The Wild Thornberrys was Nickelodeon’s attempt at creating a fun and education show about geography, animals, and nature. Eliza, the show’s protagonist had the ability to talk to animals. This came especially in handy when traveling around the world with her family filming her father’s popular nature show. All around the world she was able to get into all sorts of shenanigans.
Since the show’s cancellation, it has stayed in pop culture. This is both because people liked the show while it was on and Nigel was ridiculous for many reasons. His large nose, small eyes, and bright red mustache have become a meme, and his face is added to pictures with his catchphrase “smashing” (intended, of course, to be read in Tim Curry’s distinct voice).
But The Wild Thornberrys is more than just the Nigel meme. The show traveled to so many places and interacted with so many people that it’s understandable why people only remember the weirdest bits. Still, it dealt with loss, ethics, and, of course, nature. Through Eliza’s powers and the subplots of the other characters, the audience was able to get a rich view into the locations the family visited.
The show was much more than most remember. And, like most children’s shows, not everything was caught by the young audience. Everything from the characters’ actions to the plots, when looked at closely, end up giving the viewers pause. However, it’s still a great show. Even with the show’s disjointed structure, there was a lot to be found in The Wild Thornberrys.
The Thornberrys know a lot about animals, and they frequently learn lessons about not interfering too much with nature. Sometimes, that means making hard decisions so the ecosystem will work itself out. However, their morals are pretty inconsistent. While they don’t want to interfere with the environment around them, they allow their three children to roam, frequently unsupervised, wherever they are.
Eliza in particular almost always starts to change the natural events around her.
Marianne and Nigel would chastise their children for doing things like giving water to animals during the dry season. Their reasoning was that they can’t interfere with nature. However, these same people keep a chimpanzee as a pet. They have also stood by while their children have caused minor disasters in the local environment. They do this all while camping in the ComVee, the least nature-friendly part of their adventures.
The Wild Thornberrys boasted that the show was both educational and entertaining. Because Eliza was able to talk to animals, it stands to reason that she would get accurate information from them. It also certainly helped that her father was the star of a popular nature show. However, even the best-intentioned shows still get it wrong sometimes.
While a lot of the facts were right, some were only half true or straight up false. For instance, several episodes feature sharks that are far more persistent than they would be in the wild. Also, Eliza claims that the Komodo dragon is the largest reptile in the world, when actually it’s the largest lizard (the crocodile is the largest reptile). Moreover, the animals are often drawn incorrectly on the show, but this is likely an artistic choice, rather than an accident.
Debbie is always the odd one out in her family. Despite the fact that she gets to travel the world and see things few humans will ever see, she prefers to stay in or near the ComVee, listening to music and drinking soda. This establishes her as the black sheep, but her family always seem to love her anyway. Until one episode, at least.
In an episode about Mother’s Day, Darwin is saved from a rockslide before Debbie.
Eliza and Debbie spend the episode arguing about who will get a better gift for their mother. They put themselves in a dangerous situation, but, in the process, cause a rock slide, destroying the bridge they crossed. Their mother sets up a rope from one side of the ravine to the other. She grabs her youngest, Eliza, first. Then, for some reason, Darwin. Debbie is forced to be the last one to get to safety.
When Eliza firsts wishes for her powers, she does so to communicate with Darwin. Even though he is basically another member of the family, Eliza changed his name when she first met him. Darwin wasn’t always Darwin. His name wasn’t even close. His name was a series of chimp calls.
Eliza can understand animals, so Darwin’s name being chimp calls doesn’t even make sense. Does Darwin’s given name have no meaning? Do any chimp names have meaning? Though this seems like a plot hole with her powers (is there such things are translations issues?), it’s never addressed again. Eliza simply proclaims that his name is now Darwin, because she has a cousin Darwin who looks like a monkey.
It was no secret that Debbie wanted a more traditional life. She wanted more space from her family, and she was more interested in music than she was in nature. However, because her family was constantly on the move, she rarely got the chance to indulge in either of these things.
Debbie made her displeasure clear in her bunk in the ComVee.
She made a collage that featured pictures of her family and home. This would seem cute, except she labeled it as reasons why she’s miserable. Her reasons, unfortunately, are centered around her family’s eccentric lifestyle. Despite this, Debbie doesn’t seem to totally hate her family and life. When given the chance to live a more normal life at a boarding school, she turns it down.
