In Quaran-Scenes, writers take a look at some of their favorite scenes from cinema; how and why they “work,” and what about those scenes they love so much. Find past columns here.
Rugrats in Paris is bookended, fittingly, by weddings.
Bookended, at least, by successful ones. Yet, failed romances and fictional characters—the ones people create for others in their daily lives, and the kind that populate cultural mythologies and stories as iconography—litter the streets of Paris. That these things masquerading as functional substitutes for intimacy or love root themselves in Paris, or a version of it, is not lost on the film. Without raining on the romance of the City of Lights entirely, a French woman angles to marry an American man so she can climb the corporate ladder of a Japanese conglomerate hawking the kaiju-esque Reptar. The ensuing wedding—in Notre Dame, no less—is called off, partially aided by an American brat and a put-upon Japanese assistant. But, sticking to what worked, Rugrats in Paris is bookended by weddings that are set Somewhere in the United States—and, as if to underline a simultaneous skepticism of Parisian romantic mythology and curiosity about an “American” “melting pot” being a more reliable foundation for love, also nods to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.
When a mother/child dance starts up at the wedding at the beginning of Rugrats in Paris, ginger baby Chuckie looks through the din, crowded by a love not meant for him, craving closeness he’s never really felt. It’s a seed of hunger that blooms within him as an inexplicable broken heart. Where a Rugrats movie would be easy to write off as child’s play, Rugrats in Paris clearly and sharply makes its preoccupation how children negotiate loss. Chuckie, last of the babies lining the hallway for consultation, makes his request to “The Bobfather,” aka Angelica, for a mother. Tommy asked for a binky for Dill, but Chuckie, allowing himself to be vulnerable, asks for something grander; even he doesn’t necessarily quite understand the scale of his plea. That his appeal is inextricable from an idea of family makes its Godfather connection less an infantile parody and instead a thematic baby-based doppelganger.
The secret genius of Rugrats—created by Arlene Klasky, Gábor Csupó, Paul Germain in 1991 and arguably Nickelodeon’s cash cow precursor to the SpongeBob phenomenon—is that it was always more of an adult sitcom whose characters happened to be toddlers…an observation that our parents probably held closely. From jokes about a failed sexual revolution to plotlines about the babies unionizing/striking against an exploitative Angelica, Rugrats’ rhythm and sensibility seemed to have an innate absurdity that (if you looked close enough at it as an adult) would be hard to distinguish from well-regarded sitcoms of the ‘90s, save for the baby talk.
So, the film’s riff on The Godfather is up its alley not because the show felt compelled to lampoon classic pop culture properties in a Mad Magazine-esque way, but because it knew how to make its joke feel like part of its DNA. Rugrats was always concerned with family, and the fluid version of it that young children conceive of—perhaps not unlike Mario Puzo and Coppola’s films. But Rugrats in Paris deliberately pivots to an aspect that was both deeply embedded in the series as a possible thread and one that was not the focus of The Godfather: Motherhood, especially from the perspective of a child.
Tommy’s father, Stu, is called to Paris to fix a Reptar robot he’s built for an amusement park stage show, a la Disney, allowing Rugrats in Paris to both play with international Francophilia and the globalization of intellectual property, and challenge the city (or the cultural imagination of it) as a progenitor of romantic and erotic delusion. Chuckie’s father, the widowed Chas, is encouraged by his friends to jump back into the dating game before the trip. But it’s Paris, which means he could fall for anyone—even that duplicitous executive Coco, whose primary goal is to grab a work promotion. As Chas warily negotiates this newfound interest, Chuckie vacillates between indescribable longing and a delusion of personal strength that minimizes his own sadness.
Chuckie’s sense of bereavement is spiked, yet ethereal—the brittle sting of pebbles in someone else’s shoes, a sense memory or a phantom throb. In Chuckie there is a paradoxical absence and an unhealed wound: Potent and yet, even for the most articulate, transcendent of easy words. Too young to have many memories of his late mother, he grieves over the very idea of her with his father. He wakes up in the middle of the night and finds Chas looking over old photos. There’s enough in the photos for a starting point, a memory of a memory, for Chuckie to imagine what a mother can be.
