The Rugrats Movie, Sense Memory, and Nostalgia

Yesterday was kind of a slow news day. Well, at least in the admittedly meaningless pop culture world. But one thing slowly caught my eye and attention: the news that RUGRATS (1991–2004) would be rebooted for television at some point in the future and that the classic Nicktoon would be adapted for a live action film with a 2020 release date. I slowly took notice of this story because I’m not really a RUGRATS aficionado; I rarely watched the show and the promise of a reboot and new live action movie did not particularly excite me. But the more I thought about the franchise, I realized I did have one notable connection to Tommy and Dill Pickles, Chuckie Finster, Phil and Lil, Angelica, etc. It was THE RUGRATS MOVIE (1998), a movie that may have been one of the earliest I had ever seen and certainly one that I have more memories of than I previously thought.

I think a lot about sense memory. I know that’s an acting term by way of the teachings of Konstantin Stanislavski/Lee Strasberg. But the very concept of recalling a specific situation and/or emotion through a sight, sound, smell, touch, or taste speaks through things I don’t have much conscious memory of. I don’t know if this makes sense; I’m probably just describing, you know, memory. But there’s a very specific reaction that springs from my mind when I think about or watch THE RUGRATS MOVIE, a fringe experience in the fog of my childhood mind. It’s nostalgia.

THE RUGRATS MOVIE, if not one of the first movies I had ever seen, was certainly one of the most significant VHS tapes I owned in the early part of my life. Seeing images and watching clips of the film (as I have done today) bring me back to a simpler time of my life. Therefore, I have significant affection for THE RUGRATS MOVIE. Nostalgia is often a misleading feeling.

I’m not saying THE RUGRATS MOVIE is bad. I’m sure it’s a competent children’s movie. But I am saying that my mind, in the short time it took for me to read the news about RUGRATS, connect it to my childhood experience with the very first Nicktoon movie, and conceive of the angle of this article, led me to believe that this was a film with incredible images and visions of a dreamscape that holds a special power. The movie is much more mundane than that (although still very imaginative), and this leads me to another fascination of mine, linked as it is to my liberal interpretation of “sense memory” and my fixation on nostalgia: false memory.

Everyone has false memory. Everyone remembers things wrongly. I misremember things every day. But when my mistakes are brought to my attention, I can often recall the true information. False memory is a little different. I swear there is a scene in THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: OCARINA OF TIME (1998) that is nowhere to be found in the actual game. Believe me, I know, I’ve scoured it and the internet for any sign of the environment I see in my mind’s eye. Intellectually, I know that I must be mistaken, perhaps I fused a scene from another game or movie with one from OCARINA OF TIME. But that primal part of my brain I can’t control contains the image so vividly that it’s hard to believe I totally made it up. And yet I did.

This experience with THE RUGRATS MOVIE is much less dramatic, but still significant. It’s probably more common. Many describe the experience of going back to something they enjoyed and finding that it “held up.” Or, unfortunately, that it didn’t. Often, this applies to just the visuals of something, especially in video games. Rapid advancements in graphics technology can make things that once looked cutting edge appear to the drawings of a five-year-old.

My memory of THE RUGRATS MOVIE is of a movie steeped in Impressionism and bold stylistic choices. By no means is THE RUGRATS MOVIE “drab,” but it doesn’t contain the dramatic magic I hold in my mind’s eye. I’ve built up a lot of false memories of this movie, and that’s a weird feeling to confront. Maybe I’m just describing a common phenomenon, one that, in relation to THE RUGRATS MOVIE, is significant only to me because of the circumstances that brought me to watch it, and when. It’s strange articulating the impressions of a being that doesn’t distinctly feel like you, one so many “versions” of yourself ago, near the beginning. And all this existential musing was brought to me by THE RUGRATS MOVIE. Life is weird.

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I write about movies, music, video games, and more.

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Tristan Ettleman

Tristan Ettleman

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.

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