Western Animation: The Wild Thornberrys

The Wild Thornberrys was a Nicktoon that ran from 1998 to 2004, produced by Klasky-Csupo of Rugrats fame, (deep breath) created by Arlene Klasky, Gabor Csupo, Steve Pepoon, David Silverman and Stephen Sustaric, and developed by Mark Palmer, Jeff Astrof and Mike Sikowitz. Serving as the 9th entry in the wildly popular Nicktoons franchise, the show centres around Eliza Thornberry, an adventurous young girl who can talk to animals, an especially handy power when your parents travel the world to make Nature Documentaries. Naturally, there's a catch—she can't tell anyone she has this power, or else she loses it, and presumably, the shaman who gave it to her to begin with would be hard-pressed to give it back again. The cast is filled out by the aforementioned parents Nigel and Marianne Thornberry, the Nature Documentary's presenter and camerawoman respectively and Eliza's older sister, the deadpan and deeply-unenthusiastic- about-her-parents'-career Debbie. Also along for the ride was the deeply neurotic chimpanzee Darwin, and crazy wild jungle boy Donnie, Eliza's adopted younger brother.

The series has three films to its name, the Made-for-TV Movie The Wild Thornberrys: The Origin of Donnie (2001), and two theatrical films The Wild Thornberrys Movie (2002) which has an academy award nomination to its name (albeit for best song, not for best animated feature), and Crossover movie Rugrats Go Wild!. This show has examples of some of the only non villainous roles in Tim Curry's career - Nigel Thornberry and his father.


This show provides examples of:

  • Actually Not a Vampire: The episode "Blood Sisters" had the family encounter an old friend of Marianne who makes no effort in hiding that he is a vampire. He turns out to be not only an impostor of Marianne's friend, but also a crazy guy who thought he was a vampire because he watched American horror films and was unable to distinguish reality from fiction.
  • Adult Fear: Almost every episode, Eliza is surrounded by potentially dangerous animals and Eliza's parents know nothing about her adventures. In the movie, however, their fear of losing their daughter increases when they discover everything Eliza had been doing after she risked her life to save a cheetah cub from poachers.
  • Adventurer Outfit: Nigel wears the safari version.
  • Aloof Big Brother: Debbie to Eliza, though she's actually a big sister, not a big brother.
  • Ambiguously Brown: The shaman who gave Eliza her power met her in Nigeria, but he looks more like the boar he used to be than a person.
  • Animal Talk: Animals can all converse with each other but not with humans, except for Eliza. When people hear Eliza talking to animals it sounds like animal noises and gibberish.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling:
  • Art Evolution: The animation looks a bit flat, the Pilot episode looked a bit cruder however midway through the second season the show began to use digital coloring and over time the animation became smoother and more brighter, compare Season 1 to Season 5.
  • Artistic License – Biology
    • "Reef Grief" featured dugongs that resembled manatees more than dugongs and could communicate over long distances through humpback whale songs. Dugongs actually communicate through chirps and barks, and possibly infrasound.
    • If the episode is set at sea, you can count on a Super Persistent Threatening Shark to try to eat at least one of the main characters. In reality, sharks spend much energy simply maintaining their body temperature, and will only hunt fatty prey that's sure to give the shark a return on calories.
    • "Kuality and Kuantity" featured a Lyrebird that looked nothing like a Lyrebird.
    • In "Luck Be An Aye-Aye" the Aye-Aye did not have the long fingers that the species is well known for
    • "Bogged Down" had a stonefish which more closely resembled a lionfish. It was also referred to as a rockfish.
    • In "Tamper-Proof Seal", the seals have ear flaps and upright postures like sea lions.
    • While dingoes can be a danger to humans (especially children), they're not likely to specifically hunt down one person like the eponymous ones in "Dances with Dingoes".
    • The alligators from "Time Flies" have their lower teeth visible when their mouths are closed. On the other hand, their jaws are correctly U-shaped.
  • As Himself: Jane Goodall in "The Trouble with Darwin", as a female guest star.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: The old Bornean woman who tells Eliza that Donny is returning to his real family has a vague continental-African accent, instead of anything remotely Bornean, where it be Malay or otherwise.
  • Award Bait Song: From the movie, "Father and Daughter", which was actually nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song, but lost to "Lose Yourself".
  • Aww, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Debbie and Eliza, as demonstrated numerous times in the series. Even in the movie, Debbie gave Eliza a goodbye hug before Eliza was sent to London, and Eliza is willing to lose her power to save Debbie.
