Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Barry Louis Polisar Tribute Album - Part 2

If you're into quirky independent cinema, chances are you've already seen this title sequence from the film Juno:

The composer and performer of this song is Barry Louis Polisar, and many folks saw the success of this song--the album won a Grammy for best compilation album--as an overnight success, which it would have been except for the fact that he wrote it about thirty years ago. But the fact is that Polisar is now enjoying an increase in popularity, something well deserved after three decades of entertaining, educating, and singing for kids.

Now some of those kids, all grown up, are returning the favor. In September I wrote about the announcement of a tribute album called "We're Not Kidding"; that post includes a press release with some really good information. The album was finally released on December 4, and it's been well worth the wait. Under the guidance of Radioactive Chicken Heads singer Aaron Cohen, a reported forty-five musicians (including some appearances from Polisar himself) have gotten together to rework and record sixty tracks of Polisar's music. The musicians include a few I've heard of before, like Tor Hyams who I wrote about a couple weeks ago, but for the most part since music isn't my main professional focus it's introducing me to a whole bunch of people who warrant further investigation: the Vespers, J-La, Deleon, Kid Kazooey, Elizabeth Street, Alyssa Robbins, Rutherford B. Hayes Is Dead, Purple Mums, Rebecca Loebe, the Boogers, Tom Vincent, Le Page, Ham & Burger, Jeff Forrest, Haunted Cologne, the Brothers Vilozny, Bonnie Phipps, League of Space Pirates, Your Little Pony, and of course the Barry Louis Polisar Self-Aggrandizement Choir (who sing "The Tushie Song"), plus dozens of others.

The stylistic breadth of the album, which consists of two discs of thirty songs each, is just as broad. The first thing I did was compare the different versions of "All I Want Is You," the song from Juno above (and, yes, Polisar's use of the title predates U2 by quite a while). The Vespers start out the entire album with an amazing rendition, possibly if I dare say it better than Polisar's own: the twangyness and harmonica which give the original much of its flavor is gone in favor of discrete harmonies between the female singers, lending it an air of Alison Krauss singing "Down to the River to Pray" on that other Grammy-winning soundtrack from O Brother, Where Art Thou?. (I was intrigued enough by this number to quickly go to the second disc to hear them sing the more up-tempo "Barnyard Stomp," and they carried that off equally well. According to their My Space page, linked above, their first album will be out in March, so that's something to keep an eye out for.) Closing the entire album is an "All I Want Is You" cover by Noga Vilozny that takes it in the other direction, a rollicking, swinging rock number that puts some boogie into it. The version by Eric Hartereau is pretty traditional except that it's in French, which is quite a kick ("C'est Toi Que J'veux"; all I got out of it was a "femme" and a "toi" or two). And then there's a parody/redux by Polisar himself at the end of the first disc featuring dazzling new lyrics like "...if you were a cow, I'd be the utter." Takes your mind in whole new directions...

Of course, that's not unfamiliar territory for his lyrics. There are plenty of songs like "'Doo-Doo' Is a Bad Word," "I'm a Slug," "Don't Put Your Finger Up Your Nose," and so on that delve into the comic and the disgusting. He's not shy about investigating the darker sides of childhood--mean teachers, not sharing, and so on--but there's plenty on here that's sweet and tranquil as well. Because of some of the more mature lyrics and hard rocking arrangements (heavy on the electric instruments and drum kits), this might be a little much for some of the littler children, but it's on a song by song basis--it's essentially a compilation album, after all. It's probably all good listening for kids in the older crowd, especially if they've been exposed to rock at all before, and some songs are great for the littlest tikes: my Isabelle, who's all of three months, was grooving to the Vespers and Elizabeth Street's "That's What Makes the World Go Round."

One other factor leaning this toward older kids, though, is the vocabulary, which can be pretty challenging. Much of it might go right over kids' heads, but on the other hand it can help them learn and stretch in ways that they might not otherwise; I can still remember a good old Elvis Presley song sending me to the dictionary when I was about ten to look up what a "ghetto" was. They Might Be Giants and other good lyricists do this (that's where I learned about echidnas, for instance), and Polisar seems right at home in that crowd. Besides that the rhymes are catchy and often funny, something making this good listening for parents as well as for kids. The fact that Juno was in no way a kids' movie speaks to the cross-over appeal Polisar's work has.

Here's another review of the album, by Paula Slade, and there's a lot more information, including blurbs from a lot of other reviews, here. I'd like to thank Polisar for letting me know about all of this and all of his personal interest in my work as well; his interest and warmth in the few emails we've exchanged has gone way beyond that of a musician trying to promote his new album. As I've listened to the music I think that kind of attitude has carried over into his own work as well.

At the end of the day it's a compilation album and is therefore a mixed bag, but overall the album's quite excellent and well worth checking out. If you're interested more information is available on his website, and for those of us involved in children's television it's really interesting to check out the clips from his old TV show Field Trip, which won two Emmys in its evidently too-brief run. With all the renewed interest in Polisar's work, perhaps it's time to resurrect this concept as well...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Susan Kim and the Little Airplane Writing Academy

Last Saturday I was able to attend the first ever Little Airplane Academy on Preschool Television Writing, held in downtown New York (Southstreet Seaport) at the studios of Little Airplane Productions, makers of Oobi, The Wonder Pets, 3rd & Bird, and now some new shows like the absolutely fantastic Small Potatoes, seen here. I attended one of their three-day workshops on children's television production last year, but this one-day seminar was the first devoted exclusively to writing. It was run primarily by Susan Kim, a freelance writer for dozens of shows, from Square One back in my own childhood up to modern things like Arthur, Mama Mirabelle's Home Movies, and of course Little Airplane's shows. Susan ran a great workshop: the day was divided essentially into four parts: exercises and activities to help us re-access childhood, to re-understand children and their experiences; a review of screenwriting mechanics and techniques; a discussion of the business of children's television writing; and then a final session with Little Airplane founder Josh Selig about creating and selling original properties.

