Thursday, August 28, 2008

Curious George on Monday

It's that time of year again: the new television season. There are a slew of new programs hitting the air and new seasons of existing shows, besides DVD releases of past seasons and several recent announcements of things to watch for in 2009. Among them all I wanted to make mention of one, the third season of Curious George, which premieres on Monday September 1 on PBS Kids.

According to KidScreen a few weeks ago, this season's curriculum will focus on Earth science concepts such as recycling, weather patterns, the water cycle, solar power, and so forth. I've been reading about the restructuring of Sesame Street's science curriculum in the 1990s, when they changed it from being based on straight-forward scientific facts to emphasize instead the process of scientific discovery. The reason for doing this was because of how the scientific method mirrors children's natural curiosity and exploration of the world. And that, of course, is what Curious George is all about, from the first book right up to the present. So a science curriculum seems more than appropriate, and I expect it won't diminish the narrative quality of the show at all. Plus the fact that the show is co-produced by WGBH Boston, which already has its science pedagogy down pat via a few seasons of Peep and the Big Wide World, one of my favorite shows on the air. All in all I expect great things from Curious George this season.

You can see the show's Wikipedia page here or its official website here

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Picnic Time for Teddy Bears in the Bronx

One thing about New York is that there’s always too much to do. Another thing is that the Bronx Zoo is always insanely busy on holiday weekends, so it's often best to try to go somewhere else. Those two things said, however, it seems that this weekend will be an ideal time to take the kids up there: it’s the annual Teddy Bear Picnic at the bear enclosures.

The zoo’s three bears--two grizzlies and a polar bear--will be hosting a bash for their little human fans all weekend long. Activities will include songs, stories, appearances by the zoo’s bear mascot, and zookeeper sessions with the actual animals. Usually when I’ve been to see them the bears there have been pretty much asleep, so getting them up on their feet (as I've seen the big cat trainers do with the tiger) will be a welcome change. Finally and most importantly, kids should bring their own teddy bears for a check up at the bear clinic; Build-a-Bear’s got nothing on this set-up.

To more fully enrich the experience, try watching a Yogi Bear cartoon on YouTube, an episode of Little Bear, an old Zaboomafoo episode or even a David Attenborough segment (I think kids are generally up to watching the Discovery Channel and the BBC Natural History Unit). Alternatively pick up a classic bear book: Corduroy, the Berenstain Bears, Paddington, or any of a host of others. There are also a host of wonderful zoo books, from Dr. Seuss's If I Ran the Zoo to one of my all-time favorites, Robert Lopshire's Put Me in the Zoo.

I’m picking up Loretta from Utah on Saturday and we keep the Sabbath on Sunday so about all we’ll have time to do before going Monday is listen to the song “Picnic Time for Teddy Bears," but I think that alone, along with bringing her teddy bear, will make the trip more special than most times we go.

All the event's scheduling details are available on the zoo website.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ben 10 Hits British Newstands

There’s good news for Ben 10 fans in the U.K.: tomorrow marks the release of the first issue of Ben 10's own magazine. You can read about it in any number of short notices, but some of the best information is at Animation World Network

For those unfamiliar with Ben 10, it’s an animated action-adventure show (I'll say it--it's for boys) that began airing on Cartoon Network in late 2005. It’s about young Ben Tennyson, a boy who finds a strange wristwatch-like device called the Omnitrix that allows him to change form into any of ten super-powered aliens. He uses it, of course, to battle wicked alien bad guys.

The new magazine will go into monthly publication in 2009. This first issue includes a host of additional material, including your own toy Omnitrix. Indeed, the magazine, which is being launched in response to the show's success in England, is part of a larger effort to license Ben 10 merchandise across a variety of platforms. The show's already gone through much of this process in the States (as this 2006 Animation Magazine article discusses), and the licensees are merely following suit in the growing U.K. market.

For more Ben 10 information, visit the show's official page on the Cartoon Network website.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Will Dora Grow Up?

