Intermittently this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Dora and the Lost City of Gold makes a tiny form of history as the first live-action feature based on a Nickelodeon animated TV series. The first animated feature based on a Nickelodeon animated feature beat it to the punch by almost 21 years.

The very first thing one notices about The Rugrats Movie of 1998 - and I do mean, literally, almost the exact very first thing - is that it's the work of a filmmaking team that is very excited to have a feature film budget to work with. As you would expect from a movie based on a animated comedy for children airing on Nickelodeon, the first gesture made here evokes, most likely by accident, the start of 1992's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. We find ourselves watching a TV-shaped box shrunk down in the widescreen film frame, playing the title sequence from the 1991 series Rugrats. It's a little washed-out; the sound is a little tinny and muffled. In other words, it sucks: screw TV, man, this is a movie, and movies are bigger, brighter, louder, better. Also, it is not the last that The Rugrats Movie resembles Twin Peaks, and I am undecided how I feel about that.

If the film's first gesture is to show what TV can't do, its second gesture is to show what movies can, and so we start off with a sequence mostly designed to let the artists at Klasky Csupo - the animation studio best-known for their work creating several of the key Nickelodeon series of the 1990s and early 2000s, as well as handling the first three seasons of Fox's The Simpsons - stretch their muscles and indulge in a whole lot of stylish excess. There are, as it turns out, many sequences that are mostly designed for that reason, and even several of the sequences that are designed for narrative load-bearing have been dressed up with lots of visual flair. So back we go to my first point: these people were very excited to have a budget, and The Rugrats Movie is definitely not afraid to let the plot grind to a halt to celebrate that fact.

The first sequence is, anyways, a parody of Raiders of the Lost Ark, one that starts out with some extremely bold and showy lighting effects (for TV animation, anyway; there's nothing here that can stack against any nighttime scene from Disney's 1998 release, Mulan, for example) before getting to some CGI-tweaked effects animation and a whole lot of movement along the Z-axis. My God, how The Rugrats Movie loves movement along the Z-axis. And why not? For the whole of traditional animation history, the illusion of movement in depth was the great dream. It could be achieved only with a great expenditure of labor and time (the simple explanation: it requires everything onscreen to be constantly redrawn with every frame, rather than only individual arms or legs or bodies), and where those two things are spent, so must money be spent as well. The 1990s witnessed something of an arms race in animating deep movement, fueled I suspect by Richard Williams's awe-inspiring kitchen sequence from Who Framed Roger Rabbit in 1988, as well as Disney's experiments with CGI. So why shouldn't Klaksy Csupo play? They had time and money; let them spend it how they see fit. And thus we get movement down rivers, down streets, down train tracks, into doorways and in spirals through rooms.

What we don't get is a clear motivation for any of the above; it is pure excess. And I love excess a lot, but it points us to the second thing one notices about The Rugrats Movie, which is that it's an inordinately busy movie. Busy visually, but also narratively, in its chaotic adventure-comedy screenplay by David N. Weiss and J. David Stern. I do not know Rugrats at all, except by reputation as a malapropism-heavy slice-of-life comedy series, in which a quintet of babies and toddlers misunderstand simple concepts and words, and then imagine complex adventures based on what they think they've heard. Which is, to be fair, precisely what The Rugrats Movie turns out to be. But I have to wonder if the show was ever this bugfuck nuts? The plot is already a bit heightened, but it's a kids' movie, that's okay: one-year-old Tommy Pickles (Elizabeth Daily, one of the many voice acting legends on hand) has just gotten a newborn baby brother, Dil (Tara Strong, another - she was still going by Tara Charendoff in those days), and is finding it stressful. But he has pledged himself to learning responsibility, and that's going to become a very large thing to do indeed, once their father's robotic dinosaur-shaped stroller accidentally sends them into the deep woods, along with Tommy's friends Chuckie (Christine Cavanaugh), and twins Phil and Lil (Kath Soucie). Chasing after all of them is Tommy's loathed three-year-old cousin Angelica (Cheryl Chase), furious that Dil stole her doll. A long rainy night follows, during which the various infants must contend with a hungry wolf in the none-too-distant distance.

All of that I can accept, with reservations. It's when the army of lost circus monkeys comes into play that I have to wonder, how busy is too busy? There's a sweet little story about family bonds and older siblinghood that's right at the surface of all this, and the film obviously wants that to be the big takeaway, but it is drowned in the baffling surrealism-for-grade-schoolers vibe of the whole affair. This is a restless movie - oh, and I forgot about the musical numbers! Several of them, only one of which can even slightly pretend to be narratively motivated. Mostly, they're just present because animated movies in the '90s pretty much had to have songs, and they offer plenty of space for the aforementioned malapropisms. But it's just one more chunk of stimulation in a movie that already has plenty to fill its 79 minutes.

Z-axis movement, wolves, monkeys, songs, robot strollers, toddlers surviving on their (dim) wits for some 18 hours in the wild, news media satire, a few dick jokes for the parents, a slew of poop and piss jokes for the kids (including one that's a visual homage to classic Hollywood musicals: to my horror, I laughed), and an easily-digest moral. As I was about to say, this is a restless movie. It's tailored to kids' attention spans, so of course it ought to be, but when I was a kid, I still think I'd have been slightly worn down by the grandiose quantity of stuff being thrown out by this movie, generally without any sort of obvious rhythm or motivation. This is not "small children misunderstanding things, and it is cute" (which would anyway work better with three-year-olds than one-year-olds, but that's not something to be an ass about). This is sheer mania, defying our suspension of belief from the word go (why do one-year-olds consider Indiana Jones a pop culture touchstone) and only getting weirder and denser from there. Part of me admires The Rugrats Movie: I suspect it produced a lot of enjoyably fucked-up gets who went on to like really good weird stuff as adolescents and young adults. Most of me, the part that never had any contact with this franchise until the Year of Our Lord 2019 and somehow decided this was the time to change it, finds it deeply overstimulating and exhausting. God bless it for having a boundless animation, but The Rugrats Movie is a very trying experience, a collection of parents' nightmares turned bright and sunny, and somehow becoming even more draining as a result.