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The Misadventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Other Tales From Remake Hell

Another movie recycled from a popular TV show fails at the box office, but moose and squirrel are not alone.

July 11, 2000|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The secret to success in today's pop culture, a world that increasingly relies on recycling old ideas, characters and stories, generally comes down to attitude. In pop music, cover songs have become a new badge of artistic identity, whether it's Britney Spears' flirty version of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" or Lenny Kravitz's funkadelic update of the Guess Who's "American Woman."

The same goes for movies based on '60s-era TV shows: Attitude is everything. And attitude is just what "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" lacked. The $80-million special-effects comedy took in a paltry $10.3 million over the five-day Fourth of July weekend, ensuring that it will join "Battlefield Earth" and "Titan A.E." as one of the year's big money losers. As Variety succinctly put it: " 'Rocky' looks to have all the legs of a dachshund."

The movie's failure highlighted nearly every weak link in the recycled-TV formula: It flunked the freshness test, had little nostalgic appeal for baby boomers and didn't deliver any must-see special effects for young moviegoers. Coming on the heels of other retro-TV flops, it cast a pall over several upcoming projects, most notably Sony's "Charlie's Angels" film due this November.

In Hollywood, questioners were questioning: Why did Universal Pictures bother to make the movie at all? Studio chairman Stacey Snider wouldn't talk about the film. But Universal insiders say the picture, which was green-lit before Snider took the studio reins, had its origins in an early Seagram's-era push to Disney-fy the studio by acquiring cartoon characters and developing films from old TV properties. It's what corporate synergists call "cross-business asset management," a phrase you couldn't imagine coming out of Sam Goldwyn's mouth. You make movies out of easily digestible fare to feed ancillary businesses; a hit film could generate a new TV show, video game or theme-park attraction.

The strategy had worked like a charm in the early '90s, the heyday of TV remakes. But none of Universal's late '90s recycled TV films were hits. "McHale's Navy" brought in a lowly $4.4 million. "Leave It to Beaver" took in only $11 million. "Dudley Do-Right," despite the presence of "Mummy" star Brendan Fraser, tanked last summer with $9.7 million. "Flipper" landed barely $20 million.

Universal was hardly the only studio to crash and burn in recent years with '60 TV shows. Warner Bros. did a disastrous remake of "The Avengers," which failed to capture the hipster-cool of '60s swinging London. MGM did even worse with a misbegotten remake last year of "The Mod Squad," which took in a paltry $13 million.

To some, the demise of the '60s TV genre is simply the latest example of Hollywood running a good idea into the ground. But it also marks the end of a movie era dominated by baby boomer nostalgia.

Films From Old TV in a World of Remakes

Recycled sitcom cinema reflected a radical shift in contemporary attitudes toward pop culture. In the 1970s, filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese would never have made movies out of '50s TV shows. Sitcoms were considered disposable fluff--the cultural fit was all wrong. Could you ever imagine Al Pacino and Diane Keaton as Rob and Laura Petrie?

But today's culture is all about remade images and ideas. Everyone gets to reinvent themselves, from Madonna to Darva Conger. Talk about back to the future, circa 1959: Try to drive two blocks without seeing a 10-year-old boy gliding around on a Razor scooter. Movies simply reflect what's in the cultural ether. It's no coincidence that Hollywood's embrace of recycled TV shows coincided with the mainstream acceptance of hip-hop, whose popularity derives in part from its skillful blend of '60s jazz and soul riffs and '90s beats.

The movie that really began the cycle of TV recycling was "The Addams Family." Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, the clever 1991 comedy updated the frizzy black humor of the original TV show (and Charles Addams' cartoons) with inventive camera tricks and special effects. It was a movie with attitude, riding the wave of early '90s kitschy cool that produced a generation of hipsters who wore goatees and grooved to lounge music.

Most important, the film had cross-generational appeal. Boomers got a nostalgic kick from the familiar characters, spiffed up by sly performances by Anjelica Huston and Raul Julia. Kids got a visceral thrill from the ghoulish special effects and outlandish gags. The movie took in $115 million at the box office, and its success sent studio executives scurrying to their vaults, searching for any TV shows they owned or had fortuitously acquired during the past decade of corporate consolidations.

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