December 20, 2002 6:26am EST
The Wild Thornberrys Movie is based on Nickelodeon's Saturday morning cartoon but don't fret if you've never seen it. Before plunging into this Tanzanian tale the film provides some background about the characters and the story. The heroine is Eliza Thornberry (Lacey Chabert) a 12-year-old girl who travels the world with her family--which consists of her pet chimpanzee Darwin (Tom Kane) her teenage sister Debbie (Danielle Harris) her doting parents Nigel (Tim Curry) and Marianne (Jodi Carlisle) and Donnie (Flea the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers) an orangutan orphan the family found in the Congo--as they shoot their nature television show Nigel Thornberry's Animal World. Unbeknownst to her family Eliza inherited the gift to talk to animals from an African shaman--a power she will lose if it's revealed. While settled in Africa's Serengeti Plains Eliza discovers that poachers have hatched a sinister plot to kill a herd of elephants with an electrified fence and she must use her power to stop the slaughter before it's too late.
Although Chabert has a few features under her belt including the role of Penny in Lost in Space she is probably best known as Claudia Salinger on the '90s series Party of Five. Her little-girl voice makes this 20-year-old actress a perfect fit for the voice of Eliza Thornberry a bright and articulate young girl with an admirable sense of adventure. Kane who voices Eliza's primate companion Darwin also voiced Professor Utonium in The Powerpuff Girls Movie and he gives Darwin's character brains without being too cocky. Harris voices Eliza's older sister Debbie who isn't always enamored with life in the wilderness; she especially misses her teen magazines. Harris creates a character who speaks with a valley girl accent but isn't a typical flaky teen; she complains about her environment yet she feels very comfortable in it. Red Hot Chili Peppers' bassist Flea as Donnie the orangutan is a little annoying and probably the least interesting of the bunch but his penchant for running amuck helps create extraordinary situations for the family.
Directors Jeff McGrath and Cathy Malkasian have delivered a lively animated movie complete with worldly settings including London's congested underground rail system a crowded Nairobi market and the expansive Serengeti Desert. The film has plenty of action sequences showing the lionhearted Eliza putting the lives of animals before her own. In one scene for example Eliza throws caution to the wind and jumps out of a moving train to save a rhino that has been shot by poachers. (Perhaps this is why the MPAA rates this film PG "for some adventure peril.") Kate Boutilier's wonderful screenplay which could easily have gone hideously wrong by stereotyping the African characters instead is devoid of such generalities. Boutilier also steers clear of all things syrupy and cute: there is no annoying baby talk and the animals and their habitat are portrayed realistically including a scene where a cheetah hunts its prey.
Let's just say there aren't any surprises in Stealing Harvard. You pretty much know what you are in for when you sit down. John Plummer (Jason Lee) is a good-hearted fellow who just wants to marry his longtime fiancée Elaine Warner (Leslie Mann). He works hard for her father (Dennis Farina) at a medical supply store but Mr. Warner is less than happy with his future son-in-law. Still John finally gets his wish when he and Elaine reach the $30 000 mark she made them save so they could marry and buy their dream house. That's it? We can go home now? Alas no. A snag in their plans comes when John's niece Noreen (Tammy Blanchard) gets accepted to Harvard and his trailer-trash sister Patty (Megan Mullally) reminds him of his promise to help pay for Noreen's education--to the tune of $29 800. D'oh! Since John can't disappoint Elaine and Noreen he asks his best friend Duff (Tom Green) to help him try to get hold of another 30 grand. Duff agrees of course but accomplishing this feat legitimately is simply not an option. As Duff's plans to turn them into petty criminals fail each and every time John becomes increasingly desperate. What will he do? And more importantly do we care?
As an actor Jason Lee has made some curious choices. Sticking with director Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy Dogma) has been a smart move as well as scooping up a choice role in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous. But he's made some pretty bad choices as well--Kissing A Fool Big Trouble and now Stealing Harvard. The material is way beneath him. John is too milquetoast for Lee's smart-ass style and it doesn't suit him at all. There is another reason Lee should have just walked away from this one--being in a movie with Tom Green. Green's Duff does manage to elicit a few laughs here and there but the comic actor who once touched a very eclectic funny bone in many people has now become a parody of himself. And an annoying one at that. Mann (George of the Jungle) does some interesting things with her character Elaine. You don't really like the uptight daddy's girl much in the beginning but then she blossoms and changes showing Mann's comic abilities nicely. John C. McGinley as the detective who goes after the two boneheads and Mullally as the slutty Patty both turn in funny performances. Farina however is completely wasted which is a shame.
OK so there are a few times in Stealing Harvard where you actually laugh out loud. You've seen most of them in the trailer but they are funny nonetheless. Duff and John trying to choose their code names Duff getting smashed up against the window John dressed as a woman. There are also a couple of moments you don't see in the trailer that kind of make you chuckle like when McGinley's detective explains what he actually uses the toothbrush for that Duff put in his mouth and pretty much all the scenes with Mullally. They are however few and far between. For the most part Harvard sticks to its insipid and completely ridiculous script and run-of-the-mill direction by Kids In the Hall alum Bruce McCulloch. For us hardened critics it's hard to have our intelligence insulted even for a forced laugh. But for some out there this could just be the kind of mindless entertainment they crave.