Film reviews and more since 2009

Rugrats Go Wild (2003) review

Dir. Norton Virgien and John Eng

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

When I reviewed Rugrats Go Wild all the way back in 2010 — my salad days of being a film critic — I gave it one-and-a-half stars and called it “another stupid crossover film that is barely amusing and excruciating to watch.” Let this re-review be a lesson for aspiring/young film critics: your reviews are always written in pencil, never in pen.

Rugrats Go Wild is the best of its trilogy. An underrated aspect of children’s television in the 2000s was how well showrunners and animators nailed crossovers. The Jimmy Timmy Power Hour became a significant talking-point at my school, and after it premiered, everyone who tuned into Nickelodeon that evening realized it was well-worth talking about. Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys had little else in common besides both being created by the animation power-couple that is Klasky Csupó, but put them both in a movie and throw it on the big-screen? You had yourself a concept.

By the time the film was released, Rugrats was in its twilight. The series had a 12-year run, and Spongebob Squarepants was not only ascending, but crushing it in popularity (the first film adaptation of the series would be released the following year and earn about double what Rugrats Go Wild earned). Nickelodeon knew they had to sell this film uniquely, which is why they released an scented card in conjunction with the film. Released in “Smell-O-Vision,” the film encouraged audiences to visit a nearby Burger King or Blockbuster, pick up an index card with numbers on it, and scratch and sniff said numbers when the corresponding digits appeared on screen in order to enhance the moviegoing experience.

Beyond that gimmick — which has only been used for John Waters’ Polyester and Spy Kids: All the Time in the World — the film also marks the first time Spike, the Pickles’ family dog, would speak. Of all people, Bruce Willis is the voice of the pup, and he even has a musical number. Despite seeing this film at least twice before my most recent rewatch, I completely forgot this crucial plot-point. Perhaps a reason for my higher rating is a recognition of simpler times. Before streaming, cards with specific odors and talking animated dogs were enough to get us into a movie theater.

Rugrats Go Wild just so happens to be the most effectively plotted film of the trilogy, and the crossover aspect works so well because the character personalities line up swimmingly. It all starts with Tommy Pickles’ (voiced by E. G. Daily) fascination with “Nigel Strawberry” (his real name is Nigel Thornberry, but let kids be kids), the host of a nature show that inspires Tommy and his friends — Chuckie (Nancy Cartwright), Phil and Lil (Kath Soucie), and younger brother Dil (Tara Strong) — to go on safaris of their own in their backyard sandbox.

It’s around this time that Stu (Jack Riley), Tommy’s dad, has the bright idea of tricking the babies and their parents that they’ll be attending a lavish cruise, when in reality, they’ll be setting sail on a rinky-dink squib in effort to increase family bonding. Long story short, the ramshackle boat winds up capsizing, leaving the gang deserted on an uninhabited island. At least, they think it’s unoccupied. The island is actually home to the Thornberry family, where the teenage Debbie (Danielle Harris) and tween Eliza (Lacey Chabert) are tired of their parents, Nigel (Tim Curry) and Marianne (Jodi Carlisle), constantly searching for wildlife rather than being home for family meals.

When Angelica (Cheryl Chase) gets bossy and asserts herself as the island princess, Tommy, and the gang, accompanied by relative newcomers Kimi (Dionne Quan) and Susie Carmichael (Cree Summer), set off on-foot into the mysterious jungle to find Nigel as well a way off the island.

The fun in Rugrats Go Wild is seeing how well the “rugrats” interact with the Thornberry family. The most enjoyable scenes come when the always-frightened Chuckie comes into contact with Donnie (Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea), the enthusiastically feral young boy, who steals Chuckie’s clothes during his dip in the river and runs around the jungle like he owns it. The dichotomy of the two characters is part of their charm, and the storyline also allows for Chuckie to separate from the core group, which prompts his personal growth and prevents Tommy and the group from having to stop every few minutes to tend to Chuckie’s nervousness.

Kimi and Susie are also welcomed additions to the gaggle of babies. Kimi’s bravery assures Tommy isn’t the only one doing the heavy-lifting in that department, and Susie’s more mature and logical eloquence is in itself a contrast from Angelica’s bossiness. While the previous [i]Rugrats[/i] movies have been a mixed bag, Rugrats Go Wild makes use of late-addition characters to enhance not only the story but the songs themselves (yes, this we are 3-for-3 in the musical department). Let it be known that no song in this trilogy has come close to matching “It’s a Jungle Out Here,” a tune performed by the babies, with great verses such as this one:

Kimi: “We’re somewheres new and we haven’t a clue.”
Susie: “I just saw that butterfly turn blue.”
Lil: “This is a strange and mysterious place.”
Phil: “With lost of yummy buggies for us to chase.”

In the midst of all the light-hearted infighting between the babies, the film manages to stumble upon some sly lessons, such as the inevitable disappointment you might face when meeting your heroes. Tommy is in for a rude awakening when he finds out that Nigel is a bumbling nature-nut, who benefits from great editing. Angelica finds someone bossier than her in Debbie, and Darwin just so happens to exchange some funny, unrequited barbs against Spike upon their initial meeting.

Besides the fluid amalgamation of two distinctly different cartoon families, Rugrats Go Wild is fluid and it moves from beginning to end in less than 80 minutes. It plays like a TV special, with upgraded animation and, if you happen to still have Smell-O-Vision card, an added dimension. When compared to the previous two films, it doesn’t have the darkness of The Rugrats Movie and also lacks the cartoonish and cliche villain of Rugrats in Paris. There is no real antagonist in this picture. Rather, it’s about two families striving to get along. On that note, its message remains true in these divisive times.

NOTE: As of this writing, Rugrats Go Wild is streaming for free on Pluto TV and on Paramount+ with a subscription.

My review of The Rugrats Movie
My review of Rugrats in Paris: The Movie

Starring: E. G. Daily, Nancy Cartwright, Kath Soucie, Cheryl Chase, Dionne Quan, Tara Strong, Cree Summer, Bruce Willis, Lacey Chabert, Tom Kane, Danielle Harris, Flea, Tim Curry, Jodi Carlisle, Jack Riley, Melanie Chartoff, Michael Bell, and Tress MacNeille. Directed by: Norton Virgien and John Eng.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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