[Screen It]

(2002) (voices of Lacey Chabert, Tim Curry) (PG)

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Children's Animated Adventure: A young girl risks losing her ability to talk to animals in her effort to save an African cheetah cub and others from poachers.
Nigel (voice of TIM CURRY) and Marianne Thornberry (voice of JODI CARLISLE) have traveled the world with their kids, teenager Debbie (voice of DANIELLE HARRIS), 12-year-old Eliza (voice of LACEY CHABERT) and wild younger brother Donnie (voice of FLEA), making wildlife documentaries.

Now in the African savannah, along with Nigel's stuffy British parents, Radcliffe and Cordelia (voice of LYNN REDGRAVE), the family is preparing to travel to the Congo to see an elephant migration that will coincide with an eclipse.

That's exciting for Eliza as a spell cast on her by shaman Mnyambo (voice of KEVIN MICHAEL RICHARDSON) has enabled her to speak with all animals, including her best friend, Darwin (voice of TOM KANE), a proper sounding chimp. That gift, however, results in trouble when she goes off to play with several cubs belonging to Akela (voice of ALFRE WOODARD), a mother cheetah.

Before Eliza can do anything, poachers sweep down and seize one of the cubs, Tally (voice of KIMBERLY BROOKS). Despite her best efforts, Eliza can't rescue him and feels awful about what happened. Seeing that and fearing what the wild is doing to her granddaughter, Cordelia implores that Eliza be sent off to a London boarding school to receive a proper education and social training.

With Eliza and Darwin away, the rest of the family heads for the Congo, but it's not long before the two of them escape and make their way back to Africa where they run into Sloan (voice of RUPERT EVERETT) and Bree Blackburn (voice of MARISA TOMEI), the latter of whom claims to be a wildlife veterinarian.

As Eliza resumes her quest to find and rescue Tally, she eventually learns that the poachers are also headed for the elephant migration in the Congo. Racing against time and facing the threat of losing her gift should she tell anyone of it, she and the rest of the family do what they must to help each other and stop the poachers.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
In the world of children's entertainment - be that of the animated or live-action variety - it's not unusual to find animal characters that have been given the human ability to converse with one another in English. Less common, but still present, are entertainment offerings where the animals and human characters interact verbally.

Following in the latter path of Bugs Bunny, Mr. Ed and, of course, Dr. Dolittle, along comes Eliza Thornberry in "The Wild Thornberrys Movie." Based on the Nickelodeon TV show of the same name that debuted back in 1998, the feature-length animated film also follows fellow Nick shows "The Rugrats" and "Hey Arnold!" in getting the big screen makeover.

For those not familiar with the original series, a brief prologue at the onset serves to introduce the main characters and the basic premise that involves a family that travels the world making wildlife documentaries. One of the daughters, in true Dolittle form, can converse with the animals, but she finds it to be far more of a gift than a curse as was the case in the recent Eddie Murphy versions of the Hugh Lofting story.

The only catch is that if she tells anyone of the gift, it will immediately vanish. Accordingly, she comes off like a loner who spends all of her time hanging out with the critters and learning far more about them than her documentarian parents.

Playing like an elongated or stretched to its limits version of the TV series, the script by Kate Boutilier ("Rugrats in Paris: The Movie," the "Wild Thornberrys" TV show) delivers no more than what's expected of it by the film's fan base. While that will still likely appease them, the lack of any sort of novelty or remarkable hook means the film's only chance of finding a crossover audience will be through dumb luck or a complete absence of other viewing options.

Set in Africa this time around, the pro-environmental story - directed by Jeff McGrath and Cathy Malkasian (who collectively make their feature film debut) involves poachers, a brief stay at an English boarding school and equal attempted amounts of comedy and action.

Much of the first element stems from the various family members, their interaction with each other and some of their "funny sounding" British accents, sayings and mannerisms. Most of the humor is aimed squarely at the young set so anyone expecting equal time for the adult mind with satire, etc. likely could be disappointed and/or bored.

Among the vocal talent, Tim Curry ("Charlie's Angels," "The Rocky Horror Picture Show") has the most distinctive delivery in voicing the father, while Danielle Harris ("Urban Legend," "Daylight") has some fun, but might irritate some with her stereotypical "whatever" teenager portrayal. As the lead, Lacey Chabert ("Not Another Teen Movie," "Lost in Space") is fine, but otherwise unremarkable.

Her faithful companion - a slightly neurotic talking chimp by the name of Darwin - is voiced by Tom Kane ("The Powerpuff Girls," various TV shows and video games). Coming off as something of a cross between Roddy McDowall and Dr. Smith from the old "Lost in Space" show, the character might be amusing to kids, but most of the related material fell rather flat to yours truly.

The action sequences - most involving several poachers and their actions or consequences thereof - are effective enough to engage (and perhaps frighten) younger viewers, while the visual look of the film (in enhanced TV grade mode) is appealing to the eye without bothering to attempt for animation-style realism.

The most notable thing about the film is the decent array of talent the filmmakers managed to assemble for the guest spots. While Fred from down the street could have voiced their characters as far as kids are concerned, adults will likely recognize the voices of Rupert Everett ("The Importance of Being Earnest," "The Next Best Thing"), Marisa Tomei ("In the Bedroom," "Someone Like You"), Alfre Woodard ("K-PAX," "What's Cooking?") and maybe even Lynn Redgrave ("The Next Best Thing," "Gods and Monsters") in various parts.

In the end and beyond the anti-poaching stance and numerous pop/rock songs scattered throughout the production, there's not really anything here to warrant recommending this film to anyone outside the built-in fan base. Passable but otherwise forgettable - especially to anyone in their teens or above - "The Wild Thornberrys Movie" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 19, 2002 / Posted December 20, 2002

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