By Kim Hollis
July 9, 2003
My love affair with NickToons dates back to the very earliest days of its inception in 1991, when the trifecta of Ren and Stimpy, Doug, and Rugrats started Nickelodeon on a new course that has held steady ever since. Though at the time the angry Chihuahua and the dopey cat were the big draw, by 1994 everyone knew who the Rugrats were, and rightfully so. The show was clever and adorable, that rare modern toon that crosses generations.
As time went on, other NickToons had their more marginal successes (I’ll always contend that Rocko’s Modern Life is the most under-rated animated series ever), but Rugrats continued to hold strong. Eventually, the success was so great that Nickelodeon and parent company Paramount decided to give the babies their biggest push ever, sending them to the big screen for an enormously successful and profitable kids flick in The Rugrats Movie. Released in 1998 when the series was still enjoying an enormous amount of popularity, the first Rugrats film opened to an impressive $27.3 million and finished up its run with $100.5 million at the box office. The studio then followed up two years later with a sequel, Rugrats in Paris, which showed that the franchise was beginning to exhibit signs of rust. It had a solid debut with $22.7 million, but wound up with $76.5 million total, a pretty hefty decrease from the total of the first film.
Fast forward three years into the future, and a strange and somewhat creepy little dude named SpongeBob SquarePants is the new reigning champion of the Nick lineup. Rugrats and its sister show, The Wild Thornberrys, are substantially less popular amongst youngsters and adults alike, but even so, the studio decides to go for one last gasp as it matches up the cast from the two shows for Rugrats Go Wild! Sadly, this movie looks to spell the end for both franchises.
Though I’m generally a proponent of the notion that animation can be a blast for all ages, Rugrats Go Wild! is definitely an exception to that rule. Standing in stark opposition to the rather adult-oriented Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, RGW! is nothing short of juvenile and in fact crosses that line to be incredibly annoying to anyone who is over the age of seven.
The basic premise of the story could be (and probably is) taken straight from an episode of Gilligan’s Island. The patriarch of the Pickles family, Drew, has generously offered to take friends and family from the Finster and Deville clan for a luxury cruise. All the preparations are made, but as the Lipschitz cruise liner is leaving the port (a fun little in-joke for loyal viewers of the show), Daddy Pickles reveals that he has instead provided his own boat, a ramshackle little piece of garbage that looks as likely to fall to pieces as sail on the sea.
Nonetheless, everyone piles in and naturally, disaster strikes. The boat is capsized in a monstrous storm and the group winds up on an uninhabited island. Drew takes heaps of abuse for putting the castaways in their situation, and they desperately begin their search for a way off.
Anyone who watches Rugrats knows that it’s at this point that the babies break off on their own. After the bratty Angelica announces that she needs some island slaves, the smaller tykes determine that they’d be better off exploring on their own, especially because they believe they should be able to find on Nigel Thornberry, Tommy’s hero and the host of a Crocodile Hunter-style nature show. In the meantime, Spike, the Pickles’ family dog, is freaked out because he’s lost the babies, and eventually meets up with Eliza Thornberry, the little girl who can talk to animals. Of course, this means that Spike gets a voice, and Bruce Willis is the celebrity du jour. The final little side story involves Angelica and Debbie Thornberry, the two spoiled brats of a feather who miraculously wind up stuck together (ho-hum).
Naturally, all sorts of crazy stuff happens as the various groups try separately to find a way out. Sadly, much of the babies’ story is dreadful. Diaper jokes and bug eating discussions abound, particularly amongst twins Phil and Lil. Surprisingly, lead baby Tommy has very little to do here other than extol the mighty virtues of Nigel Thornberry.
On the plus side, Chuckie actually gets a fun little story all his own. He encounters Thornberry wild boy Donnie (voiced by Flea!), and their interactions are the best entertainment this movie can provide.
It’s all downhill from there. Adding the voice of Bruce Willis was pretty clearly a last-ditch effort to boost the numbers for this sinking ship, but it’s just superfluous fluff that affords a few opportunities for dumb doggie jokes a la Scooby-Doo. Then, Nigel Thornberry aka “Most Annoying Character in the History of Mankind” shows up and basically destroys any semblance of fun that might have been left. It’s a huge bummer, too, because I generally really like Tim Curry (the man behind Nigel) as a voice actor.
Other than the short scenes involving Chuckie, the most commendable portions of the film are the numerous movie references. They’re very cleverly done, sometimes overtly, but a couple are so subtle that they probably escape notice. The most obvious ones are The Perfect Storm, Cast Away and Titanic, but there’s also some quick asides that give a nod to Jaws and Planet of the Apes. Best of all, though, is a musical number that is a hilarious send-up of a portion of The Poseidon Adventure, but it’s such an obscure reference that even the parents of the kids who attend this film won’t catch it.
The movie fails despite these clever moments. Rugrats Go Wild! simply can’t capture the fun and undeniable cuteness of the series and it’s really because there’s just way too much going on. The joy of Rugrats is the interaction between the babies and their ability to see the forest for the trees in a way that the adults simply cannot. Rugrats Go Wild! tries too hard to build unnecessary character development and loses the bulk of the charm that makes the series work. It’s an adequate kid’s film, but certainly not worthy of much more than a video rental, especially when something as outstanding and family-friendly as Finding Nemo is in theaters.
Read a guest He Said about Rugrats Go Wild!.