My daughter and I were apprehensive about the new "Rugrats" movie. In her
short, 4-year-old life, she had only faced the big screen twice,
and the last encounter had been a disaster -- the first five minutes of
Disney's "Mulan" sent her fleeing from the theater in terror. Not that I
blamed her -- the specter of Huns scaling the Great Wall of China has
haunted countless generations of Chinese, and if there is anything that
Disney does really well, it's scare the bejeezus out of little kids. My wife
and I wondered if we'd permanently scarred the poor kid.
Furthermore, my daughter had seen previews of the "Rugrats" movie on the
Cartoon Channel. The preview, she advised me, was "a little scary." I feared
the worst. "Rugrats," the cartoon, is delightful in large part because it
makes journeys such as a trip to the sandbox at the other park a
deeply frightful undertaking. Just a few days ago, an episode featuring
potty-training angst was so emotionally loaded that my daughter, who
graduated from the diaper set a full two years ago, could hardly move -- her
tension visible in every line on her little brow.
Of course, to an infant or toddler, Mom or Dad's simple departure to the
next room to grab a cup of coffee sets the stage for unspeakable horror.
"Rugrats," the cartoon, understands this infant's-eye view of the world
better than any other pop-cultural offering. There's no need to up the ante, to trade the drama of the playground for more mundane, real-world thrills. In the preview, the sight of Tommy and Chuckie dressed in
mock-Indiana Jones outfits boded ill. I sensed a tragedy in the making.
But Klasky-Csupo, the animation studio that produces "Rugrats," turns out
to be too smart to betray its franchise. Yes, my daughter did get nervous at
particular junctures -- there is, after all, a great big slobbery wolf, and
let's face it, the prospect of a bunch of babies lost in the woods will
scare anyone -- but at no time did she feel the need to turn tail. She had a
That Indiana Jones malarkey turned out to be just a little joke -- a
fantasy sequence. That wasn't actually a mysterious mountain that the kids
were scaling in search of a fantastic totem -- it was the refrigerator.
The refrigerator revelation elicited laughs from parents and children
alike at the "Rugrats" screening -- offering proof, once again, of why
"Rugrats" rules. "Rugrats," the movie, maintains the intelligence and sly
humor that make the cartoon fun. The kids get their poopy-diaper jokes and
the grownups get their yuppie satire jabs -- everyone ends up satisfied.
That kind of double-barreled narrative is a tough trick -- something you'll never see duplicated by "Barney" or, God forbid, the "Teletubbies."
So never mind the lost-in-the-woods plot, the wolf and the escaped
circus monkeys -- the core dramatic tension in "Rugrats," the movie, is
generated by one of the oldest and most well-worn plot devices in children's
entertainment: the dreaded new baby. Tommy, the toddler most
Rugrat critics agree embodies the moral center of the "Rugrats" universe,
gets a new brother.
Why does the new-baby gambit keep popping up in children's books and
movies? Because it works, that's why. My daughter will tell you all about
it -- she's been there, she's got a new baby brother and boy can she
relate. She knows the pain of displacement that comes when suddenly someone else is cuddled next to mom. She knows the agony of having to
share her special toys with an interloper. Worst of all, she knows what it's
like to be forced to assume the mantle of elder-sibling responsibility when
in her heart of hearts she still wants to be the baby.
Again, it's an old story. But "Rugrats," which already so clearly
dominates the infants-with-attitude cultural landscape, is exquisitely
positioned to exploit this narrative theme and deliver it with devastating
impact. When the new baby (Dylan Pickle -- Dill Pickle for short) drains the
last baby bottle of milk, you can feel Tommy's anger and
despair deep down in your gut. At times like these, inserting a wolf into
the plot is pure overkill.
For me, the resolution of the wolf plot was almost an afterthought. The
real climax of the film comes earlier, as a rainstorm in the middle of the
night pounds down upon the forlorn babies. Tommy and Dylan have been
separated from the others, and Tommy's having a hard time coping. But
just when all looks lost, rapprochement is reached -- huddled beneath a tree
root, the two children make the ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate gesture of
brotherly love: They share the baby blanket.
Babies, babies, everywhere. I asked my daughter what part of the movie
she liked the best. Without hesitation, she said her favorite part was the
hospital scene early on when Baby Dill is born -- and the rest of the babies
in the infant ward do a catchy little song-and-dance number. Not only did
this reassure me as to a happy lack of lingering resentment my daughter
might feel about her own family circumstances, but it further underlined why
"Rugrats"-viewing is a basically positive experience, for parents and children
alike. The underlying message of "Rugrats" is that babies, no matter if
they're squalling, puking, pooping or simply refusing to allow you to sleep,
are really neat.