Animated environmentalism

The late Timothy Leary’s daydreams.

The late Timothy Leary’s daydreams.

Rated 3.0

The folks at Nickelodeon have a pleasant, slightly touched-in-the-head animated film on their hands with The Wild Thornberrys Movie, a nice surprise for kids and their parents this holiday season.Being that I’m no big fan of The Rugrats, another of Nick’s cartoon juggernauts, the prospect of seeing the latest big screen version of a Nickelodeon TV show had me a few hundred miles south of anything resembling excitement. While I’ve only caught snippets of the show, some of the animation I had seen in previews for the movie looked very Rugrat-like, so I was preparing to be annoyed.

Curse me, for I am sometimes a jaded fool. Watching this cartoon, I found myself a little bit enchanted by the antics of the Thornberrys, a family of wildly varying personality types traveling the world in a Winnebago and producing nature films. From the good-natured, affable father, Nigel (voice of Tim Curry), to the hyperactive, lunatic young son, Donnie (voice of Flea), the characters are quite wonderful.

At the center of the action is Eliza Thornberry (voice of Lacey Chabert), a devout environmentalist with the power to speak to animals à la Dr. Doolittle. During an African expedition, Eliza ignores the wishes of a cheetah mother (Alfre Woodard) and takes her kittens out of their safety zone, with one of them getting kidnapped by poachers.

Eliza goes on a quest to rescue the baby cheetah, only to get sidetracked when sent off to a London boarding school. Some may see the switch in locales as a way to pad the story, but I found it to be a good opportunity to add peer pressure to the many subjects Thornberrys addresses.

With its positive ecological message, and a quick nod to the perils of making new friends at school, the film qualifies as a decent educational experience. It just might get kids asking some important questions, rather than simply collecting the film’s action figures and trading cards.

Among the film’s other delights is Eliza’s chimpanzee sidekick Darwin (Tom Kane), who follows Eliza to her boarding school. When Darwin is discovered after dressing in drag for a visit to the school’s cafeteria, he’s banished to the horse stable, home for some good, healthy fart humor.

The film’s visuals, while not as wondrous as most Disney fare, are fun to look at. The animators have given the characters a dimension that goes beyond their television incarnations. There’s quite an impressive cast assembled to provide voice work. Listen carefully for the likes of Marisa Tomei, Brenda Blethyn, Rupert Everett and Lynn Redgrave, who round out a quality cast of vocal chords.

Apparently, a lot of famous musicians have kids who watch the TV show. The film’s soundtrack roster is stellar, including Dave Matthews, P. Diddy, Paul Simon and numerous contributions by Peter Gabriel. (One selection is Gabriel’s beautiful Animal Nation, a song he’s currently performing on tour). The list goes on, with The Pretenders and even Tom Jones offering up songs. Hell, I might have to get the album.

The film relies on frantic, sometimes too-hyper humor. Little Donnie is a constant source of motion, prone to frequent performances of his patented “Wedgie-Dance.” But Thornberrys also possesses some refreshingly intelligent humor, including father Nigel’s discovery of the wonders of sarcasm.

Most important, it’s got some nice messages and good tunes for the kiddies. If your children enjoyed the very good Harry Potter sequel but were a little spooked or depressed by its dark tone, The Wild Thornberrys Movie could be a harmless antidote. It certainly surprised me, and I just might watch the TV program the next time I see it while channel surfing.