I’ve already written about the Jimmy Neutron TV series, which is both one of my favorite kids’ shows and greatest sources of inspiration. It’s been a struggle to keep this blog from devolving into a constant stream of Neutron-related posts, I could easily write hundreds of thousands of words on everything about this show and how much it means to me.
I have written hundreds of thousands of words on this show.
But instead I’ll just focus on a simple (well, simple for me is ~4,000 words, but whatever) review of this feature film. So first, some background. Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius is a 2001 animated film. When ten year-old genius Jimmy Neutron makes contact with an advanced alien race, the egg-like Yolkians from the planet Yolkus, they kidnap all of the adults in Jimmy’s home of Retroville. After initially relishing in their lack of supervision, all the kids of Retroville band together to invade Yolkus and liberate their parents. What makes it so great and worthy of a subsequent Annie-winning television series? Read on to find out.
That tiny circle in the right corner says music from N*Sync, Britney Spears, and Aaron Carter. This movie IS the early 00’s.
- Strong characters. As I’ve harped on again and again in this blog, you simply can’t have a successful movie, book, or TV series without well-developed characters. Jimmy Neutron utterly succeeds in this regard. Every character in this film is extremely well fleshed out; no one has a single character trait that defines them. I think the best example of this is Jimmy’s rival, Cindy Vortex.
“After class, I’ll be happy to demonstrate how boy dinosaurs got their butts kicked by girl dinosaurs on a regular basis.”
The older I get and the closer I come to having children, the more I respect any art that portrays female characters in a strong, nuanced light. The fact that Jimmy Neutron did this in a film 13 years ago is truly inspiring. There are just so many layers to Cindy’s character. She’s incredibly brilliant but feels overshadowed by this dweeby boy genius who moved to town. She clearly has a crush on him but forces these feelings aside because of her anger. Most interestingly, she seems stuck between the childish battle of the sexes but still has an open crush on the cool boy in class, Nick Dean. I find this fascinating because a lesser movie would have simply let Cindy’s character revolve around and be defined by her love / hate relationship with Jimmy. Instead, the creators of this film decided to show that she also has a less mature crush on Nick simply because of his good looks and charm, not on his personality or intelligence. It’s a very interesting dynamic made more intriguing by how her crush on Nick slowly dissipated throughout the show’s three seasons.
Even better than her relationships to boys, though, is how Cindy is given time to develop as a complex character on her own. One of my favorite scenes from the film, although it seems out of place (I’ll get to that more below) is a short segment set in Cindy’s bedroom.
It’s more…pink than I expected.
In this short scene, Cindy espouses her philosophy of balancing the tranquility of tai-chi with the sugar rush of soda to attain perfect balance. When I first saw this scene I thought the design of Cindy’s room didn’t fit her character at all. Cindy is always portrayed as a physically intimidating, strong female character. Why is her room filled with pink walls and teddy bears? Then I realized that this was an utterly brilliant choice. As I harped on in my Big Hero 6 review, too often writers feel that if you want a strong female character, you have to abandon their ‘femininity.’ Put simply, that means you can’t like karate and pink at the same time. But that’s nonsense. Why can’t you be a strong female character who thinks girls are just as good as boys but also like dolls? Why can’t you be interested in tai-chi and like pink wallpaper? Cindy just happens to like all of these things, even though they seem contradictory. And that goes an enormous way to make her character seem real. And as the icing on this scene’s cake, it also passes the Bechdel Test. Nowhere in this scene do Cindy and Libby discuss either Jimmy or Nick. These girls’ lives don’t revolve around boys; they’re just two friends hanging out together. And that is such a beautiful, refreshing thing to see.
- This film captures childhood perfectly. Writing about childhood is a very tough thing to do. For me personally, it took years of writing preteen characters before I was able to do so consistently well. It’s just plain hard to balance not writing down to this age group while realizing they don’t have the intelligence and maturity of adults.
This was a wonderful show, but no nine year-old talks like these characters do.
Yet somehow, the writers of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius manage to perfectly capture the essence of childhood. This means that the kids in the audience can perfectly relate to this movie while the adults get hit with a crippling wave of nostalgia. There’s so many instances of this understanding: the kids realizing that their parents know what’s best for them but still wanting freedom, the instinctual need to go to the opening night of a theme park, the way Jimmy mocks his parents after being grounded. But I think the absolute best example of this is the way all the kid characters interact.
