The Wild Thornberrys Movie
review by Elias Savada, 13 December 2002

The latest Nickelodeon theatrical cartoon feature is the first in a no-doubt successful franchise based on its hit half-hour adventure-driven TV series about a carrot-topped, pig-tailed, bespectacled, freckle-faced (four symmetrically aligned on each cheek) girl with a mouthful of dental braces who travels the world with her world-famous documentary filmmaking parents. There's peril at every corner and fun at every food fight. Yeah, there's even some flatulence from a horse appropriately named Thunder and some totally innocent bathroom humor. Never meant to be raucous, and perhaps laden with a few too many musical overludes, The Wild Thornberrys Movie is very much a totally pleasing piece. At a Saturday morning preview, it was obvious the producers have fashioned an eighty-minute African adventure ride that kept nearly every child seat-bound and squirm-free, including two often squiggly neighbor's boys in my custody. Fans of the show, their parents, and even kids not privy to the Nick channel will find this a rousing venture about a Dolittlesque girl named Eliza who talks to the animals.

The regulars who have voiced the Thornberry family the last four years on cable television are back: Lacey Chabert as the punky twelve-year-old star; Jodi Carlisle as her semi-protective mom Marianne; Tim Curry (his often villainous nature locked safely in a hall closet) is the soft-hearted, light-headed, sarcasm-deprived dad Nigel; Australian-born Flea, a.k.a. Michael Balzary, a Red Hot Chili Pepper, provides the manic ramblings of Borneo bushbaby/wild thing Donnie Thornberry, an animated variation of SNL's Chris Kattan's Mr Peepers, replacing late-night dry-humping with PG-rated wedgie-pulling; Danielle Harris as the teenage rebel/Valley Girl, sibling rival, and reluctantly-just-as-heroic-as-her-sister Debbie; and Tom Kane as Darwin, Eliza's playfully troublesome, yet forever faithful, kemo sabe chimp.

New feature family members include Nigel's Scottish parents, Colonel Radcliffe and Cordelia (Lynn Redgrave), comfortable sipping tea or parachuting into the action (alas the new china doesn't make as successful a landing). Rupert Everett and Marisa Tomei add their own audacious mix as Sloan and Bree Blackburn, bold outbackers whose proximity to the stealthy savannah skirmishes is just a tad too incidental for at least one adult viewer.

The "guest stars" would be the family of adorable cheetahs mothered by Akela (Alfre Woodard), with the cutest of her brood, Tally, being cubnapped by a gang of airborne poachers. The critter becomes the center of Eliza's quest for absolution, as she feels responsible for the cat's snatching while under her playful care. Even a forced exile at Lady Beatrice School, a British boarding school (with an impetuous friend as stowaway in her baggage), can't keep her from finagling her way back to Africa to find the feline. The perilous road to Nairobi gets progressively muddied as the various members of the Thornberry family stave off a large scale elephant massacre in the Dembo Valley.

Cathy Malkasian -- having been one of the nearly dozen directors who worked on the series -- and Jeff McGrath -- a creative producer on the The Wild Thornberrys: The Origin of Donnie telefeature and a director for its cutting edge predecessor series Rugrats -- keep their debut as feature directors quickly paced and brightly lit. You don't mess with a success product. The sequences are short and the colors primary, with Rugrat veteran Kate Boutilier's script heavy in the social message area without pounding it mercilessly into the little noggins watching from the audience. Having not seen the series, I suspect the film version is compellingly and corporately close to the tone and characters created by Gabor Csupo and former wife Arlene Klasky (also responsible for the Rugrats -- who will costar together in next summer's Rugrats Meet the Wild Thornberrys) and their comic compatriots Steve Pepoon, David Silverman, and Stephen Sustarsic.

The soundtrack ain't half bad either, with Paul Simon providing a new single, Father and Daughter, and Peter Gabriel, Sting, Dave Matthews, among others, contributing. These musicians apparently were drawn to the project by its heavy anti-poaching, pro-wildlife storyline set in the African Serengeti. The filmmakers also put Tom Jones' rendition of Paul Anka's She's a Lady to hilarious advantage when Darwin must dress up for a room full of uniformed girls.

Whereas the Disney ship is sinking under the weight of its $140-million Treasure Planet's dismal box office showing, Nickelodeon's parent Paramount is picking up the animated slack with this admirable, modestly-budgeted ($35 million) picture that should draw adequately from its target audience of young cable devotees, particularly young girls wary of Harry Potter or uninterested in the continuing adventures of Frodo Baggins and his magical ring. Meanwhile, the prospects for the holiday entry for Paramount's other feature series, Star Trek: Nemesis, appears as dim as The Wild Thornberrys Movie bright.

Directed by:
Cathy Malkasian
Jeff McGrath

Starring:
Lacey Chabert
Jodi Carlisle
Danielle Harris
Tim Curry
Flea
Tom Kane
Lynn Redgrave
Rupert Everett
Marisa Tomei
Alfre Woodard
Brenda Blethyn
Melissa Greenspan

Written by:
Kate Boutilier

Rating:
PG - Parental
Guidance Suggested.
Some material may
not be appropriate 
for children
.

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