If you grew up in the ‘90s and you watched Nickelodeon then you were probably well-aware of the Klasky-Csupo studio. They were the brains behind Rugrats, as well as some of the other Nicktoon giants such as The Wild Thornberries, Rocket Power, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, As Told By Ginger, and the Rugrats spin-off All Grown Up!
In 2003 they made a movie called Rugrats Go Wild. Distributed by Paramount Pictures to theaters across the United States, and boasting Nancy Cartwright as the voice of Chuckie Finster, Rugrats Go Wild was the third Rugrats movie, and it was special because it was a crossover with The Wild Thornberries.
To put this in very gentle terms, Rugrats Go Wild bombed. It made only $55.4 million worldwide (its budget was $25 million) and it received mostly bad reviews from critics.
As someone who loved both Rugrats (the Klasky-Csupo cash cow) and The Wild Thornberries, I have to say, I, too, hated Rugrats Go Wild.
Let me give this some context. Rugrats had already had two movies, as had The Wild Thornberries. Rugrats Go Wild was technically a Rugrats movie, but it acted as the third movie for both Rugrats and The Wild Thornberries franchises.
The four movies preceding Rugrats Go Wild all had their own merits.
The previous two Rugrats movies included The Rugrats Movie, which introduced Dil Pickles and grossed $140.9 million on a $24 million budget, and Rugrats in Paris, which introduced Kimi and grossed $103.3 million worldwide on a $30 million budget. Both of them did relatively well. The Rugrats Movie was the first non-Disney animated film to make over $100 million at the domestic box office, and Rugrats in Paris got three out of four stars from Roger Ebert (along with overall favorable reviews from most mainstream critics).
The previous two Wild Thornberry movies were The Origin of Donnie (which was released directly to television) and The Wild Thornberries Movie, which grossed a measly $60.7 million on a $25 million budget, but was nominated for an Academy Award and got wildly good reviews. (According to Rotten Tomatoes, 80% of 89 critics gave the film a positive review.)
The point of this context is that, although it can be tricky to make animated kids films that do well, Rugrats and The Wild Thornberries both seemed to do okay. Rugrats did financially well and benefited from its brand recognition, and The Wild Thornberries did well in terms of its messaging and critical reception. Together, they should have worked.
But they didn’t.
There’s a pretty simple reason for why this crossover was doomed from the get-go.
The Rugrats and The Wild Thornberries occupy different worlds.
Sure, it’s the same production company. And, sure, the animation style is similar. But that does not a good crossover make.
In fact, Rugrats are probably the worst choice for a Wild Thornberries crossover in the entire catalogue of reasonable choices for Klasky-Csupo. Rugrats was a show about babies and although it was broadly enjoyable for kids of all ages, it definitely catered to a younger audience. The conflicts and dilemmas faced by the babies were simple and grounded. Most of their adventures took place in Tommy’s back yard. By contrast, Eliza Thornberry was an 11-year-old girl who regularly faced massive, real-world danger like poachers, wildfires, oil spills, and various natural disasters (although with random strandings, kidnappings, and hostage situations).
The babies can only talk to one another, and the babies being lost in the jungle serves zero purpose. Also it’s weirdly reminiscent of the first Rugrats movie, in which they were lost in the woods with a bunch of monkeys. (Yes, really.) Eliza doesn’t add much with her ability to talk to animals. She can talk to Spike, their dog, who is inexplicably voiced by Bruce Willis, but aside from the novelty of hearing Spike talk (something no one ever asked for), the Rugrats being lost in the jungle was at best contrived and weird, and at worst absolutely fucking terrifying.
(In case you’re wondering how the babies end up lost in the jungle, it’s due to a shipwreck caused by a typhoon. Stu takes the extended Rugrats family on a cruise through the Pacific in a shitty boat despite knowing nothing about basic navigation. Yes, really.)
This premise is doubly stupid when you consider that Tommy, at the age of one, has already been on vacation to Las Vegas, The Grand Canyon, and Paris, and has already been lost in the woods once before with his newborn baby brother. At this point, you have to wonder how the hell the Pickles can justify constantly going on vacation with 4-8 babies, let alone afford it, let alone explain it to their CPS agent. (We assume the Rugrats have their own division with Child Protective Services at this point.)
I won’t go into details about the plot, but you should know the following. In the course of the 80-minute runtime, Angelica, age 3, steals a bathysphere and crashes it into the bottom of the ocean and all of the babies narrowly avoid suffocating to death, while Nigel Thornberry, patriarch of the Thornberry family, gets hit on the head with a coconut and suffers amnesia that makes him think he is one of the babies.
