'Flintstones' is, in short, great fun

May 27, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

The forces that drive big American studio movies -- the need for an instantly recognizeable product that transcends age, class and sex barriers; and the potential for ancillary marketing tie-ins -- may have made "The Flintstones" inevitable. But they didn't have to make it so enjoyable.

Sure, it's more of a corporate statement sponsored by the stockholders of MCA Inc. and McDonald's than an actual movie. Sure, it's got an IQ of 54, a plot that would have seemed skimpy in the original half-hour TV cartoon format, and enough bad puns on the word "stone" to throw a rock at. But it also yields certain delights unattainable anywhere else on the landscape: John Goodman as Fred Flintstone, giving as much to "Yabba-Dabba-Doo" as Olivier gave to "To be, or not to be: that is the question"; and Elizabeth Taylor, tied up and dumped on a bearskin rug.

The best thing about the movie is the movie. By that I mean "The Flintstones" has one trick, which it does to perfection. It takes the flat world of the dreary 1960-66 ABC cartoon series and transmutes it, to the tiniest detail, into three-dimensional reality. This is not so easy as it sounds, because while the artists at the Hanna-Barbera cartoon mill were not a particularly imaginative bunch, they were generously gifted in another department: stupidity. They created a whole universe of exceedingly banal "cave-style" analogues to well-known suburban icons, like foot-powered automobiles, pig-powered garbage disposals and dinosaur-powered steam shovels. At the snooty age of 14 in 1960, when the show premiered, I took one look at it and said, "Too stupid for me," and went back to reading the italicized scenes in "I, the Jury."

Thus it fell to the extraordinary technicians assembled by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Productions (which produced) to create such inanities in convincing artifice. Strictly as an amusing and provocative design portfolio, "The Flintstones" is dynamite. Fred's foot-powered automobile may have looked absurd in an animation cel, but that same contrivance replicated in full three-dimensionality, all its engineering problems worked out, is truly charming.

The movie is jammed with such delights. You will see an actual pet dinosaur, a cross between a brontosaurus and a Labrador retriever, as it comes leaping out the door to drive Fred to earth and give him a blue-tongue bath of astonishing lubricity. You will see a huge prehistoric pig as a garbage disposal, with a look of debauched satisfaction on its ugly mug. You will see a pterodactyl as Boeing 747, flying with 200 glassy-eyed passengers aboard.

William Sandell, the production designer, is the true auteur of the piece, much more than Brian Levant, credited with direction. Sandell deserves some kind of award for the totality and the conviction of his work -- he makes Bedrock seem as palpably real as Peyton Place, Bedford Falls, Tombstone or any other famous movie ville, yet at the same time imbuing it with a child-like innocence.

Goodman, almost a cartoon already, invests his Fred with a great deal of life force. He's the Big Guy all right, vain and dumb but essentially good-hearted and optimistic -- the slob's happy slob. Goodman has always had a surprising agility under his size, and when Fred suddenly breaks into dance or action, he's completely compelling.

In recollection, we tend to forget that the first "Flintstones" wasn't an original piece at all but a pale clone of Jackie Gleason's brilliant and corrosive "Honeymooners" skits. Comparing Goodman to the one-dimensional Hanna-Barbera Fred makes Goodman look good, but comparing him to Gleason only makes Gleason look good. Goodman doesn't have the edge of despair and pathos that the great Gleason brought to Ralph Kramden, and the confrontations with his life and spouse never seem as charged with psychotic energy and genuine male pain. The same could be said of Rick Moranis' Barney Rubble, a character modeled on Art Carney's Ed Norton. Moranis makes a better Rubble than Norton, and the relationship between Barney and Fred never achieves the prickly, pathetic, competitive living thing that existed between Ed and Ralph.

The two actresses -- Elizabeth Perkins as Wilma Flintstone and Rosie O'Donnell as Betty Rubble -- are even more one-dimensional. Perkins, for example, seems to have been hired because her pert, cute, but almost textureless face is as close to cartoon as flesh can come. She and O'Donnell just do the niggling giggle thing together or look slightly pained. Elizabeth Taylor has a neat turn as Fred's pushy, self-important mother-in-law, and seeing her get her just desserts is a real pleasure.

Plot? Hardly. Fred is co-opted by an evil vice president (Kyle MacLachlan) at his construction company and made an executive. Actually, he's the stooge in the executive's bunco scheme, which works to perfection and threatens to take from Fred that which he had so proudly accumulated, those fundamentally American things: house, job, family, security.

Somehow, Barney and Fred and Wilma and Betty put their differences aside and make it all better. The how is hardly worth telling, either here or on screen, but it eats up what little time there is between the rock puns and the animatronic dinosaur gags.

Which leads me to the film's last blessed virtue. It's short! Short! Not like "Maverick," which lasts as long as the Jurassic. Not like "Beverly Hills Cop III," which lasts as long as it took Lindbergh to fly the Atlantic. No. Just plain short. In, out, less than 90 minutes. No self-indulgences or star turns. It is a grand old time.

"The Flintstones"

Starring John Goodman and Rick Moranis

Directed by Brian Levant

Released by Universal

PG-rated

***

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