FILM / The gags that time forgot: Reviews: The Stone Age of innocence is dead. Adam Mars-Jones is caught between post-lapsarian Bedrock and a hard place

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There's nothing so difficult as recreating a childish pleasure. The makers of The Flintstones know all there is to know about combining digital animation and live action into a sequence without seams, but there is no technology available that can computer-generate innocence. Without that, clever dialogue, perky performances and meticulous art direction yield a strangely heavy joy.

The cartoon original was nominally set 5000 years BC, but was really only 20, where BC stands for Before Cholesterol. Underlying the thinnest imaginable layer of social satire was a conviction that life in American suburbia was the only reality. In this Eisenhower Eden there were no aerothons and no personal trainers, just bowling for the workers and golf for their bosses. The defining accessory for a woman was a fur coat, and for a man it was a wife with a fur coat.

Director Brian Levant (in Variety-speak, he who helmed Beethoven) has taken a relatively timid line with the material. Where Robert Altman, filming Popeye (a film ripe for revival now that its director is again a major player), created a whole shanty town world of eccentric characters, and then let his camera roam around them, Levant recreates the opening and closing title sequences of the cartoon more or less frame by frame. In-between he inserts a story about Fred Flintstone's mistaken appointment as an executive in the quarry company he works for.

John Goodman is excellent as Fred, no suprise since Roseanne is, in the strangely accelerated evolution of TV genre, a direct descendant of The Flintstones. A man's man whose wife rules the roost, a fallible ordinary Joe who only wants to put food on the table and beer in the fridge - Dan Connor is Fred Flintstone, they have bowling in common, to boot. Even without the special effects work that turns his trademark Yabba-Dabba-Doo into a brief bout of yogic flying, Goodman would be up to the job of giving Fred the right, vaguely manic good cheer. He's an angel with dirty feet (in one of the film's odd nods towards realism, the practical consequences of wearing no shoes are fully acknowledged).

Elizabeth Perkins, playing Wilma, has a harder task. If you replay Wilma Flintstone's voice in your mind, you are listening to self-satisfaction in its purest form. Wilma's voice is separated from us by a third of a century of increasing doubt and anxiety. This is America before Vietnam, before therapy, before worries about life style and worry as a lifestyle. A modern-day Wilma Flintstone, like Roseanne Connor, say, is no less eager for consumerist satisfaction, but is already aware that she may have poisoned her kids with junk food and sarcasm. Elizabeth Perkins can't help her performance having ground notes of worry alien to cartoon Wilma, and even her good looks seem inappropriately effortful. Admittedly, it was always going to be hard to find an actress able to convey a moment of tension by cross-hatching her forehead with wavy lines.

If Wilma and Betty Rubble (Rosie O'Donnell) seem alienated from the guilt-free pleasures of 1960, they haven't been liberated from the restrictions of the period. Wilma and Betty seem much more trapped in the past than their menfolk. Their friendship is girlish camaraderie, punctuated with the familiar synchronised giggle-arpeggio. There doesn't seem a lot of point in casting O'Donnell as Betty, sharply contrasting with Wilma physically, and then not using her comic skills beyond an accomplished resentful pout.

The relationship between Fred and Barney Rubble (Rick Moranis) bears more traces of the Men's Movement than the one between their wives bears of Feminism. Barney reads out a poem in praise of Fred, to which he responds with manly tears that form a gelatinous puddle on the bowling alley floor. At a late stage of the plot, when the two of them are about to be strung up by a lynch mob, they express an incongruous tenderness by patting each other with their heads, almost nuzzlingly, since their hands are tied behind their backs. Barney is given the most self-consciously funny lines, which is some consolation for the loss of the yuk-yuk-yuk that was his trademark in the cartoon, delivered out of a mouth that was always in profile, even when looking straight at you.

The cartoon's relentless infantile punning (usually on the words Rock or Stone) is retained on a more sophisticated level: a good example is a toyshop glimpsed in the background called Toys-aur-Us. Fred's sinuous secretary, Miss Stone (Halle Berry), is called Rosetta in the press kit, Sharon in the finished film.

It is in the other sort of pun characteristic of the cartoon, whereby modern American conveniences are duplicated by devices that comprise or involve animals, that the film-makers are most defeated by cultural change. Since 1960 the equation of animals and gadgets has been eroded from both sides, by a loss of face in technology and a worry about the exploitation of animals.

Pets are one thing - and particularly well realised by Industrial Light and Magic. Dino the sort-of-dog, who suggests a properly canine bulk and bounciness, has the edge over Kitty the sabre-toothed house cat. Even the pig that acts as a waste-disposal unit, sitting under the sink behind a pair of tasteful curtains, is not being forced to act against its nature, which is more than can be said for the lobster that mows the lawn. But it strikes a false note when Fred wonders if his Brontocrane is pregnant again, particularly as the quarry sequences are relatively gruelling, with no styrofoam boulders to be seen.

One animal in particular, the Dictabird which takes down Fred's business correspondence, is crucial to the plot. The Dictabird is the butt of some uneasy jokes - 'Let's get this straight. I'm the executive, you're the office equipment' - but also gets the film's most self-conscious line, and its single moment of direct address to the audience. 'I should have signed with Disney,' it tells us as it is menaced and kidnapped, 'they would never have allowed this to happen.' It's odd enough when an actor winks at us, how much more so when a special-effect does the same.

There's an announcement during the final credits that has more resonance than was presumably intended: No dinosaurs were harmed in the making of this motion picture. One of the things that has changed since the 1960s, and can't be changed back, is that we no longer think about conveniences and fantasies as coming free, or even cheap. Show us a convincing animal from Jim Henson's Creature Shop, and somewhere at the back of our minds we'll start worrying about animatronic rights.

(Photograph omitted)