Dark, complex, and intelligent, Gargoyles is an animated series from the mid-'90s that's become something of a cult favorite, and deservedly so.
Your children don't get enough of your time. Hell, you don't get enough of your time. Our modern world is increasingly demanding and there are still only 24 hours in the day. So you compromise. You know that TV is the root of all evil, but you also know it's the only way to keep your kids happy and quiet for maybe 10 minutes at a time while you get on with the rest of your life -- while you plunge headlong into luxuries like preparing a meal for your children, cleaning up after your children, doing the 18th load of laundry that week for your relentlessly demanding and all-consuming children. The children you love with all your heart, and then some.
So. TV. Everybody does it.
| 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.
But you and I, because we're smarter than the average bear, we've read a couple of books, and we want to be Good Parents, we apply a few common sense rules. We vet our kids' viewing and we don't buy them crap. We encourage them to watch shows and movies we hope will teach, inspire or engage them. We watch everything through with them before we let them watch alone, we talk through any issues that concern us or our children, and we never let them watch something we couldn't sit through at least once ourselves. We follow these simple guidelines, and we retain at least a vestige of self-respect and a conscience that Disney Color Paints (by BEHR) might describe as Pooh Corner off-white.
However, buy your children either of the new Power Rangers S.P.D. DVDs, and you are officially a Very Bad Parent Indeed, and your soul will turn the color that Disney describes as Satan's Bowels -- a black so intense that it devours all light, eats planets, and even depresses goths. The latest products from this most merit-free franchise are Volume 4 - Boom and Volume 5 - Zapped. Each DVD contains five episodes from the TV series, and brings you such delights as parallel dimensions, body-swapping, alien samurais, time travel, magic wands and Ashlee and Jessica Power Rangers, Yellow and Pink. They also bring you production values slightly lower than those of a five-year-old armed with his grandmother's camera phone. Only one episode of this risible series is even remotely watchable: "Perspective", in which the Power Rangers take turns to tell the same story, each from his or her own point of view.
Of course, both these DVDs come with the obligatory never-seen-before bonus episode. Unusually, it looks like they both have the same additional never-seen-before bonus episode. I can't swear to this, because I couldn't bear to watch any more by the time I noticed this detail. Oh, and since holidays are with us, uncles, aunts, godparents, and grandparents would be well advised to remember that friends don't buy friends' children crap. Not even for Christmas.
The triple DVD collection Gargoyles - Season 2, Volume 1 is just about everything Power Rangers S.P.D isn't. Dark, complex, and intelligent, this animated series from the mid-'90s has become something of a cult favorite, and deservedly so. Freed from a thousand-year curse when a rich American businessman bought their Scottish castle home and moved it stone by stone to the top of a Manhattan skyscraper, the six Gargoyles -- all who are left of an ancient race of powerful winged warriors -- must now adjust to contemporary times even as they struggle to understand their past, and defend their new home, New York City.
The sophisticated themes of this saga are mistrust and betrayal, the comparison between modern science and ancient magics, and the misuse of both. The stories run consecutively and build upon each other, characters developing episode-by-episode, without any of the absolute blacks and whites that typify the animated genres. It's hard to understand why this show was canceled when, for example, the Power Rangers flit from atrocity to atrocity without censure, and David Boreanaz continues to find work. Boasting 26 half-hour episodes and a set of more than mildly interesting additional features that include audio commentaries on a four-part story and episode introductions by the show's creator, Greg Weisman, Gargoyles - Season 2 Volume 1 is highly recommended.
There's even an interesting game for Star Trek fans: see how many familiar voices you can hear in the cast, and look for parallels between the two shows. The only reason I can't recommend this collection without exception is that you really need to get Season One first. Fortunately, Gargoyles - The Complete First Season (Special 10th Anniversary Edition) was released this time last year.
Oh, one last thing, Gargoyles really shouldn't be watched by young children. But if you're vetting your children's viewing, you'll be able to make your own mind up about its suitability.
Enthused by Gargoyles, I had equally high hopes for Postcards From Buster - Buster's Buddies. In a spin-off from the PBS series Arthur, the animated rabbit Buster Baxter travels the country and records video postcards of his adventures for his friends at home. Mixing live-action footage with animation, Buster meets new buddies wherever he goes and learns a little about their traditions or hobbies. In this collection, Buster makes an action-adventure video with kids in Virginia, watches clog dancing in Kentucky, explores a Pakistani neighborhood in Chicago, and learns Tai Chi in Seattle. My inner cynic (and she's a whopper) may have scoffed lightly at the correctness of the premise, but as a parent I was keen to see a show that promotes cultural awareness kid-to-kid. Unfortunately, my test subjects (a five-year-old girl and a three-year-old boy) were totally meh about Buster.
Luckily, at such times of disappointment, you can always take refuge in wholesome slapstick, wit, and the redemption of a former bad guy.
"I never had so many friends when I was an evil henchman."
Since Patrick Warburton's character Kronk stole just about every scene in The Emperor's New Groove, it should have been an easy decision for the Brain Trust at Disney to give Kronk a groove of his own. The only mystery is why it took them five years to do it. Released just in time for the coming holidays, Kronk's New Groove is a simple, good-spirited joy with a little less edge than the exhilarating original, but even more heart.
This strongly recommended straight-to-DVD movie tells Kronk's story in the years after the Llama-Emperor's restoration, frames it as a series of flashbacks inspired by the imminent arrival of his intimidating and eternally disapproving father (Frasier's John Mahoney), and uses the tale to teach (or hopefully reinforce) a number of obvious but worthwhile lessons about the value of friendship, the importance of sportsmanship and the need to remain true to yourself -- to your "groove".
