Nick's toon tots are ready to take over the world, one playground at a time
Created by Arlene Klasky, Gabor Csupo, & Paul Germain
USA, 1991
Rugrats is strange, as cartoons go. It's about children, but mostly aimed at adults; its images are unnerving to those more familiar with the rounded, "softer" look found in many Western cartoons; its soundtrack is truly bizarre, being crafted in part by Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh; it manages to be cute and endearing without tipping over into saccharine. And it's one of Nickelodeon's most enduring shows.

Created by Arlene Klasky, Gabor Csupo, and Paul Germain, Rugrats premiered on Nickelodeon in 1991 as part of the triumvirate of cartoons produced expressly for the cable network (the other two cartoons were Doug and Ren and Stimpy.) Of the three, Rugrats has had the most episodes, survived the longest, and has been the only one to garner multiple Emmy awards.

The main characters of the show are indeed "rugrats"--for the most part, the show is not only about, but from the perspective of preschool toddlers. The main character is one-year-old Tommy Pickles, a pigeon-toed rascal with an irrepressible imagination and unquenchable curiosity. His friends and partners in crime are Chuckie, a phobic with one tooth and wild red hair; Phil and Lil, twins who can play or fight with each other at the drop of a pacifier; and his faithful dog Spike. Angelica, Tommy's older spoiled-brat cousin, more often than not makes life miserable for the kids.

An interesting aspect of the show is communications: while the kids can speak quite easily among themselves, the adults and the kids can't communicate with each other. Only older kids like Angelica can converse with both groups. However, the kids have a minor advantage: they can at least understand what the adults are saying, even if they don't get the meaning. More often than not, the adults' words are filtered through the kids' mindsets, and this leads to some interesting situations.

However, Rugrats' preschool viewpoint is not only figurative, it can also be literal: much of the show's perspectives are from floor level. Perfectly innocent objects alternate between being terrifying and inspiring to our heroes. And the characters' appearances never stray into "cute"; for the most part, they seem strangely blobby, with oversized heads, tiny eyes, or oversized cheeks--traits found in real children, but exaggerated in Rugrats to an almost grotesque degree.

Central to the show's appeal is its writing. It specializes in highlighting the magic--and some of the terror--of childhood by taking perfectly ordinary situations (learning about the tooth fairy, power failures, a trip to the supermarket) and putting a kid's spin on them. While Rugrats' writers relied on the tried and true method of throwing in a couple of adult-oriented gags, much of the humour is based on kids not understanding things grown-ups take for granted, or in some cases understanding them all too well, and these situations usually end up being funny no matter how old you are.

Originally printed in fps #8 (Winter 1996)
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