The Wild Thornberrys Movie (2002)

Directed by Cathy Malkasian and Jeff McGrath. Voices: Lacey Chabet, Tom Kane, Danielle Harris, Tim Curry, Jodi Carslisle, Flea. Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies.

Decent Films Ratings

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

External Ratings

MPAA ?PG USCCB ?A-I

Content advisory: Some menace and adventure peril that might frighten very young children; mild body function humor (including a single flatulence joke); mild humor involving icky insects; moderate body part humor (involving bottom-shaking and wedgie-giving).

Note: This review was written by a guest critic.

By Jimmy Akin

Meet the Wild Thornberrys, a perfectly normal family:

  • Nigel Thornberry (Tim Curry) is a good-natured, somewhat daft British father, who hosts a successful nature program.
  • His American wife, Marianne (Jodi Carslisle), is the show’s producer and cinematographer. She also is the mechanic for the family "ComVee" — a tricked-out RV in which the Thornberrys travel the world in search of good animal footage.
  • Their eldest daughter, Debbie (Danielle Harris), is a typical, self-absorbed adolescent who reads Teenage Wasteland magazine and pines for a more "civilized" lifestyle than the family leads.
  • And their youngest daughter, Eliza (Lacey Chabet), is a perfectly normal girl in pigtails, who has an enormous secret: She can talk to animals. Why is this a secret? Because if she ever tells anyone, she’ll lose her power forever.
  • There also are a couple of honorary Thornberrys: jabbering jungle boy Donnie (Flea), whose parents are missing, and Darwin (Tom Kane), a self-centered, nervous chimpanzee who is Eliza’s best friend.

Okay, so they’re not such a normal family, but they try to be. In spite of their globe-spanning, adventurous careers, Nigel and Marianne want to make their family a wholesome, loving place. And they do. It’s clear that the whole clan genuinely cares about each other. Even cynical Debbie does.

You may already have met the Wild Thornberrys if your children follow their adventures on the cable channel Nickelodeon. This is another big screen adaptation of one of Nick’s small screen cartoons, like the successful Rugrats! movies and the unfortunate Hey Arnold! The Movie.

We meet up with the Thornberrys while they are on safari in Africa, preparing to film a rare, never-before-caught-on-tape event in which dozens of elephants gather during a solar eclipse.

Their plans start to go awry when a cheetah cub Eliza is caring for gets stolen by poachers. Desperate to rescue the cub, which its mother entrusted to Eliza, our young heroine mounts an unsuccessful rescue attempt that endangers her and forces the family to come to her rescue.

Then something really awful happens.

This isn’t the first time Eliza has gotten into trouble. In fact, she regularly sneaks off to talk to different kinds of animals. Now the chickens are coming home to roost (so to speak). At the urging of Eliza’s stern but loving grandmother, her parents decide to send her to boarding school in London to keep her safe and out of trouble. (Previously, she and Debbie had been homeschooled.)

Eliza is crushed. Being separated from her family and all her animal friends in the wild is her worst nightmare. (Actually, she has a worse one, but that doesn’t happen until later in the movie.)

She tries to make the best of her new life, but events pull her back to Africa, where she must rescue the cheetah cub that was her responsibility, as well as fulfill an even greater destiny of which she is unaware.

You see, the poachers who took the cub have bigger plans. They’re about to attempt the mother of all animal-poaching schemes.

In the process of thwarting them, Eliza must confront her own juvenile mistakes, find resources within herself that she never thought she had, and make a personal sacrifice of enormous dimensions.

The film is a mixed success. Fans of "The Wild Thornberrys" will enjoy it, but it doesn’t have much ability to reach beyond its core audience.

It starts off slow — in fact, too slow — but it begins to involve the audience more and more as the plot develops. Once Eliza is back in Africa on her poacher-thwarting mission, it becomes quite engaging. Eliza’s act of personal sacrifice is moving, and in the end the movie pulls off a genuinely heartwarming finale.

The humor is subdued and sometimes clever. The audience I saw it with chuckled pleasantly on a regular basis, but the film could have benefited by the addition of a few laugh-out-loud moments.

The animation is good. Unlike the Snee-Oosh animation house that produced Hey Arnold! The Movie, the folks at Klasky-Csupo (which also did the Rugrats! movies) realize the need to change the TV animation style in order to make it suitable for the big screen. In particular, the lines have to be thinner and there has to be more shading than is typical of small-screen animation.

The soundtrack also is good. It includes songs by a number of well-known recording artists, including Paul Simon, Sting, and Peter Gabriel.

Despite the fact that Eliza can talk to animals (requiring them to be personified), the film does not turn into a platform for animal rights, radical environmentalism, or vegetarianism. Indeed, though the movie doesn’t explore the point, it is indirectly acknowledged that some of Eliza’s friends eat others of Eliza’s friends. That’s the law of the jungle.

The only real messages here are that animals should be treated with kindness and poaching is a Bad Thing — points with which Christians agree (cf. CCC 2416).

Of more concern to some parents might be the way in which Eliza got her power. On the TV show we are simply told in the opening credits that "something amazing" happened to her, and we see a bit of the event. The movie is more explicit: An African shaman gave her the ability to talk to animals by magic.

Though the film is more explicit about the magical basis than the TV show, the magic doesn’t dominate the plot. Harry Potter this is not. It’s simply meant to provide a credible explanation for what the series is really interested in: the idea of talking to animals. There is therefore little reason for concern about risk to the faith of children.

For fans of the series, the movie also does something that will open up new dramatic potential in future seasons of the show. This is something Klasky-Csupo typically does with its big screen adaptations. In the two Rugrats! movies the franchise was freshened by the introduction of new regular characters (Tommy’s baby brother, Dill, and Chuckie’s new mom and step-sister). The Wild Thornberrys Movie doesn’t add new members to the main cast, but there is a permanent shift in the relationship of two of the characters that will open new dramatic doors down the line. (I can’t tell you what the shift is or I’d turn into a baboon.)

Though the film does have some tense moments, in general it is slower and less intense than many contemporary cartoons. This, in its way, can be an asset. Many cartoons are too frenetic, too intense. Here, though the beginning of the film is a bit too slow, the movie becomes interesting and can serve as a form of steady family entertainment for the holidays.

Tags: Animation, Family

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