- The Washington Times - Monday, December 23, 2002

"The Wild Thornberrys," a crossover animated feature for a cartoon franchise on the Nickelodeon Channel created by the same team that clicked with "Rugrats" must have an avid public waiting for its alternately wacky and high-minded tendencies. Since I'm far removed from the target audience, it doesn't seem inappropriate to find the whole "Thornberrys" phenomenon more strident and mind-boggling than ingratiating.
The press screening was more in the nature of a promotional screening for the World Wildlife Fund, which appears to have an exclusively feminine staff. Judging from subsequent endorsements, the movie suited the fund just fine; maybe it does a more sophisticated job of reconciling pro-conservation polemics with the slapstick depiction of wild animals and habitats than I was inclined to give it credit for. On the other hand, maybe there's just something flattering about the feminine bias in the Thornberrys as a family.
Mom and dad, Marianne and Nigel, voiced by Jodi Carlyle and Tim Curry, are an opposites-attract combination of reliable, common-sensical Yank and effusive, hail-fellow Brit. They travel the world on photography safaris. They have two adolescent daughters, Eliza, 12, and Debbie, 16, voiced by Lacey Chabert and Danielle Harris. Neither seems to reflect much in the way of European influence, a deficiency perhaps corrected by a set of even more effusively British paternal grandparents, Cordelia and Col. Thornberry, entrusted to Lynn Redgrave and the versatile Mr. Curry.
Softhearted and creature-loving Eliza, who has been given the power to communicate with animals by a shaman, is the heroine of the film. She becomes obsessed with rescuing a cheetah cub snatched out of her custody by poachers and then an entire herd of elephants, trudging toward an ambush while following behavioral imperatives influenced by a solar eclipse.
Debbie is the resident wisecracking cynic, inheriting the role often assigned to kid brothers in the radio sitcom era. Despite being a part of the Thornberrys expeditions, she is typically scorning and complaining about their way of life, which denies her the daily gratification of mall and high-school culture, American-style. I'm a little puzzled that she ever got near enough to its influence to feel deprived and aggrieved when globetrotting with her worthy folks.
There is also an adopted juvenile, a wild child called Donnie, who lacks language skills but does justify his existence with a "wedgie dance," probably a sure thing with kids as soon as they become wedgie-conscious.
Eliza also chats with a pet chimp called Darwin (a hot one) who is nominally male and essentially a vintage homosexual caricature. I'm not quite sure why he hangs out with Eliza, apart from the conversational technicality, which might be finessed in some magical way. He'd probably prefer shopping excursions and nonstop dishing with Debbie, certainly the snappier companion.
The movie spares no absurdity while celebrating the children's efforts to foil a pair of smooth-talking poachers dubbed by Rupert Everett and Marisa Tomei, who are arguably overdue for a live-action comedy project of some kind.
Brenda Blethyn is briefly heard as a headmistress during an expendable interlude in which Eliza is banished to a girls' school in England. Darwin stows away during the exile and tries to pass as a schoolgirl, a shameful imposture in every respect. The interesting thing is that the wildlife seems rather more primitive at the school, which serves mainly as the arena for a food fight.
The illustrative side of the film is often freakishly distracting and even hallucinatory, since the characters are patterned after "Rugrats" forerunners and inhabit vivid and extensive settings. I'm not all that jazzed on the look itself, but it is richly and playfully realized.
Some soft-pedaling of the politically correct pieties would be an enhancement, I think, along with the introduction of one young male who possessed effectual attributes. I suppose it would serve Debbie right if she fell for some dashing explorer, not unlike her father, and ended up replicating her mother's sort of domesticity.
"The Wild Thornberrys"
PG (Occasional ominous episodes and fleeting comic vulgarity)
Directed by Jeff McGrath and Cathy Malkasian. Produced by Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo. Written by Kate Boutilier. Music by Drew Neumann and Randy Kerber.
79 minutes

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