Rugrats Go Wild was a total disaster and not in the fun way it wanted to be.
The thing is, I loved most of the Klasky-Csupo studio franchises, and I would have loved a crossover with pretty much any other two. To that end, I would like to propose the following lists of better crossovers for the third movies in the Thornberries/Rugrats trilogies, in order of which would probably work best from the perspective of a fan who actually cares about the plot not being a hot mess.
The Wild Thornberries Movie crossover countdown:
5) Rugrats. This was the worst possible crossover, because the worlds of the Thornberries and the Rugrats are complete and total opposites. The Rugrats had no reason to be in the Thornberries’ territory, and the age discrepancy and communication barriers means that all interactions are forced and contrived.
4) Aaahh!!! Real Monsters. Aaahh!!! Real Monsters very much occupied an imaginary world, and Eliza Thornberry’s world was a very grounded one. However, it stands to reason that Eliza Thornberry, who can talk to animals, would also be able to talk to monsters. Therefore, although a Thornberry/Monster crossover would have the same problem as the Thornberry/Rugrat crossover (incompatible worlds and themes colliding), it would resolve the language barrier. One possible idea for a plot is that Eliza stumbles upon the monsters secret world and is maybe kidnapped and has to escape, but also agrees to keep their secret. It’s fantastical but it could be done, and the fact that they can all talk to each other at least gives us a little bit of a firmer ground to stand on.
3) All Grown Up. All Grown Up was a Rugrats spin-off set in middle school, and it would have made far more sense for the aged-up Rugrats to hang out with Eliza Thornberry. The shows never really established precisely when they were occurring, so you could either have the 11-year-old Rugrats interacting with 11-year-old Eliza, or the 11-year-old Rugrats interacting with an aged-up Eliza, which might be interesting. This resolves both the language barrier and a lot of the silliness of the Rugrats Go Wild premise. In fact, you could even have a few jokes by Stu and Didi about how “The kids used to be such trouble but now that they’re grown up we’re sure there will be no wacky misadventures.” By the way, Spike is still alive in All Grown Up, although he’s ancient, so you could still have Bruce Willis voice him (but in a very put-upon old man voice, which would be hilarious).
2) Rocket Power. Confession time: I really hated Rocket Power. All the kids in it struck me as annoying popular kids whose sporty interests were singularly focused. They had no real depth to them and were trying way too hard. But let’s face it. They are the most equipped to get stranded in a jungle. Their over-the-top love of danger aligns perfectly with Eliza Thornberry’s derring-do. They’re all about the same age, the animation is probably the most similar, and all Rocket Power fans would love to see the Rocket Power kids swinging on vines and kick-flipping over alligators while stranded on a tropical island. They have every reason to be there; maybe they got stranded on their way to an X-treme international sports convention? And they learn that the true value of sports isn’t winning a trophy but challenging oneself and being in good physical health? Yeah, I think that could really work.
1) As Told By Ginger. This show was truly the red-haired stepchild of the Klasky-Csupo studio productions, which is a damned shame, because it was fucking great. Ginger was about 15 or 16, putting her perfectly between Eliza and Debbie, and the animation style was very, very similar. I think seeing Eliza interacting with another girl her age would have been dynamic. Eliza mostly interacted with adults and animals. Throwing in a perfectly normal girl her age would have fleshed out her character, and Ginger could have learned some spectacular lessons as well. Picture this: Ginger gets stranded on an island with Eliza while on a school trip, during which she is feeling very awkward and left out and self-conscious. Eliza teaches her to be daring and self-confident! And Ginger teaches Eliza to be a little more normal and down-to-earth. A friendship is forged. Opposites attract. Maybe Ginger could be the one person to know and keep Eliza’s secret. God, this would have been so good. Ginger was never truly appreciated, and I think if she was given a little sliver of Eliza’s spotlight, she could have shone. What a missed opportunity this was.
Speaking of missed opportunities…
The Third Rugrats Movie crossover countdown:
All of them) The third Rugrats movie should not have been a crossover, full stop.
Just make it a far-in-the-future sequel in which we see all of the Rugrats as adults and watch them watching their own babies playing in the backyard and reminiscing about their own childhoods. It would have been heartfelt and sweet and nostalgic, and potentially kicked off a new spin-off series.