But it’s on the plane to France that those fantasies take off, so to speak. Surrounded by friends whose mothers hold them, provide for them, protect them, and, maybe most importantly, offer them a vision of who they can be, Chuckie stares out through the window. Behind him Didi holds Dill as Phil and Lil are tended to by Betty. Out in the peach-colored sky, the clouds shapeshift into memories as Cyndi Lauper’s “I Want a Mom That Will Last Forever” plays, inflected with an accordion and an unfussy guitar.
The scene wraps its heart in barbed wire, as craving of care and intimacy as its central character, while still being aware of the plummet in the emotional trap door Chuckie has set up for himself. “I want a mom that will last forever/I want a mom who will love me whatever,” Lauper raspily sings. Her voice is etched in sorrow with a vocabulary that the tousled, Titian-haired boy contains in his soul, but has not yet been able to grasp for himself. The cruel irony of the song’s vision—of care and comfort that exists ad infinitum, sung against the backdrop of clouds that will inevitably dissipate—slices through the scene. Chuckie is left sitting alone with his teddy bear, old enough to yearn, but not quite old enough to vocalize his sadness.
A contradiction peeks through the clouds, softly blistering in its scrutiny of anguish and loss felt at different life stages. Chuckie desires the ability to express his ache for a mother not only for himself, but for the unspoken language bonding him to his father. As much as he would like to be comforted, Chuckie also wishes to care for Chas.
This unspoken language is mirrored by Chas’ social and romantic reticence, alleviating a “like father, like son” trope and instead unearthing the intricacies of care and personal nourishment between father and son. Chas’ unwillingness to date was not only mourning, but protection. He’s dedicated to ensuring that his interests align with his son’s. He says repeatedly that he has to check to see if his relationship will ultimately work with Chuckie, the boy being both a final test and a prize of completion. But, like Chuckie’s inability to verbally express his lamentation and desire to protect his father, Chas’ state of liminality is its mirror: he has all the words, but isn’t sure how to convey them to a child. How do you accurately articulate flayed emotion and paternal protection while also making it intelligible to a baby?
Rugrats in Paris recognizes this frustrating, impossible middle space, of knowing your feelings but not being able to express them, even between the babies and their own form of language. It’s a stuckness and inertness that propels Chuckie to fantasize about an imagined resilience that makes for a poor bandage, and to dream about an archetype rather than a person—the latter imitated more damagingly by his father as Chas is being seduced by Coco. As Chuckie gloms onto a Princess in Euroreptarland—who, in a wink to Fay Wray, perceives the softness and child-like qualities in Reptar—Chuckie’s trajectory is predicated on not only reconciling his bereavement but also finding the words to detail it, to illustrate an emotional interiority that’s scarred without explanation. It makes his growing ability to express these things unique in the friend group: Chuckie is the first baby in this series to actually talk. His first word is a rejection of threat and a shield to protect his father (of course the child of a neurotic, hypochondriac mess is the first baby to talk, giving Meisner-esque dimensionality to a yelled “No!”).
For the Rugrats, Paris isn’t the home for fantasies to come true, but where those dreams are demystified: Chuckie’s understanding of bereavement and wanting becomes clearer, as does his ability to express them; a more natural romance is embarked upon by Kira, the aforementioned overworked assistant, and Chas; and the city itself becomes a playground in a setpiece that mashes GoldenEye and King Kong. But its most memorable moment isn’t on the ground at all, but in the sky, where gigantic emotions, dreams, and fantasies can roam free. Perhaps incongruously, there’s comfort in those fantasies, of an all-encompassing mother figure that serves as balm to a human wound, medicine for melancholy, softness for a scald. Imagination and remembrance of kindness, care, and safety, though transitory, feel boundless, freeing, and secure when you’re up in the air.