It's getting noticeably colder now we're in December, and if you listen carefully, you can already hear Santa Claus checking his list. For the second time.
As someone once said, time and Christmastide wait for no man, and certainly not for parents. It's getting noticeably colder now we're in December, and if you listen carefully, you can already hear Santa Claus checking his list. For the second time. Christmas is coming, and the distribution centers are getting fat with the traditional holiday fare and all the trimmings.
For a four-year-old of my acquaintance, the absolute highlight of this year's Christmas offerings is the DVD release of the new animated feature My Little Pony - A Very Minty Christmas. This feast in primary colors tells the inevitable Christmas tale of the Pony (and her friends) who saved Christmas for Ponyville, and what it lacks in originality, complexity or character development, it makes up for with its kid-friendly good nature, its winning song ("That's What I Love About Christmas"), and the parental peace and quiet that comes from a roomful of absorbed children.
Two perhaps more worthy Holiday DVDs are The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Three Wise Men/Los Tres Reyes Magos. Certainly both should have a longer-lasting appeal for families likely to turn their backs on childish things PDQ.
| 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 Phoenix and the Carpet is based on E Nesbit's book of the same name, actually the middle book of her Five Children trilogy. These stories are perennially popular in Britain, and a 2004 movie of the first book, Five Children and It, was recently released on DVD to mixed reviews. This version of The Phoenix and the Carpet was first released in 1997, crafted from a six-episode BBC TV serial which lasted a full three hours. It's a story of children, magic birds, flying carpets, three wishes a day, and the trouble you can get when you mix them all together. Lacking the budget for the cinematic special effects we expect today, the non-animated The Phoenix and the Carpet nonetheless tells a good story well, and should have particular resonance for fans of Harry Potter and Narnia -- books and movies alike -- as Nesbit's influence is clear in the works of both J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis.
Los Tres Reyes Magos is the animated story of the Day of the Kings or Día de los Reyes. A holiday in Spain and many Spanish-speaking countries, Día de los Reyes falls on 6 January or Twelfth Night, and marks the day of gift-giving as well as the end of the Christmas season. Originally made in Europe in 2003 as a Spanish language movie, Los Tres Reyes Magos is rebranded for the North American market and given an English language audio track, courtesy of Martin Sheen, Emilio Estevez, and Lupillo Rivera, and (I think) an alternate, more Americas-friendly Spanish audio track to boot. It appears that the original makers of Los Tres Reyes Magos had planned for this trans-Atlantic crossover, since they set the modern day parts in a city that very much resembles New York.
Los Tres Reyes Magos follows the journey of Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar to Bethlehem. Wizards on a quest, they must find and collect the Royal Gifts intended for the King of Kings before the evil and super-sized King Herod can seize them for himself. Meanwhile, the sorcerer Belial, Herod's evil grand vizier or equivalent, plots against the Wise Men and his king.
Made by ex-Disney employees, Los Tres Reyes Magos is now Americanized by the U.S. giant. It comes with absolutely no additional features and is, I believe, only available either from Wal*Mart or the usual online sources. I guess the folks at Wal*Mart believe the movie will appeal to their core demographic groups -- family, Latino, and Christian. I also suspect some sensitive Christian souls may not enjoy the movie's less biblical aspects, and others may be upset that it's less Spanish than it once was. But for those of us who simply enjoy movies, Los Tres Reyes Magos hits many of the right spots.
The Walt Disney Company, inevitably, is at head of the queue battering on our doors with yuletide product to hawk; and the fistful of new Disney DVDs I've seen so far certainly emphasizes the strengths, weaknesses, and sheer cynical exploitation of that famous brand. Cross-promotion, recycling, and maximisation are clearly Disney's watchwords for the new millennium.