Too often, kids are portrayed as just incredibly cruel and violent. Think of every 80’s movie featuring a bully; every victim was literally nearly murdered. Jimmy Neutron captures the reality of how kids interact much better. Jimmy, Sheen, and Carl are easily considered some of the nerdiest kids in fifth grade. Yet 90% of the time, their classmates tolerate them. In what is one of my favorite decisions of this movie, the coolest kid in class doesn’t harass them at every turn. Instead, he makes a few sarcastic quips but seems to genuinely want to help them be cooler.
“You heard me, dweebs! Sneak out.”
That sounds kind of harsh in text, but when you actually watch the film it’s clear Nick is somewhat amused by the kids who aren’t as cool as him. Yes, he cracks a joke about Jimmy being short that stings our protagonist. Yes, his advice to sneak out isn’t something that we want real-life kids watching to take. But Nick simply isn’t a jerk. Though Butch would ultimately be the cliched classroom bully that Jimmy goes up against in the TV series, in this movie there’s no child antagonist.
Going along with this theme, I really admire how the Jimmy / Cindy rivalry was portrayed in this movie. Jimmy and Cindy spend most of the first half of this film butting heads and sharing some fairly hurtful jabs.
“But this device is more suited to shrink something as vast as space itself. Like say…your mouth?”
Why isn’t Ms. Fowl stopping this argument?!
But there’s no physical abuse and no clear hatred between them. They’re simply rivals in this film. They butt heads in class, but they have other interests outside of school and don’t obsess with hurting each other. (I actually think the show pushed the ‘hate’ aspect of Jimmy and Cindy a little too far in season one of the show.)
What I like best about this whole “kids being kids” aspect is that once the kids’ parents are kidnapped, they share in the revelry of their disappearance and then completely band together to get them back. I mean just look at how all of these kids celebrate together when they realize they’re free of parental tyranny.
They may argue in class, but all issues disappear when it’s time to party.
- Solid animation, voice acting, and (mostly) writing. Okay, that’s obviously a lot of very major points to lump into one section. The reason I do this is because all of these points are incredibly well-exemplified in what is, in my opinion, the funniest segment of the film. After leaving Earth, the kids make camp on an asteroid. Let’s run through these scenes and see how it displays all of these attributes.
I absolutely adore everything about this image. Look at the way the dark sky has wisps of blue. It was such a wise decision to have more than a single fire going; having that second group of kids in the background really makes this scene seem more realistic and complex. And lastly, check out the looming rides-turned-rockets that the kids have stored in the background. It’s another great touch of realism that gets across a real sense of scale.
“So then, these three filmmakers find all these sticks in the trees…and the girl filmmaker starts crying and her nose starts dripping.”
The clear riff on The Blair Witch Project gets not just a chuckle from the adults, but turning it around and basing it on not having tissues to wipe your nose is something a kid would do. Candi Milo also totally nails Nick’s joy in regaling this tale.
“Don’t leave the tent! Don’t leave the tent!”
Ron Paulsen’s frenzied cries are hilarious and the animation of his mouth while screaming is surprisingly detailed.
“Oh yeah, Carl, they leave the tent.”
I can’t get across how brilliant this single line is. Not only is this little response to Carl’s cry realistic and funny, but it completely gets across how great Nick’s character is. He’s not mocking Carl at all; Nick is clearly just having the time of his life telling this story.
“D-did they really leave the tent, Nick?”
Sheen’s screeching can get annoying when it’s over-used, but Jeff Garcia nails this line reading. It’s hilarious how trembly Sheen’s voice is and how much this scary story affects him. It’s also another great dash of realism; this is a perfect response from a terrified child. Lastly, it’s wonderful to see Goddard hanging out with the other kids even though Jimmy’s not in this scene. Just another brilliant little touch.
Another stunningly gorgeous shot. I also love how all of these kids are lying together, even though there’s a lot of different groups that don’t usually hang out (Cindy / Libby, Nick, Jimmy / Carl / Sheen). This really reinforces the intensity of their journey and how they’re willing to band together.
Jimmy and Carl have a great heart-to-heart in this scene. Jimmy admits that the constant teasing about his height gets to him and he’s worried that girls won’t want to go to dances with a such a small-fry next year. He and Carl then quickly protest that they don’t like girls yet. This quick exchange really shows the bond between Carl and Jimmy; the importance of friendship is something the Jimmy Neutron series often focused on. I also love how true to life it is that Jimmy tries to take back his admission that he’s starting to care about what girls think.
Nick’s disgusted proclamation of “What?!” in response to Carl missing his mommy rubbing his belly is hilarious. The animation also really sells this joke; the way Nick’s face twitches several times is fantastic.
This section of the film ends perfectly. Jimmy tells his worried friends that they will find their parents. The camera focuses on him petting Goddard and staring sadly up at the sky. We pan out to some sad music, see how spread out the various campsites and rockets are, and get an idea of how tiny and vulnerable these kids really are. Just a gorgeous way to end these scenes.
