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

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.

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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

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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.

The result was a tidal wave of TV remake cinema: In 1993, Warners made “The Fugitive,” which did a colossal $183 million. Warners also had a tidy hit with “Dennis the Menace,” while 20th Century Fox cashed in with a low-budget remake of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” In 1994, Universal had a $130-million hit with “The Flintstones,” while Warners topped $100 million with a big-budget version of “Maverick.” In 1995, Universal had another $100-million hit with a computer-animated version of “Casper,” while Paramount Pictures made a modest profit with a remake of “The Brady Bunch,” a popular ‘70s TV show.

In 1996, Paramount scored with a high-tech update of “Mission: Impossible,” which hit the $180-million mark. The film’s sequel, released this summer, is approaching the $200-million box-office mark, though its $100-million-plus cost and back-end payments to star-producer Tom Cruise will cut into the studio’s profits.

But as the ‘90s wore on, the cycle began to run out of gas. There were still hits, but from more modern shows like “Rugrats” and “South Park.” It’s never easy to say why a genre loses its appeal. Maybe the culture changed. Maybe the audience got bored with recycled ideas. Maybe only the dregs were left. It sure felt like a steep drop from the supercharged thrills of “The Fugitive” to the cornball gags of “McHale’s Navy.”

What was once hip now felt square, even for a talented director like Sonnenfeld, who ended the decade teaming up with Will Smith to make a forgettable retread of “Wild Wild West,” which has the rare distinction of being a movie that brought in an impressive $100 million in the U.S., yet was considered a failure, tarnished by bad reviews and a bloated budget.

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‘Rocky and Bullwinkle': For What Audience?

Suddenly the ‘60s had gone from cool to cold--ice-cold. The “Rocky and Bullwinkle” flop is a perfect example of a movie being made because it was a studio property, not because it was a good idea. The film simply tried to please too many audiences at the same time. It had the live-action mugging of Jason Alexander and Robert De Niro for adults and visual effects for younger viewers. But the tone of the movie was far too satiric and self-referential for kids. It even has De Niro lampooning his Travis Bickle “You talking to me?” riff from “Taxi Driver,” a bit that fell flat with anyone under 35 who hadn’t gone to film school.

In fact, the entire project felt like a clumsy attempt by highbrow humorists to stoop to conquer. It would be easy to imagine director Des McAnuff (who did the stage version of “Tommy”) and playwright Kenneth Lonergan teaming up on any number of imaginative projects--why waste them on “Rocky and Bullwinkle”? The end result was the opposite of cross-generational appeal--nobody knew for whom the movie was made.

No one’s talking at Universal, but it will be interesting to see if the movie’s failure puts a halt to “The Green Hornet,” another recycled TV project that is being readied for production, with Jet Li getting $5.2 million to play Kato, the role originated by martial-arts great Bruce Lee.

If Universal is worried, imagine what the mood is like at Sony Pictures, which has a $90-million-plus remake of “Charlie’s Angels” coming in November, with the TV “Angels” roles being reprised by Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu, who took the third role after Gwyneth Paltrow and Lauryn Hill passed on the part. The project has had its problems.

McG, the film’s first-time director, got the job only after bigger-name directors passed. The movie went through numerous script rewrites, and during shooting Bill Murray (who plays the Angels’ sidekick, Bosley) brought in his own screenwriter to retool his lines on set.

The TV show aired from 1977 to 1981, which is almost as far away as the Civil War for under-25 moviegoers. To many, the project feels behind the curve. It might have caught a wave in the mid-1990s, when girl-power goddesses like Courtney Love and Alanis Morissette were at their peak. But today’s mood has changed. Industry hands note that female-driven action-adventure films have a lackluster box-office record, regardless of whether they were good (“Thelma & Louise”), bad (“Bad Girls”) or ugly (“Long Kiss Goodnight”).

To make a dent in a genre that’s full of cobwebs, “Charlie’s Angels” will have to pass the coolness test. Audiences have been burned so often that it will take a hot trailer and a hefty dose of good buzz to overcome their well-earned skepticism. If the movie is cool, it had better flaunt it. As Joni Mitchell, once the epitome of cool herself, put it: “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

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Loss Leaders

“The Mod Squad”

Gross: $13 million

*

“Dudley Do-Right”

Gross: $9.7 million

*

“McHale’s Navy”

Gross: $4.4 million

Three Winners

“Mission: Impossible”

Gross: $180 million

*

“The Fugitive”

Gross: $183 million

*

“The Flintstones”

Gross: $130 million


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