The magic of being a cartoon character is that, just like Peter Pan, you never have to grow up.
Take Bugs Bunny. He’s in his 60s and doesn’t look a day older than when he starred in 1941’s “Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt.”
Then there’s Tommy Pickles of the Nickelodeon’s hit cable TV show “Rugrats.” He was a bald, diaper-clad toddler when the program made its debut 12 years ago. Today? Well, he’s about 12 years old.
“It’s something you don’t normally get to experience when you do cartoons, and it’s really been fun,” Cree Summer, who does the voice of Tommy’s neighbor Susie Carmichael, says of the cast’s sudden aging this year. “Usually cartoon characters stay a certain age; that’s part of their appeal. Usually they don’t grow up.
“But then you usually don’t get to work on a cartoon show for 12 years either,” she adds with a laugh.
Beginning with the Thanksgiving weekend debut of “All Grown Up,” the “Rugrats,” TV’s most enduring cast of babies, have suddenly vaulted from cribs, playpens and learning how to use potties to riding school buses, overcoming puppy-love crushes and learning how to handle an oppressive vice principal who was once a hulking professional wrestler.
Tommy, still the star of the show that airs 8 p.m. ET Saturdays, has even sprouted a full head of hair.
“But he’s still the same guy,” insists E.G. Daily, the actress who gives voice and personality to the kid long known as fearless, uncompromising and willing to risk all for friendship.
“He’s still kindhearted, heroic, genuine, smart. Just older and wiser.
“And his lingo is a little bit hipper,” she notes with a chuckle. “He’s grooving out a little more.”
And now, of course, when he and his friends talk, grown-ups can hear and understand them. That’s not always to their advantage — like when his best friend, cowardly Chuckie Finster (voiced by Nancy Cartwright), finally decides to take a stand against Vice Principal Slam Bang Pangborn.
The show’s co-creator, Arlene Klasky, says the time just seemed right to age the characters a decade.
“The original idea was based on my experiences with my own toddlers,” she says, noting her children are older now, as are many of the original members of the show’s target audience of 2- to 11-year-olds.
“Our audience has grown up with” the show’s characters, she says. “And they have said over the years they would love to see how the ‘Rugrats’ grow up.”
The groundwork for the new show was first laid 2½ years ago when Nickelodeon, to mark the program’s 10th anniversary, televised an “All Growed Up” special that had the cast time-traveling 10 years into the future.
“It got enormous ratings, so Nickelodeon blessed us with another series,” Klasky says.
Still, as the starting date for “All Grown Up” approached, Nickelodeon executives anxiously wondered if it would succeed as a series.
The original show, although it has been surpassed in the ratings in recent years by such other Nickelodeon fare as “SpongeBob SquarePants,” “Fairly Odd Parents” and “Jimmy Neutron,” was still a formidable franchise. But would the babies, like so many real-life children, lose their cuteness quotient when they hit the tween years?
Any concerns Nickelodeon had were apparently answered when the show’s multiple broadcasts claimed eight of the cable Nielsen ratings top 15 spots during its debut week.
“I’ve been asked many, many times why is the audience so taken with ‘Rugrats,”’ Klasky says. “I don’t think there’s any one clear answer. I guess the kids just relate and they look back on when they were babies.
“And it’s written on two levels,” she continues. “It always was meant to be written like that so that there were a lot of pop culture references in it. I think that makes it interesting to adults because they see the ‘Rugrats’ parents going through some of the same things they went through.”
That being the case, could the “Rugrats” ever become adults?
Summer for one doesn’t balk at the idea.
“The way the ‘Rugrats’ seem so unstoppable, maybe we’ll do a Geritol Susie someday,” she jokes.
Daily, however, would rather keep Tommy and the others as tweens.
“I would like to see them continue to grow, to see how life makes people wiser and stronger,” she reflects.
But, she adds, laughing: “I just don’t do men that well.”