Donnie filled the “wild child” trope on the show. He was found in Borneo, and, until The Origins of Donnie, no one really knew anything about him. He couldn’t speak full sentences, though he sometimes picked up words, and he was often shown wandering off on his own clad only in his cheetah-print shorts. Though Donnie never got seriously hurt, this is questionable parenting at best.
However, the adult Thornberrys didn’t do much parenting at all. Most of that was left to Debbie, who gave Donnie “English lessons” that usually revolved around him serving her soda. Moreover, while they are able to keep an eye on (and keep clothed), their pet chimpanzee, they are unable to keep Donnie from getting into potential danger on a regular basis. After living with the Thornberrys for so long, Donnie should have shown more improvement in his speech and behavioral issues.
Eliza is really bad at keeping her secret. Despite the fact that there is only one rule, she manages to break it several times throughout the show. During the events of the movie, she even tells Debbie, though it is established that Debbie won’t tell anyone for fear of becoming a baboon.
However, in the same season where it’s revealed that telling someone about her powers will make her lose them, she tells someone about her powers with no consequences. However, some fans speculate that she is able to do this because the person she tells is also magical and can talk to animals. However, it seems like an oversight in the show. Either way, Eliza is really bad at keeping her secret.
The scene in which Eliza gets her powers is shown at the beginning of each episode. This is part of the opening sequence where Eliza explains to the audience what the show is about. From the first episode, Eliza had her powers. This was an understood portion of the show. In fact, it wasn’t even until later that she revealed that the reason why she kept it secret is so she wouldn’t lose her powers.
However, the opening scene is different from what is presented in the show. In the episode “Gift of Gab,” Eliza and Darwin talk about the day she got her powers. In it, she has to wish and unwish the wish before getting it without major drawbacks. However, there are noticeable differences. Eliza is younger, wearing different clothing, and the circumstances under which she gets her powers are far different.
The Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys crossover was one that no one asked for. The Klasky-Csupó shows, though beloved on their own, didn’t seem to mix in obvious ways. Still, there was a full theater release, complete with a knock-off version of smell-o-vision. Also, inexplicably, Bruce Willis was the voice of Spike.
Even if fans wanted the crossover, there wasn’t much of a crossover.
The premise is that the babies get lost and Eliza needs Spike’s help to find them. However, the characters focus almost exclusively on their own plotlines. Most of the film involves them mentioning characters from the other show, but almost never interacting with them. The end of the film shows a reunion between all of the characters from both shows, but it’s too little too late.
Eliza and Dr. Dolittle have a lot in common, namely that both characters can talk to animals. It’s not surprising that the writers would want to slip a reference to the doctor in the show. He’s a recognizable character, and the reference would be a fun in-joke for the audience. However, most don’t see right away what the reference is.
Some fans speculate that Eliza is named after Eliza Dolittle. Though she shares a name with the doctor, she is not a part of the Dr. Dolittle story. Actually, she is the main character in My Fair Lady. Eliza is taught how to be a lady by Henry Higgins. Though Henry Higgins may have a lot to say about Donnie, Eliza’s last name bridges the gap between Eliza Thornberry and Dr. Dolittle.
This one is one of the most surprising. While The Wild Thornberrys Movie was decent, not many would consider it Academy Award caliber. However, it was nominated in the early 2000s for “best song.” The piece was performed and written by Paul Simon, and it was called “Father and Daughter.”
The song, originally written for Paul Simon’s daughter, was used in the film.
It was also featured on two of Paul Simon’s albums, including an essential collection. The music video features Simon singing in a child’s bedroom cut with clips from the movie and live action wild animals. However, dreams of the shiny, gold Oscar statuette were dashed. The song lost to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” from the film 8 Mile.
“The Origin of Donnie” was hyped up by Nickelodeon. They promised to reveal everything that happened before everyone’s favorite wild child became a Thornberry. This special even showed his official adoption into the Thornberry family. During the episode, it is revealed that Donnie’s parents pass while trying to save orangutans from poachers. Incidentally, the Thornberrys actually knew Donnie’s biological parents, further solidifying that they were meant to have Donnie in their family.
However, after the special, the poachers behind the loss of Donnie’s parents are never mentioned again. Is this a statement on the difficulty of prosecuting poachers, or do the Thornberrys just not care? A spin-off where Eliza and her family track down the poachers would be entertaining. Until then, both Donnie and the audience are left with unanswered questions.