My main focus in going was to learn more about #3 above--the business of making it in this business--but I assumed that I would have to patiently pass through the creative portions to get there. I was very pleasantly surprised, therefore, at how useful the opening exercises actually turned out to be. When I approach a show or writing assignment I try to think holistically about the curriculum, the characters, the structure, and what would be humorous or engaging for the target age group, but I've never really taken the time to sit back and warm up by reaccessing my own childhood. Writers of novels and poems and other media warm up and keep trim with little prompts and exercises, like free-association exercises, writing quick flash fiction, journaling, etc., so why do I think that a writer of children's television can remain fresh and creative without similar exercises? Also, doing routine exercises like these show real respect for the audience. Since we as authors do not belong to our target demographic--something pretty rare (since usually mystery authors read mystery novels, romance authors read romance novels, etc., but no matter how much Nick Jr. we children's screenwriters watch we still won't ever literally be children again)--it really pays dividends to keep ourselves in touch with what it was like when we did belong to that group. And it helps us avoid cliches, talking down to kids, being pedantic, moralizing, and aping other more successful shows we've seen on the air. It makes the writing more fun.

The exercises I'm talking about were specifically things like writing what we remember about a photo taken during our childhood--who was there; tactile things like what we were wearing, doing, or smelling; how it was taken; where we'd seen it since. Another was remembering a specific object from kindergarten, another what we were afraid of in childhood, something specific that we thought was beautiful, a trip to the beach (or elsewhere), etc. In other words, it's all like an actor accessing his emotion memory through tactile and concrete details, although in our case we're trying to remember what it was like being a child, the universal things that will still apply to children today, their digital nativity notwithstanding. It's a great way to reach farther and farther back in your memory, regaining it with greater clarity, which is pretty cool whether you're a writer or not. Other exercises include trying to write a first-person story in a child's voice, brainstorm or free associate ideas for a kids' show when not working on a specific program or assignment, or anything else that gets you in the groove of respecting, thinking about, and speaking to children on their level. Great stuff.

Much of the mechanics of screenwriting were essentially what I'm familiar with already, although it was nice to follow one episode of 3rd & Bird from concept through premise to outline to script to screen, with examples on paper of all of those. That's great information and is the kind of area that could be explored in greater detail should Little Airplane decide to do a three-day writing seminar.

Concerning the business portion, Susan mentioned some resources I was unfamiliar with like Cynopsis Kids. The three-part pattern she gave for finding and keeping work was: 1) Write two to three specs (I have nine and am working on my tenth, which will hopefully be the last), 2) Locate companies and the right people at them (i.e. story editors and head writers mostly, as well as producers and show runners), and 3) Write a good cover letter and resume. I suppose I need to work on the latter as well as my general hustle of networking, although I have started on three new shows in the past month and am finding myself pretty busy (hence no blogging). Alternatively you can work your way up from a script assistant on a show, which is a job I've found it pretty difficult to get in the first place. You should also join ASCAP and/or BMI if you're ever going to write lyrics, which you probably are. Also, treat your story editor as your greatest ally and friend, and constantly keep them informed about everything you're doing (when you're working for them, that is). So not too much there I'm not in general trying to do, or things I didn't know about like a magical group policy for health insurance for freelance cartoon writers, but again it was nice to learn the new material I wasn't aware of and it still really helped focus my efforts. Oh, and we touched on agents. The best advice I've heard about agents was something I read a few weeks ago in an IFP publication: only take an agent that is really hungry to have you; a disinterested agent is worse than a bad one or none at all. Last Saturday Susan said she does have an agent but she still finds 80-90% of her work herself; she's glad she has an agent, though, for help with the contracts, etc.

I'm running out of time to finish this post, ironically, but I want to mention what Josh talked about in his hour. Hopefully it'll be the subject of a blog or article soon over at Planet Preschool on KidScreen, and I don't want to give anything away that I oughtn't, but here's the general idea. The most striking aphorism he gave us was: "The only difference between a writer and a show creator is a good lawyer." So there's no reason, really, to not become a show creator, so it's time I must start thinking of myself in those terms and not only continue preparing material for the KidScreen Summit in February, which I am, but also start talking to entertainment lawyers, which has always seemed like some far-off concept before.

Long story short about the approach Little Airplane is taking: with Wonder Pets they were still new enough they had to go to Nick and sell the thing outright; it was the only way they could have funded it, and Josh said he wouldn't have changed that because that's just where they were then. Now, however, not only is Little Airplane a more established company, but the nature of children's media has changed drastically over the past seven years. It's become more democratized and egalitarian, with power shifting away from the big broadcasters like Nick, Cartoon Network, and Disney and toward the producers of shows, folks like Little Airplane. So with Small Potatoes they've taken a very different approach that Josh is now calling the Blitz: they're raising funds through state's rights distribution and other outlets (licensing, online, merchandise, publishing, etc.) but they're retaining ownership themselves. And that can make all the difference. So CBeebies bought the UK rights for Small Potatoes (wisely, by the way, because the music video we saw--it's essentially a short-form all-music property--was the cutest and most engaging few minutes of preschool TV I've seen in a long time) and gave them something like 20% of their budget for a season. So now they're talking to everyone under the sun, from other broadcasters to stage troupes to puppet shows to, I don't know, magicians and everyone in between. Using facebook, twitter, etc. to build up buzz. The only drawback of this approach is monetizing it, because twitter doesn't exactly pay for content and no one's going to pay to download a video online. Hopefully it'll bring in enough attention, however, to eventually bring in a major player, one with cash that is, and a deal will be able to be struck with Little Airplane in a much better bargaining position than they were able to have seven years ago. Or the merchandizing takes off, or something else like that.