That was the question posed last week by the Financial Times. Evidently some people at Nick are going over the numbers and trying to think of ways to retain Dora's viewers--who are legion and extremely loyal but who tend to eventually grow out of it--as they enter elementary school and beyond. In other words, if Dora could keep up with the Montanas, so to speak, then that would mean a whole lot more licensing and other revenues for Nickelodeon. The solution: redesign the precocious preschooler so that she's a little older, a little cooler, and perhaps with a bit smaller head. 

So she'd go from looking like this:

To something more like this:

The sexualization of second graders? Perhaps. That's the minefield Nick is left to negotiate.

I think the idea is intriguing and see nothing wrong with Dora getting a bit older and wiser, embarking on a bit more complex adventures (heaven knows one of the greatest needs in television is for productions with curriculum for children over the age of four). But I am, as a father, put off by the Bratz dolls and would steer Loretta clear of Dora if she adopted something of that look. The odds are against it going that far, but we'll see where the design winds up.

Of course, no plans or decisions have moved beyond the brainstorming stage at this point, but you can read all about the current prospectus here.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Little Mermaid Returns

To my knowledge, Walt Disney Studios did not create its first animated sequel—not counting multiple Mickey Mouse cartoons and the like—until 1990. From Snow White in 1937 on, every animated feature the company produced featured original characters in an original milieu. So what prompted The Rescuers Down Under in 1990? Fundamentally, it was The Little Mermaid in 1989 (see Bob Thomas, The Art of Disney Animation [New York: Hyperion, 1991] p. 121). The short version of the long story goes that after Walt’s death in 1966 and the retirement of the majority of the old guard of Disney animators and artists including most of the legendary Nine Old Men, Disney’s animated films fell into disrepair. Visual quality diminished, storylines became more sophomoric, company attention was focused elsewhere such as live-action and theme parks, and animators increased in dissatisfaction, prompting several like Tim Burton to jump ship. (This by the way is the general history, although many of my own favorite Disney cartoons, from The Aristocats to The Great Mouse Detective, come from this period.)

The highest-profile departure was animator Don Bluth in 1979, high profile because he had been hailed as Walt's successor and he took a coterie of disaffected animators along with him to start a new studio. This new effort took a while to get off the ground but eventually resulted in fantastic films like An American Tail (1986) that showed Disney up artistically and financially. Meanwhile back at the ranch, Disney fought off a hostile takeover and installed new management in the form of Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, and the latter, sensing the parade was passing Disney animation by, saw to overhauling the company’s animated efforts (ironically exactly what people like Bluth had been arguing for a decade earlier). They poured increased resources and energy into Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in 1988 and, of course, another fairy tale adaptation—the first since Sleeping Beauty in 1959—which became The Little Mermaid (assuming you can count H. C. Andersen's work as fairytales, something I plan to address soon in a separate post). This return to the studio’s fairytale roots was to symbolize its return to greatness, so another even more ambitious project, Beauty and the Beast, which had been in the works for decades, was revived as well.

What to do to keep costs down in between those two high-profile, high-cost films? A low-key, inexpensive little number based on a property that Disney already had the rights to. The result was The Rescuers Down Under; the characters (seen below) had already been developed in the 1977 The Rescuers, the plotline was essentially the same, transferred to a new environment, the special effects were minimal (although a few shots, such as the opening track in to Ayer’s Rock, the flight of the eagle, and the villain's huge vehicle, incorporated computers), and the character animation—from what I understand—was relatively simple (in that it involved less meticulous draftsmanship on little mice than is required on humans), although production values were higher than the 1977 film’s. 

The moral of this long introduction is: a sequel was pursued because it allowed Disney to A) minimize development costs and animation costs while B) maximizing revenue by attracting the fan base of the original film.

It probably wouldn’t have gone much beyond this film and Fantasia 2000 (and Walt had always envisioned Fantasia as having a perpetually changing program) if it weren’t for the advent of video. VHS and later DVD gave the company the ideal outlet to exploit its existing products. They began, in the 80s, by issuing their theatrical films on VHS in limited-time releases, thus increasing demand and allowing, years later, for yet another release. Then they began to also revisit old titles by creating sequels.

My own knowledge of the history at this point becomes less clear—it’s not something I’ve read as much about as Disney’s theatrical films, and I haven’t tried to watch these films as much either. So if we can trust “Mike” in his somewhat jaded online article “Attack of the Disney Sequels” we learn that The Return of Jafar was the first such straight-to-video sequel, in 1994.

