By Alex Skrapits (Wantagh, NY)
Nickelodeon has always a place in animation history when they presented us a library of cartoons known as “Nicktoons”. We have experienced the wild antics of Ren & Stimpy, the perspective of the world through a baby’s eye on the Rugrats, the underwater fun of SpongeBob, the balance of the elements on Avatar: The Last Airbender, and the expanded family and life on The Loud House. The shows I’ve mentioned are all hand-drawn…but what about computer 3-D animation? If you ask anyone about any 3-D animated Nicktoon, “Jimmy Neutron” would be the first answer that comes to mind.
Get a load of this background: It started in the 1980s when animator John A. Davis wrote a script for his short film about a boy genius named Johnny Quasar. After coming across his abandoned script years later, he decided to make it into a computer animated short. A 40-second demo of the short was made and presented at a computer graphics convention in 1995 where film producer Steven Oedekerk and Nickelodeon caught its attention. After pitching the idea to Nick, the short was retooled and developed into an extended TV pilot. Impressed by the character and 3D technology, Nickelodeon ordered a television series and a feature-length film, with John suggesting production on the latter first. Within 24 months of production, experimenting with new computer software, and increasing its staff members, how did the results turn out? …Good…for the time, that is.
Boy genius Jimmy Neutron (voiced by Debi Derryberry) and his friends must save their parents from a race of egg-like aliens known as the Yolkians.
Before I talk about the story, let me address the elephant in the room quickly: comparing Jimmy Neutron to Cartoon Network’s Dexter’s Laboratory, which is one of my favorite animated series. If you first came across this movie, it would sound like a rip-off to Dexter’s Laboratory, which made its debut on television five years before the movie itself hitting theaters. That SOUNDS true, in theory. But, there is a HUGE difference between these two similar concepts: the execution. And trust me; you’ll be hearing that word a lot.
Watching this movie on its own with a straight face, anyone would characterize this plot as either “silly”, “simple” or “dumb” kid flick not to be taken seriously. To some extent, that is true. Then again, as a movie that is aimed for children, it surprisingly works. We’re going to play a game, hear me out, called “Place Yourself In”. Try to imagine you were a child and got grounded by your parents for disobeying them. You wake up the next morning and find that EVERY adult is missing. You then realize you can do whatever you want! You can eat a tower of ice cream on a single cone, wearing non-matching clothes in public or water-skiing in the flooded school hallways!!! …After a while, you feel worn out, empty and start shedding a tear. You eventually understand not everything is what you expected and must take action to set things right. The POINT I am making is that the movie shows the fun and imaginative side of a child’s perspective which applies to both children and adults. It doesn’t pander, annoy or insult one’s intelligence by all means. Kids who watch this movie can easily understand how much fun they would have if they don’t listen to what their parents tell them. But soon afterwards, there will be consequences and they must learn from their mistakes and improve for the better. Parents or older audiences would relate to that aspect as well in reminiscence of their childhood. Admit it: you probably have the same guilt when you either ran-away or sneaked out of your parents’ home after getting punished.
One worth noting since the concept of this movie was based on the short film/pilot “Runaway Rocketboy”, you could easily tell and compare where the plot points and dialogue were carefully integrated while retooling the writing into a feature length format. Before the movie premiered, Nickelodeon also released a series of interstitial Jimmy Neutron shorts around television and previous films at the time, which helped establish the characters and setting (which I’ll talk about later). As a movie based on that said concept, it did follows the notes on expanding the world of the established setting where Jimmy and the kids travel to outer space while we learn about the Yolkian race. As for the humor, it could be a mixed bag…depending on your sense of humor. There is some slapstick and low-brow humor like burping; the dialogue, at least, makes up for it by providing some subtle jokes that you would find either on The Simpsons or Animaniacs. Sure, the story sounds basic enough for a kid’s film, but through clever writing and world-building, you will be engaged on a wild adventure.
The animation…will be the most difficult subject to discuss because there are good AND bad elements about it when you compare it nowadays to other movies. If you have seen the 40-second demo, the shorts, heck, even the trailer, you notice that the quality of the animation has changed and improved between 1995 and 2001. Not to mention, the animation was made under Lightwave and project: messiah software. Admittedly, the quality of the final product does look better by comparison…but not enough by today’s standards. The most SHOCKING thing to discover about the animation is that its budget was $30 million. The SAME budget that the first Toy Story had, which was released in theaters in the SAME year as the demo did! True, Toy Story has aged but it was excusable for being the first computer animated feature EVER made in history. Jimmy Neutron was also nominated alongside DreamWorks’ Shrek and Pixar’s Monsters Inc. for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards. Again, Shrek and Monsters Inc. have also dated but their quality still looks better than Jimmy Neutron.
Having a $30 million budget, the film has a cheap look that would’ve been acceptable during the 90s. You would start to notice that some of the human characters look distorted, exaggerated, or awkward to be rendered under a film rate of 24 fps. Even their textures don’t look as convincing as they appear to be. I mean, it looks like hair or clothing but they don’t feel like it. They would look like clay if you ask me. Even the town of Retroville doesn’t look that interesting. It looks like an ordinary town.
