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Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends: Season One

In September 1959, teetering on the very brink of the turbulent '60s, an odd little cartoon show about a moose and a flying squirrel debuted on ABC. Rocky & His Friends starred Rocket J. Squirrel and his dimwitted pal, Bullwinkle J. Moose, running on ABC until 1961, when it moved to NBC as The Bullwinkle Show. It was a hit among a small, fervent audience during a time when traditional animation was pretty much dead in the water — that it aired on Saturday nights at 7 p.m. testified to the adult appeal of the goofy, smartly written stories, although creator Jay Ward insisted on a level of wholesomeness — joked about by writers and cast members as the "J-rating" — because he knew that children would be watching, too. Unfortunately, it never got the sorts of big numbers that advertisers desire, and NBC dropped the show in 1964. But 40 years later, Rocky and Bullwinkle remain beloved by a cult of cartoon lovers (many of whom came to the show when it was repackaged for syndication in the 1980s), and the first season's release on DVD is a cause for fans to celebrate. Written by a crew of smartasses led by Bill Scott — who'd cut his cartoon teeth writing for "Looney Tunes" and "Beany & Cecil" — and including young talents like James L. Brooks (Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets) and Allan Burns , who would later partner with Brooks to create "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," the show was satirical and absurd. Each half hour featured two three-and-a-half minute, cliff-hanger episodes continuing a shaggy-dog story starring Rocky, Bullwinkle, and their inept nemeses, Cold War spies Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale. Various other short features filled the rest of the show — "Aesop and Son," "Fractured Fairy Tales," "Dudley Do-Right," "Peabody's Improbable History," and bumpers like "Ask Mr. Know-It-All." The clever and occasionally subversive scripts were voiced by a staggering stable of talent, including June Foray, Hans Conreid, William Conrad, Daws Butler, Paul Frees, and Edward Everett Horton — with writer/creator Scott doing the voices of Bullwinkle, Mr. Peabody, Fearless Leader, and others.

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Classic Media's DVD release of Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends: Season One offers the entire 26 half-hour episodes from the first season, with the first adventure, "Jet Fuel Formula," stretching out over an incredible 40 segments. The story starts with Bullwinkle accidentally discovering an amazing rocket fuel when his grandmother's recipe for mooseberry fudge cake blows our heroes' oven to the moon. Soon they're dealing with the U.S. government, Boris and Natasha, and a pair of moon men (prototypes for Ward's later "Quisp" cereal character) who don't want Earthlings visiting their home. The character designs are still rudimentary in these first episodes — Boris, in particular, would change quite a lot over time — and the animation itself is both limited and haphazard; working on a severely limited budget, Ward pioneered the now common technique of sending designs and storyboards to another country (in this case, Mexico) and having the "in-between" work done by non-English speakers who didn't understand the storylines. The second adventure, "Box Top Bandits," is more cohesive, both in its design and writing. Taking savage pokes at primary sponsor General Mills, the story focuses on a world economy that's based on cereal box-tops and promotions. When it's discovered that someone has been counterfeiting box-tops, it's up to Bullwinkle (who, it turns out, is the single largest hoarder of the valuable currency) to save the financial stability of the world. The other features are alternately sloppy, sharp, or groan-out-loud silly, and it's a treat to see the genesis of favorite characters like Mr. Peabody and his boy Sherman, and the usually hilarious "Fractured Fairy Tales." The DVD release offers a decent, full-screen transfer of the episodes, but unfortunately they haven't been remastered or beautified. It's great to have the collection, but if you're hoping that DVD means a crisper, cleaner picture, this one's a bit of a disappointment. Classic Media has also inserted new title cards reading "Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends" into the title sequences for each episode which, although they may have been necessary for legal purposes, stand out like a sore thumb. The soundtrack is good, but no better than one would expect. The audio quality of the original cartoons was done on the cheap and — although the sound here is quite clear — one can still hear echos and background noise throughout. Disc Four offers a small collection of extras, including some very funny TV spots promoting the show, a short with Rocky and Bullwinkle pushing the sale of U.S. Savings Bonds (featuring the only time that Peabody and Sherman shared a stage with Moose and Squirrel), a montage of Boris's disguises from Season One, and a very funny, very weird collection of unused "bumpers" featuring a live-action Bullwinkle puppet answering fake letters from viewers. The four discs come in a fold-out cardboard digipak with a nice slipcase.
—Dawn Taylor

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