BORIS AND NATASHA, a.k.a. BORIS AND NATASHA: THE MOVIE, went straight to Showtime, but I’m counting it as a Weird Summer movie because it first aired on April 17, 1992, and presumably kept playing in subsequent months. And yes, it’s a live action movie centered on the villainous spy characters from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, which is a pretty weird idea.
That beloved Jay Ward cartoon was 30+ years in the past at the time, but still showing in reruns. I know I watched it in the ‘80s. I remember having a t-shirt with Rocky and Bullwinkle parodying the ENDLESS SUMMER poster, even though I didn’t know what that was. It was a great show, so I’m not complaining, but my parents’ generation gave us their nostalgia as hand-me-downs, and we took it. I had Gumby shirts too. I never got Showtime, though, so I never saw BORIS AND NATASHA: THE MOVIE, and couldn’t exactly picture how you’d make a movie about them.
Actually it’s not a terrible comedy premise: what if Boris and Natasha were given a mission where they had to pretend to defect to the U.S., but then they started to like being American? This isn’t as common anymore, but they used to make these movies based on old TV shows but with some high concept way to set it in the modern world. They did it for DRAGNET and after this THE BRADY BUNCH and FAT ALBERT and much later 21 JUMP STREET. CONEHEADS was another one that actually has a premise pretty similar to this one.
Wait – isn’t that kind of what The Americans is about too? Is The Americans a remake of BORIS AND NATASHA: THE MOVIE?
To maintain continuity with The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, the movie features comical narration by veteran voice actor Corey Burton. He explains over maps and stock footage that the Cold War has ended “since our last episode, which was around 1964, give or take a couple of weeks.” But in “that schnook capital of the world” Pottsylvania (nestled between Yoursovania and Wrestlemania), the “no-goodnik” Fearless Leader (Christopher Neame, STEEL DAWN, LICENCE TO KILL, SUBURBAN COMMANDO) is close to having technology that he could use to conquer the world. The time-reverse microchip “freezes time, then backs it up three seconds” so “we can reverse catastrophes, save lives, even protect the military by rendering any object indestructible.” Honestly one of my favorite jokes in this whole movie is when a demonstration film illustrates the concept by showing and then reversing a jar breaking, a building imploding, trains crashing, a jet blowing up… and then Dick Van Dyke tripping over furniture on the introduction to The Dick Van Dyke Show.
One problem: the scientist Paulovitch (Paxton Whitehead, ROVER DANGERFIELD) has run off with the microchip. Fearless Leader’s best agent, Agent X, doesn’t want to risk blowing his cover, and suggests sending their most expendable idiots, Boris Badenov (Dave Thomas, DEADLY COMPANION) and Natasha Fatale (the late Sally Kellerman, FOLLOW THAT BIRD) as decoys.
I had pictured this movie as being a certain type of cheesy, so I was surprised by the introduction of Boris and Natasha in a RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK inspired motorcycle chase and shootout through an unspecified Middle Eastern village. They’ve stolen a jeweled egg, the great Sid Haig is trying to kill them, and corny jokes trade off with legit stuntwork. It makes sense that the stunt coordinator was Dan Bradley, now a veteran of big movies like INDEPENDENCE DAY, SWORDFISH, SPIDER-MAN 2 and 3 and the BOURNE sequels.
The production value of this sequence, plus the narrator’s line “as anyone who looked at their tickets before they came into the theater ought to know, of course, it was Boris and Natasha,” made me think “Oh shit, was this intended to be a theatrical release?” And yes, it turns out it was. Filmed in 1988 (so it would’ve come out against BATMAN?) it then sat on a shelf and, according to People at the time, “comes straight to cable due to its independent studio’s financial difficulties.” I guess there’s a curse on these movies about Eastern-European spies named Natasha – remember, BLACK WIDOW got delayed by Covid and then went to VOD at the same time as theaters.
When Boris and Natasha arrive in the United States, the head of the CIA, Sheldon Kaufman (Alex Rocco, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, THE STUNT MAN, GOTCHA!) welcomes them into his office – which has a portrait of General Custer prominently displayed! – and says they seem very sincere but they will need to be tested “just as a technicality.” They totally fail the polygraph test (administered by Rance Howard) but Kaufman decides to let them into the defector program and spy on them to see what they do.
Their handler Willie (Larry Cedar, THE HIDDEN, LIFE STINKS) gets them set up with a huge, very modern apartment, credit cards, etc. Also he suggests “some great jazz clubs,” but they’re not interested. They receive a gift basket festooned with miniature American flags and a note that says “Welcome Defectors!” Soon they learn about America by having over their goofy next door neighbors Toots (Andrea Martin, BLACK CHRISTMAS) and Harve (John Calvin, GHOST WARRIOR, CRITTERS 3). I like when the men are sitting awkwardly on the couch and Harve asks Boris, “So— you work out?”
They are confused by electric toothbrushes, sushi, and concentrated orange juice. They enjoy Diet Coke, strip clubs, clothes shopping and novelty-shaped telephones. They buy guns in a mall and are “already beginning to feel the allure of American life.”
