If anything can make a viewer long for the surreal ingenuity of vintage cartoons, it's live-action versions of them. Sitting through a lumbering fantasy like Robert Altman's Popeye (1980), we're always aware that the bodies aren't really flying through the air, that the whole warped universe has been meticulously constructed. Watching the movie becomes a matter of ticking off the technical stunts that went into its making.
Ironically, it may be for that very reason that The Flintstones (Universal) works better than most other live-action cartoons. Made with fetishistic fealty to the 1960s prime-time animated series (it would be hard to think of a novel Hollywood has adapted this faithfully), the movie, like Popeye, keeps us focused on the zany logistics of its physical details-but then, that's just how the original cartoon worked. A blue-collar domestic sitcom re-created as de-evolutionary sci-fi, The Flintstones was never laugh-out-loud funny (if anything, those endless rock puns were deliberate groaners), yet its acid-trip vision of a prehistoric suburbia had a cornball fascination, as if it were a cartoon documentary about the way people actually lived.
The movie serves up all the bad-joke, Stone Age analogues you remember. Here, once again, is Fred Flintstone (John Goodman), the affable working-class blowhard in his spotted orange caveman suit, pedaling his log car with his feet. Here are the stone-tablet newspapers, the Dictaphone that's really a persnickety British bird, and-in new twists on an old formula-RocDonald's and the BC-52's. Filmed on amazingly elaborate sets that still manage to look a little too much like Styrofoam, The Flintstones is a big, shiny package of comic nostalgia, as much a theme park as a movie. Does it say something about the infantilization of American cinema that an absurdly literal-minded big- budget version of a goofy cartoon series is now our idea of a major motion- picture event? You bet it does. That said, I had a good time at The Flintstones. The movie has been made with affection and occasional slivers of wit, and it tickled my memories of the show's weirdly earthbound charm.
Growly and genial, with a big wide head that thickens into his chest, John Goodman centers the movie with his majestic good nature. Goodman doesn't particularly sound like Fred Flintstone-he slips in and out of Fred's bellicose New York accent-but he gets the blend of surliness and gullibility that made this Ralph Kramden Lite such a winning character. As part of an embezzlement scheme orchestrated by Cliff Vandercave (Kyle MacLachlan, whose thrusting chin makes him look more like a living cartoon than any of the other actors), Fred wins a promotion to senior executive at Slate & Co. The catch? He has to fire Barney Rubble (Rick Moranis). The plot actually functions like an old Flintstones episode-it's diverting and weightless at the same time. And the cast wins you over. Moranis is a perfect Barney, so dumb he's all trust. Elizabeth Perkins captures Wilma's velvet-voiced maternal soothingness, her gentle way of calling her husband ''Frad.'' And if Rosie O'Donnell is hardly a double for the svelte Betty, that's forgotten the moment she duplicates Betty's delighted rapid-fire giggle.
The whole premise of The Flintstones no longer has the cheeky resonance it did in the '60s. Tucked inside the series' litany of stone gags and animal appliances was a wry observation: that suburbia, still a novelty back then, wasn't quite the easy-living miracle it was cracked up to be. All those middle-class ''conveniences'' required more heavy lifting than advertised. Watching the movie, I wondered why an army of 32 screenwriters-that's right, 32-couldn't have updated the satire, creating Stone Age versions of home computers, nose rings, The McLaughlin Group. Then again, a Hollywood obsessed with rehashing the pop-culture past may have lost the imagination to do anything else. B