As a creator unaffiliated with an animation studio or anything I'm going to go ahead and try both approaches as much as I can with the various properties I have in development. I've got to get animators attached before I can go through the online, democratized route, but on the other hand I'd hate to see Nick Preschool snatch up a beautiful property, fire me, and ruin it. Well, let me qualify that, because having a property on Nick wouldn't exactly be heartbreaking, no matter the terms of the agreement, and they worked well, for instance, on the creation of Ni Hao, Kai-lan, which came from a person in a similar situation. Anyway, for those hoards of industry peeps reading this and asking what I'm working on specifically, one example is on some characters developed by the animator Annie Poon, called Puppy and Ducky. A short she made of them for younger kids won an audience choice award at the New Museum and just showed at the last Chicago festival, and we're now working on aging it up for the 6-10 crowd. Check out Puppy's blog for retailer Fred Flare here (although for some reason they only display P&D on Saturdays) and Annie's blog and website. And of course industry folks can contact me about this or my other preschool concepts. Here's a pic of Puppy with his oblivious puppy love, Miss Duck, as drawn by Annie.

But I should end by seriously thanking Susan Kim, Josh Selig, Melinda Richards, and Tone Thyne for all the work they put into the workshop. It was inspiring, focusing, and just the thing I needed to jazz me up and get me from post-MIP to KidScreen.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Roy E. Disney

As many readers will have heard by now, Roy E. Disney, his father's namesake and uncle's near spitting image, died yesterday of stomach cancer at the age of 79. Over the years he's been involved in Walt's and Roy O.'s company, he's been seen as a sort of guardian of the Disney name and brand against the likes of Walt's son-in-law Ron Miller and, later, Michael Eisner & Michael Ovitz. I remember first learning about Roy Jr. when I was a junior high school student enamored with Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin in 1993 and I read John Taylor's book Storming the Magic Kingdom about the attempted corporate take over of Disney in the 1980s (yes, I guess I had a touch of nerdishness). Roy was instrumental in retaining control of the firm then as he was just a few years ago in getting Michael Eisner removed after some poor managerial decisions. I don't know that I've been uncritical of Roy's work--heaven knows I'm critical about a lot of things about Disney--but I was essentially a fan of his leadership over the company's animation division, as it was essentially him who was responsible for the aforementioned renaissance in the early 90s and hence the global resurgence in animation that we've seen with Pixar, DreamWorks, and half a gazillion other companies. People might say, oh no, that was Jeffrey Katzenberg, but I don't think that's so much the case: #1) You wouldn't have had Katzenberg at Disney without Roy there first, and #2) I've not been thrilled by anything done at DreamWorks since Katzenberg's own departure from Disney. Of course Disney's slumped as well over the past decade with the rise of 3D CGI (although one should point out it was Roy who helped engineer Disney's union with Pixar a few years ago), but what a thrilling time it was in 1991 to discover the magic of animation and hence of cinema. I've hoed a crooked career path to get where I am today, but it's safe to say I wouldn't be involved in cinema, television, or children's media if it weren't for Beauty and the Beast and, hence, if it weren't for Roy E. Disney. Here are some obituaries:

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

New Kids' Festival in Singapore

I'd like to thank Jade Young of the National Book Development Council of Singapore (NBDCS) for letting me know about the upcoming Asian Festival of Children's Content (AFCC) happening this May in Singapore and--hopefully--traveling around to new countries and venues in the years after that. In this inaugural session the organizers hope to bring together authors, illustrators, filmmakers, television producers, and everyone else involved in creating (or consuming!) children's media in Asia for a few days of workshops, classes, networking opportunities, an Asian Media Market, a Children's Book Award, Children's Writer Award, and other fun activities. There's a little information on this website. The whole program is an offshoot of the ten-year-old Asian Children's Writers & Illustrators Conference, so although this specific event is new the organizers themselves are not neophytes, as the following information from the NBDCS shows:

1. Asian Content for the World’s Children

Over a billion children in Asia lack good resources, both for their education and entertainment. Those who have the means and the access, benefit from a wide selection of edutainment material available from the West. Asian material, even those available, is seldom promoted and is therefore left unexplored. Bringing quality Asian content to children is paramount as it would make children aware of Asia’s unique environment and cultural values, promote understanding of, and love for, the literary and visual arts. It will thereby lay the foundation for a good and all-round education.

Asia is rich in culture and tradition; a heritage from which content could be developed. What’s more, the region has talent to produce content based on these sources. It is therefore critical that an annual programme called the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) be organised to draw the attention of content creators and producers to this vast opportunity AFCC will also showcase content already available, and promote new materials that are produced and published. This will benefit parents, teachers, librarians and children in Asia as well as the world.

For the past 10 years, the National Book Development Council of Singapore (NBDCS or The Book Council in short) has organised the Asian Children’s Writers & Illustrators Conference (ACWIC) to develop new materials for children. It now aims to expand ACWIC’s reach by including the new initiative that AFCC promises. The Festival, with a series of innovative programmes, seeks to fill the direct need for quality Asian Children’s content worldwide, particularly in Asia.

The inaugural AFCC will be held in Singapore in May 2010 and will be organised by the Book Council and The Arts House.

2. Advisory Board

Ms Claire Chiang, Senior Vice President of Banyan Tree Holdings (Singapore) is the Chairperson of the Board.

Please see Appendix 1 for the full list of members in the Board.

3. Vision, Mission & Objectives

a. Vision

To provide the World’s children with quality Asian content for education and entertainment.

b. Mission

To foster excellence in the creation, production and publication of children’s materials with Asian content in all formats and to facilitate their distribution and access, first in Asia and then to children worldwide.

c. Objectives

• Develop children’s materials with Asian content for information, education and entertainment.
• Promote publishing of Asian children’s content in all formats.
• Provide children in Asia and the world with ready and easy access to Asian content.