The Return of Jafar
has to be seen in the context of that year. In 1991 Beauty and the Beast capped off a definitive comeback for the company, becoming the first animated film ever nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Aladdin in 1992 followed suit in its critical and commercial success, and The Lion King in 1994 became one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Furthermore, Aladdin was an action film of sorts that appealed to boys as well as girls (it wasn’t just a “princess” movie), and its villain had been dispatched but not completely terminated, unlike other recent villains like Ursula and Gaston. Not only did that latter point allow for Jafar to return, but the nature of Aladdin’s perpetual scrapes allowed for the possibility of episodic adventures, and indeed a half-hour television series was in the works. So a straight-to-video hour-long film was a great way to capitalize on the original film’s strengths while setting the stage for the series (a la The Clone Wars right now, as I wrote last week).

I don’t have revenue information, but The Return of Jafar evidently did well enough to let the genie out of the bottle, so it speak (sorry—I couldn’t resist). (There's some more information in this rather enthusiastic review.) A trilogy was completed by incorporating another Arabian tale in Aladdin and the King of Thieves in 1996, and soon Disney was revisiting much more of its back catalog, resurrecting characters in Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas (1997), Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (1998), The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride (1998), The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea (2000), Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure (2001), Peter Pan II: Return to Neverland (2002; seen below), Tarzan and Jane (2002), Cinderella II: Dreams Come True (2002), The Hunchback of Notre Dame II (2002), 101 Dalmatians II: Patch’s London Adventure (2003), The Jungle Book 2 (2003), Atlantis: Milo’s Return (2003), Stitch! The Movie (2003) (and a pretty good television series of its own), The Lion King 1 ½ (2004), Mulan II (2005), Tarzan II (2005), Lilo and Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch (2005), The Emperor’s New Groove 2: Kronk’s New Groove (2005) (also introducing a television series), Bambi II (2006), The Fox and the Hound 2 (2006), and Cinderella III: A Twist in Time (2007).

It is perfectly probable that I’ve missed some in there, but even so that’s a pretty hefty list.

Doing a sequel to The Rescuers, based on a modern book series by Margery Sharp, is one thing, but doing one to a fairytale like Cinderella is something different all together. Generally in fairytales “happily ever after” means there’s nothing else to tell. One strategy to get beyond that narrative obstacle is to introduce new character flaws in the protagonist (a la Cinderella II); perhaps easier and, indeed, more common is to have the first film’s characters grow up and have their children repeat, more or less, a theme on the original film. Thus we have Patch taking a chief role over the other one hundred Dalmatians, the little pup Scamp repeating the trampy ways of his father, and Bambi’s fawn teaching him about fatherhood the same way he learned—or didn’t, really—from his own father. The Lion King was unabashedly based on Hamlet, so for a sequel the producers turned again to their best writer, this time using Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (sorry, Two Noble Kinsmen, maybe next time). Simba and Nala have repeated the circle of life, and this time their daughter decides to enter a forbidden love with a member of a rival pride. But just as The Lion King did not end with a bloodbath and some feline Fortinbras strutting in to rule the savannah, so with Simba’s Pride Kiara and Kovu manage to avoid a double suicide and everyone learns about forgiveness and tolerance. Finally, in The Little Mermaid II the plot of the original film is simply reversed: where Ariel had longed to grow up and escape the sea to live on land, her daughter Melody longs to escape the palace and live as a mermaid. Like her mother, Melody makes a bargain with a (new) sea witch (seen below) to secretly obtain her wish, and she must perform a difficult task to remain that way. As in the original film, there’s a search, a showdown, and parental reconciliation. At this point there was apparently no way to continue the series without moving on to a third generation.

