With little fanfare, an absolutely terrific animated movie is sparkling up the local movie screens. Compared to the fantastical themes of Treasure Planet and Lilo and Stitch, The Wild Thornberrys’ wildlife-conservation story may seem naively down-to-earth. It doesn’t try to compete with the wackiness of Monsters, Inc., nor does it achieve the mythic grandeur of Spirit: Stallion of the Comanche (possibly my No. 1 movie of the year).
Thornberrys is just a superbly crafted, challenge-packed adventure about something that matters, and the movie family are charming, decent people who also happen to be really, really funny.
The film, like the television series on which it’s based, is aimed at little kids, but it’s so clever and downright entertaining adults will love it, too. With her dorky pigtails and thick glasses, 12-year-old Eliza Thornberry (voiced by TV’s Lacey Chabert) is an endearing heroine. A passionate animal lover, Eliza was gifted by an African shaman with the ability to talk to animals, and her conversations with them are lively and informative. She wanders the world with her parents as they film episodes in their wildlife-documentary series.
Her father, Nigel (Tim Curry, Rocky Horror Show), is an absent-minded professor and her mother, Marianne (Jodi Carlisle), is the intrepid cinematographer who keeps him in focus. Eliza’s teenage sister is Debbie (Danielle Harris, TV’s That’s Life), the funniest character in the movie, the one who spouts off outrageous asides that will probably go over the heads of the little ones but will keep the adults in stitches.
Eliza convinces a mother cheetah to let Eliza take her cubs for a run, but they stray too far from home, and one of the cubs is stolen by a poacher. Grief-stricken, Eliza takes responsibility for her actions (what a concept!) and tries to set out immediately to rescue the kidnapped cub.
Alas, to keep her from getting into more trouble, Eliza’s parents ship her off to a London boarding school. American children, sated on Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, will find the animated all-girl version quite different but equally enjoyable. In fact, the food fight underneath the “Keep Thy Manners” banner is hilarious. With her ever-faithful and always fussy chimp chum, Darwin (Tom Kane II), Eliza escapes England and heads back to the Serengeti plains to “follow her destiny.”
The scenes in Africa — the train rides, the marketplace, the canyons and waterfalls, and all the incredible animals — are truly awesome. (I doubt a child could see this movie and not come away from it with an unquenchable curiosity about Africa.)
Eliza uncovers a dastardly plot by poachers to kill hundreds of elephants who are trekking to a hidden valley to witness a solar eclipse (it’s a movie, remember, so it’s okay for animals to know when there are going to be significant astronomical events). Being a girl of uncommon determination, Eliza does more heroic stunts than the two Spy Kids combined — she saves the elephants, puts the bad guys into jail, returns the cheetah cub to his mother, makes up with her annoying older sister, and, most importantly, gets to stay with her parents and head off on another adventure.
With its breathless pace, flawless script (budding screenwriters should study it carefully), mesmerizing animation and wonderful musical score, to boot, Thornberrys just may be the surprise family hit of the season. Take all the little kids you can to see it.