There is so much to like about "The Wild Thornberrys Movie" that it's difficult to know where to start.
Luckily, "The Wild Thornberrys," already a hit cartoon show on the Nickelodeon cable channel, has a band of loyal followers who will surely stampede to theaters right away to see Eliza, Debbie, Donnie, Nigel and Marianne Thornberry make their motion picture debut. To that core group of fans, the message is simple: You won't be disappointed. In fact you'll be delighted by the spectacle of Eliza's adventures splashed across the big screen.
As for the rest of you: If you haven't had the pleasure of meeting the Thornberrys -- as this critic hadn't until a preview screening -- consider meeting them now. "The Wild Thornberrys" is a animated family movie in the same league as "Toy Story," "Princess Mononoke" and "Shrek." It's outstanding entertainment for little ones but just as rewarding for their adult companions, who will appreciate its lovely artwork, its sophisticated story and dialogue, a terrific soundtrack and generally just a very cool vibe.
Eliza Thornberry (voiced here, as she is on TV, by Lacey Chabert) is a 12-year-old living with her parents, wildlife documentary-makers, in Africa. A cross between Pippi Longstocking, Dr. Dolittle and Beryl Markham, Eliza has been given special powers by a shaman she met while on an adventure: She can talk to and understand animals. "The Wild Thornberrys" relates this backstory with dispatch, and gets right into the action. While Eliza and her best friend, a chimp named Darwin (Tom Kane), are playing with a family of cheetahs, they are set upon by a helicopter full of poachers, one of whom manages to steal a cheetah cub. After a daring attempt to save the little cat, Eliza rushes back to her family's camp, where her British father's mother (Lynn Redgrave) is visiting. Appalled by her granddaughter's wild ways, Grandmummy insists that Eliza go to boarding school in England. And this really cheeses off Eliza's big sister, Debbie (Danielle Harris), whose only resident sibling now will be the half-feral Donnie (Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers).
The first part of "The Wild Thornberrys" takes place at Eliza's snooty London girls' school, where boaters and blazers are the order of the day; luckily Darwin tags along, and his attempts to fit in with the rest of the students make for some amusing high jinks (the funniest of which is set to Tom Jones singing "She's a Lady"). But in time Eliza figures out a way to get back to her beloved Africa, where she will track down the poachers, reunite with her family and -- naturally -- save the day.
Drawn with amazing care and attention to detail, "The Wild Thornberrys" offers a gorgeous travelogue of the Serengeti Plain and its fabulous vistas, as well as bustling city markets. The filmmakers -- "Thornberry" creators Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo as well as writer Kate Boutilier and directors Jeff McGrath and Cathy Malkasian, have gone to great lengths to make their movie accurate. The result is a kids' film that has a surprising amount of information to share about African wildlife and culture, which it imparts with ease and authenticity. The African tribesmen the Thornberrys meet, for example, all speak in exact Lingala dialect; no "ugga-wugga" condescension here. The movie's refreshing sophistication is reinforced by a soundtrack dominated by Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, the Pretenders and Youssou N'Dour, and also by some unexpectedly disturbing sequences of the cheetah-kidnapping and a herd of elephants being terrorized. (There are also some very funny in-jokes, from a reference to "The Maltese Falcon" to Debbie reading a magazine called Teenage Wasteland.)
Kids could not have a better heroine than Eliza, a brave and sensitive little girl who has found her spiritual home in Africa. How thrilling to think that she might lead other 12-year-olds to consider becoming wildlife biologists, or even just visiting Africa one day. She's like an Isak Dinesen for the playground set, but that shouldn't be her only audience: She's an inspiration for anyone with an open heart and a curious soul.
The Wild Thornberrys Movie (79 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for some adventure peril.