Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends: Complete Season 1 (DVD)
Rocky & His Friends hit the air in 1959, when animation and comedy were caught up with jazz rhythms, beatnik slang, and "sick" humor. The attitude mostly popped up in TV advertising, much of it written and performed by radio comics like Stan Freberg and Bob & Ray, but also in the stylish cartoons of United Productions Of America, best known for the "Mr. Magoo" series. UPA's Bill Scott migrated into the shop of TV producer and ad-man Jay Ward, and together they hatched an animated show based loosely on Ward's first series, Crusader Rabbit, and starring an intrepid squirrel named Rocky and his dimwitted moose pal, Bullwinkle. Each half-hour Rocky episode split two serialized "Rocky & Bullwinkle" adventures with spoofs of fairy tales and Aesop's fables, as well as poetry, blackout sketches, and the rotating adventures of forthright Canadian Mountie Dudley Do-Right and smug time-traveling dog Mr. Peabody. The shows were fast-paced, colorful, and punny, designed to appeal to kids and to the cultists-in-waiting already showing up on college campuses. It was the Simpsons of its day, irreverent and packed with wry social comment. The DVD set of Rocky & His Friends' first season (re-titled Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends for home video) exhibits a clear vision from the start. The crude animation–a synthesis of op-art and children's crayon drawings–goes from liability to virtue by way of rapid editing and a good balance of sophisticated wordplay and simple sight gags. The DVD set lacks significant special features, aside from some 1959 promotional material, which is historically valuable if not as edifying as a good documentary featurette might be. The set also suffers some from the repetition of intros and bumpers over 26 complete episodes, as well as the way some of the filler segments (like the Mr. Peabody installments) run out of steam early. But judicious use of the track-skip button can zoom the viewer through the two complete "Rocky & Bullwinkle" storylines from the first season: the 40-installment run where the heroes search for a mooseberry-based rocket fuel, and the 12-installment run where they crack a counterfeit box-top ring. The plots are as tangled now as they were 40-plus years ago, but they're also as propulsive. Even if the creators were making it all up as they went along, they never lost track of where they were amid the web of spies, spacemen, kooks, and government buffoons. Rocky & His Friends maintains a distinctive satirical edge, reflecting a culture where saturation advertising turns everyone into a pitchman. By mocking that hard-sell, Ward and company helped make an entire generation more cynical, just when they needed the edge.