The Road to Nell

Well-mounted Dudley Do-Right live-actioner doesn't quite get its man

Fortune has smiled on Brendan Fraser. The star of the new Dudley Do-Right may just have the most pleasant lot of any young male actor in American movies right now. He looks great in or out of his clothes, he has an easy, self-effacing likability on screen, and, maybe most important, he seems unafflicted with any pressing need to be taken seriously. If he's no more than modestly talented as an actor, he's at least able to manage the talent he has to his best advantage.

Early in his career, when films like School Ties and With Honors tried to groom him as a smoldering romantic lead, he was reduced to one more slab of soggy post-Brat Pack beefcake. But Encino Man and The Scout, negligible movies overall, suggested that Fraser had a deadpan way with a joke and a silent-movie soulfulness to his physical clowning. Ever since, in films as diverse as George of the Jungle, Gods and Monsters and The Mummy, he's been having -- and sharing -- a lot of fun.

He continues to do so with Dudley Do-Right. The film isn't great -- certainly it doesn't come within a Yukon mile of its TV namesake. But it's agreeably bizarre, and when Fraser's riding backward on his horse or getting whacked in the face with a floorboard or blundering around with the stuffed head of a moose covering his own, he seems like a happy man.

Like George of the Jungle, Dudley Do-Right is adapted from one of the cartoons created by Jay Ward Productions. The adventures of the fast-acting, slow-thinking, square-jawed officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, his beloved sweetheart, Nell, his even more beloved horse and their wicked mustache-twirling nemesis, Snidely Whiplash, was one of the featurettes on NBC's The Bullwinkle Show from 1961 to 1964, and, briefly, became a headliner with The Dudley Do-Right Show from 1969 to 1970. In the '90s, Dudley has been best known for his endorsement of Ricoh/Ikon office products.

Ward was one of the pioneers of TV cartoons -- his syndicated 1949 series Crusader Rabbit was among the first animated shows made specifically for the medium -- and he was also one of the pioneers of sophisticated TV comedy. It's really no exaggeration to say that Ward and his partner Bill Scott, who executive-produced their shows under the joint pseudonym "Ponsonby Britt," are among the most subversive wits ever to have worked in television -- they were making Cold War satire, for children, by the late '50s.

For Ward and Scott, heroism was largely the province of the dense or the oblivious -- it was the villains who got the ironic wisecracks. George of the Jungle's signature gag was the vine-swing into the tree trunk, Bullwinkle was never even quite aware of his enemies Boris and Natasha, and Dudley's face registered pain whenever the poor fellow was put in the position of thinking. Yet the Ward-Scott heroes were no less lovable for their thickness.

Getting that lovability to carry over to the movies is a tricky business, however. Visually, the cartoons employed a stiff, slapdash form of animation to illustrate what essentially were radio comedy scripts -- the humor was mostly verbal, and a breathless narrator was required to explain the crudely rendered action. This free-association, two-dimensional style doesn't lend itself easily to feature-length film; a physically accurate reproduction, in live-action, of the preening Dudley would be hard to take as a movie hero.

But Fraser fleshes the Mountie out nicely, making him a big lug we can root for, a dunce with whom, rather than at whom, we laugh. Though he's no replacement for the voice of Hans Conried, Alfred Molina makes a pretty funny Snidely; Sarah Jessica Parker twitters well as Nell; and Robert Prosky has the right look as her father, Inspector Fenwick, though he gets little to do. Corey Burton brings the right yeasty-voiced tone to the narration, but it's possible that the funniest of the supporting players is Alex Rocco as the chief of the "Canarsie Kumquats," a little-known South Brooklyn Indian tribe that stages "authentic" corn festivals in the manner of Riverdance.

The only character who is badly compromised is Horse. In the series, he was the brains of the outfit and, rather kinkily, the true object of Nell's affections. Here, though he still whispers advice in Dudley's ear, he's reduced to blowing raspberries and farts. While these gags got howls from the kids with whom I saw the film -- and at whom, it must drearily be remembered, the film is aimed -- Horse probably put in some angry calls to his agent.

The writer/director, Hugh Wilson, is best known as the creator of TV's WKRP in Cincinnati. Of his feature films, most of them on the forgettable side, one curio -- Rustler's Rhapsody, his underrated, deeply weird existential Western spoof of 1985 -- stands out as making him particularly fit for this material. As in Rhapsody, Wilson's plot for Dudley Do-Right is built around the confusion that results when the preordained roles of "good guy" and "bad guy" are deviated from. Snidely creates a false gold rush in Semi-Happy Valley, leading to an economic boom that makes him feel uncomfortably like a public benefactor. Dudley, meanwhile, gets drummed out of the Mounties, and thus is free to don a black leather jacket and motorcycle and use bad-boy techniques against Snidely -- and, even more effectively, on Nell.

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