- Wonderful, perfectly suited music and great dramatic scenes. Quite simply, every song in this film works. They’re all a blast to listen to and perfectly match the scenes they highlight. From Bowling for Soup’s theme playing as Jimmy rides down the street in his bubble-gum mobile to The Ramones’ “Hey Ho Let’s Go” blaring during a party, this music is awesome. There’s also several examples of really wonderful dramatic moments in this film. From Jimmy’s parents sadly and lovingly explaining why they have to punish him to Jimmy using his shrink-ray to grow in size and pummel King Goobot’s ship, there are many moments in this movie that simply work. But one scene in particular deserves special recognition for combining these two facets. In a heart-pounding sequence that never fails to bring a smile to my face, No Secrets’ “Kids in America” steadily builds in the background as the kids test out their rockets and blast off from Earth.
In the scene before, the movie quickly gets across the stakes. Jimmy explains that there’s a 95% chance they’ll launch successfully. Cindy wisely asks what happens the other 5% of the time.
“We blow up.”
Obviously the adults in the audience know that these children aren’t going to be blown to bits, but it’s still a wise move to lay some danger into this scene. It makes the kids’ triumphant launch so much more satisfying. So the kids agree to take the risk. They hop into their rockets, flip on their headsets, and then one by one take off with a rewarding explosion.
If two girls launching a rocket out of a flaming volcano doesn’t get kids jumping off their seat and screaming, nothing will.
As each new rocket blasts into the sky, the music picks up, the character’s scream, and they struggle to get in formation. Then they blast together through the different atmospheric layers. Their rockets bounce from turbulence and Jimmy activates their pulse rockets. The music takes a backseat, then it completely cuts out. For a tense second they all plummet back to Earth, with Jimmy desperately whispering for them not to die.
“Come on, come on, come on, come on.”
Debi Derryberry nails this line reading so much that for just a second, even as an adult, I wonder if they’ll make it.
Then the rockets’ flames pop back on, the music blares once more, and the kids cheer.
The chaotic mix of all these rockets and the kids’ frenzied cheers, combined with the triumphant music ringing out, is just so rewarding.
- Just the right amount of heart. I mentioned above that there’s a lot of great emotional and dramatic scenes in this movie. But there’s one that’s so purely beautiful and touching that it deserves its own entry. One scene that perfectly embodies the Jimmy / Cindy relationship, the ultimate benevolence of every child, and the importance of never giving up. This scene makes the movie, and if you’ve ever seen this film you know what it is.
“We’ll get out of this.”
It’s near the end of the film. The kids’ invasion has failed, Goddard is going to be disassembled, their parents are due to be slaughtered, and the kids are all trapped in prison. To top it all off, King Goobot reveals to all of the children that it was Jimmy’s message of peace to Yolkus that lured the aliens to Earth and sparked this whole disaster. Jimmy is imprisoned in his own separate cell and is forced to listen to the kids blame him. It’s his darkest moment, but it’s not Sheen or Carl who comes to his aid. It’s Cindy.
As the rest of the kids’ arguing fades out of focus, Cindy crawls up to Jimmy and asks if he’s okay. Jimmy sniffles and wipes away his tears as he says he’s fine. Cindy admits that Jimmy made a mistake, but that blaming himself won’t solve anything. As Jimmy stays silent, she lets herself drift off and finally admits why she always fights with Jimmy; that she was the smartest kid in school until he came along. She then snaps back to the present and tells Jimmy to, “Buck up, mister,” because he’s the only one who can get them out of this.
Then, in what is my favorite line of the movie, Jimmy asks why Cindy is being so nice to him. She takes a breath and finally admits the truth.
“Because there’s a bunch of kids in here who need you. And…I do too.”
There is so, so much to love about this scene. The melancholy instrumental playing in the background doesn’t intrude on the dialogue but lends it so much more emotion. Cindy’s insistence that Jimmy “buck up, mister” is so child-like and is likely something that she once heard an adult say. There’s the utterly adorable admittance that Jimmy and Cindy will always have each other’s backs, even before all the progress they make throughout the TV series’ three seasons. And most of all, I love how this scene is the first example of the JN crew’s greatest asset: their ability to pull back, to keep things subtle and realistic. Cindy doesn’t admit that she’s in love with Jimmy. She’s only ten and hasn’t sorted out her own feelings about the boy. But she knows that she cares for him, so she admits it the best she can. If the touching dialogue doesn’t get it across, then the way her hand settles on her heart does. This is exactly how a child would talk in this situation. There’s no grand complicated speech, some big kiss, or a giant proclamation of love. It’s just a child struggling to get her feelings in order, to let her friend know that she’s there for him and needs him, and the truth of her feelings just managing to slip through. It’s a beautiful, complicated, and subtle scene that encapsulates all the best that Jimmy Neutron has to offer.
