segments have. The exaggerated, hyper silent movie-esque soundtrack and Dudley’s silly, high-pitched voice (what criminal would be intimidated by that?) only enhance the experience. But it’s not uncommon to watch an entire short of “Fractured Fairy Tales” (variations of both familiar and obscure fairy tales), “Aesop and Son” (variations on Aesop’s moralistic fables), and “Peabody’s Improbable History” (time traveling history lessons starring an intelligent talking dog and his human companion) and not laugh once. In fact, many of the shorts seem more focused on plot than laughs, and many are built only to motivate an episode-ending, groan-inducing pun. For example, in one Peabody & Sherman short, the duo travels in time back to ancient Egypt for a plot dealing with Cleopatra and Caesar. Walking through a marketplace at the end, they come across a barometer. Sherman asks how the ancient Egyptians could possibly know about temperature measurement back then. Peabody wryly replies, “Haven’t you ever heard of PHARAOH and warmer?” Cue tuba.

The episodes are also filled out with short interstitials, like “Bullwinkle’s Corner” (often featuring poetry which quickly veers in odd directions), “Mr. Know-It-All” (similar to the “How To” Goofy shorts, except Bullwinkle himself narrates them), and quick gags and brief animations which are recycled tons of times. Again, they can vary in quality; I did enjoy a poetry segment surrounding a poem called “Do Something to Somebody Quick” that Boris Badenov hijacks, pranking Bullwinkle repeatedly. But by the end of the set, you’ll get tired of seeing the recurring “Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!” bit.

It doesn’t help that these shorts are always sandwiched between the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” bookends. They take the focus away from the story; many times, I found myself forgetting what the plot of the R&B story was by the time they returned to it. Luckily, the narrator reminds us, and thanks to the magic of DVD, you can skip straight to the R&B segments and watch them all one after another, so perhaps this criticism is a moot point. Still, it does show the flaws in a serialized show combined with the episodic, interchangeable, unrelated stories.

The two-disc DVD set contains no special features. Video quality is acceptable for such an old show, and it’s nice to have the full intro theme, which I never got to see on the various Buena Vista VHS tapes from back in the ’90s. Well, aside from the nixed “brought to you by” message, but that’s to be expected. It should be noted that the non-R&B segments come from various seasons, meaning that not everything on this set came from season 4 as it originally aired. However, only purists will balk at this; casual fans won’t mind or notice, as it’s seamless. And Rocky and Bullwinkle is a great choice for the young set as well as the older crowd. The action is fast and varied enough that kids don’t get bored, while adults will get the references and wordplay.

Rocky and Bullwinkle‘s fourth season, much like the show in general, is inconsistent. It has moments of genuine hilarity, but there are also dead zones, usually in the supporting segments. Still, the moments when it succeeds are enough to get me to recommend this set.

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