Darwin is a sarcastic source of comedic relief for the show. He doesn’t quite act like a chimp, and his nervousness is a good foil to Eliza’s stubbornness and insatiable want to prove herself. Because he wears clothes (which are later revealed to be Debbie’s), he doesn’t even really look like a chimp. He’s just a grayish member of the family.
Still, this leads the Thornberrys to ignore good pet ownership practices.
Rather than feed Darwin something even remotely close to his natural diet, he can often be found snacking on processed junk food. This is barely meant for people, and it certainly isn’t chimp-friendly. For animal experts, they seem to not care very much about this. They leave Eliza mostly in charge of Darwin. Pre-teen girls aren’t necessarily known for their chimpanzee care skills.
Fans of both The Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Wild Thornberrys are sure to like this. If there is any overlap between those two fandoms, they are connected by one character: Donnie. Despite his tendency towards gibberish and random animal noises, Donnie is voiced by a professional performer. Although he isn’t known for his voice acting, the guitarist from The Red Hot Chili Peppers voices the leopard-clad wild child.
Not everyone knows Flea voices Donnie.
Nor do many fans know that Flea has a successful acting career outside of The Red Hot Chili Peppers. His career includes parts in Back to the Future II and III, Baby Driver, The Big Lebowski, and Inside Out. He has been acting since the mid-1980s, and his career doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
As stated previously, Donnie doesn’t have the best grasp of the English language. His command of the language is shoddy, and this perpetuates his role as the wild child. Despite Debbie’s “best” efforts, he doesn’t seem to learn much English.
However, in the show, Donnie presents some command of French and American Sign Language.
In “The Origin of Donnie,” Donnie’s parents teach sign to the orangutans. Donnie picked up and remembered some of the sign language. However, none of his family uses this to teach him English. In another episode, Donnie refers to an apple as “pomme”: the French word for apple. Clearly, Donnie has some understanding of a few languages. However, his incomplete knowledge means he’s mostly unable to communicate with his family.
The Wild Thornberrys sometimes dealt with endangered species. In one episode, in particular, it discussed tortoises and making more tortoises. The two tortoises were not seeing eye-to-eye on certain issues, particularly when it came to mating. Eliza, who was really not qualified for the position, took it upon herself to talk the animals through the process.
It’s all a part of nature, but the tortoise episode is infamously weird.
Between Eliza’s awkwardly close involvement to the situation to a debacle stemming from a neck bite, this whole episode leads to more questions than it does answers. While it’s important for budding animal experts, like Eliza, to learn about the birds and the bees, there’s ways to learn that are less hands on. Like everything on the show, it grants Eliza nearly hands-on experience.
Despite the fact that it was a glorified RV, the ComVee was the coolest part of the show. It was somewhat cramped, but it could go anywhere and do anything. Some privacy was sacrificed for the ability to travel the world. However, the ComVee was still impressive. They seemed to have plenty of space in the main part of the vehicle, and they were able to carry camera equipment for a popular show.
The ComVee also was able to seamlessly travel between land and water. It was a submarine, boat, and car all in one. Moreover, it was able to withstand any weather event. In one episode, they are even able to safely ride out an actual monsoon. This was even without the impenetrable metal barrier that sometimes covered the windows and door.
Eliza had the power to talk to animals. This formed the basis of the show, even if she didn’t always interact with a ton of animals. It allowed her to become more in-tune with the world around her. By interacting with animals and hearing what they said, the audience learned that, even if animals are cute, they can sometimes be threatening or frightened in addition to friendly.
Eliza’s powers came with one rule: never tell anyone.
This was violated left and right during the show, but we’ll get to that later. Eliza, at the beginning of each episode, reveals her secret to the audience. In the opening sequence, she narrates her life and family as they drive in the ComVee. Presumably, Eliza is talking to someone, thereby violating the rules. From the first episode, she probably should have lost her powers. Or, more likely, I’m reading too much into this.
Most fans of nature documentaries know David Attenborough. The British broadcaster and naturalist is frequently shown on nature and science channels in addition to his documentaries. For many fans, he is synonymous with nature documentaries, and he has been parodied many times for this reason. The Wild Thornberrys, while it wasn’t a parody, certainly drew plenty of inspiration from the real-life figure.
