Watching 1994’s lavishly staged live-action adaptation of “The Flintstones” in the falling-far-short-of-The-Jetsons-promises world of today is an interesting experience. Although it was thankfully made before the ironic post-modern obsession with jamming rebooted properties with plenty of mayfly pop culture references, it means there’s no real attempt to update the original cartoon’s cultural touchpoints and so we have The Flintstones’ reskinning of “The Honeymooners” preserved in amber and then mined and revived for the big screen, an adventure $46million in the making.
Fred (John Goodman) and Barney (Rick Moranis) are content with their prehistoric lives, working in the quarries of Slate and Company. When Fred gives Barney the money to enable him and Betty to adopt a baby, Barney returns the favour by swapping his exam paper with Fred’s on a company-wide aptitude test. This results in Fred getting a big promotion and for a while, all seems well. But the promotion is part of a fiendish plot by the villainous Cliff Vandercave (Kyle McLachlan) and sultry Sharon Stone (Halle Berry) to embezzle money from the company and leave Fred to take the blame.
The film really makes no attempt to introduce the characters or explain the world at all. It assumes a familiarity with “The Flintstones” which might have made sense in 1994 when they were still routinely airing in reruns but doesn’t really play that well a quarter of a century later. It also doesn’t help that many of its observational humour is so rooted in the domesticity of the 1950s that there are plenty of jokes we ended up needing to explain to both the Cragglings, especially the littlest one, and a few which were best ignored altogether (a ‘lynching’ sequence doesn’t fly as a joke at all these days and, to be honest, was problematic even in the mid-1990s).
Casting-wise, the movie is absolutely on point. Goodman and Moranis are peerless as Fred and Barney, literally stepping out of the cartoon and into real life. Similarly, Elizabeth Perkins and Rosie O’Donnell inhabit the spouses Wilma and Betty perfectly too. Elizabeth Taylor camps it up fabulously as Wilma’s mother and the other big-name guest stars like McLachlan and Berry are having a blast.
And little wonder, because the film’s crowning glory is the lavishly created sets, props and costumes. On a scale you’d rarely see nowadays, director Brian Levant – a self-avowed fan of “The Flintstones” – seizes the chance to decamp the entire production to the famous-to-the-point-of-cinematic-cliché Vasquez Rocks and physically recreate the whole of the town of Bedrock. It’s a fitting backdrop to the colourful, cartoony stone age contraptions and constructions but shot after shot after shot will have you marvelling at the artistry and craftsmanship on show. It’s a shame, then, that it ends up being a triumph of style over substance because the perfect cast and astonishing sets are let down by a lifeless and overwritten story and script.
Symptomatic of its tortuous journey to the screen, at least thirty-five writers worked on the film over the source of seven years although the version which we have junked everything that came before and started afresh in 1992. It’s always tricky to take a property which originated as a 22-minute short and stretch it out to a feature-length, and although it doesn’t do too bad a job of building a plot it still takes too much for granted in terms of character development so nothing really pays off. “The Flintstones” is still a fun watch, but it never really manages to rise above its roots to become something special in its own right. It’s extravagantly staged proof that a live-action adaptation can be too faithful.