1991 was the year we were first introduced to the cultural behemoth that was Rugrats, a series that was loved by children and adults alike and would go on to inspire an impressive range of merchandise from video games to comic books. To this day, it stands up with the best cartoons that have ever graced Nickelodeon. What is it that made the story of a group of babies trying to understand, and often failing, the situations of everyday toddlerhood so enthralling?
Over 172 episodes and 13 years of content, Rugrats explored a variety of themes. It also spawned three films and two spinoffs and gave us a world full of innocence and beauty. Many remember this gold standard for animation airing on Irish television and the sweet joy that accompanied the show’s premise. Its theme music from Mark Mothersbaugh has become such an iconic staple of nostalgia that when it plays it reawakens memories of growing up part of the show’s target demographic.
Let’s go back to how it all started. In the early 90s, Nickelodeon aimed to produce creator driven animated content, producing a number of pilots. Three of these would go on to have life – Doug, The Ren and Stimpy Show and of course, Rugrats. The pilot ‘Tommy Pickles and the Great White Thing’ wasn’t the best when it came to animation quality but the real charm was the story that gave us our first glimpse of the mind of our protagonist – a one-year-old baby. While the plots and animation would go on to improve dramatically, those early seasons helped audiences develop strong emotional attachments to the show’s charming characters.
The series’ exceptional concept came from the creators’ experiences raising their own children, leading them to craft a show as seen through a group of babies’ eyes. Despite the young age of the protagonists though, adult themes such as aging and loss are explored in Rugrats, adding incredible weight to the cartoon. Each episode centres on everyday tasks being misinterpreted by the central babies, leading them to try fix a problem that was never there in the first place.
Something Rugrats did, that was groundbreaking for its time, was rather than creating cool child or teen protagonists the target audience of pre-teens could look up to, it reversed the concept to show viewers that babies are more than just babbling sleeping creatures. In Rugrats, there is so much more depth to the young characters than one would think. The writers also play with ‘baby talk’ and often have the protagonists use improper grammar and mispronounce words, something that’s straight up adorable but also adds comedy for an older audience.
Empathy and understanding are the key elements of the cartoon. The adults and children are constantly trying to understand each other and that, hilarity of the situations aside, provides a beauty that reflects real world relations and makes the show relatable to all ages. Rugrats is a show that can be enjoyed by adults and children on different levels, again showing us the core strength of such a bond.
Speaking of bonds, there is no greater one than that of Tommy and Chuckie, the two main characters whose friendship develops and strengthens through each episode. This theme of friendship, one that we must always implore, is so solid in Rugrats that it could bring a tear to one’s eye. When either Tommy or Chuckie is upset, the other helps them, with the rest of the fun characters – twins Phil and Lil – providing constant support in any way they can. By centring on babies, the cartoon depicts friendship broken down to its barest and built up again from a perspective we might overlook.
The first film – 1998’s The Rugrats Movie – and the introduction of Tommy’s brother Dil are what blows this emotional heart to a new level. Tommy, up to this point had been the center of attention, something that comes crashing down in his mind when his brother is born. He can’t understand the complex situation that he is going through, believing that his parents don’t want him anymore.
A heart-breaking moment gives us the line: “Please stop. Don’t you see, I want Mom and Dad for me.” From here, we see the bond between the two babies develop and we see responsibility form in the older sibling. It’s clear the two brothers are more alike than at first glance and that they are just at different stages of understanding. This newfound relationship that begins to build is what paves the way for the stories and themes of latter episodes.
Rugrats, despite perhaps a later dip in quality over production issues, still stands the test of time, showing heart and love throughout its stories while not shying away from tackling important matters. It is this that allowed the cartoon to be as successful as it was, garnering both adult and kid fans who could watch the show together, bridging the gap between generations.