That is, of course, unless you think to do a prequel. Prequels and, as some call them, interquels are no new territory either (especially since George Lucas made them mainstream with his second Star Wars trilogy). Disney thus far has, as far as I can tell, specialized in interquels, seeking out those ellipses in time in the original film, spaces when all the film’s characters are intact, their dramatic arc is not yet resolved, but there’s enough wiggle room to create a whole new structurally independent production. So for example we have The Fox and the Hound 2, which takes places in the undefined space as the pup and kit grow up, and  Tarzan II, which depicts Tarzan as a boy, the period in between the original Tarzan’s prologue and the body of its action. Beauty and the Beast presented a challenge: a prequel wouldn’t really work because the characters had not yet met, but a sequel wouldn’t either because after the film ends there is no Beast, no curse, and no singing silverware. The solution was an interquel, prompted by the passing of an entire winter more or less in one song in the original film. That opened the way for not just any interquel but a Christmas-themed one that could hopefully become an annual favorite. 

The most interesting interquels of all are The Lion King 1 ½ and Cinderella 3. The former film is more or less an interquel, like Tarzan II focusing on Simba’s maturation in the wilderness with Timon and Pumbaa, although it overlaps and literally repeats action from the original film. What this really is then is the Disney folks taking Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead out for a spin: the events of the original The Lion King are rehashed from the perspective of its two most, um, misunderstood characters, often very directly in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or, one could argue, postmodern The Emperor's New Groove) kind of way. As for Cinderella 3, technically it qualifies as a traditional sequel, but I mention it here because it too returns to events of the original film, this time distorting and manipulating them as the wicked Stepmother gets another go at getting things her way. Intriguing.

So now all of this brings us to Tuesday's release of The Little Mermaid III: Ariel’s Beginning. The film is a good and true prequel, something young Anakin Skywalker could appreciate. There’s no Prince Eric, no longing to become human, just Ariel, Sebastian, and Flounder in their “first” undersea adventure. It’s a little disappointing that Ariel appears not a day younger than in the first film when Glen Keane animated her (twenty years ago!), but that can be forgiven. The new film is directed by Peggy Holmes and co-written by Robert Reece and Evan Spiliotopoulos. Jodi Benson and Samuel E. Wright are still performing the voices of Ariel and Sebastian, respectively, but now King Triton is performed by veteran voice actor Jim Cummings and Flounder by the young Parker Goris. Ariel’s mother is apparently present, if just to get snatched by human fishermen (as I suspect), and Queen Athena is performed by Lorelei Hill Butters. To add star quality, Sally Field plays the new villain Marina (reminding me of the fact that her Gidget was a surf bum who might as well have been a mermaid). I don’t have information on who did the actual animation.

The plot revolves around the ban on music in the undersea kingdom. All music is forbidden, although there is a lively underground speakeasy (or singeasy) scene, and you can bet that it will be Ariel’s headstrong ways that openly challenge the restriction and make music public again. The plot is therefore familiar but wholly autonomous from The Little Mermaid, and the most interesting interaction in a Phantom Menace type of way (introducing the characters, increasing backstory, etc.) appears to be the meeting of Ariel and Flounder. I’m not sure specifically where all the villainy and treachery comes in, but I’m fairly confident there will be some violence in the climax.

Here is the trailer, which is also available, with a great deal of other material, on the film’s official website. (There are also more videos on youtube.)

Now, when Disney renegotiated its relationship with Pixar a couple years ago and Ed Catmull came onboard down in Burbank, I remember reading that one of the first things he did was pull the plug on a number of straight-to-video sequels. They had passed the point of optimal utility, diminishing returns were setting in, and what they were now doing was degrading the Disney product by associating it with inferior work. At Pixar Catmull and John Lasseter and friends had created arguably the most successful animation studio in history by very carefully guarding their product (as well as attending to story, visual quality, and marketing). Part of the acquisition deal was that Catmull would become president of Disney Animation as well as of Pixar Animation, precisely to ensure that Disney would not run amok with licentious licensing and sequelmongering via innumerable 2-D spin-offs of Pixar properties (Toy Story ½: The Manufacturing Plant). Pulling the reigns in on Disney’s own properties was also a sage move. Sequels and series have slowed down in recent years (notice the glut between 2002 and 2004 in the list I gave above), and Disney’s products are stronger for it. What it means for any straight-to-video films that do get released nowadays is that they have passed through a more robust vetting procedure, resulting, hopefully, in stronger music, animation, and storylines; in this regard I hope that Ariel’s Beginning will not disappoint. I happen to live with the world’s foremost Little Mermaid enthusiast, so I will let you know if the experts think it passes muster.

