I remember once as a kid polishing off the last of a half-gallon of coffee ice cream with my brother and sister, while my father grumbled that we kids didn’t even like coffee ice cream, and ought to have left it for someone who did. "Of course we like it," I said, taking another bite. "We’re eating it, aren’t we? Why would we eat it if we didn’t like it?" His reply: "Just because it’s ice cream."
Alas, he was right. I actually thought it was kind of nasty. But I was happy to eat it, just because it was ice cream.
I think that a similar dynamic may be at work in The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, a prequel to the 1994 film that purports to tell us how young Fred and Barney first met and married Wilma and Betty (respectively). Kids may happily gobble up Viva just because it’s a movie based on a popular cartoon show; and even parents desperate for watchable family entertainment may allow themselves to be seduced by its colorful set pieces and the goofy charm of the cast. But really, it’s not at all good. Not so much nasty, like coffee ice cream to a child; but rather bland, inert, and joyless, like some insipid sugar-free fat-free Frozen Dessert Product.
Critics and fans seem about evenly split which is better, this film or its predecessor. Not having sat all the way through the first film through myself, I won’t further muddy the waters with my own opinion. I will say that Viva Rock Vegas isn’t even as good as the cartoon was; which is saying quite a bit. (Actually, I wonder if at least some of my childhood taste for The Flintstones wasn’t also based on the Just Because it’s Ice Cream principle.) To be fair, the plot is no dopier than a typical Flintstones cartoon; but then the typical Flintstones cartoon is only about 22 minutes long and gives you a break with commercials.
On the other hand, my feeling is that the casting this time around is generally better than in the first film, and that’s important: seldom are casting requirements so specific as in a live-action adaptation of a cartoon. We need to be convinced that we’re watching the same characters we already know from the cartoon; and the look of the actors, as well as the performance, has to be just right.
The cast of Viva is less well-known than that of the original, but that’s a plus, not a minus. From what I did see of the first film, John Goodman and Rick Moranis were passable as Fred and Barney, but somehow they never stopped being, well, John Goodman and Rick Moranis in animal-print togas. By contrast, Mark Addy (best known as "the fat one" from The Full Monty) is quite convincing as a younger and somewhat lighter Fred, and even Stephen Baldwin (best known from the M&M commercials with the big blue animated M&M mocking his acting ability) shines as the dim-witted but loveable Barney Rubble.
Rosie O’Donnell, despite her uncanny ability to reproduce Betty’s laugh, was woefully miscast in the original, as much because of her ironic, detached persona as her body type. Viva’s Jane Krakowski (Ally McBeal), on the other hand, is a real Betty, and her bubbly, sparkling performance is of the best things about the movie (and it turns out she does Betty’s trilling laugh as well as Rosie). Only the talented but statuesque Kristen Johnston (Third Rock from the Sun), great fun to watch though she is, is just never persuasive as the petite, self-possessed Wilma.
Unfortunately, the actors’ performances are undermined, not only by the script as a whole, but specifically by the characterizations written for them. Addy is allowed to be as brash and clueless as the cartoon Fred, but not as blustery or testy; while Baldwin is given Barney’s cheerful dopeyness but not his equilibrium or relatively healthy instincts (relative to Fred, that is). The cartoon Wilma was as down to earth as this version, but more prosaic and sensible; and while Betty was this merry, she was never this bubble-headed.
Are these issues only an animation purist could get worked up about? Perhaps. (Perhaps another purist might even argue that these youthful versions of the characters don’t have to be as developed as their later selves; though I would maintain that characters in a live-action feature film adaptation of a cartoon need to be less two-dimensional, not more, than the originals.) But what about the film’s odd preoccupation with such adult themes as class, money, and sex?