With the star syndrome in full effect, David Spade (Emperor Kuzco) and John Goodman (Pacha) are given top billing, but their characters rack up about three minutes screen time between them. They're bookends popped into the movie for branding purposes, nothing more. Presumably, their characters will be seen more frequently in the TV show, The Emperor's New School if it ever makes it to screen. The excellent Warburton apart, other actors giving good voice here include Eartha Kitt, who makes awelcome return as the evil, plotting Yzma, and Tracey Ullman as Kronk's oh-so-very-English love interest. Kitt's Yzma is particularly good value for money as, although she's been restored to human form, she still retains the ears and tail that refer back to her fate in the previous movie and, of course, to her cat woman, sex kitten past.
While there's nothing as frightening here as the panthers in The Emperor's New Groove, the humor in this sequel owes a lot to the original. Some of it, frankly, is taken straight from the source; there are a number of running jokes that return like welcome old friends after a medium-light makeover. Meanwhile, additional adult grins come from the plentiful comic references to other well-known movies, including, in my eyes at least, Pulp Fiction. So if you and your children still enjoy The Emperor's New Groove, then it's a safe bet that your hard-earned $20 will be well spent here.
Incredibly -- if only because Zooey Deschanel is in the cast, Tracey Ullman is also the love interest in Disney's Once Upon a Mattress. A 2004 adaptation for TV of the 1959 Broadway musical of the same name (it re-aired on ABC in the U.S. on 18 December 2005), is Hans Christian Andersen's tale of "The Princess and the Pea" with just a touch of The Taming Of The Shrew as read by Julia Stiles. In short, no one in the kingdom can marry until the Prince does. And the Queen is pulling out all the stops to drive away every eligible Princess who even bats an eye at her precious son. But Deschanel is knocked up, and time is running out, so... dot... dot... dot...
Once Upon A Mattress is an undeniably solid piece of goofy fun and rousing tunes, but the main story here is that Carol Burnett, who made her Broadway debut in the role of Princess Winnifred, is now cast as the control-freak queen mother, Aggravain, who gets pretty much all the best lines. Once Upon a Mattress will doubtless turn out to be one of those movies parents buy more in hope than expectation, but not to worry, because Disney is re-releasing four classic Muppet movies for kids of all ages with the somewhat spurious excuse that it's Kermit's 50th Anniversary.
It seems that an early version of Kermit first appeared in 1955, in a five- minute puppet show for TV called Sam and Friends. But this early Kermit was actually some kind of lizard. Kermit Thee Frog didn't actually make his debut until 1969. No matter: everyone loves an anniversary. Everyone in marketing.
The Muppet Movie (1979) is the classic Muppet movie, of course. But with typical perversity, I actually find the three "lesser" works more entertaining today. The Great Muppet Caper (1981) is my favorite. A trifle more sophisticated than the original movie (it's set in England), it follows the classic jewel thief/frame job paradigm. And if you close your eyes, you could almost be forgiven for mistaking the Frog and the Pig for Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) is especially seasonal and boasts Michael Caine as an excellent Scrooge in a occasionally somber but always kid-friendly retelling of the Dickens (here played by Gonzo!) classic. While Muppet Treasure Island (1996) is everything you would expect from the anarchic puppets (and their masters) set loose on the high seas with Tim Curry's Long John Silver and buckles aplenty to swash.
I'm often quick to criticize Disney, but the Evil Empire's treatment of these four Muppet movies is exemplary. Each comes in both widescreen and fullscreen modes, restored and remastered to an exceptional standard. And each DVD includes an additional feature that's actually worth watching: Pepe the King Prawn's insider's look at one of the leading "actors". So we have "Kermit - A Frog's Life" (The Muppet Movie), "Miss Piggy - The Diva Who Would Not Be Denied" (The Great Muppet Caper), "Gonzo - A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Weirdo" (The Muppet Christmas Carol) and "Fozzie Bear - A Long Day's Journey Into Nightclubs" (Muppet Treasure Island). Unfortunately, no matter how much I've warmed to the Muppets over the years, I still can't tolerate Fozzie Bear and even now with Pepe's help, I've still no idea exactly what Gonzo is. But then, no one else seems to know either. In The Great Muppet Caper, he's shipped over to England in a crate labeled "Whatever".
Always keen to squeeze that back catalog till the pips squeak, Disney has another couple of reissues to offer you. The first, Singalong Songs - Disneyland Fun: It's A Small World, is one of the best of this often infuriating series -- even if it is yet another extended commercial for Uncle Walt's favorite vacation resort. It was shot in 1989, so the more spoiled among your children may identify a mismatch between the Then and the Now, but the songs are mostly catchy, the children are refreshingly natural, and the 15-year-old theme park rides and attractions retain an appeal that subsequent travelogue episodes have lacked.
This month's last reissue is considerably older than Kermit, no matter how you date him. Classic Cartoon Favorites, Vol. 8 - Holiday Celebration With Mickey And Pals includes shorts from as long ago as 1932. Despite the title, these stories aren't all about celebrating the holidays, some of them are just wintry tales. A little research reveals that although three of the seven shorts on this disk are already available elsewhere in the parallel Disney Treasures series, they are all featured on different Disney Treasures, which makes the pip-squeaking seem almost respectable.
I don't know why it should be so, but while older children tend to glaze over at such geriatric animations, the under-fives derive much more pleasure from them than a thoroughly modern mother might expect. Be aware, however, that there are some issues raised here that you may wish to discuss with your children. For example, corporal punishment and pet abuse ("Mickey's Good Deed," from 1932). Of course, if you're following the simple PopMatters rules, you will watch this with your kids for the first time, and you will have that discussion. After all, your children are considerably more important than the latest bunch of fashion-challenged complaint rock nerds from BFE, Idaho. Aren't they?