As someone who never really outgrew children’s programmes, I was delighted when offered the chance to review the new Best of Rugrats Collector’s Edition. Although it premiered when I was still only 9, many people of my age missed out on Rugrats because by the time it had really picked up a head of steam and embedded itself in the culture, they were already teenagers and were turning their interests elsewhere. But as a deeply uncool kid, I remember watching Nicktoons like Doug, Hey Arnold! and As Told By Ginger well into my GCSEs and A-Levels and still regularly watch the brilliant SpongeBob Squarepants to this day! Nicktoons, the collective name for original cartoon series created for American network Nickelodeon, always seemed to come from a completely different planet from the rest of the children’s programming. They had a crude, handmade look to them that was freakishly appealing, their colours somehow seeming eerily bold and muted simultaneously and their atmosphere being both reassuringly cosy and disconcertingly otherworldly at the same time. Rugrats is almost literally otherworldly, concerning itself with a babies’ eye view of things which turns the smallest details into huge plot points and the most trivial spaces into settings for epic adventures.
The contents of this boxset are largely superior to the set itself which, while it promises to be a best of collection, is actually just a careless cobbling together of five previously released Rugrats DVDs, themselves not the most lovingly prepared packages. For instance, the DVD entitled ‘Christmas’ features only one Christmas themed episode, while the one called ‘Mysteries’ features just one mystery themed story and two unrelated episodes and then branches off into a Bonus Episode section in which all the episodes are focused on the character of Grandpa Lou (although even some of these are only tenuously connected with him). ‘Tommy Trouble’ at least stays true to its theme, with all the episodes focusing heavily on the character of Tommy, but this disc features only a measly five episodes, each running the standard 11 minutes. The vaguely themed ‘Rugrats Run Riot’ and ‘Rugrats Save the Day’ are more satisfying discs, featuring 9 episodes a piece and focusing mainly on more adventurous themes (although there are some misplaced episodes, such as ‘Waiter, There’s a Baby in My Soup’ and ‘Little Dude’ which both clearly belong on the ‘Tommy Troubles’ disc instead).
That being said, once the episodes are playing the material is strong enough that no-one, least of all the target demographic of children, will care whether the episodes are accurately grouped or not. Having admitted at the top of this review to never outgrowing children’s programmes, I should mention at this point that I did enjoy Rugrats more as a kid than I do now. Though clearly an intelligent and often very well written series, it doesn’t quite have the age-group spanning appeal I assumed it had when I was in my pre-teens. This, of course, should not be taken as too harsh a criticism, since Rugrats is, after all, intended primarily to be a children’s series. The evermore cynical humour of many modern day children’s animations has begun to push for a more adult audience, often with big knowing winks to the older audience with awkward, misplaced references and veiled dirty jokes at the expense of a consistent mood or strong characterisations. Rugrats has none of these problems, proving to be charming and well-written, if a tad repetitive in large doses.
As a big animation fan, when I first popped in one of these discs and revisited Rugrats after nearly two decades, I was initially delighted by what I saw. The opening credits, complete with the series iconic theme tune, looks amazing as we follow the endearingly sketchy figures of the babies wandering round the floor, causing general destruction as the camera follows their viewpoint. This terrific low-budget look is consistently discernible throughout the first series episodes such as ‘Baseball’, ‘Little Dude’, ‘Grandpa’s Teeth’ and the terrific ‘Moose Country’. By the second series the edges had been somewhat smoothed off but the show still had that rough and ready charm for a couple more seasons. Also key to this style was the brilliant soundtrack by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh. Mothersbaugh was an inspired choice to provide the soundtrack for such a peculiar show as Rugrats and his electronic keyboard produces indelibly unnerving tunes, music cues and sound effects that, coupled with the babies’ eye view oddness of the visuals, take the adult viewer out of themselves and place them right in the big scary world of a tiny observer.
Unfortunately, as Rugrats grew in popularity, its budget grew with it. Suddenly the soundtrack was swamped with more instruments which undermined the perfect simplicity of Mothersbaugh’s original accompaniments. As the show became a popular franchise, so its edge was entirely eroded. The focus was taken off the five main protagonists as more babies were introduced (with Tommy’s little brother Dill and Chuckie’s new step-sister Kimi first appearing in the big screen spin-offs The Rugrats Movie and Rugrats in Paris) and soon the screen was overstuffed with adorable little tykes vying for the confused viewer’s attention, even as Mothersbaugh’s keyboard tried to wheeze its way to the forefront of the soundtrack.
