This could be the beginning of a beautiful adventure.
I wasn't expecting much from The Wild Thornberries Movie. I've never watched the show, but the animation gives a crude, spastic aura that says "headache." Imagine my surprise when a lush, sensitive, and enjoyable movie unfolded. It has some weaknesses, but it was a mistake to overlook The Wild Thornberries Movie.
Facts of the Case
The Thornberry family travels the globe. Nigel, the father (voiced by Tim Curry), is the host of a nature program that is filmed by his wife Marianne (Jodi Carlisle). They take along their daughters, Debbie (Danielle Harris) and Eliza (Lacey Chabert). They somehow picked up a feral and annoying child, Donnie (Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers). The story centers on Eliza, who once saved a shaman and has been given the power to speak to animals. If she ever reveals her secret, it will be taken away from her.
Her powers allow her to talk to her best friend, a monkey named Darwin (Tom Kane). Darwin is cultured and very British. Together they romp with the animals of the African savannah, particularly the elephants and a trio of cheetah cubs. One fateful day, Eliza loses a cub to a poacher in a helicopter. Crestfallen, she vows to recover the cub.
This disaster is the last straw for Debbie, who has been covering for Eliza's romps in the wild. Debbie has little patience because she despises trudging through the wilderness, isolated from humanity. She rats out her Eliza, who is shipped off to boarding school in London. Darwin stows away in her luggage and causes mayhem at her new school, but Eliza manages to make friends.
One night, the Shaman comes to her in a dream. He tells her to return to Africa and use the gift he gave her. When Eliza returns, she finds the poachers…just in time to discover their sinister plans. Will Eliza find the courage to thwart these evil people and restore balance to the African wild?
Craftsmanship stands out as the movie progresses. Each element contributes to a fast moving but understandable whole.
We'll begin with the animation, the center of the film. The artwork is moody and cinematic. Dramatic shadows obscure faces, stark silhouettes stand against the red sky. A pensive tension permeates the story, and the animation enhances this feeling. The animals are beautifully rendered, as are the flora and African landscapes. It felt like a National Geographic documentary.
The transfer is up to the high standards set by other animated features. The crisp animation and luminous colors are rendered in sharp detail. The images are vivacious and captivating. If I have a complaint, it is that the night scenes were too dark and lacked contrast. On a projector the details were hard to see; on a television the scenes had a grayish cast. In general the visuals were pleasing.
Not to be outdone, the music was superb. A host of top-tier artists contribute to the soundtrack, anchored by Paul Simon's Oscar-nominated song "Father and Daughter." This isn't just a good kid's movie soundtrack; it is a good soundtrack. The tribal hymns lent an epic feel that teetered on the edge of "cheesy globalization commercial" territory. Peter Gabriel, Dave Matthews, Reel Big Fish, P. Diddy, Bow Wow, Youssou N'Dour, and many others add their special ambience to the music. The songs were integrated well, enhancing the various moods of adventure, drama, danger, peace, and sacrifice.
The stellar music is joined by an effective 5.1 track. The surrounds were put to good use. Reeds rustle behind your head, animals prowl, helicopters whir overhead, and the thunderous feet of elephant herds pound the earth. This is a solid 5.1 track, mastered with care to great effect.
Voice acting keeps the happy train rolling. Though the acting gets melodramatic and overemotional at times, there are no clunkers in the cast. Each voice was distinct and suited to the character. Tim Curry gives a natural performance with subtle humor. Tom Kane and Lacey Chabert find a natural chemistry. [Editor's Note: Voice artist "watchers," take note: Tom Kane is also the voice of Professor Utonium of The Powerpuff Girls.] I most enjoyed Danielle Harris' frustrated teenager, Debbie. She was a sarcastic, moody teen.
As good as they are, these are just elements. Recent history has shown us that technical mastery does not a story make. What of the heart of the film?
A somewhat bland central conflict is enhanced by tender emotion, moral themes, and realistic family strife. The film is rated PG for "some adventure peril," which boils down to a few moments of true sadness and poignancy. The ending was borderline manipulative, but fell on this side of touching. The message of respecting nature was subtly preached. Overall I was surprised at the depth and maturity of the emotional range.
The Wild Thornberries Movie surprised me at its high aim and great implementation. It is a kid's movie that feels like a grownup's movie, and should please children and parents alike.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The scope of the movie seems too ambitious for its roots. The sweeping, Lion King-esque scenery and pounding tribal rhythms only serve to highlight the crudity of the character animation. This is a subjective complaint, of course, but to me it seemed like the weak link was the Thornberries. We have lush vegetation, beautiful sunsets, and prowling cheetahs next to people with unconvincing pencil necks, stringy hair, protruding gums and linear schnauzes.
Speaking of linear, the plot is linear and predictable. This isn't necessarily a knock; the pace was swift and the direction sure. The plot is meted out in chunks that together aren't very sophisticated. This approach likely appeases the younger audience for which the movie is intended. But if you are an adult viewer, there is little in the way of plot twists, and some red herrings might cause your foot to tap impatiently.
Donnie, the feral child, is fundamentally annoying. He runs around maniacally putting dung beetles up nostrils and doing the "wedgie dance." He is unfunny, disruptive, and drags the flow to a halt. For comic relief, best stick to Darwin's highbrow shenanigans.
I don't consider advertising to be extras, so the game demo doesn't count in my book. That leaves a trailer and a music video. The video approaches high-definition in its smooth look and is a worthwhile extra, but the extras are weaker than those found in most kid's DVDs.
Together, these flaws are indicative of television roots that reach beyond their limits. The ambition is commendable, and one can hardly blame the movie for the limitations of the television medium on which it is based.
The Wild Thornberries Movie is cartoon television taken to a higher level. It doesn't quite escape its television roots, but is much more successful than other small-screen transitions I've seen. The effective story is complemented by great visuals and better music. Since kids and adults will both find things to like, it is a strong candidate for parent's DVD shelves.
His honor fervently hopes that Donnie has matured by the next Thornberries film. Every feature has an Achilles heel, I guess. Sigh…everyone is free to go.
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