Has everything already been done? Three recent Disney movies for kids seem to say, “Yes, so what?”
The Shaggy Dog, for example, is a Tim Allen remake of a Dean Jones’ sequel to a Fred MacMurray original. In the 1959 classic, The Shaggy Dog, MacMurray was a dog-hating mailman with allergies to boot who found that a magical ring had transformed his son Wilby into a photogenic sheepdog with a talent for slapstick. The plot involved hilarious consequences and an international spy ring. In 1976’s The Shaggy D.A., Wilby (Jones) was all grown up, married with children, and running for District Attorney. Which was something of a triumph, since his dad was but a humble postie and Wilby himself still had unresolved canine tendencies.
|The DVDs discussed in this feature are: Note: importing any of these DVDs into the UK will require a North American or multi-region DVD player and NTSC compatible TV. All imports will be Region 1 only. The Shaggy Dog (Walt Disney Home Entertainment) Rating: 6 US: 1 August 2006 Brother Bear 2 (Walt Disney Home Entertainment) Rating: 7 US: 29 August 2006 Twitches - Bewitched Edition (Walt Disney Home Entertainment) Rating: 8 US: 22 August 2006 Disney’s Sing-Along Songs - Happy Haunting (Walt Disney Home Entertainment) Rating: 2 US: 5 September 2006 Fragglerock: Complete Season Two (Lyons/Hit Entertainment) Rating: 7 US: 5 September 2006 TaleSpin: Volume One (Walt Disney Home Entertainment) Rating: 9 US: 29 August 2006 Disney’s Little Einsteins - Mission Celebration (Walt Disney Home Entertainment) Rating: 8 US: 22 August 2006 Winnie the Pooh - Shapes & Sizes (Walt Disney Home Entertainment) Rating: 3 US: 1 August 2006 Winnie the Pooh - Wonderful Word Adventure (Walt Disney Home Entertainment) Rating: 4 US: 1 August 2006 Strawberry Shortcake: Berry Fairy Tales (20th Century Fox) Rating: 2 US: 22 August 2006|
The Tim Allen version replaces the ring motif with a bite from an ancient, magical dog, an evil corporation’s quest for eternal youth, and a pinch or two of ersatz eastern philosophy. Of course, it also includes plenty of slapstick, sight gags, and the triumph of family values in which absentee fatherhood is redeemed. So it’s pretty much like every Tim Allen movie ever made (with the exceptions of Galaxy Quest, which was lots of fun, and both his Toy Story outings). Obvious and uninspired, The Shaggy Dog is still sorta kinda fun, almost despite itself.
The same might be said for Brother Bear 2. Where Brother Bear was a little too dark, thematically complex, and dramatic for the majority of its target audience, the sequel is all about love. Love between consenting if confused adults. Fraternal love. And, of course, in the nicest possible way, inter-species love. Brother Bear 2 retains the best elements of the first film, with the exception of the animation quality. Of the original cast, only Joaquin Phoenix moved on to brighter and better things, so he’s replaced by Patrick Dempsey. Mandy Moore is the newcomer, serving as the lurve interest for McBeary, and Melissa Etheridge steps up to give a note-perfect imitation of the awful Phil Collins.
It hardly matters that nothing is new here. So what, the happy faces of my captive test audience seem to be saying, so what if Brother Bear 2 is thick with what we might politely call “echoes” of other Disney movies, in particular Tarzan, Mulan, Lion King, and even Atlantis: The Lost Empire? And so what if the plot is so obvious it can be seen from space? No one dies, the comedic moose brothers get more and funnier screen time, and there’s a happy ending.
If Brother Bear 2 is a typical straight-to-video Disney cheap-quel, Twitches - The Bewitched Edition represents another class of Disney movie, a Disney Channel Original Movie. Based on a largely defanged reading of the bestselling book series of the same name, Twitches stars Sister, Sister‘s Tia and Tamera Mowry as magical twins who were separated at birth and destined for great things. So it’s basically The Parent Trap meets Harry Potter, and yet, not necessarily the worse for all its obvious roots. Coupling traditional fantasy coupled with the usual Disney elements, Twitches is very much on a par with High School Musical, another highly likeable but innovation-free DCOM.
Twitches takes place on the twins’ 21st birthday, which falls, unsurprisingly, on 31 October. Although Halloween is typically more of a commercial event in the U.S.A. than in Europe and beyond, the Americanisation (note the “s”!) of the globe has seen All Hallows’ Eve become a more American-style holiday in recent years. And you’d be hard pushed to find a more evocative symbol of this cultural imperialism than Disney’s latest offering in its generally deplorable Sing-Along Songs series, Happy Haunting, which takes place, of course, inside Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion for a full-on cross-promotional effect.
I’ve long since stopped wondering just who was buying the Sing-Along Songs DVDs. The series is clearly the kid’s present equivalent of gas station flowers or CDs on the Hallmark label, and the purchasers can only be fond but uninvolved family friends and relatives. Such unthinking convenience gift givers would do far better to consider either a brand with pretensions to child development or one of the many quality reissues we see each month.
