As animated heroines go, Eliza Thornberry ain’t much: gravity-defying pigtails, braces, poor communication skills with humans. But the new Nickelodeon cartoon series, “The Wild Thornberrys,” is sufficiently entertaining to at least give kids a temporary diversion from the incessant drumbeat of its overexposed Nicktoon cousin “Rugrats.” This, too, is from the production stable of Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo, and it’s likely to catch on with the pint-size crowd. But the best one can say is that it’s agreeably wiggy.
This doesn’t look to be an animated classic in the making. But it does utilize a few amusing secret weapons, namely the voices of Tim Curry (as mustachioed family patriarch Nigel Thornberry, an obsessive naturalist) and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea (vocalizing the unhinged yips of 4-year-old Donnie, the Thornberrys’ adopted wild child).
The show centers on the adventures of the Dr. Dolittle-esque Eliza (“Party of Five’s” Lacey Chabert), a 12-year-old nerdette who chats constantly with lions, chimps and all variety of primates. Her best pal is a chimp cleverly named Darwin (Tom Kane), a fastidious, British-accented sort who has adopted the Thornberry family.
Eliza’s parents, Nigel and the skittish Marianne (Jodi Carlisle), are outdoors adventurers who travel from Africa to the Amazon shooting documentaries about exotic, endangered and mysterious animals. Eliza has her own agenda, as do the untamed Donnie (whose hair resembles bundled kindling and who has a nasty habit of eating live insects) and Debbie (Danielle Harris), the Thornberrys’ teenage daughter, who busies herself acting put-upon and talking like a Valley girl.
Premiere, penned by Tom Stern and directed by Steve Ressel, concerns the family’s crisis when its gaudy trailer-type vehicle gets swept away in a flash flood, causing the Thornberrys to spend a night in the middle of the African savanna and forcing the sisters to alternately befriend and ward off a pride of hungry lions. Where, oh where, is Marlin Perkins when we really need him?
The familiar Klasky Csupo animation style of rich tones and deliberate motion is all over “The Wild Thornberrys,” no doubt lending the ages 5-12 demo the requisite comfort level. One also has to admire the theme of animal protection that’s relayed here with nice subtlety. And Curry and Flea clearly are having a splendid time.
Still, while it’s heartening to find a primetime cartoon in which kids aren’t spewing bodily secretions and gratuitous profanity, the half-hour feels like it’s missing something. Maybe it’s the fact that Eliza seems less like a heroine than she does a dweeb — or the feeling that the “Rugrats” gang will be paying a cross-promotional visit any minute now.