“The Wild Thornberrys” are a family that travels to exotic locales all over the world to film nature documentaries for television. The on-camera talent is the relentlessly cheerful father, Nigel (voice of Tim Curry) with a frightfully posh, “Mumsy, do have a spot of tea”-style British accent. Behind the camera is the efficient but affectionate mother, Marianne (voice of Jodi Carlisle). The heroine of the story, though, is their daughter, Eliza (voice of “Party of Five’s” Lacy Chabert), a kind of Dr. Dolittle in braids and braces. She can understand and communicate in animal language thanks to special powers given to her by a shaman, on condition that she never tell anyone about it. Eliza has an older sister, Debbie, who would much rather be at the mall talking with other teenagers about what is and isn’t cool.
The family also has a pet chimpanzee named Darwin (voice of Tom Kane), who is Eliza’s best friend. And they have adopted a toddler named Donnie (voice of rock star Flea). It is an amusing twist that the chimp is more human than monkey, almost excessively civilized while the human baby (as explained in another movie, raised by orangutans) is more monkey than human and just about feral.
The Thornberrys are filming in Africa. One night, while Eliza is playing with some cheetah cubs, one is snatched via helicopter by a poacher. Eliza risks her life to save the cub, but is knocked to the ground when the poacher cuts the rope ladder. Her parents, worried for her safety, send her to England to boarding school and Darwin goes with her by hiding in her suitcase. But she and Darwin return to Africa when she learns that the poachers are after a herd of elephants. It’s up to Eliza to save the day, and it will require great courage and the willingness to sacrifice anything, even her ability to talk to animals.
Like “Rugrats,” created by the same team, “The Wild Thornberrys” is a popular series on Nickeoldeon. So, like “Rugrats,” it is wholesome enough to appeal to parents and funny enough to appeal to kids. The series is affiliated with the conservation group the National Wildlife Federation and so occasionally there are nuggets of nature facts thrown in to add a little substance. Eliza is in the grand tradition of adventuresome pre-adolescent fictional heroines like Alice, Pippi, Dorothy, and Pollyanna. She is brave, smart, loyal, and empathetic. She has good judgment most of the time, but when she doesn’t, she learns from her mistakes.
The voice talent is first-rate, including Rupert Everett, Lynn Redgrave, Marisa Tomei, and Alfre Woodward. The action sequences are handled well and there are some witty moments, as when Debbie tries to explain to her father that she is trying to be sarcastic. It is nothing more than a supersized version of the television series projected onto a theater screen, but it never pretends to be anything more and is relatively pleasant for children and relatively painless for parents.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Eliza and Debbie feel so differently about the animals. They should also talk to children about why Eliza’s decision to run away from school without telling her parents was wrong, no matter how worthwhile her reasons. They should discuss the way that Eliza keeps a very big secret from her family and how to know when you should not keep a secret from your parents. Some families will also want to discuss the religious figure who bestows “powers” on Eliza and how we can respect and find common ground with other religions but still remain true to our own faith.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Rugrats: The Movie” and “The Crocodile Hunter.”