  • Bad Ass Family: Every Thornberry has shown fair amounts of badassery in several occasions, especially when protecting each other.
  • Baleful Polymorph: The shaman who gave Eliza her powers was turned into a boar by the highest shaman in his tribe for devouring his prized sheep.
  • Bare Your Midriff: Debbie, in most of her outfits.
  • Bat Scare: Inverted on an episode. Eliza tried to greet a bat only for the bat to scream "Human!", frightening all the other bats into waking up and flying away in fear. With few exceptions (mostly Super Persistent that see her as nothing but prey), Eliza befriends most of the animals she meets, and they are always ready to provide her with assistance/protection, specially against the very few animals that she doesn't befriend.
  • Big Damn Heroes / The Cavalry: Debbie in general. While she always bickers with Eliza and doesn't care for her interests, she's always the first person to jump in and save her sister's life once things look their worst, often diving headfirst into danger without much reservation for her own safety. Often Overlaps with A Friend in Need, I Got You Covered, and occasionally Changed My Mind, Kid. The "Debbie goes looking for Eliza in the wilderness, finds her in jeopardy and saves her life" bit was used so often that they lampshaded it when it happened in the series finale.
    Debbie (as Eliza and Shane cling on the side of a cliff from an unstable tree): "This is getting old..."
  • Bigfoot, Sasquatch and Yeti: "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yeti".
  • Big Brother Instinct: A female example: Even though Eliza annoyed the crap out of her, you can bet that the minute her sister's in danger, Debbie will always jump in to save her.
  • Bilingual Bonus:
    • When Debbie attempted to teach Donnie proper words, she tried getting him to say "apple". He picked up said fruit and repeatedly said "pomme", the French word for apple.
    • Debbie manages to learn the click-heavy language of the !Kung Bushmen from one of her favorite musician's songs.
  • Blind Without Them: Eliza's vision is pretty bad without her glasses, as shown many times.
  • Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: Debbie, Donnie and Eliza in that order.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Debbie.
  • Broken Aesop:
    • In "Valley Girls", Eliza takes a tape recorder from Debbie without asking for permission. After trying to take a boulder from some gorillas to push the Commvee out of the mud, she learns from the gorillas that if you want something, you should ask for it. A very great lesson for the kids—except for the fact that Debbie would have said no if Eliza asked.
    • In "Hello Dolphin!", Nigel explains to Marianne that sharks are misunderstood creatures, with most shark bites being inquisitive inspections. Same episode later then has a shark relentlessly attacking the family and the raft they're on, even after being hit on the snout with a diving cylinder. (It was attracted to the scent of Debbie's blood, but still.)
  • Bumbling Dad: Nigel, whose goofiness verges on Genius Ditz at times.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: For all his numerous eccentricities, Nigel has a near encyclopaedic knowledge of animals.
  • Busy Beaver: Eliza learns An Aesop about the importance of hard work in one episode when she convinces a family of busy beavers to slack off from their dam-maintenance duties and spend the day having fun instead, and their home is almost washed away by a flash flood.
  • Butt Monkey: Debbie and Darwin (butt chimp?)
  • City Mouse: Debbie.
  • Cool Car: The Commvee probably counts, even if it's not really a car — it's apparently the size of an apartment, has at least one smaller vehicle stored inside it, is amphibious and seaworthy, can handle wilderness and mountain ranges, and can enter a nigh invulnerable "security mode".
  • Death by Origin Story: Donnie's parents.
  • Determinator : Nothing can stop Eliza from protecting/saving an animal in danger, and she'll also go to great lengths to protect her family and human friends. Same can be said about the whole family.
  • Directionless Driver: Marianne always drives, and she never asks for directions even when her sense of direction isn't exactly the best (though it works out).
  • Disabled Means Helpless: Eliza mistakenly believes this trope of a wheelchair-bound girl with cerebral palsy in "New Territory".
  • A Dog Named Dog: The Galápagos finches from "Eliza-cology".
  • Dropped Glasses: Eliza's glasses tend to fall off fairly often. Naturally she is unable to see very well without them.
  • Everything's Better with Monkeys: Technically, Darwin is a chimpanzee.
  • Evil Poacher: A common enemy for the family, particularly Those Two Bad Guys, Kip and Beiderman.
  • Evil Sounds Raspy: Kip O'Donnell.
  • Ethnic Magician:
    • The shaman who gave Eliza her gift in the first place comes from a tribe of Magical Nigerians.
    • "Dances with Dingoes" features an Aboriginal Australian who can speak to dingos and induce dreams with light shows.