(Note: I recognized it as the mall from COMMANDO, which is the Sherman Oaks Galleria, also featured in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, CHOPPING MALL, INNERSPACE, PHANTOM OF THE MALL: ERIC’S REVENGE, T2 and THE GIFT.)
The famous hairstylist José Eber, playing himself, meets Natasha, is impressed by her look and turns her into a fashion icon, appearing on many magazine covers, inspiring everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Emo Phillips to copy her hair do. (Which, by the way, does not resemble the one in the cartoon. Shame!) Enjoying celebrity and the American lifestyle makes Natasha realize that Boris hasn’t appreciated her or given her any credit and I guess also question her loyalty to Pottsylvania.
Of course there are a few cameos in here. John Candy (HEAVY METAL) shows up as a contact named Kalishak. Rocket J. Squirrel portrayer June Foray approaches Natasha for an autograph. The best one is John Travolta, who shows up at their door with flowers after Natasha becomes famous. It’s a pitch perfect cameo performance. His entire role is asking “Is Natasha here?” and then only the w of “wait” (twice) as the door is shut on him. Then he’s never seen or mentioned again.
The best thing about the movie is unequivocally Kellerman. It never would’ve occurred to me what a physical resemblance she has to the angular drawing she’s portraying, but it really works, and she gives such a funny but also sympathetic performance under the cartoon accent. Thomas is fine, but pretty much what you expect – a pretty standard Dave Thomas jerk character, but with accent. Hard to really match the cartoon version in a human body and at feature length. So most of it is on Kellerman’s shoulders. (She also sings “It’s Good To Be Bad,” a rock ‘n roll theme song that plays both at the beginning and over the end credits.)
It’s pretty thin for a full length movie, and it has the problem of many comedies that it needs to have a plot to put the jokes on top of and then the machinery gets going so the climax of the movie, which should be the best part, is the weakest part because it has to go through the motions of a big showdown where secret identities and betrayals are revealed and the head of the CIA turns out to be a bad guy working for the auto and weapons industries because the chip would ruin them, etc… as if anybody cares about all this. To try to spice it up they have the big reveal that Toots and Harve are also known as Agents Moose and Squirrel – “Yes, your old adversaries. Surgically altered, once again.” (There is no way I can figure in which it makes sense that they are Rocky and/or Bullwinkle.)
It lacks the heart (and puppetry) of the Muppet movies, but I think it has a similar sense of humor. In keeping with its cartoon origins, it’s full of purposely corny meta jokes, visual gags and puns (a tunnel in Lincoln’s nose on Mount Rushmore is called a “nasal passage,” Anthony Newley plays “Sal Manelli”). I’m pretty sure I would’ve enjoyed this movie when I was a little kid. I would’ve loved jokes like when the narrator is explaining how Natasha’sfame gets in the way of the spy mission, and adds that “even the writers were completely stumped, with no idea how to get the story back to the missing professor.” Or when he asks for feedback and gives a P.O. Box address in Frostbite Falls, ATT: Mr. Peabody.
The screenplay is credited to Charles Fradin (no other credits) and Linda Favila & Anson Downes (CHAINS OF GOLD) with a story by Fradin and the comedian Brad Hall. This is the second movie directed by Charles Martin Smith, who is perhaps best known for playing Terry the Toad in AMERICAN GRAFFITI and MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI. His directorial debut was TRICK OR TREAT (1986), the heavy metal themed horror movie that I somehow have not seen yet. (What the fuck am I doing?) He went on to direct the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and several animal movies (AIR BUD, DOLPHIN TALE 1 and 2, A DOG’S WAY HOME, A CHRISTMAS GIFT FROM BOB).
Here’s another odd detail I noticed. Co-writer Anson Downes must’ve gotten the gig by being a writer and performer on The Dave Thomas Comedy Show. But he must’ve also been the one that got John Travolta in the movie. Downes actually appeared with Travolta in CARRIE (playing the character Ernest). Then he had bit parts in URBAN COWBOY and PERFECT, wrote CHAINS OF GOLD and has been a producer on 25 other Travolta movies, plus his TV shows American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson and Die Hart.
Live action versions of Boris, Natasha, Fearless Leader and the narrator did finally make it to theater screens in 2000, in THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY & BULLWINKLE. That time they were portrayed by Jason Alexander, Rene Russo, Robert De Niro and Keith Scott. I predict that despite the curse they will return once again, because a Natasha origin story called FATALE is the type of thing you know has to end up on the The Black List sooner or later. BADENOV would sound better but Natasha’s the more marketable character I think.
Unsurprisingly, BORIS & NATASHA didn’t go over great. TV Guide said it “might have been a good idea for a skit on SCTV, but as a 90-minute feature film, it’s at least 80 minutes too long.” Entertainment Weekly asks of Anthony Newley “What kind of fool is he to be in this mess?” and says that “the slapstick might appeal to some kids, although it’s extremely dumb and, even worse, just not funny.” (For what it’s worth, I can’t think of much slapstick in the movie. Maybe they just meant the jokes in general?) People did give it a B- and said that “what it lacks in wit, it makes up for in unflagging silliness,” which I guess is about the best review it has earned.
Respect to Kellerman, though. Her perfection for the part made it worth doing, I think.