Hardcore fans of the show often completely write off the second era of Rugrats, which is not entirely fair. It did not, for instance, suffer the complete nosedive that The Simpsons did in later seasons, when the characters became dead-eyed, stiff limbed joke-zombies, and great episodes still appeared here and there. For instance, ‘The Pirate Light’, in which the babies are convinced that a burned-out pilot light will cause the arrival of a pirate at their house, is one of the cleverest and most deftly plotted episodes on this whole set. Likewise, the very late-era ‘Cuddle Bunny’, in which Kimi falls in love with a grotesque donkey piñata and then realises that it is going to be beaten to death, is a fantastically dark premise for a show that was, by this point, becoming more and more normalised. But it is fair to say that when watching these discs, there is a clear dividing line in quality and style between the two eras and the post-Dill episodes are particularly disappointing. I watched with horror, for instance, when I popped in the ‘Christmas’ disc expecting to see my beloved sketchy title sequence, only to be greeted with the revamped travesty of the latter day opening, in which an overwhelmingly in-your-face remix of the title theme accompanies the cleaned-up antics of the homogenised babies. Even worse, the 45 minute Christmas special ‘Babies in Toyland’, which ought to be the real prize of the set, is an utterly tedious piece of festive whimsy which only the very youngest of fans will appreciate.
The blandness of the extra baby characters in the later episodes seemed to rub off on the original cast, who in their early years were an engaging bunch indeed. Little Tommy, the show’s main protagonist, is a relentlessly positive and proactive character while the neurotic Chucky and the hilarious twins Phil and Lil provide great support. But it is the show's antagonist, Tommy’s cousin Angelica, who is best remembered by most fans. The outrageously spoilt Angelica is, in the early episodes, a true force for evil, manipulating adults and babies alike and generally trying to coax everyone into the jaws of anarchy, as in the deliciously destructive antics of ‘Rebel Without a Teddy Bear’. As the show went on, Angelica was more and more toned down, largely due to the protestations of co-creator Arlene Klasky who felt she was too mean. But every show needs a good villain and the truth is that the meaner Angelica was, the more fun she was to watch. Angelica’s behaviour was explained by her parents, an overly fawning father and a back-stabbing career-driven mother. This latter character is one of the few sour notes that the series hits, offering as it does the least flattering portrayal of an independent working woman since Glenn Close cooked up some rabbit stew in Fatal Attraction. The other sticking point when watching this many episodes of Rugrats back to back is just how careless the adults are with their own offspring. Whether leaving them in the charge of a group of school kids, getting distracted by a football game while they run riot in a store or repeatedly falling asleep when they’re supposed to be watching them, the adults in Rugrats should be investigated forthwith! This element of carelessness in the adults is so crucial to the plots, however, that the series successfully dances round the issue with gentle mockery. An occasional running gag, for instance, reveals that Tommy keeps a screwdriver in his diaper for whenever he needs to jemmy the lock on a playpen.
Rugrats has several standard plots that it returns to again and again, the most well-used being the mini-adventures. These episodes fall into two camps: those in which the everyday becomes the stuff of adventure due to the babies’ skewed perceptions, and those in which the babies’ imaginations are conjured up before our eyes, placing them in fantastical worlds when they are really just at home or in the garden. Some episodes successfully fuse the two methods, such as ‘Showdown at Teeter Totter Gulch’, in which the tropes of the Western genre are played out at a Wild West themed play-park, but on the whole it is the everyday adventures that work best, sharing the babies’ world with the audience through clever use of perspectives. Too often the imagination episodes spill over into mad surrealism, such as ‘Visitors From Outer Space’, or lazy pop culture spoofs, such as ‘Falling Stars’, yet another Star Wars parody. Often the very best episodes are the more unusual ones though. The highlights of the set are ‘Naked Tommy’, in which Tommy discovers the freeing experience of walking around in the buff and espouses his new philosophy to his friends, and ‘Grandpa Moves Out’, which features a handful of the funniest jokes in the series (watch out for the visual gag involving changing seasons).
Revisiting Rugrats after so many years was a wonderful experience but it did spark the revelation in me that maybe I have grown up a little more than I thought I had. I found it slightly harder to relate to the pre-school protagonists than I used to and over so many episodes the whining neuroses of Chucky, the relentless optimism of Tommy and the endless string of cute mispronunciations began to get a little wearing. That said, having recently become an uncle for the first time, I instantly saw in these shows something that I can share with my nephew when he gets a little older and with any other children who may pop up after that! I can say with a degree of certainty that these charming episodes will appeal to the younger generation for years to come and I can’t wait to share them.
Best of Rugrats Collector’s Edition was released on 9th February 2015. It consists of 5 discs and 34 episodes and comes with a free limited edition print.