'Collect Them All' is not only about moving Disney units by the gazillion or linking fast food with movies, TV shows with toys, and favourite characters with t-shirts. Above all, it's about teaching children to be consumers, to identify themselves with and by brands.
| 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.
Teletubbies: Blue Sky: Fantastic Friends and Springtime Surprises
Boohbah: Building Blocks
Baby Einstein - Meet the Orchestra - First Instruments
Caillou, The Everyday Hero
Avatar The Last Airbender - Book 1 Water, Vol. 2
A Boy Named Charlie Brown
Snoopy, Come Home
Zoey 101 - Spring Break Up
Little House on the Prairie
Shakespeare understood the power of entertainment. The play's the thing, said Hamlet, wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King. And, added a pointy-headed marketeer, the wallets of parents everywhere, and the souls of their children. It starts, of course, with "Collect Them All". CTA. The Disney motto-cum-business plan that encourages children to nag their parents for more.
And then it gets really insidious.
Children are no longer seen and not heard. Whether out of laziness or best intentions, guilt or rebellion against our own upbringing, parents today increasingly involve their children in the decision-making processes that shape family life. It follows that kids, being kids, aren't slow to tell their parents what they want. Especially when they're being advised to CTA.
CTA is not only about moving Disney units by the gazillion or linking fast food with movies, TV shows with toys, and favourite characters with t-shirts. Above all, it's about teaching children to be consumers, to identify themselves with and by brands. It starts as soon as they fall out of the womb. Just like adults, only more so, children process information visually. Long before they can read, children fall prey to the power of the logo. If two-year-olds recognise the Disney logo, and four-year-olds Tommy Girl or Nike, can we doubt the credibility such brands are gaining in the minds of our children?
Back in the day, it seemed like people made children's entertainment for old-fashioned reasons. Like they wanted to entertain and inspire children, and get paid for it. Maybe sell a few lunchboxes if they were lucky. Two parts Inspector Clouseau to one part Maxwell Smart, Don Adams' Inspector Gadget dates from the very end of that lunchbox period, the early '80s. Inspector Gadget: The Original Series reveals that the bumbling inspector originally sported a Clouseau-like moustache, which soon disappeared, and that he lived in a world of formulaic repetition that's every bit as appealing today as it was two decades ago. Partly because it portrays adults as idiots, and Gadget's niece Penny as the super-secret clever hero, but mostly because it's just plain funny. Poking silly, good-humoured fun at anything and everything, this is a show that children and parents can enjoy together.
Unfortunately, and inevitably, the release of this four-disk, 22-episode collection comes complete with the news that "The Gadget Brand is Always on Duty!" According to the pointy-heads, people will buy Inspector Gadget: The Original Series not because it's good, but because the 1999 Matthew Broderick movie grossed nearly $100 million, and because the French Stewart straight-to-video sequel shipped almost two million units. And because the marketing for those movies included a brand promotion on more than four million in-school lunch menus, a McDonalds toyline, beaniesets, alarm clocks, board games and a Sony PlayStation videogame.
Go, go, gadget branding.
Even further back in the day, my friends and I used to speculate, only half-jokingly, about what inspired the makers of children's TV. All too often, we guessed it was drugs. The makers of the marvelously surreal Magic Roundabout, for example, were clearly devoted to splaffs -- joints laced with LSD. And since The Herbs featured a dog so paranoid he could see you through the TV screen, who could never, ever keep still, and who was given to chasing his tail at 100mph, its writers seemed pioneers in the use of amphetamine-hallucinogenic cocktails, with an occasional mellowing joint thrown in for good measure and a gentle comedown. What? You think they called it The Herbs by accident?
Ragdoll TV's Anne Wood, however, has apparently been at the bad drugs. Not content with creating the Teletubbies, Wood's acid-damaged mind has now brought forth Boohbah, which premiered on PBS earlier this year and is now making its DVD debut.
The five Boohbahs are "atoms of energy" living in the Boohball, a glowing white ball of light that zips around the cosmos at the beck and call of pre-school children everywhere. Since Boohbah is essentially an exercise show for young children, it's perhaps unfortunate that the show's five leading aliens resemble the end of the evolutionary line for a race of rotund starfishes who mated once too often with unspecified but highly rubberized sex toys.
