In 2001, the animated film Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius introduced a generation to the wacky prodigy and his quirky friends. Fans of the Nickelodeon series The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius can thank the movie’s box-office success for enabling the show’s three-year run: Unlike other Nickelodeon movies, like Rugrats in Paris or The Wild Thornberrys movie, Jimmy Neutron was the start of the story, instead of a theatrical extension of it. In retrospect, though, while Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius came out in theaters (and was nominated for the first-ever Academy Award for best Animated Feature), it feels more like a TV movie. It’s a zany light-hearted romp that did a great job of setting up Jimmy’s future adventures, to the point where the show arguably left fonder memories than the movie that sparked it. (At least, judging by an informal Slack survey of Polygon staffers.)
Netflix’s new animated musical feature Arlo the Alligator Boy falls into that same box. Ryan Crago’s directorial debut is a sweet adventure with an underlying message about people staying true to themselves. Like the Jimmy Neutron movie did 20 years ago, Arlo introduces a wacky cast of characters and a rich world that ultimately serves more as a prolonged pilot episode than as a theatrical movie, given how it spends most of the movie introducing characters, settings, and concepts without fully developing them. That’s left for the upcoming Netflix television series, which will continue Arlo’s adventures.)
[Ed. Note: This post contains light setup spoilers for Arlo the Alligator Boy.]
Arlo the Alligator Boy follows the titular young alligator-human hybrid, who’s been raised in the swamp by a lady named Edmée (Annie Potts), but dreams of a world behind his bayou. Arlo (Michael J. Woodward) soon learns that he’s actually from New York City — Edmée found him when he was just a baby, adrift in an abandoned floating basket like a scaly green Moses. Arlo sets off on a quest to find his father, and along the way meets gentle giantess Bertie (Mary Lambert), along with a gang of misfits led by Teeny Tiny Tony (Tony Hale), a small Italian man who appears to be part rodent. They venture up the Eastern seaboard and land in New York City, where Arlo eventually learns some important things about his past.
Teeny Tiny Tony’s friends are an eclectic bunch, each with a distinct personality. In short order, Arlo meets the sentient pink hairball Furlecia (Jonathan Van Ness), the starry-eyed tiger-girl Alia (Haley Tju), and the walking, talking fish Marcellus (Brett Gelman). The movie mostly serves to set up this cast, introducing them and hinting at their dynamics, but apart from Bertie, who meets Arlo first and gets her own parallel character arc, none of the others really get a chance to command the spotlight. After all, this is Arlo’s origin story. But the hints about the potential of this kooky cast is just one of the reasons Arlo the Alligator Boy feels more like a TV movie than a theatrical one. The supporting characters slide into the story a little too late to make a huge impact, but they’re captivating enough to remember after the fact.
There’s a storybook softness in the movie’s settings, from the golden-swathed bayou where Arlo grows up to the bioluminescent algae of a beach in the Carolinas. The movie colors the world in the same warm glow that Arlo feels as he ventures out of his swamp for the first time, encountering seemingly mundane things like train rides and ice-cream sundaes, which just seem amazing to him. While the character designs are wacky and fantastical, the setting is rooted in reality. The real-world locations feel elevated and just as lively and spunky as the characters themselves.
The musical numbers are particularly gorgeous, especially the infectious pop duet Bertie and Arlo sing while dancing in the glowing bioluminescent algae. Arlo is the sort of character who frequently breaks out in song and pulls everyone around him into the number, then uses those songs to push the plot along. The musical interludes don’t slow down the story, but apart from that Arlo/Bertie duet, they’re mostly weightless enough to not get stuck in viewers’ head. (That might actually be a perk.)
Ultimately, everything about Arlo the Alligator Boy feels like a setup for something yet to come. That isn’t an inherently bad thing, but it does shift the audience’s expectations for the movie.
The songs are fun and the message of found family and celebrating differences is sweet. But the group’s whole journey to New York is just prolonged exposition, designed to introduce the main players and places for the eventual show. The real inciting incident of the Arlo saga isn’t Arlo leaving the swamp, it’s the finale of the movie. While Arlo finds his father, there are still more mysteries to uncover. (Like who the hell is his mom, and why doesn’t that question ever occur to him?!) It feels like the creators behind Arlo aren’t showing their full hands, they’re keeping their cards close. That gamble may turn off some viewers, even as it speaks to the rich potential of the fun world Crago has created.
Arlo the Alligator Boy is now streaming on Netflix.