This month's outstanding DVD release for children of all ages is Avatar: The Last Airbender - Book 1: Water, Volume 1.
| 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.
Sing-Along Songs: Supercalifragilistic- expialidocious - I Love to Laugh
Sing-Along Songs: Pongo and Perdita - 101 Dalmatians
Sing-Along Songs: You Can Fly - Peter Pan
Walt Disney's Timeless Tales, Vol. 3
This month's outstanding DVD release for children of all ages is Avatar: The Last Airbender - Book 1: Water, Volume 1. A Nickelodeon production that, for simplicity's sake, I'm going to describe as an anime-inspired cartoon reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki, Avatar combines humor, cogent plotting, and complex characters with consistently beautiful art. It's just about the perfect show for parents to share with their children.
Set on a world that's at once ancient and futuristic, Avatar is rich with echoes of eastern philosophy, religion, and martial arts. The Avatar is the human incarnation of the Spirit of the Planet, who reincarnates himself repeatedly over the centuries. The Avatar's world is made up of four elemental and serial nations: each time the Avatar dies, it is reborn, creating a cycle that mirrors the seasons: the Water Tribes represent winter, the Earth Kingdom spring, the Fire Nation summer, and the Air Nomads autumn. However, 100 years ago, fleeing from his destiny, the Avatar disappeared. Taking advantage of the subsequent imbalance, the Fire Nation tried to enslave the three others and achieve world domination.
Though the Fire Nation's victory appears imminent, help is at hand. Fishing in the icy waters at the South Pole, the quarreling brother and sister act, Sokka and Katara, accidentally discover a young boy trapped in an iceberg. This boy is Aang, and he is the 112-year-old Avatar, a reluctant hero who must now restore balance to the world and end the 100 Year War. Unfortunately, before he can achieve his destiny, Aang must master all four elemental martial arts (the Bendings), and then defeat the Fire Lord, Ozai. He must also do all this by the end of the coming Summer, because then Sozin's Comet will pass by and invest the Fire Lord with unprecedented and undefeatable powers.
Avatar: The Last Airbender - Book 1: Water, Volume 1 contains just the first four episodes of this most impressive series, which may be a concern for some prospective purchasers. Especially since there are 20 episodes of the Book of Water and, presumably, 80 episodes in total. But Avatar has a much longer shelf-life than most children's DVDs. It has high quality production values and a fully realized internal mythology. Its management of the supernatural is intriguing, its characters are strongly drawn and believable, and a vein of surprising humor runs deeps within its story. This truly is a DVD that can appeal to children from six to 66, including those most difficult to entertain, the dreaded teenagers.
Elsewhere, the bilingual Dora the Explorer is continuing to extend her winning formula and franchise. The first of the four episodes on Dora the Explorer: Save The Day is a cozy piece of cross-promotion for Dora's cousin Diego (first introduced in Dora The Explorer: Meet Diego) as they rush to rescue talking monkey Boots, who has been carried away by a mighty wind in a kite calamity. Diego works at the local Animal Rescue Center, can talk to animals, and one-ups Dora's Backpack with his own super-transforming Rescue Pack.
He also has his own show, Go Diego! Go!, which launched recently on Nick Jr. And since both Dora and Diego bring a winning combination of color, fun, repetition, and education, this is one spin-off that's welcome at my house. Honestly, though, I'd prefer to see Swiper get his own show, and given recent trends in Doratainment, that prospect is looking more likely every month. The previous Dora DVD release, Dora the Explorer: Dance to the Rescue, cast Swiper as a victim, and now the second of the four episodes on this month's release casts him as "Swiper The Explorer", the unlikely hero who helps Dora and Boots return a lost baby fox to his mother. All together now: Aaawwww.
Other worthwhile DVDs released this month in the pre-school market include The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Other Stories and Backyardigans: Polka Palace Party. Since its centerpiece story was first published in 1969, the former is all but a classic today, while the Backyardigans premiered on Nick Jr. in October 2004 and comes complete with all the baggage of a modern U.S.-made show.
