In December of 1989, Fox revolutionized animated television with The Simpsons. Two years later, in August 1991, Nickelodeon did it again, three times over, with its inaugural slate of Nicktoons: Doug, The Ren & Stimpy Show, and Rugrats. All three series proved influential, but it was Rugrats that endured as a runaway success, coming as close to rivaling The Simpsons’ status in pop culture as nearly any other animated show of any era.
While Klasky Csupo’s first hit was far from its last — the studio went on to produce Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, The Wild Thornberrys, Rocket Power, and As Told by Ginger for Nick in the years that followed — it was surely its biggest, spawning a franchise spanning three series, three films, two TV films, a baker’s dozen video games, a handful of books, a comic strip, and even a live performance over the next two decades. And that’s without mentioning the merchandise. The Rugrats Movie was the first animated film not produced by the Walt Disney Company to gross more than $100 million in the U.S. Angelica Pickles went on The Rosie O’Donnell Show. Rugrats was big business.
Then there was a lull until earlier this year, when Klasky Csupo came back with a new Rugrats for a new generation, a computer-animated revival of the same name streaming on Paramount+, Nickelodeon parent company ViacomCBS’s subscription service. In addition to creators Arlene Klasky, Gábor Csupó, and Paul Germain, the show is executive-produced by veterans of the original series, Kate Boutilier and Eryk Casemiro, who wrote the immensely popular special episode “All Growed Up” and developed its sequel series, All Grown Up! And the vast majority of the cast from the original series has returned to voice the child characters (the late Christine Cavanaugh being one sad exception), although the adults have been recast and, in some cases, reimagined.
Like many Hollywood projects before it, Rugrats started with a phone call, in this case from Ramsey Ann Naito, who is now president of Paramount’s animation division. “We thought, well, if we don’t do it, we might regret someone else taking our babies and doing something to them, making it so radically different that we’ll kick ourselves for not doing it,” Casemiro said. And while the core premise remains the same — a bunch of imaginative babies romp around on adventures while their guardians’ attention is elsewhere and hilarity (with a healthy dose of sentimentality) ensues — some differences were inevitable, even beyond the CG style, which Casemiro noted had already been decided upon before they came aboard. 1991 and 2020, after all, are worlds apart in many ways.
“In the original, Charlotte Pickles was the only one with a cell phone,” Casemiro said. “We are in a definitely different world right now. There was all this possibility with technology.” Then there were the generational differences, which are perhaps best reflected in the changes to Grandpa Lou. Audiences in the ’90s would have found the World War II veteran grandpa a familiar figure, but with a 2020 setting, “We definitely did the math and said, this grandpa would not be a WWII veteran,” Boutilier said. “He would be in his late 60s from the end of the hippie era. We wanted a little bit of a warmer, more enlightened, modern Grandpa Lou, who does yoga and streams concerts with his headphones on so the babies can sneak away.”
The rest of the adults were also tweaked to better represent millennial parenthood and to better account for diversity. Stu and Didi Pickles live with Grandpa Lou, not vice versa, taking into account the gap in home ownership between millennials and prior generations. Betty DeVille is explicitly queer, and the DeVilles are Latinx. The Carmichaels, Randy and Lucy, are already neighbors this time around, and part of the main adult friend group from the start — a natural effect of the decision to age their daughter, Susie, down from Angelica’s age to closer to Chuckie’s, making her nonverbal to adults and more of a central part of the main child cast. And Charlotte, while still a #girlboss, is less of a ’90s cliché.
On the child end, the other major change is to Kimi Watanabe, aged up to be more of a peer of Angelica’s in addition to being recast. That decision, voice actor Charlet Chung said, gave her the opportunity to bring a bit more spunk to the character. “As an Asian American actor, I’ve seen the evolution of the way characters are portrayed,” Chung said. “When we’re talking ’80s and ’90s, there was this trope of the demure or very soft-spoken or timid Asian American. But it’s really nice to portray, even in a child character, a strong girl with a good moral compass who wants to do the right thing but is also really positive and cheery and kind. For me, seeing the character change toward that direction was just a delight.”
For the returning cast, a new Rugrats meant an opportunity to both return to central roles in their careers and to reunite with old colleagues and friends — even though the voice recording took place during lockdown. But unlike in 1991, when recording at a studio was pretty much entirely necessary, more advanced home-recording technology allowed the cast to record their voice work from home. It helped, said E.G. Daily, who voices Tommy Pickles, that the cast knew each other so intimately already.
“We were like family,” Daily said of her relationship with her fellow voice actors back in the day. “I was in labor during a Rugrats episode — I was literally in the booth with everyone and contracting in between lines. We got to experience life together.” For the reboot, even before COVID-19 hit, the EPs “mostly chose to keep everyone separate to record,” Daily said. “But we know each other so well that we kind of already knew how the other person will respond — their voice, their character, their intonation.”
The legacy of the franchise remains important to both showrunners and actors. That’s one reason why, this week, it continues a tradition of holiday specials that attempt to look beyond the stereotypical Christmas special. The appropriately named “Traditions” is a tale of multiple families and generations, all from different backgrounds, learning to balance multiple holiday traditions on the same day: the lighting of the menorah on the first night of Hanukkah, the cutting and decorating of a fir tree on Christmas Eve, and the placement of Baby Jesus in the manger on the final night of Las Posadas.
“Holiday episodes are always a great way to dig in a little deeper on character and are a favorite with the programming department, especially as we brand December as Nickmas,” Casemiro said. (While the episode debuts on Paramount+ on December 2, it will also run on Nickelodeon on December 10, and Nickelodeon Pluto will rerun the original Rugrats holiday special, “A Rugrats Chanukah,” throughout the holiday.) “We had produced the ‘Chanukah’ special as well as ‘Babies in Toyland,’ but had never considered that Tommy Pickles comes from a two-faith family. We used those specials as a sort of North Star for how we would treat the more sacred aspects of the holiday — balancing seriousness with comedy.”
Cheryl Chase, who voices Angelica, said it was “quite touching” to work on a holiday special focused on how different families and their cultures come together and blend various traditions together and celebrate together. “I think watching the special, children will get a glimpse into different faiths, different cultures and traditions, that maybe their families don’t share,” she said.
And while millennials may be skeptical of the CG reinterpretation, Chase and the other voice actors have no such qualms. “All the minute details — the little sparkles on Angelica’s shoes, or stains on Tommy’s shirt, or the texture of the carpet — can capture so much realism,” she said. “It just brings the whole show alive, like you’re actually in with them. It’s quite beautiful.”