Since the Pixar deal I believe Disney feature films will also be seeing a quality resurgence—Catmull is not one to merely chase 3-D CGI films simply because they’re CGI—so, even if it is meant to bolster up enthusiasm for Disneyland’s New Orleans Square a la The Pirates of the Caribbean, I’m greatly looking forward to next year’s The Princess and the Frog (Wikipedia page here), which is Disney’s first 2-D cel-animated film since Home on the Range in 2004, its first fairytale adaptation since Beauty and the Beast, its first film with African-American characters, its first to use songs by Randy Newman a la Pixar, and, most importantly, its newest co-directorial effort by Ron Clements and John Musker, the directors who brought us both Aladdin and, appropriately, The Little Mermaid

Whether we’ll be seeing The Princess and the Frog III: The Tadpole Adventure in 2017 is another story.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Diego's Halloween on DVD

I know it's August and a bit premature to be finalizing costume choices as yet, but the latest Halloween news is that Paramount (owners of Nickelodeon) is releasing a DVD entitled Diego's Halloween on Tuesday the 26th, at least in the US/Region 1 market. The disc has 98 minutes of material on it, but nothing I've been able to find thus far indicates how many episodes or specials make up that bloc. Diego himself looks a bit older than normal on the cover, kind of The Dark Knight-esque, but I'm positive there's nothing on there too scary for the little ones. We had no trouble watching Dora's Halloween episode when Loretta was still two. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Cookie Monster on Colbert

Today’s topic is a bit of a digression from my usual fare, but I simply couldn’t resist the controversial political topic of cookies. Back in 2002 I remember seeing Cookie Monster doing something very hilarious on Comedy Network, although I can no longer remember what exactly that was. Well, he's been at it again: on June 19--eons ago in an election year--he appeared on The Colbert Report to explain recent changes in his dietary habits. This one isn’t exactly meant for the kids to watch, but what the hay.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Clone Wars and Kids

It's nice to be back, and there's so much to catch up on, like this:

And this:

So that's what it's come to: Star Wars cartoons (and not the cuddly Ewok cartoon series, made by none other than Nelvana, that I watched as a kid). On August 12 Rachel Abramowitz with the Los Angeles Times posted an interesting story about the new animated film Star Wars: The Clone Wars and the franchise’s relation to young children. The marketing is more than casual; as this Kidscreen article discusses, LeapFrog Enterprises is aiming two new Clone Wars games at kids between the ages of four and ten. Furthermore, at least thirty episodes of a television series are ready and set to premiere on Cartoon Network--a station that's not aimed exclusively at preschoolers, admittedly, but which isn't entirely Adult Swim either--after the theatrical film has its run. (Here's an old article on the series, and here, for what it's worth, is the show's official site, though there's not much there.) So some rather violent production--with "war" in the title--is once again being marketed towards kids, and parents, as Abramowitz discusses, are the ones caught in the middle.

The appropriateness of various entertainments for children is an eternal question for caregivers, but the discussion is particularly interesting in light of the recent publication of Dade Hayes’ book Anytime Playdate, which I mentioned before my vacation. As for me, I feel that I can't advocate for or against the film--most of my early toys were Star Wars-themed, and I remember my Yoda underoos and eating the C3PO cereal--but I can urge parental caution and discretion. I for one would rather err on the side of caution, and I'm glad that at four Loretta still doesn't know what a lightsaber is (I think).

Star Wars: The Clone Wars hit theaters on August 15. The Variety review is good, and here’s a link to a trailer of the film. You can also visit the film’s official website for more information.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Feeding the Birds

I mentioned a few posts ago that Loretta and I watched Mary Poppins (1964) last year. There were, for her, a couple boring stretches (mostly where the main plot advances), though not many, and she loved the animated portions, the dance numbers, and the general silliness of floating to the ceiling, shooting up chimneys, racing carousel horses, and so forth. Especially catchy was the chimney sweep number: as I mentioned, we were stepping in time for, well, quite some time.

