In addition to animation, I’ve always had a special predilection for nature documentaries. The natural world is simply brimming with beauty and wonder, and such programs allow us a glimpse of species, places, and events that we might otherwise never see. Consequently, it’s important that we preserve our planet’s ecosystems and our fellow creatures, especially since we are on a fast track to environmental catastrophe if we do not immediately take drastic action. Therefore, I cannot overstate how grateful I am for the existence of a TV show that was, undoubtedly, a childhood staple for many an animation and nature enthusiast–The Wild Thornberrys (1998 – 2004).
Developed by Arlene Klasky and Gábor Csupó (and several others), this program follows the adventures of 12-year-old Eliza Thornberry, who travels the world with her family–naturalist/documentarian parents Nigel and Marianne; 16-year-old sister Debbie (a city-slicker if ever there was one); 5-year-old adopted brother Donnie (who was raised by orangutans after his own parents–naturalists themselves–were murdered by poachers); and best friend Darwin, a chimpanzee who travels with the family. At every stop on the family’s never-ending safari, Eliza interacts with and befriends the local wildlife, aided by her ability to talk to non-human animals (a power bestowed on her by an African shaman, which she must keep a secret). She and her family also interact with the local people and their respective cultures, as well as dealing with the usual ups and downs of family life.
I need to state right up front, when I was a kid, I envied Eliza for her way of life and her powers. Getting to travel the world and see wild animals in their natural environment for a living has always sounded like a dream come true; not to mention, who hasn’t wanted to understand what animals say and think and be able to converse with them? Mind you, watching the show as an adult, I am obliged to chide Eliza for her reckless bravado and her tendency to jump to conclusions without first getting all the facts, both traits being on full display in the early seasons. But, at the end of the day, her heart was always in the right place, and for that reason, I think she makes for a great lead. (It also helps that she goes through some significant development over the course of the first movie.)
Of course, that’s not to say that the rest of the core cast aren’t compelling in their own right. Nigel and Marianne, for example, are both shown to be capable filmmakers, as well as being highly invested in their family. Darwin, though rightfully exasperated with Eliza’s tendency to ignore his advice and goad him into uncomfortable situations, remains fiercely loyal to her and will come to her aid with no questions asked. However, I would argue that Debbie is the most complex of the lot–she doesn’t hide that she dislikes constantly moving around from place to place, but she clearly understands the importance of her parents’ work, and though Eliza, Darwin and Donnie may drive her meshuge, she cares for them all deeply, nevertheless.
As I said at the opening of this review, the current state of our global environment demands that we immediately take action to preserve what remains of Earth’s biodiversity. While some TV shows and movies might address this in an overly simplified way, The Wild Thornberrys intelligently conveys to its core demographic the finer nuances of conservation and explains how all species play a vital role in keeping the planet healthy. It also helps that it simultaneously provides a respectful, well-informed overview of the diversity of human culture around the world, which further demonstrates just how unique our planet is and how we can only ensure that both man and nature can prosper equally if we work together, reaching out across cultural and national boundaries; as one of my favorite songs from Sesame Street states,
All of us can have a happy, healthy place to be/ If we can float and swim and climb in Earthling harmony.
In summation, The Wild Thornberrys is easily one of the greatest environmentally-conscious TV series of all time, standing alongside such classics as Nature, Planet Earth, Wild Kingdom and Our Planet. With its colorful and compelling cast of characters, it inspires children to do their part in preserving the world we share and reminds us of just how vibrant, dynamic, and awe-inspiring nature is. I am forever grateful to the Klasky Csupo studio for making this show, and I will be sure to introduce it to my children in the future.
Did you watch The Wild Thornberrys growing up? Tell us in the comments!
This is a user-submitted post by Jordan Hashemi-Briskin.
Edited by: Kelly Conley