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A Family Phenom in the Making Nickelodeon is carefully guiding 'Wild Thornberrys' from popular show to a brand with film potential.

December 17, 2000|ELIZABETH JENSEN | Elizabeth Jensen is a Times staff writer

NEW YORK — Even as millions of kids flocked to movie theaters to see Nickelodeon's "Rugrats in Paris" over Thanksgiving weekend, the folks at the cable channel were plotting and planning to take "The Wild Thornberrys," already a quiet success on television, to the big screen too. The idea is to turn "Wild Thornberrys" into a mega-hit like "Rugrats." It will be two years before Nick knows for sure if it has managed anything close.

For those not in the know, "The Wild Thornberrys" tracks the adventures of the animated Thornberry family as it travels the world so eccentric dad Nigel (voiced by Tim Curry) can make his nature documentaries, which are filmed by mom Marianne (Jodi Carlisle). Along for the ride are teen daughter Debbie (Danielle Harris), who is obsessed with her appearance and portable tape player, and pigtailed younger sister Eliza (Lacey Chabert from "Party of Five"), the show's true star, who has the gift of being able to talk to the many animals they encounter every episode. Eliza has a chimp companion, Darwin (Tom Kane); there's also young Donnie (the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea), an adopted wild child who joined the family on one of its trips. Betty White and Ed Asner also provide voices for occasional appearances by the grandparents.

And just in case you're not yet familiar with what has stealthily become Nickelodeon's third-most popular show among the 2- to 11-year-old crowd, the cable network has found a way to guide you there. No crazy Thornberrys family adventure this: The journey from sweet TV show to billion-dollar brand is as closely charted as trip directions provided by a satellite navigation service.

One big stop along the trip, which could ultimately take a decade or more: Sister studio Paramount Pictures has just approved a third "Rugrats" movie for fall 2002, in which the babies will just happen to run across the gang from "The Wild Thornberrys." A stand-alone "Thornberrys" movie is tentatively set to follow the next year.

"The Wild Thornberrys" got its start in 1998 after Nickelodeon put out a call for projects that had the potential to become five-day-a-week shows with appeal for boys and girls, and the possibility of spin-off products. Out of the handful that came in, two were made. One was "CatDog," a zany animated show that initially seemed the better prospect and got a five-night-a-week run, while the more complicated, story-based "Wild Thornberrys" aired two times a week.

But then, "kids started voting with the remote," says Nickelodeon President Herb Scannell. "Out of the gate, it was a performer." An initial order of 20 episodes was immediately increased--80 have been ordered so far--and a year ago the show went to a coveted five-night-per week slot (Although "CatDog" is still on the air, new episodes are no longer being produced.) Thus far this year, "The Wild Thornberrys" is Nickelodeon's third-highest-rated show among the 2- to 11-year-old set, behind "Rugrats" and "SpongeBob SquarePants." Among 6- to 11-year-olds, it is second to "Rugrats."

"Thornberrys" has none of the gross-out potty humor of "Rugrats," although both are from the distinctive pens of the Arlene Klasky-Gabor Csupo production team, which also does Nickelodeon's "Rocket Power" and "As Told by Ginger," which just launched to strong response. "Thornberrys" is not such an immediately obvious hit as the silly "Rugrats," but several elements combine to give it great appeal, in particular the exotic locales and the animals. Scannell calls it a "Discovery-esque world done in a tongue-and-cheek aspect that parents appreciate."

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Indeed, it's one of those rarities on television, a true family show, with a character for each age group and enough adult humor that parents aren't driven away. One posting on the Family education.com Web site notes: "Anything that gets a preteen and her mom to laugh at the same humor has got to be doing something right." This Internet writer praises the program because "it shows a family where Mom and Dad love each other, Mom and Eliza are strong female role models--OK, the older sister is a 'ditz' but they love her anyway. And they all stick together, even though all the characters have their own weaknesses and insecurities."

Csupo's original idea was to have Dad Nigel as an animal psychologist, says Eryk Casemiro, the program's co-executive producer. But when the show went to Nickelodeon, "it just became obvious to make changes, that it was a perfect idea to have a 12-year-old girl with the ability to talk to animals. It's the way kids role-play with their own pets."

Instinct proved right. "You know it's a fertile idea when you have an embarrassment of story ideas," Casemiro says. "Even after 80 episodes, we still aren't close to maxing out on ideas." If they are, they can always turn to their fans: Two girls wrote in with their own script for a Midwest Thornberrys adventure revolving around prairie dogs, anecdotal evidence, Casemiro says, that the connection with viewers is strong.

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