The portion of the film that permanently embedded itself in our lives, however, was the second lullaby, entitled “Feed the Birds” (otherwise known as “Tuppence a Bag”). I remembered it from my own childhood and Loretta was entranced immediately—it didn’t hurt that we have a large photograph of St. Paul’s Cathedral hanging above our television, with various other photos of London hanging around the living room. So, ever the excellent father, I watched it a few times to get it down and integrated it into our bedtime repertoire; repeated requests have made it a standard, sung at least two out of three times that I put her to bed. A few nights ago she sang along, verbatim, and it was adorable, at least to this daddy. The song is sweet, soft, and sentimental—all basically good things for a lullaby (though it covers quite a few octaves in range). It can seem a bit long when you’re in a rush, but the only time it’s actually come back to bite me was in the daytime, outside, when Loretta actually wanted to stop and feed all the darn pigeons in Fort Tryon Park. That seemed taking it a bit far, but indeed it is the very point, so we did in fact share our squirrel bread with them. (Andrew Blechman  and Mo Willems would be proud.)

So that’s the parental plug. Here’s some cineaste material. Like most Disney songs from that era—the last years of Walt’s life—it was written by the Sherman brothers, Robert and Richard.

The Sherman brothers have been incredibly prolific, and decorated, songsmiths, working up to the present on, for instance, The Tigger Movie and West End adaptations of their film musicals. They’re best known for Mary Poppins, The Aristocats, The Jungle Book—anyone who can get Louis Prima to scat is a winner in my book—and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. They also wrote “It’s a Small World,” which I guess you either love or hate but you’ll never forget. They won two Oscars for Mary Poppins—the Best Song award went to “Chim Chim Cher-ee”—and it represents some of their best work. On the recent DVD’s bonus features Richard recalls the strength of “Feed the Birds” in general and for Walt in particular: he would ask for Richard to sing it, in private, whenever he (Walt) was feeling particularly strained. And it is, as Richard notes, a beautiful song in its subject matter as well as its musicality: many, many songs are about love, or heartache, or personal growth, etc., but this one is about charity. “That’s what it’s all about,” we are told Walt said.

The role of the bird lady went to one of America's greatest actresses, Jane Darwell. Mary Poppins was her last film—the DVD bonus features, again, tell us that Walt personally went to beg her out of retirement. She's probably best known for her role as Ma Joad in John Ford's 1940 The Grapes of Wrath (seen below), but prior to Mary Poppins she'd been in nearly two hundred films (following imdb), starting in 1913. Her role for The Grapes of Wrath, which won her an Oscar, is remarkable. I've seen her in a few other things as well and they always stand out. Because I've studied Mormon cinema I've seen Henry Hathaway's Brigham Young (1940, a busy year for her), where she played Eliza Kent, a stoic and eventually saintly pioneer mother, and a decade later in a smaller but no less remarkable John Ford film, Wagon Master (1950). Here she was given an opportunity to display her broad comic talents, blowing her trumpet in Ward Bond's face with all the gusto in the world. But she was again a strong matriarchal figure.

The gravitas that Darwell's face brings to the bird woman role—the combined effect of all her previous work, now embodied in this little, disheveled bag lady—makes her appearance a powerful moment. She is admittedly given virtually nothing to do but speak in a mediocre British accent, but just her presence, her face, weathered by years, bring to mind all that Ma Joad, Eliza Kent, and her other roles stood for. This combines with the Shermans’ lyrics to make her brief appearance the moral center of the entire film. I would go so far as to say that all of Mary Poppins hinges around this song and Darwell's appearance in the subsequent scene. Feeding the birds is, after all, exactly what Mary Poppins does throughout the film, and when she can show Mr. and Mrs. Banks how to do so as well, her work is done.

Speaking of Mary Poppins, there’s also Julie Andrews in her cinematic debut, about whom I won’t even start. When I was in graduate film school in London one faculty member criticized Andrews’ films (apparently meaning this and The Sound of Music, basically) as being too idealistic and disconnected from reality. The Head of Studies simply replied that anyone who disparaged Julie Andrews had no business in a cinema. Enough said.

