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Management Company Entertainment Group (MCEG) was an independent producing entity that got a lot of space in the trades in the late 1980s. I ended up cutting several advertising promos for their work as a freelancer, one of which was for 1992's Boris and Natasha. I can't have been working on it any later than 1989 or 1990, a timeline that jibes with the story that Boris couldn't find a major release and ended up being dumped into the cable TV cauldron in 1992. The one dynamite moment in the film that really worked in promos was a 7-second blip where the diminutive Boris Badenov (Dave Thomas) and the slinky Natasha Fatale (Sally Kellerman) work each other into a high pitch of arch-villainous mirth: Natasha: "You are so bad, you're good!" Boris: "It's good to be bad!" Both: "Hahahahahahahaha!"
When I worked for Cannon Films in 1998, it seemed that few if any of their many releases actually made it to a "theater near you." Perhaps it's best that Boris and Natasha did not receive a full-bore theatrical release, where it might have become a notable disaster like the Brooke Shields comic-strip bomb Brenda Starr, made more or less at the same time. Starr had flashy designs and a game performance from its leading lady, but also an aimless script made worse by weak direction.
The idea of spinning off a movie from the TV cartoon show The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle isn't any worse than Brenda Starr or The Flintstones, but it should be obvious that a project of this kind needs to find a special, distinctive style. Boris and Natasha reportedly went through the familiar process of demotion from a higher-profile picture to one launched by the fairly small-time MCEG. When I close my eyes I imagine Bob Hoskins as the perfect Boris Badenov. The actor would later take the plunge with Super Mario Bros., and that hasn't exactly reached classic status either. On the other hand, Sally Kellerman is quite a good choice for Natasha Fatale. The original TV Natasha mostly offers Boris encouragement for his diabolical schemes, with a random seductive comment thrown in here and there. The film Boris and Natasha boiled down to such a tiny production that Sally Kellerman ended up becoming its one big name. She also happened to be married to MCEG producer Jonathan Krane, so much of the show shapes up as a vanity production for her.
That's not a bad idea, for Kellerman has always been a stylish and original presence and has charm to burn. She also has the deep voice needed for Natasha. Dave Thomas is less than a perfect match as we expect Boris to be a more hyper, maniacal presence. It's said that Danny DaVito was a possible Boris when the show was in consideration as a bigger production. He also could have nailed the character's giddy villainy.
The movie has a halfway clever script that apes the intentional inanity of Jay Ward's original TV show. Director Charlie Martin Smith nails the perfect tone with the film's stentorian just-the-facts narration track. The urgent voiceover frequently comments on the action, at one point urging the audience to write in with their thoughts. Smith provides the actual narration voice. Sent to America to recover a fantastic microchip that reverses time, Boris and Natasha apply for citizenship, all the while laughing up their sleeves at the foolish Americans. But the wily FBI chief Alex Rocco has them monitored night and day. In search of the chip's inventor, Kreeger Paulovitch (Paxton Whitehead), B&N seek out a variety of contacts played by guest stars. Street vendor Kalishak (John Candy) gives them a clue, but the function of other contacts isn't as clear. Anthony Newley and John Travolta make minor appearances, while hairdresser José Eber (apparently Kellerman's actual hairdresser?) takes a big hand in Natasha's detour into becoming a fashion sensation. Thus the main sidebar in the blossoming Boris-Natasha romance is a number of flashy photo-ops for the new star, at cocktail parties, etc. Pretty much everybody turns out to be a covert bad guy, which is fair because silly reversals were a staple of the old show. But the maniacal Fearless Leader (Christopher Neame) has also ordered the nefarious agent Mr. X (Larry Cedar) to shadow our heroes, and kill them after they recover the chip. Boris and Natasha counter by disguising themselves as fat German tourists, in funny 'fat' costumes. It's not particularly successful.
Where the movie fails is in not finding a style to match its zany script. Successful comic book adaptations leaned heavily on elaborate production design and special effects; the prime example is The Addams Family, a visually intense experience that wins us over by "getting the look and tone" right in hundreds of details. Boris and Natasha looks like a TV movie, with standard visuals, found locations, normal lighting and generic scene blocking. The setting seems to be New York but all the visuals are of well-known Los Angeles locations like Century City and the Music Center. The visuals of things like a secret lab located inside President Lincoln's nose at Mount Rushmore are neither fish nor fowl: they can't compete with the lavish sets in "real" movies, and neither does the movie make a statement by lampooning its own modest means. The budget seems to have stretched just far enough to keep the entertaining Ms. Kellerman in fancy costumes and hair.
Desperation sets in when an annoying "people next door" couple played by John Calvin and Andrea Martin turn out to be noble American Agents Bullwinkle Moose and Rocket J. Squirrel, in disguise. No explanation, no transformation, nothing. No connection to the cartoon characters is made in mannersims, voice or attitude, so this entire effort falls incredibly flat. It gets so that we look forward to the next interruption by the Narrator. Although Kellerman and Thomas rally at several points to keep Boris and Natasha halfway watchable, the film really belongs to "The Narrator".
Sid Haig is a screaming ethnic bad guy pursuing our heroes in the prologue; original Rocky voice June Foray has a bit as an autograph hunter. Other parts appear to be filled by special friends of Sally. As a gullible hotel bellboy, actor Arye Gross taps into the spirit of fun without the strain seen elsewhere in this extremely uneven cartoon comedy.
I personally found Charlie Martin Smith's admittedly weak Boris and Natasha more interesting than The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, the vastly more expensive Robert De Niro megaflop from 1998. But don't confuse that compliment with a hearty recommendation.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection DVD-R of Boris and Natasha looks quite good, as the nicely transferred enhanced widescreen image betters flat cable TV prints that robbed the film of whatever compositions it once had. Ms. Kellerman's close-ups are very attractive. MGM's disc has no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Boris and Natasha rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.