It’s been a while since our last traipse through the highlights and lowlights of children’s entertainment. Having spent more time than usual enjoying and enduring such offerings, I’ve developed some pretty firm views on what works, what doesn’t work, and what there really ought to be laws against.
For example, the Baby Einstein shtick no longer works for me. I’ve always accepted that DVDs and a Sony widescreen won’t turn my little drool-monster into the next Alicia Witt, let alone a second Mozart. But I’ve also understood that all Real Parents need to use TV as a pacifier from time to time, and that a series that offers cultural stimulation has rather more parent-appeal than those pastel-coloured spawns of Satan, the Teletubbies). But given that babies and young children love nothing more than repetition, repetition, and… um…. repetition, I can’t understand why even the pointiest of heads would think children between the ages of six months and three years could possible need 23 different Baby Einstein DVDs. Let’s be honest, shall we? The horse they’re flogging dragged itself to the glue factory years ago.
Even if that wasn’t so, Baby Einstein: My First Signs [Rating: 3] offers only 27 minutes of American Sign Language (ASL) and Conceptually Accurate Signed English (CASE) for a recommended price of $20, and compares very poorly with the established and independent Signing Time and Baby Signing Time series. However, the expensively wrapped Baby Einstein product does come complete with The L Word‘s Marlee Matlin, the Oscar-winning star of Children of a Lesser God, and definitely the hottest deaf MILF on Disney’s payroll.
To be fair to Uncle Albert Einstein — who apparently earns more than $20M per year for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem thanks to his royalties from Apple, Nikon, and Disney — the Little Einstein DVDs offer better value and entertainment than the Baby Einstein products. One of this superior TV series’ unrivalled strengths is its focus on the wonders of geography, and Little Einsteins — Legend Of The Golden Pyramid [Rating: 7] takes the diverse but relentlessly middle class Leo, Annie, June, and Quincy on enjoyable adventures through Egypt, China, and San Francisco. Out on the West Coast, they visit the Coit Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge while somehow managing to miss out on the Castro. Perhaps Leo and Quincy aren’t all that diverse after all.
Disney’s other recent animated releases have included Mickey’s Great Clubhouse Hunt [Rating: 5] and two new volumes in each of the company’s Funny Factory [Vol. 3 – Rating: 3] [Vol. 4 – Rating: 5] and It’s A Small World of Fun [Vol.3 – Rating: 4] [Vol. 4 – Rating: 3] DVD series. We could talk for hours about the ethics of Disney’s never-ending exploitation of its heritage, but we’ll be talking about marketing later, so let’s just say that Funny Factory With Huey, Dewey, and Louie – Volume Four is the pick of the retro-releases and that the latest bright and bouncy Clubhouse DVD has a thoroughly Easter theme despite portraying itself as a “Springtime Special”. Pagans, heretics, non-believers, Muslims, and the Children of Israel might consider themselves warned.
After The Mouse, a cat. He may be the star of the world’s most widely syndicated comic strip, but Garfield has almost always left me entirely cold, and the insipid Garfield and Friends – Behind the Scenes [Rating: 4] does nothing to reverse that trend. I recommend that Jon take his cat to Washington DC and abandon him on the corner of Sixth and Constitution.
Like Garfield, the Backyardigans and Bratz are two of the more successful non-Disney animations around. But that’s all they have in common. As evinced by The Legend of the Volcano Sisters, [Rating: 7] Backyardigans Tyrone, Tasha, Uniqua, Pablo, and Austin have a winning formula based on a mixture of wild imagination and musical variety. The Bratz, however, have achieved their billion dollar success by stealing Mattel’s plans for Crack Ho Barbie and encouraging six years old to dress like dyslexic sluts.
My sister-in-law once bought my daughter a Brat (that’s the singular, right?), so I ate her liver, barbecue-style with a nice six-pack of Shinerbock. If anyone offers your child Bratz Fashion Pixiez [Rating: 1], you should assume he’s grooming said child and report him to the FBI. And if you ever allow your own little princess to watch this nonsense (the eighth DVD in the series!), you should be prepared to see her making homemade sex tapes and serving 45 days in jail before she reaches 25.
I would have liked to contrast Bratz Fashion Pixiez with Christy – The Complete Series [Rating: 4] starring Kellie Martin and Tyne Daly. But Christy is something of a disappointment. She’s thoroughly wholesome, of course, in an L. M. Montgomery meets Michael Landon kinda way. But she’s neither very compelling nor entertaining, although the Appalachian scenery is seldom less than breathtaking.
If you’re in the mood for a four-disc box set for a teenage girl, you’d do better to invest in Sabrina The Teenage Witch – The First Season [Rating: 7]. I’d thought i>Sabrina was a spin-off from the marvelous Bewitched, she’s based on a comic that predates Bewitched. While Sabrina The Teenage Witch lacks the timeless charm of my favourite domestic magic show, it’s actually far better than I’d expected, based on my unremitting loathing for the stupid fake cat Salem. The writing is clever, the cast members hold their own, and Jenna Leigh Green is an absolute joy as the series’ Plastic Heather. Fans of the almost pretty Melissa Joan Hart will be happy to hear that the second season of Sabrina will be coming out this summer. I, however, am hoping to see Green in Wicked.