  • Fearless Fool: Nigel Thornberry goes after some seriously dangerous animals, always with an excited grin on his face.
  • Free-Range Children: The Thornberry children are usually allowed to wander around unsupervised in whatever environment they're in at the time.
  • Friend to All Living Things: The Thornberry family, minus Debbie (though she has her moments).
  • Follow the Leader: This show was made as a result of the popularity of the Eddie Murphy Dr. Dolittle film.
  • Foreign Queasine: Marianne makes capybara burgers in the first episode. They were in South America, though.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: While Debbie is definitely melancholic, and Marianne is as phlegmatic as it gets, Eliza and Nigel toss the choleric and sanguine balls back and forth.
  • The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: Debbie and Eliza, who clash almost every episode.
  • Gonk: Nigel Thornberry, whose odd appearance has led to him becoming something of a meme.
  • Good Parents: Nigel and Marianne.
  • Guest Star Party Member: A rare non-video game example - Nigel and Marianne's nephew tags along with the family for a few episodes.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Debbie.
  • Halloween Episode: Or Día de Muertos, anyway ("Spirited Away").
  • Happily Adopted: Donnie was taken in at some point before the show began, but he wasn't officially adopted until "The Origin of Donnie".
  • Happily Married: Nigel and Marianne — the family that films nature documentaries together stays together!
  • Heart Is an Awesome Power / Required Secondary Power: Eliza's ability to talk to animals also lets her imitate any sound of any animal, which she occasionally uses to great effect to scare or distract.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: In the movie, Eliza gives up her powers to save her sister.
  • Holding Both Sides of the Conversation: Debbie does this with Boko, a native of East Africa. During the movie, he repeats certain words that Debbie says and he shows some understanding of what's going on. He even attacked a poacher because he knew very well that Debbie was in danger.
  • Idiot Ball:
    • Bringing your father's birthday present into the middle of a swamp and then fighting over it in a boat couldn't possibly result in it going overboard.
    • When Eliza discovers Donnie smuggling an Aye Aye in the comvee, she hides it from her parents and brings it into the village where she knows the people are superstitious of it... even though she saw where its nest was and her parents almost certainly would have helped return it to safety.
    • Eliza doesn't bother calling the elephants for help through infrasound in "Birthday Quake", even though she's already done so with the same herd in an earlier episode.
    • In "The Wild Snob-Berry", musician Shane G. completely disregards Eliza's warnings and ends up angering a mother grizzly bear and immediately afterwards a wolverine. Instead of worrying about the fact that he's endangered everyone, he wants everyone to film it because it will "help his image" as a singer.
  • In Harmony with Nature: The various Ethnic Magicians in the show, though subverted by the shaman who gave Eliza her powers in the first place.
  • Ink-Suit Actor: Marianne's mother greatly resembles her voice actress Betty White.
  • Intercontinuity Crossover: with the Rugrats in the film Rugrats Go Wild!
  • It's All About Me: Debbie. In spades.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Debbie can be nasty, but she's not that bad.
  • Karma Houdini: Nothing is mentioned of what happened to the poachers who killed Donnie's parents.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Subverted in the movie — Eliza gets gossiped about and snickered at for interacting with animals, but the kids end up being interested in her.
  • Madness Mantra: TOWER TIME! TOWER TIME! TOWER TIME! KNOCK IT DOWN, FALL TO GROUND! KNOCK IT DOWN, FALL TO GROUND!
  • Mama Bear / Papa Wolf : Nigel and Marianne.
    Nigel: "NO CREATURE THREATENS A THORNBERRY!"
  • Meaningful Name: Eliza's gift makes her a "Doctor Dolittle" figure. Her name may be a Shout-Out to My Fair Lady's Eliza Doolittle.
  • Oh, Crap: In "Naimina Enkiyio".
    Darwin: Can we please get out of the forest now?
    Eliza: Actually, I've been trying to find our way back for last 15 minutes.
    Darwin: Then that means we're lost.
    Eliza: I didn't say anything because I didn't wanna worry you.
    Darwin: (laughing) Worry, me? Oh no, I'm TERRIFIED!!!!!!!
  • Out-of-Character Moment: "The Legend of Ha Long Bay" sees Nigel acting far more stern, and frankly unreasonable, than he usually is. He insists that the strange eye Eliza saw down in the murky lake was just a trick of the light, and when she replies that she's not a kid and can distinguish fantasy from reality, he scolds her quite harshly.
  • Poor Communication Kills: One episode has Eliza and her chinese penpal accidentally getting into trouble because they didn't know that the pandas were actually being transported to a safer place and thought they were instead being poached.