So after all that ado I thought I’d include her performance followed by the song’s lyrics. The song’s not perfect, nor is it my favorite in the whole world, but it’s certainly been a hit in our house. (Tuppence, by the way, is two pence, or pennies.)

Early each day to the steps of St. Paul’s
The little old bird woman comes.
In her own special way to the people she calls,
Come, buy my bags full of crumbs.

Come, feed the little birds, show them you care.
And you’ll be glad if you do.
Their young ones are hungry,
Their nests are so bare.
All it takes is tuppence from you.

Feed the birds, tuppence a bag,
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag.
Feed the birds. That’s what she cries
While overhead her birds fill the skies.

All around the cathedral the saints and apostles
Look down as she sells her wares.
Although you can’t see it, you know they are smiling
Each time someone shows that he cares.

Though her words are simple and few
Listen, listen, she’s calling to you.
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag,
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag.

(Instrumental bridge)

Though her words are simple and few
Listen, listen, she’s calling to you.
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag,
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag.

On another note, we're going on a little vacation--the first since 2005--back west to see family for a week or so, so I'm going to take my first official blog hiatus until about the 20th. Be sure to catch the season premiere of Wow! Wow! Wubbzy on the 18th.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sesame Street

A couple weeks ago I received a newsletter from Sesame Workshop in which the lead story was about Talk, Listen, Connect, or TLC, a program launched last year but which is undergoing major revisions through this autumn.

The program originated when it was realized that there are over 700,000 preschool-aged children (age 3-5) in the United States whose parents have been deployed in the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lengthy and frequent deployments of their parents are psychologically taxing for small children, as, ironically, is the parents’ return, particularly when they suffer from PTSD or other physical injuries or mental trauma. Sesame Workshop has partnered with the United Service Organizations and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy to create a bundle of videos and print resources designed to help preschoolers and their parents, both at home and in the service, deal with these life changes. The materials feature Elmo and Rosita (seen above) and, as such, are entirely bilingual in English and Spanish. They are available through multiple outlets and, more simply, can be downloaded online. A live tour featuring these Muppets is also underway.

Given the high numbers of effected children and their probable familiarity with Sesame Street and Elmo, the program could not be more timely; it's yet another American example of some of Sesame Workshop’s social consciousness, best seen recently in its foreign versions of the show (for instance, the next item in the newsletter is about an HIV-positive Muppet in the South African Takalani Sesame; we should always remember, however, that Sesame Street was the first racially-integrated show on American television). 

Here is a press release discussing the program, from which most of my information was gleaned. However, since then Sesame Workshop has also posted a larger story right on its homepage. From here you can navigate to a page where you can download the videos. In fact, my only complaint with TLC is that the videos are available as WMV files only, making them unplayable on my Mac (and everyone else’s!). Hence a plea to add a QuickTime option as well. Information on the live tour is available as well, but I also went to some military chat sites where it appears that the live show is well publicized via bases, etc.

Whether you’re for or against the war, you should be pleased with this program. It looks like a great resource for kids who are drastically affected by the war but who weren’t even alive when American troops first crossed the Iraqi border in 2003.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Two New Books for Grown-Ups

There are two new books for adults out that I’d like to mention; I hope to post a full review of each in coming weeks. They are Minders of Make Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children’s Literature by Leonard S. Marcus and Anytime Playdate: Inside the Preschool Entertainment Boom, or, How Television Became My Baby’s Best Friend by Dade Hayes.

Both books are histories not so much of the reception of children’s literature and television, respectively, but of their production. In Marcus’ case, for instance, that means a history of editors, publishers, and librarians more than of authors, illustrators, parents, and children, with a history spanning from the American colonies to Harry Potter. Hayes contextualizes his discussion within the story of how he discovered children’s television through his young daughter. Reception and consumption therefore figure into his narrative, but he also centers on the writers, directors, producers, and programmers who create preschool television, with, for instance, a longitudinal observation of the creation of Nick’s Ni Hao, Kai-lan.