Although I've always assumed that the Sing Along Songs series was designed to milk every last penny out of the popularity of Disney's big movies, the company has also been using the series to promote its theme parks and resorts since 1990. This year, in "celebration" of 50 years of Disneyland, they offer us Campout - Sing Along Songs at Walt Disney World and Flik's Musical Adventure - Sing Along Songs at Disney's Animal Kingdom. a pair of 30-minute commercials you pay for the privilege of watching. Campout presents a sanitised outdoor life of fun and wholesome activities set predominantly to rousing Americana (and "The Bare Necessities"), while Flik, the hero of Pixar's A Bug's Life, sings your kids around the Animal Kingdom and DinoLand USA. Since kids love animals (and dinosaurs) more than the Great Outdoors, Flik's Musical Adventure is the better buy, but both display the lyrics on screen and will have your children asking for a Disney brand vacation.
If there is something mildly objectionable about Disney's Sing Along Songs strategy, then that's nothing compared to the unremitting loathing I'm developing for the Disney Princess (TM) brand. On the plus side, the Princesses (TM) aren't teaching children to torture small animals and set fires to conceal the evidence, but that's about all that can be said in their favor. In their proper place, Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Belle, Ariel, and Jasmine are all wonderful characters, as last month's marvelous Platinum Edition re-release of Cinderella proved most eloquently. But the Disney Princess (TM) machine is a concept as close to pure evil as Prussian Blue -- the singing Olsen Twins of the Aryan Nation.
We could talk about the unreconstructed gender roles that the Disney Princesses (TM) promote, or the never-ending spiral of product, but let's not. Let's talk instead about plumbing the depths of nasty and exploitative marketing with minimal upfront investment. This holiday season, Disney has spared almost all expense to bring our children Disney Princess - A Christmas of Enchantment. There are no new stories here. No warm-and-fuzzy Holiday Princess (TM) Sleepover Fests. And precious little new animation.
All you get for your $20 is a stylistically bankrupt and frankly frightening front end to extracts from movies your children already own and love, a couple of vintage cartoon shorts and yet another Sing Along Song. If you really must waste your hard-earned on an excerpt from Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas, a dance scene from Sleeping Beauty (the original music is replaced by a little seasonal Tchaikovsky) and a Very Disney Princess (TM) "Twelve Days Of Christmas", then look no further than the freakishly dead-eyed and botoxed animation of A Christmas Of Enchantment. Otherwise, invest in Cinderella.
It's not all bad news for Disney lovers though. The twin specials Disney Channel Holiday and A Very Playhouse Disney Holiday make it clear that while the company may be struggling at the movies (after Valiant and Chicken Little, they will surely give Steve Jobs the keys to the Magic Kingdom), they are at least making (or more accurately, commissioning and scheduling) a lot of good TV. Either of these DVDs would make a good Christmas gift for a child of the appropriate age.
The concept is simply, of course. Disney Channel Holiday pulls together seasonal episodes from Kim Possible, Lizzie McGuire (Steven Tyler guest stars as Santa), That's So Raven, Even Stevens, and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody -- a new one on me, and an apparently Never Before Seen Episode. There's also a bonus, never-been-seen Phil of the Future episode at once chucklesome and perplexing. Why is this an additional feature and not just a sixth item on the main menu?
The much slighter A Very Playhouse Disney Holiday is actually the stronger of this pair, coupling an episode each from JoJo's Circus and Higglytown Heroes with two helpings of the minimalist what's-my-line fun that is Shanna's Show. Why is it the stronger? Because younger children love repetition and will watch this over and over again.
JoJo Tickle lives in Circus Town. The daughter of clowns, she is, of course, a clown, the only clown who doesn't either terrify me or send my rushing for my pistol. JoJo has a pet lion called Goliath -- who isn't very big -- and an extended circus family that includes a family of giant potatoes -- the Taters -- and a troupe of acrobatic frogs. In "A Circus Town Christmas", JoJo has to decide between rescuing a small bird from the snow or replacing her family's favourite Christmas decoration, the broken Santa Clown. Of course, she makes all the right choices, and learns all the right lessons. Which is nice. Especially when JoJo's weekly lessons are framed by a near thrash metal paced set-up. The quality of the animation is high, and the overall effect is quite charming.