4. AFCC Programme Outline

a. Core Programmes (6 & 7 May 2010)

• Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference (ACWIC)
• Asian Children’s Media Mart (ACM) including Asian Children’s Rights Market
• Special programmes, master classes and workshops on a variety of specialised topics
• ASEAN / India Writers and Illustrators Dialogue (AIWID)
• Asia / Australia Writers and Illustrators Network (AWIN)

b. 8 May 2010 (Saturday)

• Primary and Pre-School Teachers Congress (PSTC)
• Asian Children’s Librarians Seminar (ACLS)
• Asian Children’s Publishers Symposium (ACPS)

c. 9 May 2010 (Sunday)

• Asian Parents’ Forum (APF)
• A special session on suitable content for children and young adults

Please see Appendix 2 for the AFCC programme structure.

5. Target Audience

The entire community of children’s content creators in all formats, i.e. aggregators, disseminators, retailers and consumers etc.

• Writers, illustrators, digital artists, producers and designers of children's content, including comics, books, e-books, graphic novels, videos, films and educational games
• Librarians and institutional buyers
• Publishers and broadcast media executives
• Educators, primary and preschool teachers
• Literary agents, translators
• Media distributors and vendors
• Multimedia professionals
• Parents
• Vendors of educational products and services

More than 400 hundred participants from the region are expected to participate in the Festival.

6. Conclusion

Over four exciting days, the AFCC delegates will get to celebrate and learn about Asian children's content in all formats and subjects from diverse sources. It will provide a platform to trade, exchange and access Asian children’s content.

The participants will network with fellow producers of children’s content, as well as meet solution-suppliers from the region.

Very crucially, AFCC provides a unique opportunity for professionals involved in developing Asian content for children to reflect on how these materials could be produced, distributed and effectively used to provide quality education and stimulating entertainment for the young people.

R. Ramachandran
Executive Director
National Book Development Council of Singapore
November, 2009

* I've omitted the appendices, but those interested in more information can contact the NBDCS. Best of luck to the organizers!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Top Kids' Music of 2009

It's that time of year again. Kathy O'Connell of NPR has undertaken to pick out the top ten kids' albums of the year in a story she posted online a week or two ago (yes, I'm perpetually catching up!), as has Jeff Bogle of Time Out New York Kids. I'm always a bit wary of such rankings, but given that all the music listed here is worth knowing about, I wanted to pass it along. At the top of O'Connell's list is the perpetual favorite (and last year's Grammy winner) They Might Be Giants, and both lists include two acts I've posted about before, King Pajama and Milkshake; Bogle also includes Morgan Taylor's newest Gustafer Yellowgold disc. Lunch Money's album Dizzy, their sophomore effort, is at the top of Bogle's list (the album cover is seen below), with They Might Be Giants nowhere to be seen. It just goes to show how subjective this all is, and for my purposes it suffices to say that compared to ten years ago there is a flowering of children's music comparable to that in television. Anyone have any thoughts about a similar trend in children's literature?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Fallen Angels

I'm focusing enough on my own writing and directing, and reading material that directly supports that, that I've completely missed the whole Twilight phenomenon thus far. But about two weeks ago I was watching Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders and had the brief thought that they (meaning the YA people) ought to explore angels (and demons?) to escape from the vampires/werewolves rut. Well, seems I'm a few steps behind the industry because Disney just optioned the film rights to the YA novel Fallen by Lauren Kate. You can read all about it in the Hollywood Reporter.

Now I just wish we could get American teenagers--let alone adults--to actually watch Wings of Desire and Far Away So Close...

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Kids Make Films in New York

The New York International Children's Film Festival, which has a year-round presence through screenings and other events, is currently accepting applications for their third annual Film Production Workshops. Course tracks include claymation, film acting, 2-D animation, and puppet animation and kids age six to sixteen can participate and receive mentoring from working professionals in the respective fields. Films from the first session of courses, held in mid-February, will screen at the festival later next year. For more information see the fest's website. I haven't checked the price, which may be steep, but having conducted animation sessions at the Museum of the Moving Image and more recently done the cinematography merit badge with my local Boy Scout troop's Blazer patrol (i.e. the eleven-year-olds) I can testify that kids this age love this thing, and, who knows, you may just be nurturing the talent of the next Orson Welles.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

General Mills Lowers Sugar

General Mills announced today that it will be reducing the amount of sugar contained in its cereals marketed to children. Five years after the firm, which is based in Minnesota and is, I believe, the second largest cereal producer in the country, converted all of its cereal to whole grains, this is a welcome move that's still been a long time in coming. It would be great if now Post, Kellogg, Nestle in Europe, and the other cereal makers follow suit (I don't follow this industry enough to know just where every company is on the "rush" to health food status). It's something that should position the companies as socially responsible without cutting into their bottom line (like banning marketing to children or advertising during children's television shows, which has been troubling in the United Kingdom). I hope the nutritional difference is enough to make an impact in children's diets, and I also wish there was a way to continue to inform parents that it's not just the lack of sugar in these foods they allow their children to consume (or, like at our house, consume themselves), but also the fact that eating these foods instead of more nutritional alternatives robs you of the potential benefit you could have had from those. In that sense it's like soft drinks and milk; sure the sugar and fat are bad for you, but it's the lack of calcium that's going to give you osteoporosis. Anyway, kudos to General Mills for taking this step, and let's hope there are more such announcements in the future.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Milkshake Gets a Grammy Nod (plus Tor Hyams)

Since I've been going through their entire output quite meticulously over the past couple weeks, I've become quite the fan of Milkshake recently. If you missed my original review of their new album "Great Day" you can have a look at it now. This week's news, however, is that the album has been nominated for a Grammy for the best children's musical album category, thus simply validating my opinion of it.

To be fair, I suspect that all of the nominees are pretty good, and a lover of children's music would be well served to check them all out, which you can do here. They're listed in category 76, and the spoken word nominees are #77.