  • Power Trio: Eliza = Ego, Darwin = Superego, Donnie = Id.
  • Prince and Pauper: Eliza secretly switches places with a Mongolian girl who bears a striking resemblance to her ("Gobi Yourself").
  • Pun: For some reason, season 2 was the season of punny Idiosyncratic Episode Naming. Some particularly noteworthy examples: Koality and Kuantity, Chimp Off the Old Block, and the cringe-inducing gem Cheetahs Never Prosper.
  • Raised by Wolves:
    • Donnie was raised by a mother orangutan alongside her own offspring for several years after his parents were killed by poachers.
    • While in South America Donnie and Debbie meet a girl Donnie's age being raised by leopards.
  • Rapunzel Hair: Debbie.
  • Real After All: The girl in "Naimina Enkiyio", ambiguously. Eliza sees her reflection on the muddy waters. Later she found her necklace in the same spot Eliza tried to make a bed to rest. She hears her calling her name. Then we see her on a tree branch watching the tribe and the Thornberrys, but her silhouette turned out to be the leaves and her "eyes" were the moon.
  • Redheads Are Uncool: Eliza has a few traits of this.
  • Retcon: Eliza talks freely about her ability with an Aboriginal Australian shaman in season 2's "Dances with Dingoes". A later Whole Episode Flashback in the same season establishes that revealing her gift will result in its loss.
  • Those Two Bad Guys: Kip and Beiderman, the only two recurring antagonists.
  • Secret Keeper: Debbie after the first theatrical film.
  • Shapeshifting Lover: Sort of. One of the legends which fall under that trope, The Pink Dolphin, is adapted in a Shapeshifting Best Friend. When Debbie makes friends with a South American girl, Eliza begins to think this girl is a river dolphin who wants to turn Debbie into one too because she is lonely. It's never revealed if Eliza is correct but it is distinctly implied to be the case.
  • Shown Their Work: Zoologists were hired as series consultants to ensure that all the animals depicted on the show were done so accurately and in their natural habitats. For example, that female lions do most of the hunting, komodo dragons smell with their tongues, camels store fat and not water, African elephants can communicate through infrasounds, hippos are extremely territorial and not cute, lazy animals portrayed on the media (as Eliza's cousin erroneously thought), etc.
    • A lot of work was also put into showing accurate portrayals of the indigenous peoples and their cultures and lifestyles. For example, in the episode "Luck Be An Aye Aye", the people of Madagascar try to kill an aye-aye Eliza befriends because they regard it as an ill omen, which unfortunately is also the case in real life.
  • Sick Episode:
    • "Operation Valentine" sees Eliza develop appendicitis while in the heart of the Australian outback.
    • "Bogged Down": Nigel gets poisoned by a stonefish during a filming, leading him to rush back to the Commvee to fetch some antitoxin.
  • Silly Reason for War: Two different groups of primates were fighting each other because one group had tails and the other didn't. Eliza stops them fighting by getting both groups to wear coconuts as armour. The armour made it impossible to tell who had a tail and who didn't.
  • Speaks Fluent Animal: The main feature of the show is Eliza's ability to talk to animals.
  • Superstition Episode: The episode "Luck Be An Aye Aye" mentioned above. Eliza befriends an aye-aye who she insists isn't the cause of the bad luck that plagues her, calling that a silly superstition like walking under ladders, while she walks under a ladder.
  • Taught by Experience: Debbie may not share the same intense love of animals as her family but their knowledge and traveling has left her very knowledgeable about the animal kingdom. She also knows a lot about subjects that relate to them and the places where they live, too.
  • This Is No Time for Knitting: Marianne gets irritated with Nigel when they are supposed to filming a documentary on the bird-eating spider and he keeps being distracted by a series of seemingly unrelated activities. He eventually explains that everything he was doing was to actually help him locate the spider so they could start filming. (Except for spinning on the ropes; that was just for fun.)
    • In "Flood Warning", Marianne is shocked that Nigel is finishing up a building project while their children are missing, only to discover he was building a boat to save them.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Eliza and Debbie, respectively.
  • The Unintelligible: Donnie only communicates via gibberish.
  • Valley Girl: Debbie speaks this way.
  • Wild Child: Donnie was raised by orangutans.
    • One episode has Donnie and Debbie finding a girl in the jungle who is being raised by leopards.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: When Debbie and Grandma Sophie are invited to a Bornean tribe's evil-spirit-expelling celebration, Debbie mistakes the villagers for cannibals preparing to eat them.