Each episode on Boohbah: Building Blocks follows a repetitive pattern much like that of Teletubbies. First, the Boohbahs perform a warm-up exercise. Then the children of the day offer a present to the Story People of Story World. And then the show transitions into a Story World segment based on the children's present. This involves problem-solving, viewer participation, and exercise, and sets up the grand finale: the Boohbah dance.
Playing a handy Get Out of Jail Free card, Boohbah claims that parents can't expect to appreciate it, because it's pitched at a level only the children can understand. Boohbah's different, Boohbah claims, from most educational TV because it fosters a style of active viewing where the things children learn are not determined primarily by the content of the program, but rather by the ways viewers engage with it. The point seems to be that if a parent suspends both his disbelief and aesthetic judgment, and instead works with the program, he can help his children build skills in movement, mathematics, problem solving, language, and imagination. Of course, he might also do all that without ever turning on the TV, but that's not Boobah's concern
The simultaneous release of Teletubbies: Blue Sky: Fantastic Friends and Springtime Surprises reinforces the relationship between these two shows, not to mention the fact that the Boohbahs are far less appealing and marketable than the Tubbies. I doubt we'll be seeing many twee indie chicks wandering around Melrose with cute little Boohbah backpacks any time soon. And since Hello Kitty already has the sex toy market sewn up...
Baby Einstein: Meet the Orchestra - First Instruments is the latest release in the remarkably successful Baby Einstein series. Started as an independent in 1997 by new mother Julie Aigner-Clark, Baby Einstein is now part of the all-consuming Disney empire. Like Boohbah, Baby Einstein takes parental coercion a step beyond mere CTA-nagging, by appealing to parental ambition and playing on any guilt we may have about not spending enough time with our kids.
Science has apparently established to its own smug satisfaction that just as listening to Mozart in the womb will not turn your foetus into a flatulent, giggling prodigy destined to end up in a pauper's grave, so watching an infinite number of Baby Einstein DVDs will not land your offspring a job at the Zurich patent office. But then Disney and Aigner-Clark have never claimed any such thing. Not if you ignore their knack with a title and check out their small print instead. Oh no, it turns out that Baby Einstein, like Boobah, wants parents to work with the program, to use it as a tool to help stimulate their children. That's all.
Nonetheless, while I'm entirely prepared to take Science's point that Baby Beethoven isn't going to induce genius in my thuggish children, on the whole, I'd still prefer they wandered around the house singing "Ode To Joy" rather than role-playing Power Rangers. Sadly, Baby Einstein: Meet the Orchestra - First Instruments is a pretty lacklustre offering from this powerhouse brand. For my captive test audience, its strongest point was the fact that it came with Spanish and French soundtracks as well as the obligatory English. Multi-lingualism is all the rage here in PopMatters Towers.
Speaking of which, the little French baldie pre-schooler Caillou is actually an object lesson in the move towards the Baby Einstein business model. Based on the excellent books by Christine L'Heureux and the illustrator Helene Desputeaux, Caillou was launched originally in 1998 as a series of five-minute episodes. Today, it's a themed 30-minute show that links shorts old and new with song and dance, puppet shows, and real kid segments. And it all comes with a seal of approval from child developmental psychologists.
Caillou The Everyday Hero offers viewers four such 30-minute episodes: "Caillou to the Rescue", "Caillou The Detective", "Caillou The Brave" and "Caillou The Builder". In each episode, animated stories reflect a continuing theme and boast a timelessly charming animation and characterisation that just breathes quality. Unfortunately the puppet sequences, which feature characters from the animated stories, are largely disappointing even as they struggle to expand on the theme of the day. The brief song and dance sections, however, kick pre-school ass, and the real kids video segments excel in comparison to other similarly formatted shows.
After all the psychology, it's refreshing to find some DVDs that market themselves simply by their quality, and don't pretend to be anything other than entertainment. First among these, because it's new, is Avatar The Last Airbender - Book 1 Water, Volume 2. This follow-up to Volume One offers four more episodes from this consistently intriguing and magical Nickleodeon show. In their world of myth, philosophy, and martial arts, Avatar's young central characters continue to grow and to learn through challenges, misadventure, and conflict. You won't find a better animated series on TV today, and the only downside to Avatar is that it only comes a mere four episodes to a disk: all right-thinking people are going to want the inevitable box set.