Young Wilma, whose maiden name is Slaghoople, is suddenly revealed to come from money. Of course she wants something more exciting and authentic than her parents’ idle existence, and runs away to escape the efforts of her mother Pearl (Joan Collins, a dismal replacement for the first movie’s Elizabeth Taylor) to marry her off to rich and manly Chip Rockefeller (Thomas Gibson), who’s only interested in the Slaghoople fortune.
Betty, on the other hand, is a working-class girl, a roller-skating waitress at a drive-in joint, who thinks the runaway Wilma is "caveless" and takes her back to Betty’s own modest digs. Later, they meet Fred and Barney and go on a double date (at first Fred is paired with Betty and Barney with Wilma, a complication that serves no comedic or dramatic function whatsoever, but only pads out the story a bit until they figure out who they’re really supposed to be with).
Then, of course, when Wilma’s secret is out, Betty feels betrayed and humiliated, and Fred has anxiety about his ability to compete with wealthy and sophisticated Chip. Pearl Slaghoople is insufferably condescending to her daughter’s poor new friends, but Wilma stubbornly professes her love for Fred. Chip pretends to admit defeat, and graciously treats Fred and Wilma to a stay at his own Rock Vegas casino; where he lets Fred win just enough money to catch the gambling bug and get himself into impossible debt trying to win the money he still thinks he needs to be worthy of Wilma. Kids are supposed to relate to all this?
Meanwhile, a gnome-like floating alien named the Great Gazoo (Alan Cumming) lurks about, invisible to everyone but Fred and Barney (in the cartoon Gazoo was voiced by Harvey Korman, who’s elsewhere in this film, playing Wilma’s senile old father, Colonel Slaghoople). Gazoo, we find, has been sent to earth by his superiors to study "the earthlings’ bizarre mating rituals of love and marriage."
Gazoo has a way of suddenly materializing, and at one point early in the film he appears in Fred and Barney’s room, startling Barney, who falls out of his spinning hammock and crashes down face first on top of Fred, who had been lying face down on the bunk below (sort of like Gilligan and the Skipper). Gazoo proceeds to reiterate that he has come to observe human mating rituals: "Get on with it," he urges. Oh, no, Fred protests, we don’t… not with each other — and then, suddenly realizing the apparently compromising nature of their present position, shrugs Barney off his back onto the floor, explaining to Gazoo that they mate with "girls." This direct satiric reference to homosexuality will go over the heads of most young kids, but its presence in a children’s movie is an affront nevertheless.
Later, on their way to the fair where they will meet Betty and Wilma, Fred becomes so exasperated with Gazoo that he says: "Look, Gazoo, if you want to see us mate with some girls, you’re going to have to stop cramping our style." When they meet the girls, Barney remarks repeatedly to Fred on how "hot" Betty is. Later, a bimbo in league with Rockefeller gets whipped cream all over her chest, and as Barney tries to clean her off Betty spots him apparently fondling her. Then there’s a throwaway line about a man who announces he’s wearing "someone else’s underwear."
By the time we got to the scene with Fred and Barney in drag disguised as showgirls — well, yes, Bugs Bunny did it, but context is everything, and in this context I found myself thinking that Viva Rock Vegas brings whole new meaning to the Flintstones theme-song phrase "a gay old time." Even if most of the foregoing goes over the heads of the younger set, I can’t help feeling that the "knowing" tone of the dialogue and themes isn’t especially helpful or healthy for them.
If I were to tell you that in addition to all of the above, there are subplots involving appearances by "Mick Jagged and the Stones," a set-up in which Fred is framed for stealing Wilma’s prize necklace, mob loan sharks putting the squeeze on Chip, the introduction of Dino, a slapping fight between Barney (still dressed as a woman) and the effeminate Jagged, and a big closing song-and-dance number, you might think there was so much going on that the film would be at least fast-paced and zippy. You’d be wrong. It’s actually long, slow, and desperate. Oh, it’s not completely without laughs or charm, and, of course, kids may not even notice that it’s not very funny. Of course, kids will also eat coffee ice cream.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.