The Rugrats Movie (1998)

1998, Nickelodeon/Paramount. Directed by Igor Kovalyov and Norton Virgien. Voices: E. G. Daily, Christine Cavanaugh, Cheryl Chase, Kath Soucie, Jack Riley, Melanie Chartoff. Animated.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?B
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? +0
Age
Appropriateness
?Kids & Up

External Ratings

MPAA ?G USCCB ?A-I

Content advisory: Mild crude humor involving babies (e.g., a baby barfing due to motion sickness; a flatulence joke); mild cartoon menace that might frighten very small children.

Note: This review was written by a guest critic.

By Jimmy Akin

Changes are coming to the pastel-colored Rugrats universe, and The Rugrats Movie brings them. It is the biggest things that has happened to the series in its nearly ten year run: a new Rugrat is being born.

For those who may not be aware of the hit Nickelodeon cartoon, "Rugrats" is the story of four babies: the courageous and inventive Tommy Pickles (E. G. Daily); his best friend, the bashful and anxiety-prone Chuckie Finster (Christine Cavanaugh); and the bickering, worm-eating neighbor twins Phil and Lil De Ville (Kath Soucie).

The cast also includes a host of parents, grandparents, relatives, and friends. It’s an "Upstairs, Downstairs" story of small children’s interaction with an (not entirely successful) attempt to understand the adult world around them.

Their efforts are hampered by the fact that none of the Rugrats can speak adult talk. The only one who can is Tommy’s three-year old cousin Angelica (Cheryl Chase). Unfortunately, her parents have been too indulgent with her. She’s mean, selfish, and loves to trick and exploit the babies. (Though the always gets her comeuppance in the end.)

For years the Rugrats universe was static. But now a huge rock is being to dropped into the pond: Young Tommy Pickles’ brother Dylan (Dil) is about to be born. And the Rugrats will never be the same.

Unfortunately, this is more true that one might wish.

The original "Rugrats" TV series was charming and inventive. One couldn’t help being delighted by the misadventures of the cute tykes and their part-real, part-fantasy interaction with the world around them. But with time the series’ creators started running out of ideas, and when Nickelodeon decided to revive the series both for television and the big screen, the creators decided to do what many with franchises with flagging creativity do: introduce new characters to freshen the mix.

Enter Dil Pickles!

Unfortunately, as a newborn Dil is not only self-centered and demanding (in fact, he spends the first part of the movie being colicky), he also doesn’t have the ability to move or speak (even in baby-language) like the other Rugrats. The result? He functions mostly as a prop that furthers the plot. He’s a living MacGuffin, to use Alfred Hitchcock’s term.

After Dil’s introduction, the tone of both the revived TV series and the future movies changed dramatically. As a result, The Rugrats Movie can be seen as the "old" Rugrats’ last hurrah. It captures the same magic as the original series, amplified and rendered in grander style for the big screen.

Part of that grander style is the animation, which is better than anything the TV-series could afford. The lines are thinner, the colors more vibrant, and there is new shading and even integrated photos and computer graphics. The result is several steps above the clunky, offputting animation of the series’ early episodes.

Adults watching it with their children will also appreciate the clever dialogue, which often turns on the babies’ cute misunderstandings of adult language (a hospital is a hopsicle, a wizard is a lizard, etc.). One of the most interesting of these is the babies’ use of the name "Bob," which is their mishearing of "God." Despite their confusion on this, they take the concept seriously, giving thanks to God at appropriate times (looking to the sky and saying "Thanks, Bob!"). The mixup even results in unexpected irony when the babies perceive the song "A Baby Is A Gift From Above" as "A Baby Is A Gift From A Bob"--theologically true, when parsed through the Rugrats’ baby-language.

On TV "Rugrats" often was more psychologically sophisticated than one might expect from a cartoon, and the movie is, too. As the reality of Dil’s birth begins to sink in on Tommy, he starts to have what many children do: replacement anxiety--the fear that mommy and daddy will care more about the newborn than about them. And with the requirements colicky Dil is imposing on the family, Tommy’s new fears seem confirmed. This is brought home in poignant manner for long-time "Rugrats" fans in a scene where Tommy’s mother and father sing a lullaby to calm Dil that is based on a lullaby they sang to Tommy when he was feverish in an early episode.

While replacement anxiety would be predictable for a movie with this plot, the creators’ add additional layers of psychological texture, juxtaposing the nascent sibling rivalry between Tommy and Dil with the already-established, full-blown sibling rivalry between Tommy’s father (Jack Riley) and his older brother, Drew. In the end, a reconciliation occurs between the brothers of both generations.

Adults will also get a chuckle from the opportune inclusion in the movie of a couple of classic rock songs they may remember from their own childhoods, including a version of the 1960s hit "Witch Doctor" ("ooo-eee, ooo-ahh-ahh, ting-tang, walla-walla bing-bang!") and the 1980s Blondie hit "One Way Or Another" ("…I’m gonna find ya; I’m gonna getcha, getcha, getcha, getcha!").

To be sure, there are flaws in the film, including an obligatory-for-its-period nod to political correctness when Tommy’s mother warns a friend against "gender stereotyping" babies (the edge is taken off this by the fact that Tommy’s parents frequently quote pop psychology child-rearing advice that is portrayed as ridiculous from the outset). Nevertheless, The Rugrats Movie strongly stresses family values and delivers an amusing, sometimes heartwarming film experience.

Tags: Animation, Comedy, Family

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