- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2003

“R ugrats Go Wild” is more in the nature of “Rugrats SOS.” The Nickelodeon humorists seem intent on exhausting both their audience and their two cartoon franchises in one fell swoop with this castaway farce.

The family group of explorers known as the Wild Thornberrys is camped out on a tropical island, investigating the flora and fauna for a loyal TV audience of nature enthusiasts. A hapless vacation party of shipwrecked Rugrats families washes in with the tide after surviving a storm at sea, a visual parody of “The Perfect Storm.” There also are throwaway gags mocking “Titanic” and “A.I.,” which left its little android Pinocchio in a watery grave for millenniums. In fact, there’s such a fixation on nonfatal images of submersion and drowning in “Rugrats Go Wild” that I began to feel as haunted as the Ancient Mariner whenever characters approached the water.

The filmmakers blame the shipwreck on dad Stu Pickles, who botches the reservations. Instead of booking comfortable accommodations on a luxury cruise ship, he rents a nautical fixer-upper that fleetingly becomes a deathtrap.

Once gathered in the same setting, the adults are kept apart to prevent anything responsible from happening. The babies and toddlers wander off to terrorize the jungle wildlife and belabor jokes about dirty diapers. Between the diaper references and the drowning alarms, spectators can look forward to a monotonously sodden system of humor.

Similar personality types get paired up as the juveniles ramble: Bossy Angelica of the Rugrats contingent meets a dominant teen to emulate in whiny Debbie of the Thornberrys; feral Donnie of the Thornberrys discovers a raunchy soul mate in Chucky of the Rugrats. The castaway Rugrats parents bicker too much to keep tabs on their possibly endangered offspring. The womenfolk seem inclined to use Stu’s blunders as a lever for matriarchal tyranny. Jolly good Nigel Thornberry takes a fall off a cliff that injures his head, causing a temporary reversion to childhood. This mishap renders him a compatible playmate for the moppets.

The clever blend of slapstick anarchy and affectionate family feeling that sustained the first two “Rugrats” features must have gone down with the ship in “Go Wild.” The jokes and characterizations suffer from an aggressive staleness that implies either desperation or oblivion. The Rugrats excursion to Paris turned out to be a happy brainstorm. Having them get lost with the Thornberrys has turned into an unwitting cry in the wilderness for fresh comic inspiration.

Obviously, the time has come for some serious re-evaluation about where these cartoon clans ought to find themselves in the coming years. Maybe getting a little older would help the youngest set. Rugrats might improve by being able to socialize at the “Peanuts” level.

In its own sphere of competition, “Rugrats Go Wild” is staring at a daunting example of comic sophistication in “Finding Nemo,” already in the marketplace with wittier material and a more sumptuous pictorial environment, both under the sea and bordering the sea. A lot of soul-searching awaits the Nickelodeon movie team when it returns to the skull session and the drawing pad.

*1/2

TITLE: “Rugrats Go Wild”

RATING: PG (Frequent slapstick vulgarity)

CREDITS: Produced by Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo. Directed by Norton Virgien and John English. Screenplay by Kate Boutilier. Music by Mark Mothersbaugh.

RUNNING TIME: 81 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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