The essence of Jay Ward's delightfully dolt-driven cartoons like "Rocky and Bullwinkle," "George of the Jungle" and "Dudley Do-Right" was always a resourceful, goofball mix of silliness, self-cognizance and good, dumb laughs -- a combination that might seem difficult to duplicate outside the medium of deliberately dorky animation.
But two years ago, the balance was mimicked surprisingly well in the live-action "George of the Jungle," with a perfectly cast, pratfall-proficient Brendan Fraser in the title role. But that balance is conspicuously absent as Fraser tries to fill the clumsy shoes of another Jay Ward character -- his vapid but lovable, lantern-jawed Canadian Mountie -- in the almost completely giggle-free "Dudley Do-Right."
Not only does the dilly dorkiness turn to idiocy, which in turn runs rings around the infrequent laughs, but just about the only engaging moment in the entire movie isn't even a sight gag or a goof. It's a completely serious stunt.
During the climax, dim-witted Dudley saves the day by galloping his equally dim-witted horse (named Horse) through a barrage of exploding tank shells. Real horse, real explosions, and the studly stallion doesn't even flinch. It just kept on barreling through the bangs.
"Wow," I thought, "well trained horse." Pity about the everything else.
Writer-director Hugh Wilson, who helmed Fraser's passable preceding release, "Blast From the Past," wastes no time making a mess of this beloved 'toon adaptation. Right out of the gate he tosses in an unnecessary and badly-acted prologue, recounting the hitherto untold backstory of Dudley's childhood rivalry with the future mustache-twirling nefarian Snidley Whiplash (flashpoint: the affections of future heroine Nell Fenwick).
The movie then jumps 20 years to find Snidley (Alfred Molina, "The Impostors") taking over Dudley's rustic hometown, the idyllic Semi-Happy Valley, with some inept false gold rush scheme.
Fraser is on prosaic pratfall autopilot through this near-plotless, 78-minute jumble of overworked slapstick (multiple floorboards flip up and smack Fraser in the face) and meagerly strung-together set pieces in which Dudley Do-Right does landscape sculpting, motocross racing and performs "Riverdance" numbers with a troup of Vegas-by-way-of-Brooklyn mock native Americans.
The movie gets a few things right, like the vocal mannerisms of the sing-song announcer (although Fraser fails on this front, only occasionally attempting Dudley's daffy, derring-do diction), and many, many more things wrong (I really could have done without the Regis and Kathie Lee cameos).
Sarah Jessica Parker makes an admirable effort to fold more modern female ambitions into her role as Nell, the traditionally ditzy damsel in distress. Molina really tries to sink his teeth into the underwritten Whiplash, who just isn't given enough meat to be the absurdist amalgam of silent film serial baddies he's supposed to be.
But despite an honest effort here and there, "Dudley Do-Right" has a halted pace and an uninspired, patchwork script with a plethora of plot holes ("Nell will never come back," Dudley laments, when we've never even been told where she's gone), which might not even entertain most little kids, and will surely disappoint the legions of Jay Ward devotees who will likely see this movie hoping for a repeat of the unexpected proficiency of "George of the Jungle."
Unfortunately, this movie has nothing in common with that one outside of its star and its source material. What a let-down.