Next to the Bratz, the stars of the latest Disney Channel Original Movie (DCOM), Jump In [Rating: 5], are all utterly inoffensive, even the school bully. But if these kids are supposed to be role models for future generations then Allah help us all. Briefly, Jump In‘s a 10-cent High School Musical knock-off staring Corbin Bleu (Chad from High School Musical) as the world’s least likely boxer. Following his star, Bleu abandons boxing and instead finds himself in Double-Fricking-Dutch. Yeah, right. Self-realisation is all very well, but from the sweet science of Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali to competitive skipping? I don’t think so. That’s a Saul/Tarsus moment to inspire any boy right there.
And don’t talk to me about concussion, brain damage, and cauliflower ears, — not when the alternative is tripping over a rope and cracking your head open on the blacktop. Okay, I sense some parents may prefer that mommy’s little soldier plays with ropes rather than learn the noble art of self-defence. That, of course, is their absolute right. Just as they have the right to dress their sons in girls’ clothing and call them Susan. And just as the residents of Chester in the UK have the right to kill any Welshmen found within the city walls after midnight, providing they use a bow and arrow. Either way, there have been many far better movies released this year than Jump In.
Sadly, Read It and Weep: Zapped Edition [Rating: 4] isn’t one of them. Based on Julie DeVillers’ teen novel, How My Private, Personal Journal Became A Bestseller, this DCOM offers little more than a familiar plot, apparently avoiding any interesting themes and ideas from the book.
My favourite animated movie DVD so far this year is Aardman Studios’ Flushed Away [Rating: 8]. Highlights of this excellent movie include The Toad (Sir Ian McKellan as a cross between a Bond villain and Noel Coward in The Italian Job), Le Frog (Jean Reno), and Le Frog’s hench-frogs. But the true joy of Flushed Away lies in its good-hearted wit and invention, its unrestrained use of slapstick, and the way it manages to retain Nick Park’ marvelous claymation style of animation despite being made in CGI.
Warner Brothers’ Happy Feet [Rating: 7] is a movie that seems to have divided opinion. Critics have complained about its political message, its use of ’80s pop standards, and its take on organised religion to the extent that I’m not at all sure which annoyed them most. Personally, I think parents should be glad of an opportunity to talk with their children about the environment, the politics of religion, and the relative merits of Queen, Prince, and The King. And give me Brittany Murphy singing “Somebody to Love” over a faxed-in performance by Phil Collins any month of the millennium. On the big screen, I loved Happy Feet despite its somewhat awkward plotting. On the smaller screen in the living room, however, it seems diminished.
Cinderella III – A Twist in Time [Rating: 5] is yet another direct-to-DVD Disney sequel with a plot Helen Keller could see from space. However, it’s still a substantial improvement on Cinderella II – Dreams Come True. Where that first sequel was actually three short stories strung together into a piece of low quality Disney Princess (TM) merchandising, A Twist In Time is a respectable movie with decent production values that transforms the previously paper-thin Cinderella and her Prince into more engaging characters.
The original Hanna-Barbera movie of Charlotte’s Web [Rating: 6] was a faithful animated rendition of the E.B. White text with impressive voice talent (including Debbie Reynolds, Agnes Moorehead, and Paul Lynde). The big-budget version from Paramount dropped the songs and animation for a mix of CGI and live-action. Think Babe crossed with… Babe II. Highlights in voice casting include Julia Roberts, Steve Buscemi, and Andre 3000 and Thomas Haden Church as a pair of scene-stealing cows. Robert Redford, Oprah Winfrey, and John Cleese do less well. And, unfortunately Dakota Fanning plays Fern. The way Hollywood continues to throw roles at La Fanning, you’d think it’d never heard of AnnaSophia Robb. Still, Charlotte’s Web is can be enjoyed by all but the most rabid Fanning-phobes.
Which is considerably more than can be said for Air Buddies [Rating: 3], a case of Disney franchise madness that reverses the plot of 101 Dalmatians (the puppies rescue their kidnapped parents) in an utterly predictable yawn-fest.
In That’s So Suite Life of Hannah Montana: Mashed Up Edition [Rating: 4], the set piece sees Raven-Simone (That’s So Raven) and then Hannah Montana check into the Tipton to ruin the surprisingly entertaining Suite Life of Zack and Cody.
As for SpongeBob SquarePants – Friend Or Foe [Rating: 8], I won’t hear a word said against SpongeBob, Patrick, Mr. Krabs, Plankton, or (most especially) Squidward Tentacles. But the persistent hype leading up to the launch of Friend or Foe and Nickelodeon’s Foedown special event surpassed even the previous SpongeBob extravaganza, The Best Day Ever. The DVD release of Friend or Foe came just four days after the Foedown and its Nicktoons premiere, and includes the double episode title piece and six other previously unavailable episodes from the fifth season of SpongeBob. “Friend or Foe” itself is bracketed by an unfortunate attempt at pirate-based live-action humour that falls short of The Hasselhof, but otherwise admirably unveils the secret behind Krabs and Plankton’s enmity. The best of the other episodes are “Spy Buddies” (in which SpongeBob and Patrick spoof both Bond, Batman, and Mission Impossible) and “Waiting”. This is about the only episode I’ve ever seen where Squidward (who is clearly Eeyore for the New Attention Span Kids) is actually nice to SpongeBob.