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Kiddie Flick

[whitespace] 'Rugrats' movie spurs some very adult conversation

By David Templeton


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he attends an advance screening of the animated The Rugrats Movie, along with a pair of highly experienced Rugrats "experts"--his two daughters, Amber and Jenna.

"No one knows the Rugrats better than I do," proclaims Amber at the outset of our 50-mile trek to San Francisco, where we'll be checking out The Rugrats Movie, the much-anticipated big-screen version of Nickelodeon's phenomenally popular T.V. cartoon.

My daughter, clutching her barking Spike toy--he's the Rugrats' beloved dog--and her miniature Phil doll--he's one of "The Twins," the other being sister Lil; they're the bug-eating buddies of fellow rugrats Tommy Pickles, Chuckie, and Angelica--has been a fan of the show since its debut when she was four. She's now eleven.

"I'm the number one Rugrats fan," she happily crows. And she's got a whole roomful of Rugrats paraphernalia--the accumulated treasures of seven years of faithful, consumer-based fandom (aided by the gleeful generosity of grandparents, aunts, and uncles)--to prove it.

"I guess I'm the Number Two Rugrats fan," murmurs Jenna, age 12, tagging along for this evening's big event. "I like the Rugrats a lot! But I like The X-Files better."

So there.

My appreciative progeny are not alone in their pop-cultural attachment to Rugrats; the movie--now in theaters everywhere--has amassed over $50 million in its first two weeks of release. Tommy Pickles & Co. must have a lot of fans out there.

During our drive, the conversation is electric, an unending barrage of excited banter and unexpected questions. I have to work fast, coming up with reasonable answers to everything from "How does a projector work?" and "What keeps the Golden Gate Bridge from falling down?" to "How long would it take for a jumper to hit the water?" and "What does 'male bonding' mean?"

"Geez," I think, "where did that one come from?"

No matter. These are good questions, whatever their free-associated origins may be. And it so happens that they are only a warm up for the questions I'll be getting on our way back home, questions no one could have guessed would be inspired by a G-rated feature-length cartoon about five noisy babies.

"The twins didn't eat enough bugs," yawns Amber, shortly after the film. "In the T.V. show, they eat worms and spiders all the time." Comfortably ensconced in the back seat, a suddenly sleepy Amber ticks off a handful of items that bothered her about the film: it was occasionally violent, the Rugrats were frequently mean to one another (something that never happens in the regular show), and the humor was uncharacteristically packed with, um, how shall we say it?

"Yucky stuff," Amber boldly names it. "On T.V., the rugrats are a little bit gross, but they're always sweet and nice to each other. I think the people at Paramount [the distributor of the film] said, 'Oh, kids won't like that enough. If we're going to make big bucks we'll have to put in a lot of fart jokes and private-part jokes. Kids love that kind of thing.'

"It really upset me," she sighs.

"Um," I reply, "Don't you both laugh at fart jokes?"

"No," Amber retorts.

"Yes," admits Jenna, shooting Amber a silent sibling stare. "We do when we're in a stupid mood. Farting is funny."

"What's so funny about farting?" Amber demands. "That's what people do! It's really just like, you know, burping."

"Yeah, burping out of your butt," replies Jenna.

"So what did you like about the movie?" I ask, attempting to redirect.

Jenna liked an early scene in a hospital nursery, wherein a chorus of newborns perform a Busby Berkeley-like song-and-dance routine, complete with jokes about umbilical cords, circumcisions, and post-partum depression--"I miss my old womb," cries one insecure infant--and concluding with a synchronized, multi-streamed, overhead arch of, um, baby fluid. For her part, Amber liked a scene where the Rugrats, lost in the woods, float down river singing pirate songs. She especially liked Dil. The newest member of the rugrats, Dil is Tommy's newborn brother, a kid with loud lungs and an incessant, all-night-long wail that brings his parents to the verge of mental and physical exhaustion.

"If that's what babies are like," Amber remarks, "I don't know if I want to have kids. In the movie, after Dil was born, his dad was so tired he started crying! That doesn't really happen, does it?"

"Absolutely," I answer. "After each of you were born, we went months without getting a full night's sleep."

"How many months?" Amber presses.

"About six or seven," I tell her.

"Half a year? How could you stand it?" she exclaims.

"Wow. Good question," I nod, diplomatically. My answer takes several minutes. I explain that no matter how tired or exhausted a parent becomes, no matter how near the brink of sanity they become, they find so many endearing things in their children's behavior that it makes it all worth while. I talk about responsibility, and parental pride, and indescribable love.

I lie through my teeth.

"The truth is," I tell them, honestly, "I only vaguely remember the exhaustion and the long nights of crying. But I do remember how much I loved holding you and making up songs to sing to you, and ..."

"Dad," Jenna gently interrupts. "Amber's asleep."

I glance into the back seat. Sure enough, she's zonked out, still clutching Spike.

"I was kind of wondering," Jenna muses, "about that scene in the nursery, and the one baby who talks about her umbilical cord being cut. Does it hurt the baby when the doctor cuts the umbilical cord?"

Good question. My answer--that I was allowed to cut the cord myself, and that as far as I could tell, no, it didn't hurt her a bit--leads the savvy seventh-grader to other questions: if one end of the umbilical cord is attached to the baby, what's the other end attached to? What does a placenta look like? How big is it? Do whales have placentas? How can doctors tell when a baby is due? What determines when a woman gets pregnant from sex and when she doesn't?

"Golly," I think to myself, "I knew we'd be having this conversation some day, but I wasn't exactly prepared to be having it right after watching the Rugrats."

Then again, why not now? Ten miles later, we've discussed ovulation, menstruation, abortion, and birth control.

"What exactly is birth control?" she asks. "In health class, they mention birth control, and they mention condoms, but that's about it. Are there other kinds of birth control besides a condom?"

In simple terms, I describe the pill, and diaphragms, and contraceptive foam.

"Oh no!" Jenna laughs at the latter. "That is so gross!"

A road sign tells me that we're almost home. But Jenna has one last question. "What kind of birth control do you use?" she asks.

Oh Christ. Now I have to explain vasectomies.

I carefully describe the concept, using plumbing analogies where possible.

"So," she nods quietly when I finish the explanation, "the little sperms are just stuck in the testicles and they can't get out?"

"Um, pretty much, yeah," I shrug.

"Don't worry about them, Dad," she smiles, reassuringly. "Just imagine that your sperms are male bonding. They're in there singing, 'YMCA' or something."

We're home. As Jenna heads off to her room, she smiles, "Pretty good conversation."

Amber wakes up as I carry her from the car. Over her bed, bedecked with Rugrats sheets and Rugrats pillowcases, is a giant poster of Tommy Pickles, smiling down at her. I tuck her in and kiss her goodnight.

"I guess I liked the movie," Amber mumbles, dreamily. "But I wish they'd have asked me for suggestions first. I could have told them how to make a Rugrats movie that's really worth talking about."

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Web extra to the December 10-16, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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