Billion Dollar Babies
Down in Orlando, the Mouse King must sit uneasily in his Magic Kingdom, casting a baleful black eye at the upstart in garish mufti just a few miles down the road. The venerable kids’ cable network Nickelodeon, discontented with its considerable market share, had made tentative forays into feature films before, including 1998’s highly successful The Rugrats Movie, but never had they actually constituted a threat to Disney. With Rugrats in Paris: The Movie, however, it’s obvious that the folks at Nickelodeon have been studying the Way of the Mouse early buzz, aggressive advance marketing, a merchandising blitzkrieg, a soundtrack guaranteed to sell itself, name actors providing voices, and a Thanksgiving release date. There is simply no way this movie is not going to be a hit (in fact, it opened its run at second place at the box office, behind that Jim Carrey atrocity with Dr. Seuss’ name on it).
Unfortunately Rugrats in Paris works too hard to out-Disney Disney. The movie itself has to live up to its promotion and it exhausts itself trying, becoming an incredibly cynical film based on a television cartoon that garnered its fans by being steadfastly non-cynical. Where the TV show plucks at the viewers’ heartstrings, this movie baldly attempts to strip-mine their chests. Shrill and manipulative, most of its choices appear to have been made by Nickelodeon’s merchandising department rather than by the creators of the show.
Rugrats (the show) is a consistently sweet and funny program based on, of all things, parental inattention. It is set in the universe of toddlers, surmising that what grownups hear as infant babble is actually its own language (and all parents can attest that that often seems to be the case), and depicting the adventures babies have while they’re not being watched. The core group here consists of Tommy Pickles (voiced by the delightful E.G. Daily), a resourceful one-year-old with an insatiable curiosity and a bedrock sense of justice; his baby brother Dil; his best friend Chuckie Finster (Christine Cavanaugh), slightly older but overly cautious and prone to anxiety; the twins Phil and Lil DeVille (both voiced by Kath Soucie), good-natured but utterly amoral; and their perpetual foil Angelica (Cheryl Chase), Tommy’s spoiled-brat three-year-old cousin who, being old enough to talk, speaks both English and Babyese. In each episode, the babies find some reason usually some deception of Angelica’s or one of Tommy’s searches for the truth to escape their playpen, which is ridiculously easy to do. Assorted hijinks ensue as the babies move around freely beneath the radar of adult notice (including that of their parents, who are usually engrossed in trading child-care advice), interpreting all that they experience through the filter of their limited understanding for example, Tommy and Chuck believe that they have entered an alternate universe through a swiveling mirror because they espy Tommy’s mother and grandpa trying on wigs, or they attempt to discover whether Tommy’s sleepwalking dad is actually a robot by assaulting his left nipple with a plastic wrench. The comedy is derived entirely from such misunderstandings, the babies’ fresh perspectives, and outrageous coincidences that are nominally plausible.
The climax of Rugrats in Paris, on the other hand, depends entirely upon the ability of a two-year-old to drive a forty-foot robot dinosaur down the Champs-Elysees. The film utterly abandons its observational stance in favor of mindless big-screen spectacle. As virtually none of the action here is initiated by the Rugrats themselves, as it is in the cartoon, consider the babies tossed out with the bathwater. So to speak.
The film concerns the motherless Chuckie and his fervent wish for a new mommy, which may be fulfilled on an unexpected trip to Paris (Tommy’s inventor father is called to repair the centerpiece of the EuroReptarLand amusement park, the aforementioned robot dinosaur, and for some unexplained reason the rest of the Rugrats cast accompanies him). EuroReptarLand’s director, a bit of bitchy Eurotrash named Coco LaBouche (Susan Sarandon), is shopping for a family to impress her traditionalist Japanese bosses, and Chuckie and his equally lonely dad Chas fit the bill nicely. Will the Finsters find themselves in thrall to this heartless schemer, or is real love waiting for them just around the corner?
Obviously it is, and we may rest assured that virtue will triumph. The problem is that we must trek through plot- and character-territory that has been flattened by sixty years of Disney movies in order to get there. Chuckie is as awash in pathos as Bambi or any of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, and Coco LaBouche is nothing short of a cross between Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmatians and the Wicked Stepmother from Cinderella, complete with an oily henchman (John Lithgow) and a virtuous but downtrodden secretary. In the course of her schemes, Coco connives to snare Chas, pushes her assistant Kira out of a moving car, and abducts the babies, because she is just so gosh-darn ee-vil. The Rugrats themselves are relegated to thankless secondary “helper” roles, like the Seven Dwarves or Cinderella’s mice.
The film’s only truly inspired moment is itself a sendup of another Disney film. The Pickles’ dog Spike escapes from the family’s hotel room and hits the Paris streets in search of a poodle (of course) who has caught his eye. They meet and go through a parody of the famous romantic montage from Lady and the Tramp, except the food they are given is fished out of the garbage and they actually eat it like dogs and as they stare out upon the moonlit Seine cheek-to-cheek, it’s because their heads are stuck together by cheese in their fur. It would be a nigh-perfect sequence if Spike’s escape weren’t accompanied by the Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out?”, a song approaching “Macarena”-level media saturation.
The Spike-in-love sequence is one of several gratuitous moments in the film related to merchandise already on the market. The bulk of the action in Rugrats in Paris occurs inside EuroReptarLand, which has an entirely Japanese theme, including a karaoke bar where sumo-wrestler waiters grunt their way through Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls,” and Angelica jumps up to sing one improvised verse, just like the “Sing and Swing Angelica” doll does in its TV commercial. All of Reptar’s enemies have animatronic replicas in the park, but though only one actually does anything in the film, they’re all on the CD-ROM game. Rugrats, the concept, has always been heavily merchandised, but this is the first of their adventures, including the 1998 film, that seems to have been written by committee and punctuated by offscreen cha-chings.
The rest of the film has the babies attempting to save Chas from marrying Coco, culminating in a tired gotta-stop-the-wedding climax replete with a chase and the kind of mass destruction that is either the last resort of stumped writers or the first resort of bad ones. Up to this point the creators of Rugrats have never shown themselves to be either, and that is the shame of this film. Granted, Rugrats in Paris is a big-budget animated feature for screaming prepubescents and thus it may seem pointless to criticize it for being noisy and contrived. The fact is, however, that unlike Disney’s surfer-boy Tarzan or dumb-jock Hercules, the heroics of these babies are rooted in their simple, joyful humanity. They deserve better than to wind up as collateral damage in Nickelodeon’s excursion onto the Mouse King’s turf.