The Higglytown Heroes are Russian doll characters whose mission in life is to teach our kids that society only works when we all do our part, and that anyone can be a hero. Anyone. From a shelf-stacker at Higgly*Mart, to Santa Claus, to the local pizza delivery guy. Especially the pizza delivery guy. I'm not even going to tell you the plot of "Twinkle's Wish". All you need to know is that Higglytown Heroes runs a very nice line in guest stars, and that in this episode Sean Astin plays a Chistmas Elf named Pix and John Astin is Santa Claus. Sam Gangee and Gomez Addams: there's quality for you.
Further good news for Disney comes courtesy of its 2001 acquisition of the Baby Einstein Company. While the new Little Einstein characters are extending the reach of the brand-slash-concept to older kids, the original Baby Einstein series continues to impress. Baby Einstein - On the Go - Riding, Sailing and Soaring is a transport-based delight that will intrigue children from six months to perhaps five years. Although, as always, there are doubts about the brand's insistence on format above content, there is still plenty to praise here.
Moving, finally, away from Disney, Nick favourites Spongebob and Dora both have new offerings. Spongebob Squarepants - Where's Gary? is everything we've learned to expect and nothing we haven't. These six episodes (one, "Where's Gary?" is double length) demonstrate again that the show appeals more to adults than children. As always, Squidward and Plankton rule the Bikini Bottom school. As with so many of the shows that work best for kids, the bilingual Dora the Explorer has a winning formula and sticks to it. Songs, catchphrases, audience participation, Spanish lessons, "Swiper! No swiping", the happy dance at the end. Dora lo tiene todo.
And yet in Dora the Explorer - Dance to the Rescue, our heroine introduces a couple of new tricks, the magic of dance and a little bit of sympathy for the swiper. In the double length title episode, Swiper's good deed rebounds on him and he is trapped in a bottle by a mean Dancing Elf. Dora and Boots must then dance their way through a pyramid, across an ocean, and to King Juan El Bobo's Castle so they can enter a dance contest, win a wish, and free the light-fingered fox. The two additional episodes are more traditional Exploradora fair. In "Rescue, Rescue, Rescue!", Baby Jaguar, Isa, and Benny all need Dora's help. And in "Leon, The Circus Lion", Dora and Boots need your kid's help to get them through the Swinging Forest and over the Tightrope Bridge to the Big Top. Now that's what I call Dora.
All Grown Up! - R.V. Having Fun Yet? is another Nick DVD. But I'm uneasy about this show. Somehow I feel the Rugrats were never supposed to become teenagers. Tommy was certainly never meant to have hair. Still, the title episode might play well with families who are considering an R.V. vacation, especially when the Rugrats Erectus decide to set off on their own. You can take the rat out of the rug...
Finally, I'd like to recommend Danger Mouse - The Complete Third and Fourth Series to any viewers of taste and discretion. While the Disney Princesses (TM) are just plain cheap, Danger Mouse is both cheap and cheerful in all the right ways. Rich with wordplay and absurdity, a British TV classic from the early '80s, Danger Mouse features two of England's greatest comic actors, David Jason and Terry Scott, in the roles of Danger Mouse and his faithful assistant, the bumbling hamster Penfold. This double DVD box showcases no less than six hours of their clever comic adventures broken down into the regulation five-minute episodes.
DM and Penfold live in a traditional red pillar box at the top of Baker Street (just across from the Ministry of Inertia and Blotting Paper), and spend their every waking moment attempting to foil the fiendish plots of their arch enemy, Baron Silas Greenback, the world's most villainous toad. Greenback has a mind as nasty as a superglue sandwich, a henchcrow called Stiletto Mafiosa, and a fluffy white pet of indeterminate origin. Dr Evil, ahoy! Other villains include Count Duckula, the Transylvanian vampire duck who eventually got his own spin-off series, and the Phantom of the Panto. How can any child, or adult resist?