The first DVD release of the first Peanuts movie, A Boy Named Charlie Brown, details Charlie's typically earnest but ill-fated attempt to win a national spelling bee (timely, given the April opening of Akeelah and the Bee). Blessed with appealing subplots and set pieces that include Lucy's eternal wooing of Schroeder and Snoopy's ice-skating, this DVD comes with five minutes of additional footage that apparently hasn't been seen since the movie's 1969 premiere. Also receiving its first DVD release this month, the second movie, Snoopy, Come Home (1973). It's a heartwarming tale in which the most famous beagle on the planet is torn between his former owner, Lila, and Charlie Brown.
With the combination of his direct revenues plus the enormous income he received from licensing and marketing, Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz earned more than $1 billion during his lifetime, and even today, according to Forbes magazine, he's the "highest paid deceased person" in America. And yet, his comic strips, and the related movies and TV specials, promoted nothing except, perhaps, Beethoven. People bought Peanuts product because they liked Peanuts. How terribly old school.
It may have been the Jesuits who first said, "Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man", but it's now Hollywood's turn to deliver on that promise. Today, one of the most sickening developments in advertising to kids has been the identification and targeting of the Tween Market. No longer little children, and not yet teens, these eight-to-12-year-olds are being forced to grow up too quickly. During their most impressionable pre-school years, the marketing industry, with the complicity of parents, cultivates young children, imbues them with brand awareness, and turns them into fledgling consumers. And then, when those consumers hit their tweens, that's when the hard sell kicks in.
Once children are sold on the idea of being sold, the entertainment industry exploits their insecurities, pitching the idea of "cool". This is where shows like Nick Jr.'s Zoey 101 and toys like Bratz come into play. Hooker-chic ghetto-Barbie dolls targeted at tween girls, Bratz reportedly grosses over $1 billion per year. Zoey 101 is one of the three most-watched programs by tweens in the United States today. Aimed directly at tween hearts and minds, these products are all about encouraging children to believe they are adults, and to act like the adults the marketing industry craves.
An hour-long "movie" shot in widescreen, Zoey 101: Spring Break-Up gives its leading characters a breathtaking rich kids' spring break vacation, high tech PDAs all round, participation in a pilot for a new TV show, and all the angst of sweet teenage lurve. It's harmless enough chaff in and of itself. But it's entirely inappropriate for its target audience.
If it's difficult for teens today to develop healthy attitudes towards sexuality and body image, how much harder must it be for tweens to cope with the perpetual imagery of thin, beautiful, and sexually aware young people Hollywood directs their way? Tweens may enjoy Zoey 101 and their lipstick-shaped Bratz MP3 player, but what they're learning is that there's an unbreakable, all-important link between physical beauty and popularity, and between popularity and happiness.
Back, yet again, in the day, entertainment for tweens (and indeed, teens) offered something more wholesome and idealistic. Take, for example, Little House on the Prairie. A one-hour drama series from the '70s and '80s, Michael Landon's Little House on the Prairie was based somewhat loosely on Laura Ingalls Wilder's bestselling books. Although debates exist concerning both the authorship of the books and their autobiographical accuracy, there is no doubt these stories of the pioneering Ingalls family rank high among the classics of American children's literature. Or that Landon's show was one of the most successful family drama TV shows of all time.
In 2005, ABC aired an excellent Disney anthology miniseries (six hours, five episodes) that stayed much closer to the original text than Landon ever did. Now released as a double disk DVD, Disney's Little House on the Prairie comes complete with more big country grandeur and pioneering spirit than you can shake a stick at. For children of the Landon era, it may only ever be second best, but for today's young viewers, it should almost be required viewing. Unfortunately, this combination of classic literature, strong characters, and outdoors adventures received poor ratings for ABC when it aired, and so this DVD package will doubtless disappear without trace in a market that has taught children to prefer Britney Spears' little sister to Laura Ingalls.
There's much to value in children's entertainment. But parents have to exercise their responsibility. For want of conscientious gatekeepers, too many children are being set up for a lifetime of inadequacy, unhappiness, and consumerism. Because it doesn't stop with Zoey 101 or the Bratz. No, it's all one long process designed to turn our children into good consumers. And it's a process that employs more child psychologists than Baby Einstein and all the little Boohbahs could ever afford.