The Flintstones is the latest example of Hollywood’s infatuation with cartoon characters. Because a cartoon is not reality, one is expected to suspend belief and therefore judgment. Ever since Mickey Mouse became a culture-hero of the young, it has been hard to know where fantasy ends and reality begins. Neither is a cartoon myth, and for that reason it does not qualify as fantasy in a literary sense. Cartoons are projections of our fancies that caricature reality. It is hard to react critically to a cartoon, because people will say: “Loosen up, it’s just a cartoon.”
There are many cheap thrills in the Flintstones, made possible by an expensive set production with the Spielberg talent for visual effects. Animals that do the work of machines and stone houses with ingenious utensils captivate for a few minutes, but then the story begins and one becomes mired in a silly plotline that is made even worse by the blandness of the characters.
The tale starts with Fred, played by John Goodman, coming home to Wilma, played by Elizabeth Perkins, who is too attractive and sexy for the role. A fight ensues when Wilma confronts Fred over the disappearance of their savings. Fred, hostile at first, wilts under a little pressure from Wilma and reveals that he has given their savings to the Rubbles so they can adopt a child. Wilma forgives Fred because of his sacrifice for their friends. Barney vows to repay Fred for his kindness.
There is no need to rehash a plot in which Barney engineers Fred’s promotion to the corporate headquarters, where he is made the pawn of an embezzlement scheme that requires him to fire Barney. The friendship between the Flintstones and the Rubbles deteriorates. Money and status turn the heads of Fred and Wilma, while the Rubbles languish without job and home.
Sensitive Wilma in the end saves Fred from his ego and from a lynch mob. At the finale, Fred awakens to his real treasure, his family. “I was always the richest man in the world. I just never knew it.” All the corporate types in the film are presented in populist cliche, as greedy and conniving enemies of the working man.
In the original Flintstones, and in the Honeymooners on which the characters of Fred and Wilma were based, there was real tension. Fred and Wilma fought hard, Wilma with sarcasm and stoic resolve and Fred with fits of temper and verbal bluster. The moral to their story was that family members may discharge the animus of struggle that fuels frustration and regret without loss of affection. In this new movie, there is no demonic dimension to Fred the man. Wilma always cows him after his initial salvo. Fred is easily reduced to simpering sentimentality. In one scene, he cries buckets on hearing a corny poem written in tribute to him by Barney.
What John Goodman represents is not Fred but his own persona of bovine affability that Americans have come to expect in his performances. Barney, on the other hand, is simply Mr. Nice Guy. The quality that made Eld Norton in the Honeymooners and Barney in the Flintstones interesting was the naive complexity of authentic fools, always bungling but sometimes wise in spite of themselves. This new version of Barney is a Mr. Rogers clone. What the film implies is that these are the acceptable types of men. Choose between the saccharine niceness of Mr. Rogers and the laughable machismo of Fred Flintstone.
America wants nothing to fear from its men, lest the imperious man rear his head and regain control of his family, his community, and the reins of government. The women of the new Flintstones are no threat either. Wilma drifts along barely conscious, and Betty, played by Rosie O’Donnell, is hardly noticeable except for her chipmunk laugh.
John Goodman, in an interview with Patrick Stoner, said that the Flintstones‘ appeal results from the nostalgia of a 50’s mindset. Actually, the movie is a 90’s attempt to describe a simplicity of gender relations that we hnd quaint in a funny sort of way, because we are watching from the standpoint of the liberating sophistication of the 1960’s. We want to make the Flintstones and the Rubbles as shallow as possible, for to think of them otherwise might lead us to some conclusions about the sexes that would disturb our sleep. There are no real men and women in the Flintstones. The lesson is that, if we all give our natural goodness a chance to express itself, we can all become nice human beings.