The Backyardigans are five animal characters: penguin Pablo, kangaroo Austin, moose Tyrone, little girl hippo Tasha (in red Mary Janes and a flowered dress), and Uniqua, who looks like nothing on this earth. Together they have wonderfully engaging musical adventures in their shared backyard. "Polka Palace Party" sees the Backyardigans travel way out west to the Cheyenne Polka Palace. "High Tea" takes them off into the deep jungle and into the Gobe Desert in search of the perfect cup of tea. Music is central to the Backyardigans' appeal, and this DVD includes polka, Irish folk music, Broadway show tunes, and jazz. Parents will soon tire of the Backyardigans, but children love the characters' adventures and songs.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Other Stories brings five cartoons based on stories by Eric Carle to DVD. In addition to the title story, this package offers "I See a Song" (first published in 1973), "The Mixed-Up Chameleon" (1975), "Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me" (1986), and "The Very Quiet Cricket" (1990). In 1993, these same stories were collected in a popular audio book of the same name. The DVD adds visualizations based on Carle's characteristic style to the original narrations by Liverpudlian poet and author Roger McGough and English actress Juliet Stevenson. Since The Very Hungry Caterpillar has sold well over 20 million copies, it's likely most parents will already know Carle's work and whether this well made but ultimately ordinary collection will appeal to their children.
Personally, I might be inclined to save my hard-earned for something livelier, like Stanley's Dinosaur Round-Up. This is the first full-length movie for the little guy with the Great Big Book of Everything and a talking goldfish called Dennis. In Stanley's Dinosaur Round-Up, Dennis, Stanley, and the magic book travel to his great uncle's dude ranch, with educational, dinosaurial, and bad-guy-confounding consequences.
If the idea of Stanley saving the family ranch with the help of dinosaurs seems unlikely, then I'd like you to meet Drake and Josh, whose spin-off series from Amanda Byne's The Amanda Show is one of the most popular live action programs on Nickleodeon. In the absolutely risible Drake & Josh Go Hollywood - The Movie, the stepbrothers accidentally put their little sister on the wrong plane, swap iPods with a master criminal whose hard drive contains U.S. Treasury data that will allow him to print perfect counterfeit $100 bills, steal Tony Hawk's car, get rescued by their sister, appear on TRL, and get offered a New York record deal. And all in a mere 90 minutes. If my daughter likes this sort of pap by the time she reaches third grade, I might kill myself.
Disney continues its recycling program with no fewer that seven DVD releases this month. Four are the latest entries in the never-ending Sing-Along Songs series. Each is named to suggest it focuses on a specific Disney movie but, of course, this isn't so. You Can Fly - Peter Pan, for example, contains just one song from that movie, The Bare Necessities - The Jungle Book features just (just!) "The Bare Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You", while Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious - I Love to Laugh includes a whopping three songs from Mary Poppins, plus six from miscellaneous other Disney ventures.
My captive test audience unanimously preferred The Bare Necessities - The Jungle Book because they love these classic songs and because it also includes The Aristocats' "Everybody Wants To Be A Cat". Similarly, they all disliked Pongo and Perdita - 101 Dalmatians, because, while the other three collections present clips from the movies with on-screen lyrics, this DVD features live action performances.
A new series of rehashes begins with Walt Disney's Funny Factory with Mickey and Walt Disney's Funny Factory with Donald. The second includes two cartoons that have never been previously available on DVD, but for the most part, these are repackaged collections of already available classics from the '30s, 40s', and '50s. Collectors will probably spit feathers at Disney's marketing, but parents of younger children with a yen for the simpler pleasures of vintage animation may appreciate such genuinely timeless joys as "Donald's Golf Game" and "Mickey and the Seal".
However, I recommend the truly excellent Walt Disney's Timeless Tales, Volume 3. This includes six animated tales, both musical and non-musical, from that same golden era. Although the cartoons are available elsewhere, the quality of the selection makes it an almost essential purchase for those who don't own everything Disney has ever made.
Taken together, they actually reveal something quite shocking about Disney. The company's animated take on the classic baseball story, "Casey at the Bat," was nominated for an Academy Award in 1953 and makes a well-known point about pride, and another about the importance of teamwork over the glorification of the individual. In "Little Hiawatha" (1937), a Native American boy discovers that a good deed can be returned a thousandfold, and that a community of the weak can defeat a mighty individual. And "The Wise Little Hen" (1934) features the very first appearance of Donald Duck who soon learns a valuable lesson about everybody working together for an equal share in the rewards. Who'd have thought Uncle Walt was a socialist?
"The Golden Touch" (1935) further establishes Disney's red credentials with a retelling of the Midas myth, while "Morris the Midget Moose" (1950) addresses both discrimination against the handicapped and the inevitable triumph of the workers' cooperative over the capitalist state. And then the greatest of these six stories recasts the American Dream to show how the weak and impoverished can still revolutionize society and bring down a mighty colonial power. You don't believe me? Check out "Ben and Me," in which a tiny church mouse helps Benjamin Franklin invent bifocals and a stove, as well as write the Declaration of Independence.