I’ve not yet read either book, but I heard Hayes give a reading two weekends ago at the studios of Little Airplane (Wonder Pets), one of the companies he writes about in the book. It sounds incisive and critical-not an anti-television diatribe, but an intelligent look at the merits and flaws of kids’ television, with respect and deference for its creators (at least those, like our host Josh Selig, who respect children and try to make programming that reflects that). Having had just that taste of the book, I think of it a bit like a Fast Food Nation for children’s television: muckraking perhaps, but very useful and timely investigative reporting nonetheless.

If you’re interested in finding out about either book before I’m able to give my own reviews, then here’s a review of Minders of Make Believe and here’s a very good interview by Amy Kraft with Hayes posted a few weeks ago over at her blog Media Macaroni (one of my permanent links).

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Olympic Backyardigans Tie-In

I’ve been watching a lot of The Backyardigans this week, about two episodes a day. I’m therefore particularly pleased to chime in about the next new episode, which will premiere on Monday. It’s called “Match on Mt. Olympus,” and it’s about a basketball game in ancient Greece. The musical style this time around is samba, a personal favorite of mine which should prove a nice contrast to the on-screen athletics. Here’s some information on the episode.

The timing of this release appears very much to coincide with the Beijing Olympics, which start on Friday. I presume the episode will be airing all week, providing the perfect tie-in for parents who want to explain the games to their youngsters. Basketball is evidently the only sport featured in the episode, so track and field and other events will still require some technical explaining, but the show will provide context for parents who want to discuss the ancient origin of the games or competitive sports in general. As far as basketball itself goes, as a father of a daughter I’m quite grateful that Tasha will be playing against two boys. Both Americans and Australians have a very good reason to watch their Olympic women’s basketball teams this year, and I personally am going to try to tune in to one or two games with Loretta regardless of the teams’ nationalities (and root for Becky Hammon, shown below, no matter who she’s playing for). At the beginning of the summer we bought one of those plastic all-purpose playground balls so we could get into soccer (my favorite), basketball, or just plain catch, and Loretta’s recently taken a liking to basketball, constantly demonstrating how she can dribble (for all of about five seconds) and throw it through my arms as an oversized hoop. At any rate she says it’s her favorite game, so I intend to use the Olympics to show her that girls can play—and play well. Here’s a schedule of the women’s basketball games, though I’m not sure when they’ll be airing in the United States.

This is a perfect potential example of the principle of extension which I talked about in one of my first entries. Combine it with an actual game in the driveway or park, and you can make the Olympics not only relate to your toddler (through the Backyardigans episode) but come completely alive (through actual play). Whether the scheduling tie-in came from the show’s creator Janice Burgess, the writing team under Adam Peltzman, or the scheduling people at Nick Preschool, it was an excellent concept. I’ll be sure to tune in.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Harry Potter Redux

I suppose I must admit to not being the world’s greatest Harry Potter buff, but at least I caught (thanks to Carol) two items of news this week. Die-hard fans will already know this, but for the rest of us the Scholastic PR folks have issued a press release about the newest Potter book/spin-off. It’s an actual book, The Tales of Beedle the Bard, by J. K. Rowling, and it evidently figured into the plots of the later Potter books (there, I’m revealing the fact I haven’t yet read beyond The Sorcerer’s/Philosopher's Stone, though I quite liked it). So this fictional prop has become a physical commodity, and the first, seen above, was handwritten by Rowling herself and auctioned at Sotheby’s last year for roughly $4 million. Happily, mass-market editions will be available this December for the much friendlier price of $13. Read the release here. Proceeds are going to charity.

Proceeds from the next Potter film, The Half-Blood Prince, will of course be hoarded up by greedy goblins. The trailer for this was just released, and there was some buzz about how mature and dark it looks. Though the mood here is certainly ominous and foreboding, I'm not convinced that it's not more spin from the Warner Bros. marketing folks. Besides, I distinctly remember similar discussions occurring with each additional book, so we shouldn't be surprised if the films follow suit by increasing their scary and mature content; I'll only be shocked if one ever reaches an R rating. Harry Potter fan blogs and websites, at a quick glance, seem to be purely enthusiastic, of course. As for me, I'd rather get through the book first, so my main draw to the theater would be Jim Broadbent, who joins the cast in a small role and who is consistently fantastic in pretty much everything, be it Mike Leigh or Jackie Chan.

Anyway, here's the trailer: