Before Spongebob Squarepants, Nickelodeon’s first big hit was Rugrats, a show about a gang of misbehaving babies going off and doing god-knows-what as they escape the clutches of parental supervision and delve into the giant sandbox that is the world outside their playpen. Its 172 episodes and 3 theatrical movies over a 13-year run was enough to garner multiple accolades, including Daytime Emmys, a Hollywood Star, dozens of merchandise. It did so well, in fact, that it even generated a spin-off series.
All Grown Up! premiered in 2003—12 years after the launch of Rugrats—covering the lives of the babies now “grown up” into pre-teens. But rather than lean too heavily into the Rugrats lore, All Grown Up! wanted to be its own thing, serving as an animated tween-oriented series in a time when live-action shows like Taina, Lizzie McGuire, and That’s So Raven were the norm for that demographic. The series was mainly episodic, with little to no knowledge of the world necessary for the viewer to enjoy each story.
In this context, the episode “Curse of Reptar” stands out among not only other episodes in the series, but episodes within the tween genre as a whole. Whereas other series must build up a sense of continuity, All Grown Up comes built-in with a full 10+ years of Rugrats lore to take from. It is in this series-specific nostalgia that we are able to take special note of Reptar and how the now 10-years-older cast’s opinions on their childhood icon has changed over time.
The episode begins with Tommy’s parents buying a pool for their backyard. But things quickly devolve into a horror story as the tweens are convinced their unearthed Reptar toy from the pool construction site is giving them bad luck. Upon recovering the toy so they may lay it to rest, Chuckie still hesitates. He speaks of how deeply ingrained Reptar is to his childhood as well as his friend and familial bonds. It’s a touching moment that’s undercut by one final bad-luck incident where the construction pit widens and plunges the entire group in. Convinced a toy-induced curse is more powerful than any nostalgia, the gang rushes out of the pit, leaving Reptar behind.
It’s a bittersweet note to leave viewers on, until Tommy has a dream later that night of the gang playing with Reptar as babies. It’s a short, poignant final scene that convinces him to rescue the broken doll from the backyard pit in the middle of the night, as a delighted Chuckie watches on in secret.
This episode can be enjoyed with zero knowledge of the series–as a simple story about the challenges of leaving one’s childhood behind. But it works best when the audiences knows exactly how Reptar fits into the characters’ lives. The green dinosaur serves as a key character in Rugrats, having made prominent appearances throughout the original series’ entire run. On the surface, Reptar is essentially a Godzilla knock-off—but in the world of Rugrats, Reptar is their Godzilla. His image is omnipresent, gracing schlocky movies, candy bars, cereal, clothes, toys, and any consumer product you could name. Within the world of Rugrats, Reptar is a cultural icon known on an international scale, even earning his own Japanese theme park.
Knowing this, it’s understandable why Chuckie is so painfully hesitant to part with his old green friend in All Grown Up! Reptar was as much of a character in the series proper as any of the babies’ parents. He was a multimedia franchise that the parents could rely on as a stand-in babysitter. He was the kind of caretaker that never argued or doled out punishments. He comforted the babies in their times of need. He was a pop culture icon, possibly the most constant image in the characters’ early lives.
This episode of All Grown Up! frames nostalgia and growing up as two clashing forces. We see this expressed through the characters, as Chuckie remains the sole person invested in Reptar’s well-being while the rest are more concerned with the swimming pool that will soon “replace” him. Chuckie remains nostalgic for Reptar because to him, he encompasses the entirety of his childhood—to relinquish Reptar would be to relinquish his entire past. Meanwhile the rest of the cast is eager to leave their past behind in order to reinvent themselves into the adults they wish to be. And for most of the episode, this need to grow up almost wins out, until that final scene.
Tommy’s dream sequence at the end of the episode demonstrates that maturing does not mean eagerly erasing your past, or keeping it under wraps. Rather, being mature means acknowledging when you’re young enough to still cling on to what gave you so much comfort as a child while acting old enough to make that conscious decision in the first place.
That said, this message is somewhat more complicated as a pop/nerd culture movement premised on nostalgia is becoming ever-more prominent. As streaming services make revisiting childhood favorites more convenient than ever, the role of nostalgia has changed in the 10+ years since All Grown Up! aired. Nerd culture has become a powerhouse at the box offices and even the term “nerd” has ceased to have any real meaning—barring the lingering toxicity of comic and videogame cultures, these pastimes are more popular and inclusive than ever.
Millennials who grew up during the boom of 80s reruns airing alongside 90s original programming are the first generation to have access to all of their childhood content on demand. In some cases, that nearly endless database of pop culture has become an identity all its own—a replacement for a personality. But at the same time, this easy access allows us to look back and learn from mistakes these works made. It is how we figure out what in pop culture works and resonates with audiences, and what is better left in the past and replaced with something more innovative. The past remains—but just like the characters of All Grown Up!, what we do with it is up to us.