It would be a kindness to say the jury is still out on the educational qualities of brands such as Baby Einstein. But regardless of whether a DVD can actually turn your child into a prodigy or not, it’s clear there’s more entertainment, of a higher calibre, on a DVD such as Disney’s Little Einsteins - Mission Celebration than you could hope to find on a box set of Sing-Along Songs. In the feature episode, “The Birthday Machine”, for example, the four little Einsteins and their flexible friend Rocket travel deep within Florence’s Laurentian Library and then take a gondola ride (on Rocket) through the canals of Venice in search of fragments of Bach’s “Brandenberg Concerto Number 5”.
And that’s not all. “The Birthday Balloons” takes the gang from Seattle to the rainforest (Henri Rousseau’s “The Merry Jesters”), and then on to Antarctica in the company of “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”. In “Go West Young Train”, they journey through the Wild West, exploring Navajo basketry and enjoying the music of Georges Bizet as they combat the evil Big Jet. It’s easy to sneer at the underlying Einstein airs and graces, but the combination of fine art, music, travel, and vigorous audience participation is hard to beat. And the bonus game, “You’ve Got a Mission”, in which kids get to pilot Rocket for themselves, also proved very popular with my local Little Non-Einsteins.
Along with rebranding the previously independent Einstein marquee as its own, the Disney Empire continues to expand its other developmental offering, Disney Learning Adventures. In Winnie the Pooh - Shapes & Sizes, the celebrated Bear of Little Brain tries to help Rabbit find containers to organize his harvest. In Winnie the Pooh - Wonderful Word Adventure, the Hundred Acre Wood becomes host to the Owlympic Scholastic Games. Which is all very worthy and brand-leveragetastic, of course, but really not a patch on the Little Einsteins.
However, it was only while watching Wonderful Word Adventure that I finally had a Pooh epiphany on the scale of Saul’s on the road to Tarsus. You can read all about it in my forthcoming epic novel, The Milne-Shepherd Code, but if you want a sneak preview, it’s based on the revelation that Eeyore is actually The Anti-Pooh. I have all the documentary proof I need, and now that I’ve finally seen through a century (or so) of deceit and confusion, my only question is how, on their first meeting, the Universe (or at least the Hundred Acre Wood), didn’t implode and vanish in a plume of grey-ish smoke.
There are two significant re-issues this month. First, following last year’s release of a Season One boxset, this September sees Fraggle Rock: The Complete Second Season issued for the viewing pleasure of children of all ages. A five-disk extravaganza featuring 24 episodes, including the excellent “The Trash Heap Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and “Manny’s Land of Carpets”, The Complete Second Season guarantees children many hours of relief from the Caves of Boredom.
As does the debut DVD release for Disney’s 1990’s TV series, TaleSpin. It’s a joyous hybrid of widespread source material that takes three characters from The Jungle Book—Baloo, King Louie, and Shere Khan—sprinkles a little anthropomorphical magic dust, and turns them into a happy-go-lucky pilot, a nightclub owner, and a predatory corporate big shot. The trio and a much wider cast appear in the fictitious 1930s setting of Cape Suzette, where they encounter bits of plots from screwball comedies, Casablanca, and Cheers.
TaleSpin: Volume One brings together the first 23 episodes of this exemplary cartoon, plus the original pilot movie, Plunder & Lightning (here presented as four individual episodes). The storylines include adventures in air piracy, childrearing, an oil crisis, and a send-up of the unreconstructed Soviet Union. And Baloo is a never-changing hero, genetically lazy but fiercely loyal. All in all, this is a great package. Indeed, the only downside to Talespin is that its rich ideas and script quality become a sad reflection on the paucity of much of today’s programming.
So, has everything already been done? Emphatically yes. And when you think about children’s attention spans, and how very quickly they grow out of both their clothes and their favourite shows, you have to ask why we need Disney and its competitors to make more and more new shows when so many of the old ones are all perfectly swell and fit for purpose.
We can understand why the program- and moviemakers need to produce material: if they stopped moving, they’d die. But a five-year-old will only be five years old for a year. Less in some cases. And there’s already an abundance of stimulating material for five-year-olds on the market. If parents all got together to share and recycle the best of this material, we could force the networks and moviemakers to focus entirely on quality rather than on shelf life, tie-ins, and Happy Meals. And then perhaps our children could enjoy top class programming such as Talespin, Dora, Kim Possible, and The Little Einsteins without all the interference and distraction provided by the endless expansion of bankrupt brands as diverse as Power Rangers or Strawberry Shortcake.
Strawberry Shortcake: Berry Fairy Tales, for example, is the 12th movie to “celebrate” the SS brand, and three more are already scheduled. It would take a major feat of creativity to make the next movies any more soul-destroying or content-free than Berry Fairy Tales, but I wouldn’t be surprised if American Greetings somehow pulled it off. I would dearly love to know, however, why anyone would think this sort of over-cutesy nonsense is suitable for the young daughters of the revolution, or why so many sad adults seem to want to collect them all.