HOWEVER, as cheap as the animation looks, that’s where the EXECUTION continues to bloom on the creativity and imagination. According to John Davis, the human characters were meant to be designed as simple and cartoony to avoid overcomplicating production and realism, which explains why the textures on the hair and clothing are similar. The results give majority of the character models a stylized and appealing look that doesn’t go too far or be taken as seriously. In addition, their character animation helps distinguish their personalities and designs. Some characters move down-to-earth while others move more energetic. In a bizarre sense, the designs fit into the world around them. For example, there are cars that are designed to fit the size of certain characters’ head. Thus, it gives consistency to the animation style. The visually stand-out characters are Goddard, the Yolkians and Poultra for their designs, textures, capabilities and use of squash-and-stretch. On a side note, the effects animation like water, lava or lasers are quite decent at best.
While Retroville seems generic at first, there are a few key locations throughout the movie that will make you have fun. The movie’s title DOES NOT disappoint you when you enter Jimmy’s laboratory located under his backyard shed. One of the highlights of the animation is Jimmy’s inventions. Besides Goddard, Jimmy has an assortment of gadgets that I wish would exist. A backpack with jetpacks, a shoe-tying robot, a shrink ray that changes any size, and many more! Retro Land is another example where at first glance, it is an amusement park with strange and out-of-extraordinary rides. But, once the kids prep their mission to space, they turn each of the rides into rockets which will give its audience a sense of adventure…along with “Kids in America” playing in the background. Once the kids set foot on the alien planet, the movie slowly builds up to a decent climatic chase scene between the humans and Yolkians across the galaxy. Yes, the animation has aged but you cannot deny the visuals have given us what we will remember from this movie.
A simple story and animation cannot be complete without simple characters, right? Well, here’s the catch if you watch the shorts before this film, you would easily recognize who these characters are and granted, they more developed when the TV series was released later. However, if you watch this movie itself, you will be stuck with mostly one-dimensional characters with a few exceptions to remember. Let’s start with the boy genius himself: James Isaac Neutron, or Jimmy. He’s a young man with gifted intelligence and creates inventions that would help him get through problems, but more often end up making bigger problems as a result. Despite his high I.Q., he is a naïve child who sometimes gets into trouble and always thinks of a solution through an animated sequence where we see the inner mind of Jimmy’s brain and shouts out “Brain Blast”, which the latter is another highlight in the film’s animation. Accompanying him is his robotic dog and best character of the movie, Goddard. Goddard may act like a loyal pet dog with standard familiar tricks, his functions can provide more tricks that NO other dog could do such as providing a computer screen with options, changing into a fly-cycle and “playing dead” by blowing up and reassembling himself. We also have Judy and Hugh Neutron, Jimmy’s parents. While they act as the typical loving and caring parents, Judy is straightforwardly strict while Hugh is absent-mindedly quirky with an obsession with ducks.
For the side characters, Carl is Jimmy’s asthmatic, neurotic best friend and Sheen is the hyperactive superhero fanboy who act more as comic reliefs, with the latter having his own spin-off sometime later. Cindy Vortex is one of the most interesting characters out of the bunch. At first, she could be bossy, short-tempered and have a competitive nature due to her jealousy and rivalry of Jimmy being smarter than her. But, as the story progresses, she deeply cares about him and may have feelings towards him. She also hangs out with her music-loving best friend Libby. Nick Dean would be the runner-up of the cast. On one hand, he is characterized as the cool kid and ladies’ man. On the other hand, he is arrogant, cocky and a negative influence when turned to for advice and also a coward, especially during the climax, which makes me laugh every time.
Lastly, we have the Yolkians. There are an advanced species of egg-like aliens that worship their monstrous chicken “god” Poultra by offering her humans as sacrifices. They are led by the sadistic King Goobot and his silly assistant, Ooblar. Sure, they are one-note villains, but thanks to the performances by Patrick Stewart and Martin Short, they pose off as intimidating yet witty. That’s another worth noting: the voice acting is solid. Thanks to the voice acting veterans such as Rob Paulsen, Candi Milo, Carolyn Lawrence, and Frank Welker, they give out more personality and charm to their characters. The characters may not be complex, but you’ll grow to like them over time.
By itself without context, some could call this movie dull with a weak story, cheap animation and one-dimensional characters. Yet, what originated as a short film, it slowly evolves into a memorable entry in the Nicktoons line-up. The story is standard but retooled to get the heart and message across, the animation is dated but imaginative, and the characters are plain but charming. As a set-up to Nickelodeon’s first computer animated series, it prevailed. For my recommendation, kids, parents and Nickelodeon fans would have a fun time with it. If you are a fan of computer-animation or sci-fi in general, it is harmless enough for a rental. For those who are new to Jimmy Neutron, I HIGHLY advise you to watch the shorts and pilot before the movie. In fact, check out the show when you’re done; it’s definitely worth a watch. Gotta blast!