Rugrats Go Wild!

Gimmicks gone wild: Odorama and guest stars from <i>The Wild Thornberrys </i>are among the tactics used to promote the latest <i>Rugrats</i> film.

Gimmicks gone wild: Odorama and guest stars from The Wild Thornberrys are among the tactics used to promote the latest Rugrats film.

Rated 2.0

I guess I’m something of a fence-sitter when it comes to Rugrats, the animated series about a gang of diapered toddlers that’s been running on Nickelodeon since 1991. I don’t watch the series, although I have nothing against it; like Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, it’s part of a venerable tradition that goes as far back as the first Our Gang comedies. I enjoyed The Rugrats Movie in 1998 but didn’t see the second one (Rugrats in Paris: The Movie, 2000) and have never given a second glance to any of the various video editions that Nickelodeon has pumped out from time to time.

This brings us to Rugrats Go Wild!, the new theatrical feature. Actually, it’s also the new Wild Thornberrys movie, too. In a canny—some might even say cynical—piece of cross-promotion, Nickelodeon has combined its two biggest animated hits into one movie by marooning both sets of characters on the same desert island. The Rugrats gang is shipwrecked in the middle of a cruise vacation; the Thornberrys are there hunting for an elusive purple leopard (all, that is, except for spoiled teen daughter Debbie Thornberry, who would rather be anywhere else).

The “guest-starring” Thornberrys aren’t the only gimmick in Rugrats Go Wild. There’s also something called—wait for it—Odorama. In yet another piece of, um, creative marketing synergy, customers who drop by a certain fast-food chain can collect a scratch-and-sniff card to take to the movie with them. (The name of the fast-food chain is hardly a secret, but I won’t name it here because I just hate to encourage this kind of thing.) Take that scratch-and-sniff card to the movie with you, and (it says here) you can smell the adventure as well as see and hear it; just wait for a number to flash on the screen and then scratch the same number on the card and sniff it.

I don’t think it’s giving away too much of the plot to say that the scents on the card are, in order: strawberry, peanut butter, flowers, smelly feet, root-beer float and fish. But it may be giving away more than they want you to know to say that, on my card at least, everything except for the strawberry and (just my luck) the smelly feet smelled exactly like processed cardboard; even knowing what I was supposed to smell didn’t help.

But then, Rugrats Go Wild! doesn’t give you much time to linger over your scratch-and-sniff card. If anything, the title is only too accurate; the movie rips along like a gasoline fire, screeching and bellowing and piling up gags until it bulges at the seams for every second of its 81 minutes. Even the few songs are rattled off in a caffeinated frenzy; like everything in the movie, they’re over before we can even start enjoying them. Rugrats Go Wild! is high-spirited and energetic, but it’s also relentless and nerve-wracking, exhausting to sit through.

Directors John Eng and Norton Virgien and writer Kate Boutilier generally pitch their movie at the level of a hyperactive 4-year-old, but—by their own lights, at least—they don’t neglect the grownups. Tucked neatly in among the poop-and-doody jokes—like tequila shots in an Easter basket—are casual references to old movies and baby-boomer TV shows from Gone with the Wind to Gilligan’s Island. It’s a strategy that has served well in the past, but here it gets a bit obsessive. Some of the in-jokes, in fact, are just plain bizarre. One in particular is sure to be utterly incomprehensible to anyone younger than 40. It comes when nasty little Angelica, after some setback or other, turns to us and says, “Years from now, when I write about this—and I will—I won’t be kind.” (It’s from 1956’s Tea and Sympathy, if you care.)

Some might call Rugrats Go Wild! a harmless time-killer. But this movie doesn’t just kill time; it tortures and murders it. And though it’s visually inventive and colorful, its real cleverness goes almost unnoticed: It persuades you to plunk down good money to watch nothing more than an 81-minute commercial for Nickelodeon TV.