Here's a press release about Milkshake and the nomination:

BALTIMORE (December 6) – With the Recording Academy’s December 3 announcement that Milkshake’s album Great Day has been nominated for a 2010 GRAMMY® Award in the “Best Musical Album for Children” category, the Baltimore-based rock band for kids has achieved yet another milestone in a remarkable career.

Milkshake began in 2002 as a musical experiment on the part of vocalist Lisa Mathews and guitarist Mikel Gehl, longtime bandmates from Baltimore’s indie rock group Love Riot, who vowed to “grow” their music right along with their own young children. Since then, Milkshake and the band’s legion of fans have been living an exciting, real-life, growing up adventure, moving from early childhood through the early elementary years, as the group toured the country and produced three multi-award-winning CDs, a DVD, and a multitude of music videos seen all over the kid-friendly networks. Along the way, as the kids grew and the music grew with them, Milkshake grew from a duo to a six-piece band.

The GRAMMY® nomination for Great Day is a crowning achievement of the past seven years in the life of Milkshake. Notes Lisa Mathews, "Milkshake is a rock band at heart, and we happen to have found our calling playing music for families to enjoy together. After all those years performing in the adult music world, where everyone yearns for a GRAMMY®, our nomination has us over the moon with joy. To be recognized in this way by our peers is immensely gratifying. Although we’re told over and over that adults love our music (and it’s great to hear that!), our purpose, from the start, has been to create real music that kids can call their own. We’re very grateful that NARAS is honoring these ideals."

Known for their pop-rock style that fairly crackles with energy, Milkshake indeed has a following of all ages. The band is familiar to millions of American households through their colorful, energetic music videos, which have been seen on PBS KIDS, NICK JR., and DISCOVERY KIDS. Milkshake’s live concerts, described by the Baltimore Sun as “a little like magic,” bring the same happy, rocking energy onstage to fans across the country. Baltimore Magazine declared, “Hip parents who like music will absolutely thrill to Milkshake.” Kenny Curtis, Sirius/XM Radio’s Director of Specialty Programming, describes Milkshake as “an amazing band whose songs are conceptual and fully thought-out pieces of music.” Wrote Paste Magazine, “Overflowing with energy and enough stylistic chops to move convincingly from rockabilly to jangle-pop, these tunes will make fans of the whole family.”

Great Day demonstrates the rocking energy, true teamwork, and sheer joy of six musicians performing “live to disc” the material that has won them coast-to-coast applause. Milkshake has previously released three critically acclaimed, multi-award-winning CDs – Happy Songs, Bottle of Sunshine, and PLAY! – in addition to a Parents’ Choice® Silver Award-winning DVD, Screen Play!, a joyous mix of MTV-like videos, animation, in-concert videos and cool bonus features, including interviews with the band and a pair of videos featured on PBS KIDS.

As Milkshake prepares to walk the Red Carpet at the GRAMMY® Awards, they are also looking ahead. The band has conceptualized The Milkshake Show, a TV program for kids that’s like Reading Rainbow meets The Monkees. Other plans include a Christmas CD with a festive mix of new material and fun songs from Milkshake’s live holiday shows and, of course, continuing to perform live for kids and famiies nationwide.

And here's a second release, this one focusing around the album's producer Tor Hyams. It's enlightening, and I for one think it productive to learn more about the producers behind kids' music's top acts. Enjoy:

LOS ANGELES (December 4) – Music producer Tor Hyams takes special pride in The Recording Academy’s December 3 announcement that Milkshake’s album Great Day has been nominated for a 2010 GRAMMY® Award in the “Best Musical Album for Children” category. Tor Hyams produced Great Day as part of his ongoing commitment to creating exceptional family entertainment.

Great Day is a capstone of nearly 20 years in the music and film industries for Hyams, who says, “Producing this kids’ album was an amazing experience, absolutely as exciting and fulfilling as anything I’ve done in the adult arena. Milkshake is truly a rock band of the highest caliber. The songs are edgy and packed with meaning, but also just plain good fun for the whole family. I’m tremendously proud to have produced the GRAMMY® nominated Great Day.”

Tor Hyams’ experience in the entertainment industry runs the gamut from writing and performing his own material to producing world-class recording artists and composing dozens of scores for film and television. Hyams’ star as a music producer has most definitely been on the rise, with albums for Joan Osborne, Vivian Campbell, Edwin McCain, Broadway star Rachel York, Jewish rappers Chutzpah, and the late Lou Rawls under his belt. He continues to collaborate with Lisa Loeb, Perry Farrell, Edwin McCain, and more.

Since 2002, inspired by his own family, Hyams has broadened his scope to encompass the burgeoning world of children’s/family entertainment. He founded HyLo Entertainment as an umbrella company for these activities, which began with Hyams writing and producing the award-winning, star-studded children’s CD A World of Happiness. Originally licensed to Disney’s Buena Vista Records, the album features performances by Samuel L. Jackson, Magic Johnson, Lou Rawls, Isaac Hayes, Debbie Harry, Gary Oldman, and Perry Farrell, among others.

With Farrell, Tor Hyams then conceived and developed Kidzapalooza as a family festival nested within the Lollapalooza Festival, a project of C3 Presents. Kidzapalooza, now in its sixth successful year with Hyams as producer and emcee, has been contracted through 2015. Innovative ancillary properties include Kidzapalooza Radio on Sirius/XM and a new compilation album, Kidzapalooza Vol. 1, featuring tracks from some of the best new names in family friendly music, such as Lunch Money, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, and The Jimmies, along with such familiar artists as Ralph Covert (of Ralph's World), Perry Farrell, Lisa Loeb, and more. Continuing his ever-expanding live music work with C3, Hyams also found himself producing the “Kiddie Limits” stage for Austin City Limits and the kids’ stages for a number of other regional festivals. Rounding out his activities, for the past several years Tor Hyams has led the family music efforts at the SXSW Music Festival.