Nigel was clearly based on Attenborough. They were both popular naturalists traveling the world while filming. While David Attenborough doesn’t quite have the same recognizable visage, they are similar in other ways, including their nationalities. Both were even knighted, but more on that later. Nigel was clearly inspired by the famous Attenborough, though they didn’t completely copy him for the show.
The Wild Thornberrys didn’t have much of a through-line. The premise was enough to connect the episodes. Any major events were usually never discussed again after their completion. However, in the beginning of the series, Eliza and her family were constantly outsmarting two poachers: Kip and Beiderman. They were stereotypical villains, and this, ultimately, led to their exit from the show.
After season two, Kip and Beiderman came down with a case of Chuck Cunningham Syndrome.
Chuck Cunningham syndrome (named for Richie’s brother in Happy Days who went upstairs and never came back down) basically means that a character is no longer in a show with no explanation or acknowledgment that they ever existed. Unfortunately for Kip and Beiderman, this was their fate after season two. The show didn’t need recurring villains to interact with the Thornberrys, and so, they disappeared.
Donnie’s origins were a source of mystery until “The Origin of Donnie.” However, as addressed earlier, the special left many questions unanswered. The tragedy that tore Donnie’s biological family apart was sad, and, for some reason, it was only addressed by orangutans. They were the ones who directly benefitted from the sacrifice, but there were people who chose to not take care of Donnie.
Rather than living with humans, Donnie went into the forest to live with orangutans. They felt like they should look after Donnie to honor his parents’ sacrifice. This would make more sense if there weren’t humans nearby to care for him. With that factor, the actions of the orangutans just seem selfish. They looked after him until sending him off and hoping the Thornberrys would care for him.
Donnie had some talents on the show, but most included stuffing things up his nose or outrunning his family. Very few included hobbies that required fine dexterity. Donnie was too wild and impatient for those. It didn’t help that his lessons from Debbie were barely lessons at all. However, somewhere along the way, he was able to learn the guitar.
One episode features Donnie playing guitar while balancing on Debbie’s shoulders.
Not only is he doing a balancing act merely by standing on her shoulders, she’s also surfing at the time. This is all to prove a point about the prejudices held by the surfers. In the scene, a guitar solo plays, and Donnie is strumming on the guitar. Presumably, Donnie is playing the music that can be heard in that scene. Though his language skills aren’t the best, Donnie is a capable musician.
Most fans remember Nigel as a bumbling fool. To be fair, that’s often how the show presented him. Without Marianne or his daughters, Nigel would have had a much harder time navigating the world. He was so enthralled with everything that he would often get distracted by simple things. He also frequently acted as the comedic relief of the show, adding to his foolish character.
However, what many don’t remember is that Nigel was extremely accomplished in his field. He was often cited as an inspiration or friend to many characters on the show (including the Rugrats babies), and he knew a lot about nature. He wasn’t just the charismatic host of his show. He was a scientist. He was accomplished enough that he was knighted by the Queen of England and offered a position at Oxford, one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
The people behind television shows often have to fight for creative control, fair wages, and whatever else they may need. It’s unsurprising that these elements sometimes leak into the plots of the show as well. The Wild Thornberrys was a show within a show at times, so they had to sometimes deal with the network. One storyline included an executive traveling with them and changing everything good about the show.
Despite having an internationally well-received and popular show, changes were made.
The network came in to change everything about the already very much succeeding show. While even the best shows need improvements, the amount of changes being made were taking it far from the original concept. This has happened in real life and the argument was that this was a bad thing to do, but his presence at all was baffling when the show seemed to be already exceeding expectations.
Eliza, as already established, is sometimes a bit slow to catch up to her own plot. From the opening sequence of the show, it’s established that magic is real. This gives her the power to talk to animals, which is the central focus of the show. Through multiple adventures, Eliza interacts with other types of magic and supernatural being as well.
In “Spirited Away,” Eliza wishes to see a spirit even though she’s already seen spirits.
“Spirited Away” is one of the last episodes of the show. Before that point, Eliza has interacted with a spirit at least once. In “Naimina Enkiyio,” Eliza sees a spirit and even finds a necklace she had in life. The spirit appears twice in the episode and helps rescue Eliza from the forest. Forgetting about this two seasons later is a lousy way to thank the young girl for saving her.