- Occasionally weak writing. Most of this film is solidly written, but there are a few parts that seem strange. As I said before, I love the content of the scene where Cindy and Libby hang out in Cindy’s bedroom, but it has absolutely no connection to the scenes that come before or after. Also, whereas the beginning of this movie starts with some great action and humor, the end instead focuses on Jimmy’s parents accidentally using Jimmy’s burping soda that hasn’t been mentioned in an hour.
Instead of hinting at a future threat or ending with the touching reunion on board the Yolkus ship, the movie ends with toilet humor. This is even more surprising considering that the rest of the film’s jokes were solid and relatively mature.
There’s also the issue of a very strange scene in the beginning of the movie. Jimmy, Carl, and Sheen are walking down the street when they spot a flyer for the grand opening of a new theme park. They marvel at the attractions this park has to offer and how they need to sneak out to see it. What’s strange is how long this goes on for.
For 25 seconds the boys mutter nonsensically about all the great things they want to visit at Retroland.
25 seconds may not seem like a ton, but none of the dialogue here is funny. A quick few words from each boy would get the point across and let the audience know what these characters are interested in. Instead you just sit there wondering why this keeps going on and on. In a movie that’s only 78 minutes, spending 25 seconds on nothing sticks out.
- Lack of scientific explanations. Let’s just get this out in the open. I think it’s ridiculous that Jimmy and his friends can travel in space without protection and talk to a completely alien species in English. Yes, I know it’s a kids’ film. But having clear logical issues like this pulls the adults out of the story and makes them wonder if this movie is worthy of their attention and admiration. Also, remember that this movie is all about a genius and comes in at a short 78 minutes. Why couldn’t the creators have taken maybe 30 seconds each to get across an explanation for these two problems?
In one quick scene, the kids could put on tiny, micro-thin, invisible space suits that protect them against space. Maybe have a visual gag where Carl’s squeezes him too tight and makes him briefly look tall and thin. As for the Aliens speaking English? They speak gibberish in their first scene with the kids, then Jimmy uses that sample of their speech to have the suits’ auto-translaters convert the aliens’ language to English. This solves those two problems incredibly quickly, shows even more clearly how brilliant Jimmy is, and barely takes any screentime.
- The Yolkians are no threat. This is by far the biggest issue in the film to me. I’ve already noted above that Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius strives to be more than your typical kids’ movie. It has tons of heart, wonderful animation, and some really dramatic moments. If the main antagonists impeding Jimmy’s progress were even mildly competent, this movie could have been an indisputable classic. But the Yolkians are so bumbling and ridiculous that it brings the film down a notch. What stinks most about this is that the aliens actually get a very menacing opening.
In the antagonist’s first scene, he eats his pet alive and jettisons a soldier out an airlock for entering without knocking.
That is bad-ass and makes the Yolkians seem like a real threat to Jimmy. This trend continues during the kids’ first scenes on Yolkus, when they are effortlessly captured and imprisoned. Then the writers abruptly decide that they want the Yolkians to be a complete joke.
These ‘elite’ soldiers do absolutely nothing as Nick compliments their spear, waits a few seconds, and then takes them both out to steal it.
Think of how amazing The Incredibles was because it was obvious the entire time how much danger the family was in. You honestly thought the movie might be willing to harm or kill even the kid characters. Jimmy Neutron is nothing like that. Like with the science issue above, whenever a family film removes an element of realism, it makes the adults in the audience check out and question whether this movie deserves their respect. And remember, this movie was really short. If they’d kept the Yolkians intimidating the entire time, if they had Cindy and Nicks struggle to match the more physically powerful Yolkians in combat while Jimmy helps the rest of the kids use brainpower to cripple he remaining forces, the movie would have been so much stronger.
Instead, Carl manages to take out three aliens with an inhaler.
All in all, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius is a wonderful film. It has brilliant animation that still holds up today, which is incredible considering that this was one of the first computer-generated films. The music really enhances the film, the voice acting is incredible, the characters are wonderfully complex, and there’s many wonderful dramatic and emotional moments. While it clearly aims to be more than the typical empty fare that is used to distract children, its inability to fully commit to this keeps it from being a masterpiece. Still, this movie is easily worth a watch. It’s accurate portrayal of what it’s like to be a kid will snare kids’ interest and overwhelm adults with a wave of nostalgia.
Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius gets an 8 / 10 – Great