Tor Hyams’ success in the world of live children’s music has spawned other opportunities, which include the formation of Happiness Entertainment, a full service children’s music label with distribution through Koch. In its inaugural year, Happiness has already released three albums, including a bonus track-filled reissue of A World of Happiness, the abovementioned Kidzapalooza compilation CD, and a family hip hop CD by Secret Agent 23 Skidoo.

Riding on the crest of today’s growing interest in children’s music, Tor Hyams decided to found Kindie Fest, the first-ever family music conference, featuring panels and performances with the most influential personalities in the field. The first Kindie Fest, held in Brooklyn, NY in May 2009, was sold out. The event’s sophomore year is planned for Spring 2010. Added recognition came when Tor Hyams was named a judge for the audio category of the 2009 NAPPA awards, one of the world’s most prestigious honors for children’s products.

The future holds unlimited possibilities for Hyams. Upcoming projects include producing albums for the critically acclaimed, multi-award-winning children’s musician Frances England and the hugely popular kids’ band Lunch Money.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Kids BAFTAs Awarded

Sunday night in London the BAFTAs were awarded, and it deserves reposting here on Red Balloon. Go here for a full list of nominees and winners. Among highlights: Coraline, which I finally saw last week during Henry Selick's New York publicity tour, won best film; The Penguins of Madagascar beat Phineas and Ferb for best international (i.e. non-British) television programme; Nick Jr. (UK?) beat both CBeebies and the CBBC for channel of the year; Bookaboo, which I wish were here in the States ever since seeing puppet models over a year ago, won best preschool live action; Ben and Holly's Little Kingdom won best preschool animation and proco Astley Baker Davies won best independent production company of the year (my family used to be Astleys until about two-hundred years ago); Kindle Entertainment got a few wins such as Helen Blakeman best writer for Dustbin Baby and the Big and Small website for best interactive (those two are seen above). Makes me anxious for The Shiver Sisters and whatever else is coming out of that studio.

It's all more than enough to make me long for a crepe at Westminster Bridge (though good old New York will have to do for now). Congratulations to all the winners. Consumers (parents) on both sides of the Atlantic would be well advised to check out all the nominees they can--there's a ton of stuff here I was unaware of that just looks fantastic.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The New Parents in Kids' Lit

Here's another article I've run across that's gotten swamped in my backlog. It's a New Yorker piece by Daniel Zalewski about how parents are depicted in today's picture books opposed to the classics of the past. Brief summary: stern and authoritative is out, bumbling and befuddled is in. I wonder if such findings are statistically significant, but as I browse titles in my head I see that Zalewski is probably on to something. I just hope it doesn't reflect too accurately how I myself teach and discipline my daughter. But either way I'm sure the kids will turn out all right, and the new trend makes for some great new characters, like Ian Falconer's Olivia and her wonderful family.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Jaroo -- Cookie Jar Launches Online Kids' TV

So, my plans--or hopes, really--to write three or four long essays about Sesame Street this month have been squelched by, well, actual work. There might be more to come, but for now I'll continue the theme of Canadian television I got into last week.

If things are moving and shaking in broadcast and cable television, the realm of the not-so-distant future is of course online television. The big news in November was therefore the launch of Jaroo, an online station sponsored by Cookie Jar. At the moment, in its beta stage, the website features all Cookie Jar material, but that's not a bad library, especially after their purchase of DIC Entertainment last year. From classics like Inspector Gadget and Paddington Bear to more recent fare, there should already be something for every kid, and negotiations are evidently underway to carry material from other providers. Check out this article by Paul Bond in Ad Week.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The State of Children's TV in Canada

If that's the kind of thing that interests you, then check out this article by Kate Calder about the Children, Youth and Media Conference held in Toronto Thursday. Interesting stuff.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Where Gossip Girl Comes From

I feel like I've been incredibly behind in blog posts--and everything else--since the whirlwind of MIP in October. Here, for instance, is a New Yorker profile of Alloy Entertainment, the midtown teen media company responsible for such fare as the television version of Gossip Girl, the cast of which is seen here.

The article, by Rebecca Mead, ran in the October 19 issue, meaning that I'm a full month behind here. You can read a long abstract, but a digital subscription is required for the full text. It's worth digging up, though, for those interested in teen literature and television; I don't think the profile was biased in any direction, but it does take a critical look at the kind of story factory environment that produces a lot of kids' and teens' entertainment. We're somewhat used to that in publishing--where certain houses commission authors to fulfill projects according to their preexisting specs--but moving the formula into television and, now, feature films, seems to be a new creature than we've seen in the past. Creation by formula isn't always anathema to art, and heaven knows Gossip Girl is popular enough, but it's worthwhile for those of us interested in the quality and artistic merit of youth media to examine how this production model will impact future shows and books. That model will probably prove more pervasive and influential over the next five to seven years than the Twilight phenomenon or anything else, except interactivity (which is a subject for a different post). If you're interested, Alloy's website is here.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sesame Street's 40th Celebrations

Here's the clip of Michelle Obama on Sesame Street a little while ago. I'm not sure what day it aired on television, but Sesame Workshop has connected it at least indirectly with their jubilee celebrations. There's certainly a lot of buzz going on around Lincoln Center and the Kaufman Astoria Studios.

It's nice that this isn't just peripheral to Mrs. Obama's agenda--she's been promoting gardening and health since her husband took office--and that it's not really just a "kiddy" issue: gardening dovetails into issues of economic self-sufficiency, environmental stewardship, personal responsibility (teaching kids to work), and of course health.

