Yabba Dabba Don't

Okay, I admit it. I'm a cynic. I thought the big-screen version of The Flintstones was going to be terrible, a new low in our national obsession with junk culture, a thinly veiled attempt to cash in on a popular television cartoon that was itself a tepid facsimile of The Honeymooners. I thought the movie would make little pretense toward artistic merit A or even bona fide entertainment value A and try instead to seduce huge crowds of gullible suckers by hyping the John Goodman-as-Fred angle and by capitalizing on all the exposure the cartoon has enjoyed over the years. I thought the film itself was little more than a pesky formality, a perfunctory cog in a huge merchandising machine geared toward selling overpriced officially licensed Flintstones gewgaws and encouraging as many little rugrats as possible to badger their beleaguered parents into making a pit stop at Roc Donald's.

After all, The Flintstones is a Steven "Spielrock" presentation; while the wunderkind neither officially wrote, directed, nor produced the film, his stamp is all over it. Like last summer's Jurassic Park, which Spielrock directed, Flintstones is an attractively packaged commodity ideally suited for commercial tie-ins with all manner of corporate sponsors from fast-food chains to apparel manufacturers. Both films will enjoy afterlives as attractions at Universal Studios. And just as Spielrock set new standards for marketing chutzpah with his dino-epic, which brazenly included a shot of a souvenir shop stocked with all manner of Jurassic Park memorabilia that would soon be available in real life at shopping malls around the country, so too does The Flintstones maximize promotional opportunities, including nods toward Jurassic Park, Roc Donald's, Marshy Fields, and Chevrok.

1993 was a monster year for Spielrock, who directed four-legged beasties in Jurassic Park and two-legged ones in the critically caressed Schindler's List, which finally garnered the special-effects king the Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards he had coveted for so long. Killjoy that I am, I figured The Flintstones would be wonder-boy's big fleece job, a chance to cash in on his once-again sterling rep (1991's Hook had tarnished it).

The signs were all there. First Spielrock farmed out the script to a pair of hacks, Tom Parker and Jim Jennewein, who had collaborated on tripe like Major League 2 and Super Mario Brothers. Then he selected Brian Levant to take the fall -- I mean, to direct. Levant's background was mainly in TV, where he worked on the groundbreaking series The New Leave It to Beaver. His feature film output was even less promising; he'd previously directed only Beethoven and Problem Child 2.

So I think I should be forgiven for expecting the worst. But never in my years of filmgoing have I been so wrong in my prejudgment. The Flintstones is, without a doubt, the finest film of this, or perhaps any, generation, and the best approximation of cartoon characters by flesh-and-blood actors this side of Popeye (and everyone remembers what a huge success that was!). The Flintstones makes Schindler's List look like 1941.

Start with the inspired casting. The film gets plenty of mileage out of John Goodman's physical resemblance to Fred Flintstone. But Goodman isn't content to leave it at that. He has been written off as a mirthful bon vivant in the past; this performance establishes him as a true heavyweight. Shrewdly imitating not the cartoon Fred, but the role's progenitor, Ralph Kramden, Goodman is careful to tread the fine line between mimicry and broad parody. Crazy-like-a-fox Goodman's decision to utilize this technique of keeping the audience off-balance beautifully heightens the dramatic tension in every scene. It only seems like a really bad Gleason imitation. As if that weren't masterly enough, Goodman occasionally appears apprehensive, as though he suddenly feared he was acting in a colossal bomb that could ruin his career. What better way to capture the bewilderment of prehistoric man as he approaches the dawn of civilization? Forget C.H.U.D., King Ralph, and Born Yesterday. This is Goodman's finest hour.

Yet for all Goodman's brilliance, it would be unfair to be so dazzled as to overlook the bravura turn from his diminutive costar, Rick Moranis. The plucky little Canadian import is easily his country's preeminent screen thespian; how Moranis continues to be overlooked come Oscar time never ceases to amaze me. This is a man, after all, whose distinguished body of work includes Hockey Night, Head Office, Club Paradise, and Honey, I Blew Up the Kid.

Moranis plays Barney Rubble, Fred Flintstone's hapless sidekick. This film's riskiest yet ultimately most rewarding conceit is its willingness to examine in much greater depth than the cartoon ever could the latent homosexual attraction between Fred and Barney. It is obvious from the outset that Barney's marriage to Betty is a sham, a charade the couple sustains in order to avoid persecution at the hands of their intolerant peers. (This was the Stone Age, after all, when so-called "deviant" sexuality was, Rush Limbaugh and his pugnacious minions aside, less socially acceptable than it is today.) Because the Rubbles don't have sex with each other, they are forced to adopt a baby to complete the middle-class normalcy ruse. Fred, without Wilma's knowledge, bankrolls the adoption.

Discounting this tender gesture, Fred is a classic bullying muscleboy, Barney the prototypical fey submissive. While the film stops just short of showing the two of them in bed together, it frankly and openly explores the searing, barely sublimated passion they share. When they're not shoulder to shoulder, cruising in Fred's car, they're wrapping their bare biceps around each other or trading good-natured barbs. To pay Fred back for his loan, Barney sacrifices his own career at the quarry. Their love is tested as Fred's status and income rise while Barney's fall. The boys' relationship takes a nasty turn; tragically, they do not reconcile their differences until the movie's climactic dual lynching scene in which both men boldly and defiantly declare their love for each other in the face of a hostile crowd of repressed closet cases led by noted scene stealer Richard Moll (Bull from TV's Night Court).

Sexual ambiguity plagues butch Betty and dainty Wilma's friendship, as well. Casting Rosie O'Donnell as Betty was another brassy move on Spielrock's part. The cartoon Betty was shapely, alluring, and more than a little prissy. You never believed her as the wife of a workaday clod like Barney; she was way too sexy for him. That mismatch sapped the TV series of much of its credibility. Someone like O'Donnell is much more realistic. But when the Rubbles and the Flintstones use the flimsy pretext of economic necessity as an excuse to cohabitate, Wilma inexplicably decides to assert herself, at one point even hiring a personal trainer to mold those girlie curves into sinew. It's a subtle transformation that shifts the balance of power in the whole two-family dynamic. And Elizabeth Taylor as Wilma's obnoxious mother invokes the acid two-couple verbal sparring of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Director Levant is to be commended for both his ingenuity and his restraint in rendering this shattering metamorphosis.

Sharply drawn interpersonal dynamics are just the tip of the Flintstones iceberg. Realizing he could never top the dramatic impact of the lifelike mechanical dinosaurs he utilized in Jurassic Park, Spielrock here wisely backs off and lets Jim Henson's Creature Shop shoulder some of the special-effects burden. This imbues The Flintstones with a Muppet Movie feel kids will love and provides some much-needed relief from the tense psychosexual fireworks. It should minimize the limiting Jurassic Park comparisons, too. The story line featuring Kyle MacLachlan as an evil executive who sets Fred up for a fall is a magnificent treatise on the perils of capitalism and the nobility of the proletariat that Karl Marx would have been proud to claim as his own. And the subplot where Halle Berry foolishly conspires with MacLachlan (only to have him betray her in the end) is a blistering attack on both racism and sexism in the workplace. Finally, as a meticulous reenactment of a watershed epoch in the history of man's evolution, The Flintstones is an invaluable historical document.

All in all it's a dazzling work, the most scintillating adaption of cartoon characters to the screen since Howard the Duck. To paraphrase President Clinton's evaluation of Spielrock's previous offering, I urge every American to see this film.

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