The toddlers' first excursion into theaters in The Rugrats Movie is well directed and paced, but flawed. Michael Mallory explains.
Probably everyone has experienced picking up his or her favorite product at the store, be it cola or deodorant, only to find emblazoned across the front the boast, "NEW AND IMPROVED!" Upon sampling the product, the consumer immediately detects the newness, but is never quite convinced of the improvement. Die-hard fans -- and there are legions -- of television's Rugrats might have a similar reaction to The Rugrats Movie, which not only sends its toddler protagonists where no babies have gone before (and lived), but also makes heavy stylistic concessions to the accepted toon feature format.
A Different Klasky Flavor
This is not to say that The Rugrats Movie -- the initial foray into feature animation for both Klasky Csupo and Nickelodeon Movies -- is a poor film. On the contrary, under the helm of co-directors Norton Virgien and Igor Kovalyov, both veterans of the series, it is quite possibly the best directed and best paced animated feature since The Little Mermaid. However, in the process of coming to the big screen a fair amount of Klasky Csupo's trademark insouciance has been bartered for attempts to yank one's heart-strings. Even the studio's distinctive visual style has given way to conventionally lush and realistic settings. Gone, for instance, are the fish-eye, dutch-angle layouts and the sketchy, freehand style of the backgrounds. Replacing them are backgrounds that look, well, "Disneyesque," so much so that at times the scenery threatens to chew up the characters, which except for added shading and modeling retain their TV appearances. This is particularly noticeable with a progressive, real-time CG sunset that occurs towards the end of the film, which while beautifully crafted and technically impressive, seems wildly out of place in Tommy-and-Chucky Land.
Still, there's a lot to savor in The Rugrats Movie. The script by David N. Weiss and J. David Stem includes a level of sophistication that will keep adults interested and chuckling all the way through (although those seeking poo-poo gags will not be disappointed, either), and the songs -- mostly by Mark Mothersbaugh, with the old Chipmunks chestnut "Witch Doctor" recycled for good measure -- are well integrated into the action.
An Elaborate Tale
The complex plot begins with a parody of Raiders of the Lost Ark, complete with John Williams' original galloping musical theme, with Tommy Pickles (voiced by E.G. Daily) leading twins Lil and Phil Deville (both Kath Soucie), and best pal Chuckie Finster (Christine Cavanaugh), on a dangerous expedition in a ruined temple, that in reality turns out to be the Pickles' kitchen. The famous Indiana Jones rolling ball (here a CGI creation that sticks out from its surroundings like the proverbial sore thumb) transforms out of the babes' imaginations into the looming, rotund belly of Tommy's pregnant mom, Didi (Melanie Chartoff).
The opening serves to establish the almost brotherly relationship between Chucky and Tommy, which will be pushed to the limit as a result of the arrival of Tommy's newborn brother, Dylan (Dil for short -- "Dil Pickles," get it?). Tommy's entrepreneurial dad Stu (Jack Riley), meanwhile, is trying to perfect his latest invention, a new "perfect children's toy" called the Reptar Wagon, a freewheeling, dino-shaped kiddie vehicle that spews real flames from its mouth.
The actual arrival of Dil in the birthing center run by quack child-care expert Dr. Lipshitz (voiced all too briefly by the splendid Tony Jay), leads to a rousing musical number in the nursery featuring a chorus of newborns, voiced by such pop, rock and soul stars as Beck, Iggy Pop, Lisa Loeb, Patti Smith and Lou Rawls. Much to the distress of his exhausted parents and the entire neighborhood, Baby Dil turns out to be one of those kids who never stops crying. Tommy in particular is upset because, in addition to the noise, he is fraught with feelings of parental rejection, fueled, of course, by his bratty older cousin Angelica (Cheryl Chase), whose self-centered obnoxiousness has now reached Omen-like proportions. In an attempt to comfort Tommy, Stu bestows upon him the familial responsibility of looking out for his new brother, which the toddler takes very seriously. While Tommy is hashing out his sibling rivalry problem, a seemingly out-of-nowhere subplot appears involving the Russian-based Banana Bros. Monkey Circus. Escaping from their cages, a pack of gonzo monkeys commandeer the train and ultimately drive it over a cliff and down into the forest. Unfortunately, Baby Dil has encroached on the lives of all the toddlers to such a degree that they decide to rectify the situation by returning the "broken" baby to the "baby store" for a refund. With "help" from Angelica; however, Tommy, Chucky, Lil, Phil and Dil are instead thrust out into the world in the Reptar Wagon. After a wild, destructive ride through the city, they end up in the middle of the dark, foreboding woods.
Help -- if that's the word -- is soon on the way from three separate parties: Angelica herself, who drafts the Pickles' mutt Spike as a bloodhound to track the babies (but only so she can recover her beloved doll, which Dil snatched before leaving); the parents, led by inept Stu and confused Grandpa Lou (Michael Bell, replacing the late David Doyle); and the media, represented by sleazy TV reporter Rex Pester, who is voiced almost unrecognizably by Tim Curry. Also involved in the manhunt are park rangers Frank (David Spade) and Margaret (the ubiquitous Whoopi Goldberg, here thoroughly wasted), and a police lieutenant voiced by comic Margaret Cho. In the woods, Dil's banana baby food lures out the wild, escapee monkeys, who wreak havoc with the babies and eventually kidnap the newborn. Dil is ultimately rescued, but the task of dealing with the needs of a child even younger than they are leads Lil, Phil and even Chucky to mutiny, leaving Tommy alone in the dark, rainy, wolf-infested woods to deal with his younger brother. The Blundering Point Up to this point, Virgien and Kovalyov deftly handled all the parallel story tracks, weaving them together in such a way that the focus is never lost. Here, however, the movie stumbles, not as a result of plot confusion, but due to a sudden shift in tone. In opting for a darker, threatening, more emotionally real tone, the filmmakers lose the established baby's-eye-view of the conventional world since the dangers are no longer imaginary. Plus, the babes begin to act more like edgy adolescents. Despite the stylized character designs, the combination of realistic settings, emotionally wrenching scenes, and the disappearance of songs by the third act (a structural problem that Anastasia also faced) renders a literalness to the action that will trouble anyone who has a problem with children-in-jeopardy scenes.
The most startlingly grim moment is ironically also the most Disney-ish (except for an earlier, very funny visual spoof of Bambi): a dramatic fight between a slavering wolf that has been stalking the babies and heroic Spike the dog (who frankly looks ridiculous in such a conflict), which is played against the aforementioned sunset. Is this Rugrats or Beauty and the Beast? What's more, the ending which quickly follows seems rushed and forced, even corny, particularly in light of the careful presentation of plot, exposition and character motivation that has preceded it. While it has much to offer, The Rugrats Movie ultimately suffers from trying to reshape itself into the established form that people have come to expect in an animated film, a temptation to which "Beavis and Butt-head Do America," for instance, refused to succumb. All Rugrats images courtesy of and © 1998 Viacom International Inc. All rights reserved. Michael Mallory is an animation writer and author of Hanna-Barbara Cartoons, published by Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc.
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Editor's Notebook: November 1998