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Published: Friday, 6/13/2003

Movie review: Rugrats Go Wild **

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

If you can a. read this review, b. hold your head upright, or c. stomach anything stronger than a juice box, chances are you are not the target audience for Rugrats Go Wild, but the parent of a target. No mind: Children of all ages, gather around. Today we are going to learn a new term: B-list. Examples explain best: Tom Cruise is A-list. Tom Arnold is B-list. Julia Roberts is A-list. Roberta Flack is B-list. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez - Bennifer, for short - are A-list; while Liza Minnelli and David Gest are the definition of a B-list couple.

Capisce? Hollywood, much like the British Empire and a junior high school mixer, is a deeply rooted caste system. This is not breaking news, but a still relevant way of keeping score, planning lunch dates, etc. Of course, naturally, there is a C-list. But it's too hideous to mention in the pages of Us Weekly, let alone in this brief lesson in celebrity status.

You are now asking yourself: What does any of this have to do with Rugrats Go Wild and why should my 6-year-old care whether or not Melissa Rivers has enough celebrity juice to land front row tickets to Coldplay on a moment's notice?

Fair enough: These days, the B-list extends beyond flesh and blood. The stars of Rugrats Go Wild, the entire casts of two animated Nickelodeon series, Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys, smushed together for the first time, were A-list in the kneecap-breaking world of cartoon television. The Rugrats were TV A-list when the series debuted in 1991; and they were movie A-list when The Rugrats Movie, their first, did gangbuster box office back in 1998.

The Rugrats in Paris: The Movie hung on to a bit of the charm of the first movie, but looked cheaper. The Thornberrys, meanwhile, always the brainier TV alternative, didn't translate as smoothly: The Wild Thornberrys Movie landed decent critical response, but had the feel of a half-hour show stretched to a feature. It never connected with audiences.

Now both groups of big-headed Nick squiggles - imagine the clean lines of Charles Schulz reborn as busy R. Crumb-like underground comix concoctions - are looking a little desperate, a little, dare I say, B-list when it comes to the big screen. The feature animation guest list has narrowed: Disney, Pixar, certain DreamWorks characters like Shrek. All A-list. Nemo is A-list, and a tough act to follow. Even the smallest children, at that age when they love everything, will sense a lack of anything special, anything movie-ish, about Rugrats Go Wild.

“Maybe TV people are only good doing stuff on TV,” one Rugrat wonders aloud, and the assorted children at my screening, wandering around the theater, restless, seemed to agree.

The plot: Think The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones without the inspiration. The toddlers and the whiny yuppie parents of Rugrats are headed on a luxury cruise. But they miss the boat, hop a dinky tugboat, and pull a Gilligan. Stranded on a deserted isle, the toddlers go on adventures and the parents panic. Everyone runs in circles for what feels like 40 minutes.

The other Rugrats movies also had stories that were excuses for silly fun. But there's no shape to this one, no story at all to follow, not even a clear lesson. In the first film, Tommy, the king Rugrat, learned to love a baby brother; in the second, weird kid Chuckie got a new mom. Here, the Rugrats bump into the Thornberrys, a family of nature filmmakers, who are stalking an elusive white leopard, and they run around the island some more. The end.

Because the pace is frantic, because there are more than 20 speaking roles, cobbled together for 85 minutes, you never get a chance for magic, or to enjoy any character. I realize kids don't care a whole lot about plot or character development - but everyone understands pace. To hold parental interest, there are a zillion winking movie references: a Titanic cruise runs into A Perfect Storm and everyone is Cast Away on The Planet of the Apes, where they sit on the beach, From Here to Eternity, and become Raiders of the Lost Ark and Lord of the Flies - on and on.

For the kids, there are the usual Rugrat bare bottoms and jokes about going potty and bodily fluids - nothing unusual for Nickelodeon movies, but the PG rating on this one speaks volumes about the film's over-reliance on gross-outs. You can sense how logy and unimaginative the film is getting when two character jump into a hydrofoil/ motor home and rather than break into a big show-stopping number, they just sing along to the radio. But occasionally someone is conked on the head by a falling coconut and the kids wake up.

Bruce Willis puts in a fun vocal cameo as the voice of Spike the Dog, the Rugrats' pooch, who can finally be understood when he runs into animal-translator Eliza Thornberry (Lacey Chabert). Chrissie Hynde, leader of Ohio's own Pretenders, gives Siri the white leopard a nice purr. The rest is sweaty desperation. Quite literally. Before entering the theater, you're given an Odorama card, just like the kind last used by John Waters on his 1981 suburban comedy, Polyester. Basically, it's a scratch card. When a number flashes on the screen, you scratch the corresponding smell and sniff and Rugrats Go Wild pops to life. Or that's the idea.

One smell is feet. It smelled like Cheetos. Another smell is fish. It smelled like feet. There's also peanut butter and flowers, and the sensation is underwhelming. Feet, Rugrats, strawberries, Thornberrys: In Rugrats Go Wild, they all kind of carry the same stink.



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