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The Wild Thornberrys Movie: A Perfect Balancing Act

If it makes you feel better to bring a child to the theater as an excuse to see The Wild Thornberrys Movie, you won't be disappointed. Klasky-Csupo delivers solid family entertainment in its ongoing balancing act of art and heart.

Plucky Eliza saves the day  not with her special powers but with her heart. All images courtesy of Paramount/Nickelodeon.

Plucky Eliza saves the day not with her special powers but with her heart. All images courtesy of Paramount/Nickelodeon.

I happened to be sitting next to one of Klasky-Csupo's character animation layout artists during the world premiere of The Wild Thornberrys Movie. Before the show started, in casual conversation, he asked me, "Do you think the movie will do well at the box office?"

"I certainly hope so," I answered as the lights went down and I settled in to see the latest TV show to big screen transformation.

A Good Time

Well, the verdict is in and -- The Wild Thornberrys Movie is good, solid family entertainment. If you read no further than these first few introductory paragraphs, you will be happy to know that your hard-won dollars and afternoon hours will not be squandered in patronizing the film.

The premise for the Thornberrys' adventures is simple enough. Nigel and Marianne Thornberry (voiced by Tim Curry and Jodi Carlisle, respectively) are documentary filmmakers who travel around the world with their family, recording the miraculous splendor of the natural world. Along for the ride are rebellious teenager Debbie (Danielle Harris), adopted wild child Donnie (Michael Balzary), and precocious protagonist Eliza (Lacey Chabert), who has the ability to talk with animals. The crew is rounded out by Eliza's chimpanzee friend Darwin, voiced by Tom Kane, whose versatile work ranges from playing Yoda in the Star Wars video games to the professor in the The Powerpuff Girls television series, her aristocratic Grandmumsy Cordelia Thornberry (Lynn Redgrave), and her free-spirited Grandpapa, Colonel Thornberry (also played by Tim Curry). Also lending her talents to the film is Academy Award winner Marisa Tomei, as the new character Bree Blackburn. Each of the characters uniquely contributes to the chemistry of the show, and, in its outwardly effortless calculation to entertain the whole family, The Wild Thornberrys Movie certainly has some personality with whom everyone can identify.

The Thornberrys gang!

The Thornberrys gang!

Now, I am not much inclined to delve into the specifics of the story, nor to recapitulate its plot. Its not that anything wildly unexpected happens, but in my mind, it somewhat deflates the experience of seeing the movie for yourself. (No doubt, there are plenty of online reviews to satisfy your curiosity of the film's details, if you absolutely cannot withhold your discovery.) Suffice to say, Eliza Thornberry uses her gift of being able to communicate with animals to help protect the natural beauty and ecology of, in this case, Africa.

But, it's not quite Eliza's "gift" that is so important here, as much as it is her raw, genuine ability to care. What can one freckle-faced 12-year-old with pigtails and braces do against all the greed, ignorance and hatred in the world? This is the real rumination of the movie. Through Eliza and her family, we are reminded that while caring may appear uncool, it has profoundly radical benefits. In one affectionate scene, Eliza's normally sarcastic teenage sister confides, "You just care. You've never been ordinary." Through doubt and difficulty, there lies an expansive opportunity for compassion and courage. The essential, beating heart of the story is that we don't need extraordinary powers to do extraordinary things. Kate Boutilier, writer of The Wild Thornberrys Movie, remarked, "If one young person walks out of the theater feeling a greater sense of his or her own place in the world and a responsibility to the creatures on this earth, I will feel the movie has succeeded."


Darwin is with Eliza through thick and thin, from late night conversations regarding her fate to an all girls school in England.

Adventure With An Agenda

The Wild Thornberrys television series which inspired the movie is well regarded for its meticulous attention in presenting the world's natural and cultural diversity. Producer Arlene Klasky comments, "We decided that if we're going to take young people to all these marvelous places and expose them to such a wide variety of nature, we'd better portray every indigenous plant, every animal and all the natives as accurately as possible." In addition to its commitment to excellence, the television show is also known for introducing into episodes such prominent figures as renowned chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall, among others. Ark Trust, a nonprofit animal protection organization, has honored The Wild Thornberrys show with two Genesis Awards, given to members of the news and entertainment media for positive portrayals of animal issues. For I>The Wild Thornberrys Movie, a percentage of the premiere's proceeds has been donated to the World Wildlife Fund, which is the world's largest conservation organization, operating in more than 100 countries.

Actor Obba Babbatundé, who portrays the friendly tribesman Boko in the movie, notes, "Having been a consultant in African folklore to schools in New York, I consider it a distinct pleasure to be able to lend my expertise, knowledge and experience to a project as worthwhile as this film." Babbatundé adds, "Also, as an animal rights activist, it is an honor to be taking part in a movie that highlights the plight of endangered species."


Michael Balzary, alias Flea, the bass player from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, voices the Thornberrys' adopted wild child Donnie in the series and the movie. As an inspiration for his own daughter, Balzary has been proud to be involved with the project's ongoing theme of preserving wildlife and respecting nature.

The music in the movie is also noteworthy, with contributions from the likes of Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, P. Diddy and Brandy, The Pretenders, and Youssou N'Dour (you may remember his music from Kirikou and the Sorceress). Music supervisor George Acogny was attracted to The Wild Thornberrys Movie, like others, because of the film's ecological, animal rights and anti-poacher perspective. As a native from Senegal, Acogny brought his unique sensibility to the project in blending African chants and percussion with nontraditional orchestral work.

This isn't how most people's grandparents drop in for a visit!

This isn't how most people's grandparents drop in for a visit!

Fun For A Purpose

However, the film isn't a "save the animals of the world" preachfest. In all, The Wild Thornberrys Movie is a jaunty, well-intentioned 80 minutes of animated adventure, and one that both children and adults can appreciate. Naturally, it bears the distinctive, stylized aesthetic of Klasky-Csupo, as we have seen pioneered in previous productions of The Simpsons, Duckman and, of course, The Rugrats (the movie of which, in 1998, was the first non-Disney animated feature to breach $100 million at the domestic box office).

Some persons would contend that any art which tries to communicate ethical ideas is merely propaganda. Nonetheless, we live during one of those curiously reflective, self-conscious times in history, when already we can imagine future generations, our own grandkids, asking of us, "As the biological heritage of the earth passes into extinction, how is it that we have chosen not to care?"

Here again, The Wild Thornberrys Movie deftly juggles its hopeful ambition for commercial success (a tip of the hat to the marketplace) with its hopeful message of ecological stewardship (a tip of the hat to the human race). It is a clever balance. Will it do well at the box office? I certainly hope so. In the end, critical and commercial success for any animated film, of any aesthetic or genre, implies success for the animation community as a whole.

Once upon a time, Greg Singer served as an agroforestry extension officer in the Peace Corps in Kenya. He now lives in Los Angeles, helping with animation production and game development.