They're a bunch of cartoon babies who consistently delivered top ratings over 12 seasons, nabbed four Emmys, spawned three successful feature films and created a huge merchandizing presence. Trouble is, real-life children grow up. Now the kids' network Nickelodeon and animation studio Klasky-Csupo have done something unprecedented in animation: allowed the characters to grow up too.
The new series "All Grown Up," premiering tonight, takes the cast of infants from "Rugrats," Nickelodeon's most valuable property, and thrusts them into their "tween" and teen years. For a medium whose star players usually don't even change their clothes, let alone their lives, this is a revolutionary idea.
Even so, the idea to let the "Rugrats" babies mature is not new. "It was always in the back of our minds that we would love to see what these characters were like as they grew," says executive producer Arlene Klasky, who along with Gabor Csupo and Paul Germain created the show in 1991.
It was also in the back of Nickelodeon executives' minds to find a way to keep the franchise going while offering something new. The way to do it revealed itself in July 2001 when a "Rugrats" special titled "All Growed Up," which first speculated how the babies would look and act as preteens, grabbed 70% of the coveted 2-to-11 audience. "With the success of the special, we said, 'Duh!' " says Cyra Zarghami, Nickelodeon's executive vice president and general manager. "The next day we said, 'We've got to make this a show,' because of the size of the audience that came to it."
In "All Grown Up" (the title's grammar has been corrected for the series) lead youngsters Tommy, Chuckie, Lil, Phil, Dil and Kimi now range in age from 9 to 11, while bratty Angelica and her friend/rival Susie are bona fide teens. The series also introduces new characters, including Harold, a devoted follower of Angelica's, and Mr. Pangborn, a poetry-spouting, former pro wrestler turned school vice principal, who serves as a foil for the kids.
Pushing the show to the next age bracket is seen as one way of holding on to viewers who have grown up with "Rugrats," which is no longer in production although it's likely to be in perpetual reruns. But it also meant abandoning many of the conventions and stylistic traits of the original, such as the idea that the babies can communicate with each other but not with the adults, and the visual trademark of seeing things through the low-to-the-ground point of view of an infant. The new episodes also shift from the 11-minute format to a single 22-minute story (standard length for a half-hour show, with commercials), a decision that supervising producer Cella Nichols Harris says offers "more time to develop and tell a story and see where the characters go with it." Each episode will also spotlight one of the eight main youngsters.
Some things, though, remain the same. "In the original series, the kids were facing a lot of firsts," says co-producer Lora Lee. "And these kids are facing a lot of firsts, only in the realm of social and political forces, facing a lot of their fears about girls, or tests, or being popular."
Other stylistic changes will come gradually, according to Klasky: "We're going to roll out the show so that the first 10 episodes will have a look similar to the 'All Growed Up' special, which looked like it was in the original 'Rugrats' world. For our second 10, which are going into production now, we're really contemporizing the look, and the characters will have very different, much hipper costumes. It's going to be a gradual change over 35 shows (covering three seasons) until we get it to the place where we think the audience will jump from 'Rugrats' to 'All Grown Up.' "
In terms of voice cast, there are no changes at all, though for some of the actresses (all the children are voiced by women) the shift in age was a challenge. "It was a little harder when we were doing the first batch of episodes, when they were just coming in and trying to define everybody and how they've grown," says E.G. Daily, who voices Tommy. "I'm definitely going to miss doing [baby Tommy], but it's awesome watching people grow."
As for Angelica -- previously the Martha Stewart of the sandbox set -- the writers and producers have avoided the temptation to make her a true Teen Queen of Mean. In "All Grown Up," she is actually mellowing. "I welcome the new development in her character, the way she can be vulnerable," says Cheryl Chase, who provides her voice. "She's getting some real acting challenges from the material the writers are coming up with."
The character of Susie, a fledgling singer, is similarly maturing, and actress Cree Summer says voicing the teen version is a matter of investing the character with "a little more sass, a little less innocence and a little more bottom end."