'Rats, pigs, and bugs

Culture | The holiday kiddie flicks are in the theaters and here are three that are rated G

Issue: "Veggie Mania," Dec. 12, 1998

Peanuts of the '90s
The biggest thing on cable TV besides sports and pro wrestling is Rugrats. The adventures of a pack of suburban youngsters with stable families are a cash cow for Nickelodeon, so it's small wonder that The Rugrats Movie (Paramount, rated G) pops up in theaters. The movie focuses on Tommy Pickles's coming to terms with his new brother Dylan (Dil Pickles-get it?), who pops out of the womb and wants to keep all the toys and blankets for himself. The filmmakers deftly flesh out the pair to avoid sitcom hokiness. Adventure comes in when the kids get lost in the woods and tangle there with a waterfall, a wolf, and a band of escaped circus monkeys. When The Rugrats Movie sticks to the tried and true, it works; when it tries to be hip, it falls flat. There's an awful soundtrack featuring warmed-over big-kid irritants like Iggy Pop, Devo, and rapper Busta Rhymes. Still, Rugrats bucks the trend of TV-to-film disasters and makes the kids' rambunctiousness and funny minds work on the big screen. Sure, it's not Snow White, but it's some of the smartest children's entertainment of our generation. And it's less heavy-handed and melodramatic than the annual Big Events from Disney and its imitators. Little piggy goes to market
Babe the pig oinked his way into an Oscar nomination for Best Picture in 1996. This second time around, don't expect a repeat. Babe: Pig in the City (Universal Studios, rated G) takes the little guy away from his shepherding duties off to a place called Metropolis, which contains pieces of Paris, New York, and Southern California. This time he's off with Farmer Hoggett's wife (Magda Szubanski) to earn enough money to save the farm. But they miss their big day at the fair, so Babe (voiced this time by Elizabeth G. Daily, who also plays Tommy in Rugrats) winds up at a crazy hotel full of stray dogs, singing cats, and (what else?) circus monkeys. The pig must figure out what's going on so he can save the day and get back to the farm. Alas, this sequel tries to mix the sweetness of the first with utter bleakness. Farmer Hoggett falls down a well, then get worse. Mean Animal Control Guys invade the hotel and haul away Babe's new friends. A dog who can walk on two legs and travels in a canine wheelchair is dragged for miles by their truck before being sent high in the air for a crash landing. Worst of all is Mickey Rooney's appearance as a dying clown whose act nearly burns down a hospital. Babe is still adorable, but his sequel is an ugly mess. Everything is too depressing to be slapstick. The only people who might be amused by this are small children too young to understand the plot. Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways
The Bugs are back in town. Hot on the heels of Antz comes A Bug's Life, the latest from the computer animation wizards at Pixar (rated G). These ants are cuter and less totalitarian and they spend more time outdoors. Their anthill is under siege by a mean gang of grasshoppers who make them work all summer gathering food for them. So one absent-minded ant named Flik must go off and find "warrior bugs" to stomp the oppressors dead. Flik travels to a bug city made of discarded food containers and unusual creatures, like a beggar who holds up a sign that says, "A kid pulled my wings off," and Flik, instead of bringing back fighters, brings back clowns-a troupe of circus bugs who ride around in a cookie box carriage pulled by centipedes (at least they aren't monkeys this time). We're introduced to them in one of the film's wittiest moments; as their act bombs, a housefly in the audience grumbles, "I only got 24 hours to live, and I ain't gonna waste it here." All this takes place in a world where dandelion seeds are hang gliders, leaves are roadblocks, and blue jays are ferocious monsters. If the little ants don't fight the grasshoppers or feed them, they risk getting squashed. Like Pixar's other Disney-distributed feature, Toy Story, A Bug's Life uses technology to turn a bit of the real world into a parallel universe. Computer animation is still in its infancy-and studios are still experimenting with what to do with it. Pixar even has fun with itself with a mock blooper reel at the end that nudges the audience about how their pixel-plotted pip-squeaks are nudging their way into the "real world" of Hollywood. As time goes on, more like this will appear (including a Toy Story sequel next year). The artistic possibilities of the new animation technology are just getting started.

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