THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE AND FRIENDS (1959–64), the retroactive name for the variously titled animated variety show starring that flying squirrel and moose you probably vaguely know, is like most any other children’s show of the time. Well, except in one key area: the nuance of its writing.
As much as people like to point out that cartoons are for children, they really haven’t exclusively been for children for quite some time now. And before the move to television, they never really were. But early TV cartoons definitely skewed shallow, with cheap, limited animation pioneered by Hanna-Barbera and others matching cheap, limited humor that recycled story lines. Let me be clear: ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE isn’t exactly elevated, inspired art, reaching astronomical heights that none of its contemporaries could reach. But it was smarter, and the show treated its audience with some intelligence, and its creators realized there would adults in attendance as well. And that’s why Rocky and Bullwinkle themselves treat the audience any way at all.
The key is the show’s self-awareness, pretty much literally. I say the characters of the show “treat the audience any way at all” because they often break the fourth wall to address the viewers. The show’s structure also breaks down essentially two layers of metafiction. There are four segments to every half-hour show. It’s bookended by installments of a Rocky and Bullwinkle serial, and permutations of features in between: a “Fractured Fairy Tale” and “Peabody’s Improbable History” and an “Aesop and Son” and “Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties” are common ones. But even between those are bumpers of Rocky and Bullwinkle introducing the shows, or engaging in their own episodic fun with some variation on Bullwinkle fouling stuff up as “Mr. Know-It-All” or reading poetry.
So within the world of ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE, the duo are the hosts of a show of their own, driven home by their referential jokes in the central, “fictionalized” segments. Characters in the other segments also occasionally acknowledge their part in a larger production. This alone crafts a sense of ingenuity, breaking past the bonds of kid-friendly animation that can lull with a constant, “unwinking” eye. Rocky and Bullwinkle satirize adventure serials, Dudley Do-Right (in my opinion, the most successful product of the overarching show) hilariously tackles silent melodrama (albeit in sound), and Peabody and Sherman…well, to be honest, they represent the weakest part of the show. I understand it’s a cartoon, but the pair’s time-traveling antics boil down history into something truly ridiculous and revisionist; it’d be forgivable if it was funny and not just bizarrely rooted in contrived stories.
In any event, ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE initially reads like it’s as shallow as FELIX THE CAT (1959–62) or THE HUCKLEBERRY HOUND SHOW (1958–61) with its limited animation (ironically, a major innovation in being farmed out to Mexico). But the show’s comedic address of the fourth wall, metafictional world building, and commentary on current events, including its constant dragging of the federal government of all things (on a 1950s/60s children’s show!), make clear that the squirrel and moose fronted something of more substance. It’s probably unnecessary to plunge the full depths of the five seasons and 163 episodes of the show, but THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE AND FRIENDS is worth a dip, especially for animation fans.