But more to the point of the anniversary celebrations on the 10th is this statement from the show's co-creator Joan Ganz Cooney and various actors including puppeteers. The other day I posted Big Bird's rendition of "It's Not Easy Being Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service to reference Henson's contribution to the show, but to be accurate it was not his brainchild. It came from Cooney and Ralph Rogers, who passed away in 1997. I've got a lot more to say about the origin and legacy of the show, but I'll forebear from rambling for now. Kudos to everyone who's been involved over the years, from Cooney, Henson, and Rogers all the way down to the Teeny Little Super Guy.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Sesame Street in England

Tom Geoghegan and Megan Lane of the BBC wrote a nice little article yesterday about the storied history of Sesame Street in the United Kingdom. It's quite interesting and you can read it here.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sesame Street Month on Red Balloon (aka Orange Oscar)

That's right, Sesame Street is turning forty a week from tomorrow (Nov. 10), and to celebrate I'll be posting thoughts and videos all month (or trying to!). To start us off I thought I'd hearken back to its 1969 origins with some fun videos. And what better one to start with than the original orange Oscar? He's singing "I Love Trash," a song I knew as a kid but had no idea dated from so far back in the series. The performance then as always was by the great Carroll Spinney, who also plays Big Bird and is one of the great puppeteers of the last four decades.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Sid and Elmo on Swine Flu

Happy election day, everyone. Tonight Loretta and I had fun voting for "Mr. Blueberry" for a third term as mayor (even though I secretly had her pull the lever for someone else). At any rate, my friend Stephen sent me a YouTube video today of Sid the Science Kid singing a promotional song about the H1N1 vaccine. So in today's spirit of public service I thought I'd pass that along, leaving it up to you to decide if it's completely helpful or a little bit on the creepy side. If kids are scared of shots I think things like this will generally help. I thought I'd throw some Elmo in too--it looks like Kathleen Sebelius was right about his sneezing abilities.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween with Casper!

Here are some Casper the Friendly Ghost classics to enjoy the holiday with (presented in chronological order). Happy 60th birthday this year, Casper!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

They Call Him Mellow Yellow: Gustafer Yellowgold

If you're like me you may not know the name Gustafer Yellowgold but you might just recognize his face:

He is a curious little pointy-headed fellow from the sun, come here to Earth (specifically Minnesota) to hang out with his pet eel, the dragon who lives in his fireplace, and a flightless pterodactyl with a keen fashion sense. On a more prosaic level, he's the creation of musician/illustrator Morgan Taylor, based in Brooklyn here in New York City. Taylor came up with the concept in 2005 as a means to create narrative-based multimedia experiences for his live concerts. In these performances he sings and plays with the animation projected up on a screen, giving the kids multiple avenues to get into Gustafer's world (and live music!). Gustafer has since released three CD/DVD compilations: Gustafer Yellowgold's Wide Wild World, Gustafer Yellowgold's Have You Never Been Mellow?, and this year's Gustafer Yellowgold's Mellow Fever. There is a theme running through the titles, as these little films--essentially music videos--and the accompanying tunes are certainly mellow. The quality of the artwork and the musicianship is high, reflecting what I believe to be a general upward trend in the children's music industry, yet it's among the products that aim to let kids sit back and chill more than hop up and dance.

Here's what a recent publicity release said about Taylor and Gustafer, including blurbs from several major-market publications:

"Named “Best Kids’ Performer 2008” by New York Magazine, Morgan Taylor developed the Gustafer Yellowgold experience as equal parts pop rock concert and minimally animated movie. A natural storyteller with a comedic bent, Taylor has dreamed up a whole world of catchy and original story-songs about Gustafer (a friendly creature who came to Earth from the sun), performed alongside a large screen displaying vividly colored animations with karaoke-style subtitles. Gustafer lives out an explorer’s life in a slightly psychedelic version of the Minnesota woods, where he resides in a cottage with his menagerie of friends, including a pet eel, a tuxedo-wearing pterodactyl, and a dragon named Asparagus who inhabits the fireplace and loves corn on the cob. For recreation, Gustafer enjoys jumping on cake.

"Since his creation in 2005, Gustafer Yellowgold has become an international phenomenon, praised by Newsweek as “full of great pop tunes and hand-drawn animation about a li’l fella from the sun.” The Los Angeles Times enthused, "Taylor’s whimsical, lightly psychedelic world forms an interesting bridge between adult and kids’ music.” The Washington Post declared, “He’s a star on stage and screen! … The mix of catchy tunes and offbeat stories has endeared Taylor, and Gustafer, to teenagers as well.” The Chicago Tribune wrote, “Gustafer Yellowgold has made kids’ music so cool that teenagers and ultra-hip bands such as Wilco want to get in on the act … a shiny blend of pop art and pop tunes.” Parenting magazine called Gustafer “The coolest little space invader since E.T. … a hip and trippy sunsation. Parental warning: You, too, will become hooked on the tunes.”"

As I recently watched through the three DVDs I could definitely see where such enthusiasm was coming from, relating back to the mellowness. As I've said before about other products, it's nice to turn down the volume sometimes (a lot of the time, actually) and let kids be quiet and even pensive. Here's a YouTube example of one of Gustafer's exploits. It's one of my favorites, the lead number from the new DVD, "Getting in a Treetop":

In terms of the music, you can hear how Taylor uses a high vocal register, acoustic instruments, and a light touch to create the "mellow" world of Gustafer (although this is one of the most upbeat numbers). It's not so laid back as to avoid a drum set, but it is sufficiently calm that most parents won't freak out if kids want to listen to it again and again--in fact, the property's crossover appeal to adults is one of its key selling points.

You can also see the limited 2D animation at work: this is the visual feel of all the videos. The quality of illustration is fantastic and the karaoke-like frame that allows for the stylish presentation of subtitles is beneficial for literate viewers who want to sing along. For the most part the limited animation (probably done on Flash or AfterEffects--I have no eye for that kind of thing) works well, melding with the light music, although after a while it does start to feel incomplete, like watching an animatic rather than a completed cartoon (compare it with the less-detailed rendering but very rich atmosphere of the Brian Vogan video I posted a few days ago). It's probably as much a budgetary decision as an artistic one, but I found myself hoping that Gustafer will actually move at 30 or even 15 frames per second in the near future, which could be fairly easily done with Flash.

