By Ty Burr
Updated April 02, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

In the garden of plastic delights that is kiddie video, a parent can forage fruitlessly for food that both tastes good and is good. Barney’s too saccharine, the Teletubbies are bland little acidheads, and the Disney films, while individually grand, carry their Faustian demand for total surrender to the god of tie-in backpacks. And much of the other stuff is just spinach: I firmly believe my older daughter sped up her toilet training so she wouldn’t have to watch It’s Potty Time ever again.

So it’s with stunned relief that my wife and I find those rare movies that tell their stories with the honest delight that lets kids feel smart and adults feel innocent. I’m thinking of such disparate vids as the first two Wallace & Gromit shorts, Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, the exquisite British animated film The Snowman, Betty Boop cartoons, Singin’ in the Rain

And the Rugrats series. The fact is, just about everyone at the Burrs’ gets something out of the hugely popular cartoon foibles of Tommy, Chuckie, Angelica, Lil, and Phil. Four-year-old Eliza keys right in to the show’s knowing, knee-level realpolitik. Dad digs the way the drawing style reflects the influence of European comics artists like Milo Manara. Mom relishes the realistic (trust me) exhaustion of Tommy’s parents, as well as Didi’s genial Jewishness. The sole exception is two-year-old Natalie, who will stare for a moment, chortle, then go back to rearranging the furniture.

More to the point, all of us appreciate, in our own fashion, the way Rugrats allows children to act like children — an astonishingly subversive stance in this age of Baby Geniuses and Calvin Klein underwear ads. If you watch the show on tape (the best way to end-run Nickelodeon’s blaring commercial blocks), you can’t help but marvel at how Rugrats tends to avoid having its protagonists, say, drop hip catchphrases from movies they could never have seen. Instead, the show spins plot out of toddler misperception: In ”Autumn Leaves,” the kids have never seen a tree lose its foliage before — so they assume it’s sick and try to glue it back together. Even when the show gets ambitious, as in the Passover special, it does so felicitously: Creaky grandpa Boris lovingly detailing the plagues God visited on the pharaoh is both true to the holiday spirit and more compleat than The Prince of Egypt.

All of which makes The Rugrats Movie something of a comedown. The problem is obvious: It’s bigger. The series had become a pop force by the time the film went into production, and resulted in its healthy $100 million gross. But now that it’s out on video, Movie sits uneasily next to its TV source on the small screen.

Because the animation bar is higher in theatrical movies, we get all sorts of fancy CGI backgrounds here; the effect is as if Rocky and Bullwinkle have been dropped into Myst. The opening, too, bodes ill: It’s a Raiders of the Lost Ark parody, exactly the sort of lazy media cross-referencing the show eschews. The plot has Tommy and the gang (plus new baby brother ”Dil” Pickles) lost in the woods, where they negotiate waterfalls and ravenous wolves with an ease that had this parent murmuring, ”I don’t think so…” Well, yeah, it’s a cartoon — but it goes so far into scary territory, with such eye-poking animated aggressiveness, that even Eliza complained, ”It’s giving me the nerves.”

She was fascinated by escaped circus monkeys that bedevil our heroes, and so was I: They’re scary in a good way, with some of the same old-world charge as the monkeys in the folk tale-turned-classic kiddie book Caps for Sale. And the whole family got the joke when Angelica snarls at the family mutt, ”You know, not all dogs go to heaven…” (Take that, Don Bluth.) Still, the tapes of the TV episodes are in heavy rotation at our house, and the movie is not. And that’s because even a 4-year-old can tell when something has gotten a little too big for its Huggies.
The Movie: B-
Series episodes: B+