Film Reviews

Unreal Genius

If you can get past the fact that the central characters of Nickelodeon's computer-animated feature Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius--the precocious, Chris Isaak-coiffed hero of the title (voiced by Debi Derryberry), his square suburban parents (Mark DeCarlo and Megan Cavanagh) and token, demographic-spanning friends--look like the kind of generic, Mexican-made bootleg action figures you can buy at the 99-cent store, and feature the same degree of facial expressiveness and range of movement, there's a lot left to like about the film. Surprisingly, it isn't simply a case of cheap animation. There are plenty of scenes in the film that are laden with spectacle and visual inventiveness. One can only conclude that director John A. Davis and the animation folks at DNA Productions, responsible for the 1999 Christmas special Olive, the Other Reindeer, actually chose to make their leads look like bad claymation. Or maybe they just ran out of time after extensively detailing the alien planet, underground base and amusement park that serve as the settings for much of the action.

Like countless cinematic inventors before him, from absent-minded Fred MacMurray to Pee-wee Herman, Jimmy Neutron lives in a pleasant 'burb (known as Retroville), where he has devised numerous high-tech devices to perform such banal functions as shoelace-tying and tooth-brushing. (Jimmy's most unusual addition to the invention canon is a bubble gum that transforms into a bouncy mode of transportation--until it pops, that is.) At the start of the film, he's flying a homemade rocket ship to the edge of the atmosphere, where he'll launch a satellite made out of a toaster into deep space. Jimmy fails to heed the admonition of his parents that sending a satellite with a message of peace into the universe is nothing more than a violation of their long-standing warning not to talk to strangers.

As it turns out, the elders are absolutely correct: The satellite is received by the demented alien King Goobot (Patrick Stewart, out-Shatnering his Star Trek predecessor) and sidekick Ooblar (Martin Short), who look like bronzed vending-machine plastic eggs filled with slime. On a night when Jimmy and the other neighborhood kids have secretly sneaked out to the opening of a new amusement park, Goobot leads his armada of chicken-shaped warships to Retroville, where he kidnaps all the adults to use as food for the giant mutant bird his race worships. Jimmy and friends are overjoyed the following morning to find their parents gone, but without adults around, everyone's soon complaining of tummy aches and skinned knees. In gloriously improbable fashion, it's up to Jimmy to build a space armada to the alien planet and save the day.

From there (hell, even before there) the movie's essentially a series of high-speed, dizzying rocket chases that should keep the young'uns perfectly quiet, unless they're easily susceptible to motion sickness, in which case, don't order the large popcorn. The soundtrack's laden with de rigueur pop songs--mostly from the likes of Britney Spears and 'N Sync, with one incredibly incongruous number from the Ramones thrown in--but unlike in Shrek, they're kept in the background and don't obnoxiously overpower the scenes they score. Pop-cultural references also are kept subtle and minimal: Goobot's world is basically Star Wars' Coruscant with a touch of 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, the token black girl mans a starship communications station with an earpiece patterned on Lieutenant Uhura's, and the ghost story told around a campfire is The Blair Witch Project. Even most of the film's throwaway gags are inventive: Jimmy's parents read from a self-help book titled Unwrapping Your Gifted Child.

The film's highlight is the amusement-park sequence, especially the park, which is eventually torn apart and rebuilt into Jimmy's space fleet. (It looks like something Tim Burton would put in a film if live-action costs weren't prohibitive; imagine the run-down zoo from Batman Returns or the opening-credit sequence of Ed Wood as fully functioning neon tourist trap.) As spaceships, the rides--which include Octo-Puke, Bat Outta Heck, Show Me the Mummy and the giant detached-retina-shaped cable car Eye in the Sky--still move like rides, which is hell for the kids forced to fly through the galaxy on the ever-faster-spinning super swings.

It's a shame this film isn't made entirely to stand alone but is instead the launch of a juggernaut that will include a TV show, Web 'toons and endless merchandise. Even the advertising for the movie includes a series of giant banners that look like toy ads, while the trailer has been running in theaters in front of just about every kids' movie since March (thankfully, very little of the irritating material it shows actually made the final cut of the film). As a kids' movie, it's a zippy diversion. But if you're taking the little ones, clutch that wallet extra tight.

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Luke Y. Thompson