***/**** Image A Sound A Extras D
screenplay by Kate Boutilier
directed by Jeff McGrath and Cathy Malkasian
by Walter Chaw Preaching its message of courage, family, and self-confidence with grace and a bare minimum of soapbox grandstanding and mawkish sentimentality, The Wild Thornberrys Movie is a picture of warmth and imagination. Its globe-trotting wildlife-show family, the titular Thornberrys, have as their most conspicuous member gawky Eliza (voiced by Lacey Chabert), a freckled, bespectacled, orthodontically challenged little girl who earns the power to communicate with animals through an act of kindness. The locating of a traditionally unattractive young female as the superhero at the centre of an adventure serial (the picture is based on a Nickelodeon series) is so rare an idea in American animation that its appearance here makes for one of the more bracing, genuinely exciting creations of the modern popular culture. Its mainstay status in Chinese martial arts and Japanese anime films remains a gulf that U.S. culture, in its occasional simple-mindedness, remains far from bridging.
Set in Africa and executed with style and a sense of scope, The Wild Thornberrys Movie opens with Eliza partially responsible for the poacher-abduction of a cheetah cub, getting exiled to a finishing school in London, and returning to the Dark Continent on the strength of her convictions and her loyalty to friends and adopted family. Chimp Darwin (Tom Kane) functions as Eliza's sidekick and, in an affecting moment, the real tragedy behind a temporary loss of her powers. Less successful are materialistic valley sister Debbie (Danielle Harris) and Donnie (Flea)--the former at least receiving a couple of redemptive moments (her relationship with tribesman Buku (Obba Babatundé) is carried with a sort of nonchalant respect that allows for the flowering of a friendship across cultural--and linguistic--barriers) while the latter is basically just a purveyor of a "wedgie dance" (that doesn't register much past the diaper and sleepover set) and possessor of a signature soundtrack sting so frenetic it sets teeth on edge.
The overriding feeling of The Wild Thornberrys Movie is one of compassion and a certain wistfulness attached to any project, one supposes, that concerns the degradation of wildlife resources. More, though, the picture evokes a little of the fear that parents have for the possible futures of their children--and the sometimes bad choices mothers and fathers make in the interests of doing them good. It's an unexpectedly deep and poignant throughline in what's been seen mainly as a straightforward children's underdog intrigue, an avenue that reveals Eliza's dressing down of Darwin (and subsequent inability to apologize) as a recognition of the sort of rifts that can occur between kids and their parents.
Paul Simon's "Father and Daughter" is only the best song of an excellent soundtrack used to canny effect in the picture--the best-written tune for Simon in years is used so well in the film that it functions almost as score. The professionalism of the soundtrack is rivalled by the natural polish of the voice actors, a sort of unforced comfort with character and dialogue that comes from long experience. The Wild Thornberrys Movie is a wonderful film: a family entertainment that is complex without being obscure, and fun while avoiding, with a couple of lamentable exceptions, the scatological and easy. Along with Lilo & Stitch, it's the best American animated film of 2002--and for the same reasons (its non-traditional girl heroes and unconventional appearances and styles), The Wild Thornberrys Movie is a surprise, and a pleasant one.
Appearing on Paramount DVD in fullscreen and 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers compressed on one side of a dual-layer platter, The Wild Thornberrys Movie looks sharp and lovely on disc. The fullscreen presentation loses a good deal in side information but appears as colourful and sharp as the anamorphic version--the latter exhibiting a greater range in the picture's muted veldt palette. No compression or digital artifacts are in evidence, while black levels are agreeably pitch. Just as jumpy and vibrant is the Dolby 5.1 surround audio, which provides a surplus of effects to all channels. It's a first-rate mix--the plane engine underlay for the Paul Simon tune a particular, subtle highlight.
Perhaps in deference to video quality, the special features on the DVD are particularly light. A music video for the Simon song is sort of a creepy affair, with the troubadour serenading a bedtime moppet as scenes from the movie are projected from behind. Haphazard and clearly slapped together in the eleventh hour, Simon's looking pretty awful, all washed-out and cadaverous. The song's still great in an adult-contemporary sort of way, though. Loading up the disc automatically starts up a trio of trailers: Charlotte's Web 2, a collection of "Sponge Bob Square Pants" videos, and Jimmy Neutron videos join The Wild Thornberrys Movie's trailer, also accessed through the special features menu. A DVD-ROM function allows for a brief preview of the "Wild Thornberrys" PC game, and rounds out the disc. Originally published: April 19, 2003.