In a splendid animated transition from the Nickelodeon cable channel to the big screen, "The Wild Thornberrys Movie" makes a witty and delightful Christmas present for the entire family. The inspired adventures of 12-year-old animal lover Eliza Thornberry (voiced by Lacey Chabert) transpire largely on Africa's Serengeti plain, which unfolds in all its unspoiled magnificence like a series of vast and beautiful murals, luminous in their richly shaded hues and subtle play of light and shadow.
As fans of the series know, Eliza is the precocious younger daughter of Nigel and Marianne Thornberry (Tim Curry and Jodi Carlisle), globe-trotting documentary filmmakers from England. The bespectacled Eliza looks rather like a caricature of Sissy Spacek in adolescence.
Nigel and Marianne are every bit as intrepid and confident as legendary naturalists Martin and Osa Johnson.
Their older daughter, Debbie (Danielle Harris), is the classic self-absorbed teenager, sarcastic and bored by all she surveys. (She speaks universal teen-speak, heavy on the obligatory "whatevers.") The Thornberrys have also adopted a wild child, Donnie. Eliza's grandparents (Lynn Redgrave and Tom Kane) are stalwart survivors of Britain's imperial era.
So brave and dedicated to animals is Eliza that an African shaman has bestowed upon her the gift of being able to talk with them; her constant companion is Darwin (Tom Kane), a fussy, erudite chimp.
Eliza is especially adoring of three cheetah cubs whose mother (Alfre Woodard) warns her of poachers yet inadvertently allows one of the cubs to be swept up by a poacher's helicopter. Eliza is thus propelled on a quest to rescue the kidnapped cub that places her in perils more numerous than Pauline's and adventures straight out of "King Solomon's Mines."
Directors Jeff McGrath and Cathy Malkasian and writer Kate Boutilier aim to entertain first and foremost, of course, but Eliza's odyssey effectively acquaints young children with the notion of endangered species without ever actually uttering the phrase. Their message, expressed deftly, is that a loving heart is capable of working miracles even without Eliza's special gifts of communication.
Drew Neumann's lively score incorporates a wide range of pop numbers, among which is Paul Simon's first song written for a film in 15 years, "Father and Daughter," which sets the tone for this winning film. "The Wild Thornberrys" remarkably balances some honest heart-tugging with a sophisticated sense of humor, a quality far from common in family entertainments.
'The Wild Thornberrys Movie'
MPAA rating: PG, for some adventure peril.
Times guidelines: Peril is not that intense; suitable for entire family.
Lacey Chabert...Eliza Thornberry
Danielle Harris...Debbie Thornberry
Tim Curry...Nigel Thornberry
Jodi Carlisle...Marianne Thornberry
A Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies presentation of a Klasky Csupo production. Directors Jeff McGrath and Cathy Malkasian. Producers Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo. Executive producers Albie Hecht, Julia Pistor, Eryk Casemiro, Hal Waite. Screenplay Kate Boutilier. Editor John Bryant. Music Drew Neumann. Production designer Dima Malanitchev. Animation production by Sunwoo Entertainment, Seoul.
In general release.