A Moose For All Seasons

Rocky and Bullwinkle are back from oblivion

And now, here's something we hope you'll really like!

If those magic words rekindle memories of mirth in front of the Philco, then start smirking again: Moose and Squirrel, our heroes from the wittiest cartoon series ever, are finally back. After years of exile in the 7 a.m. rerun slot in Bangor, after only an occasional cult retrospective, Rocky and Bullwinkle are enjoying a renaissance. Last month, Disney's Buena Vista Home Video released six 40-minute cassettes. In addition to Rocky and Bullwinkle's serial escapades from Frostbite Falls, Minn., they include episodes of "Fractured Fairy Tales," "Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties," "Aesop and Son" and "Peabody's Improbable History." At $12.99 apiece--hokey smoke, Bullwinkle!--almost 2 million tapes have been sold, putting them at the top of video best-seller lists. And this week, many PBS stations, in the middle of their fund-raising drives, will broadcast "Of Moose and Men: The Rocky and Bullwinkle Story," an affectionate 60-minute documentary.

What so enchants so many about a show that from 1959 to 1964 on two networks failed to pull in ratings? What is it about the plucky rodent in aviator goggles and his tall, antlered friend with the doofy voice, who were always up against those sinister Russian-sounding spies, Boris ("Keel Moose") Badenov and Natasha ("Boris, dahlink") Fatale? "It was the only cartoon I could watch with my parents," says Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons," whose Homer J. Simpson was inspired by Bullwinkle J. Moose (that's his full name). Hey look, Rocky, more fan mail from some flounder! "The show went beyond Mickey Mouse and even Bugs Bunny," says Ray Bradbury, the science-fiction writer and cartoon buff who has a stuffed nine-foot Bullwinkle in his Palm Springs living room. "This was a cartoon that wasn't just for kids."

Of course there were the standard gags and action of any cartoon, like Bullwinkle constantly getting clobbered and Rocky zipping about (all the while set to William Conrad's grave narration). But at the next level came the fun stuff: satire, parody and wordplay. In the first installment of the 40-part "Jet Fuel Formula" (unfortunately not included in the Disney releases), Dorson Belles warns his radio audience that an invasion from outer space is no joke and that everyone should panic. Another story involves the gas "votane," which turns Democrats into Republicans and vice versa. And then there were those dreadful puns: Wossamatta U. (Bullwinkle's alma mater), the Cedar Yorpantz Flying School (where Rocky trained), Veronica Lake and the Isle of Lucy. In the epic "Maybe Dick: The Wailing Whale," Rocky tells a rather dim shipping tycoon: "For a powerful magnate, you sure don't pick things up too quick."

Nothing escaped abuse--government, history, literature--but television clearly was a favorite target. For Thanksgiving dinner one year, the cartoon cast feasts on the NBC peacock. In another episode, civilization teeters on disaster when mechanized creatures eat all the world's TV antennas. Or this exchange: Rocky asks, "Do you know what a bomb is?" Bullwinkle: "A bomb is what some people call our program." Network censors couldn't do much about the jokes because the producers worked so close to deadline that prints arrived just hours before broadcast.

Ironically, Disney, which bought the rights to all 156 hours of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" videos for $1 million, was the butt of some of its sharpest digs. In one "Fractured Fairy Tale," lampooning "Sleeping Beauty," a shrewd prince (who looks just like Walt himself) decides that a kiss is the wrong stratagem. "Awake, she's just another princess. Asleep, she's a gold mine!" So he builds a theme park around Sleeping Beauty and gets rich. In another tale, roasting "The Ugly Duckling," a mysterious businessman carts the mallard off and changes its name to Donald.

If there is any sorrow in the radiant land of Bullwinkle, it is because Jay Ward, the beloved creator, is gone. Brilliant, eccentric and round, Ward died in 1989 and didn't get to see the comeback of his moose and squirrel. His longtime publicist and close friend, Howard Brandy, says Ward would be beaming now. But Brandy is still so sad. "I feel an emptiness that will never be filled," he says. "How do you ever thank a man for a million laughs?"