So if the music is hummable and able to stand up to adult music and the visuals are well drawn and adequately rendered, where does Gustafer fall short? Most obviously in the lyrics and the overall tone of the videos. Things in his world are certainly mellow, but at times--quite frequently, actually--the tone slips across the line from the mellow to the morose. There is simply an inordinate amount of sadness, ennui, longing, and unfulfilled desires here. When I first got the DVDs i started watching Mellow Fever with Loretta, who is over 5 1/2 and therefore well within the target demographic. She enjoyed the upbeat theme song and the treetop song shown above, but the third number, "Sunpod," had a different effect. It shows how Gustafer chose to come from the sun to the earth and how his space pod breaks up on entering the atmosphere, preventing him from ever returning home. He's crying when he leaves, his family is crying too, and he's still crying when the song ends with him on earth--thus it should not have been surprising that Loretta was crying also. It was bedtime so in an effort to quickly cheer her up, show her that Gustafer likes his new home, I skipped through to some other songs with happy-sounding names, but I found nothing less disconsolate than that number. I remember getting only partway through "Sugar Boat," about a ferret who has a long-distance obsession with Gustafer (with strong inferences of homosexuality that Loretta fortunately missed) before Loretta was sobbing inconsolably: it was hard to get her to bed and she woke up three times that night in tears, having bad dreams. (And that's where I see the real connection to E.T., a film at which I cried my eyes out in the theater.) There is of course the complete possibility that my child is abnormally sensitive or that it was just a bad time of night to show this to her or that the vibe is completely different in a live performance, but as I went back through the other DVDs and started counting how many times a character was crying versus how many times a character was happy, the balance weighed strongly towards the former, even when it doesn't make any narrative sense, such as when a bee puts together a rock band (something that should be happy). Gustafer may be the only children's cartoon character seen reclining on a psychoanalyst's couch.

So that in a nutshell is where the concept seems to have steered off course. Children have to learn to deal with sadness, death, separation, and unfulfilled desires--it's part of maturation and is absolutely healthy. But they shouldn't be made to wallow in it song after song after song. It is definitely possible to have mellow music and mellow characters who also smile: Mr. Rogers is the epitome of this, and Blue's Clues brought quietness into the new millennium. I really have affection for Gustafer: I like the character, if not all the sidekicks, and I really like the music. I hope, therefore, that Taylor is able to add a sense of joy, or even fun or comedy, into the next edition. That's where a band like Milkshake excels, and Taylor doesn't have to mimic their sound sonically to capture that feeling in the lyrics. (I'm no musical expert, but the Mamas and the Papas are the first example that spring to mind of a group with a bit of that folksy feel--not pure folk like Peter, Paul, and Mary--that still maintain a sense of forward progression and optimism, while staying generally mellow.)

There is humor, particularly in the visuals. The characters are so outlandish that it's quite comical to look at them in different situations and outfits, even if the visual references to Titanic and other such material are lost on kids. And the new DVD has a very funny live-action pseudo-documentary about the actual existence of a Gustafer-like creature out in the Minnesota woods: the visual reference to the famous Sasquatch home movie is spot on, with just the right posture, gait, and turn of the head. Brilliant.

I'd also like to make a quick comment about the quote from the New York Times on the front of all three DVDs, which is a comparison of "Dr. Seuss meets 'Yellow Submarine'!" At first I thought this quite apt, especially from the tranquility of the drawings (Seuss) combined with some of the outlandish zaniness like a pterodactyl in a tuxedo (Submarine). After watching a bit though I've modified the analogy. Dr. Seuss, after all, had more than a little zing in him: his creations were frequently more strikingly original than the Blue Meanies, and he could be acerbic in his films and adult material. I definitely think that UPA's Gerald McBoing-Boing (1950), a Seuss creation, was a necessary step to get to George Dunning and Yellow Submarine in 1968. Not to harp too much on the minutiae of animation history, but rather than comparing Gustafer to Dunning's masterpiece (which with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is one of my favorite musicals ever), it could be more apt to reference Sylvain Chomet and Belleville Rendezvous/The Triplets of Belleville. I say that just because of the strange mixture of optimism and pessimism in the film; I remember Chomet saying lots of people kept telling him to clean it up, take out the grotesque and offensive bits (like the Mickey Mouse-shaped feces floating in a toilet) and he said that those people just didn't understand the film he was making. So that can be likened to my suggesting that Gustafer be made brighter and happier to appeal more to preschoolers: it may just be that I haven't grasped the kind of product that Taylor is striving to make.

Still, in summary I must maintain that Gustafer has major thematic problems--especially for children that young--but still a lot to offer, particularly for parents whose kids take to the melancholy moments of life better than my daughter. The music and visuals are great, but for my taste the sheer volume of tears makes it a bit of a drag and parents should go in with their heads up. For those in New York City for whom this is not a problem or who already love Gustafer please be aware of a special performance on November 15 at the Jewish Museum on the Upper East Side. It will have a larger-than-usual ensemble with lots of material from the new album/disc. Information is available on the museum website.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Baby Einstein Issues Refunds

Last Friday the New York Times reported on one of the strangest refunds in recent consumer protection history: the Baby Einstein Company, owned for several years now by Disney, will refund up to four DVDs per household, based on the fact that research shows that not only do the movies not benefit children but that watching any television of any type can be damaging for children under three. The refund is the closest thing we're likely to see to an admission from the industry that the product is dangerous. The decision came under the threat of a class action lawsuit prompted by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, one of my permanent links in my blog roll.

Of course there are lots of parents out there who think that television is innocuous for kids under three. Remarkably people in the children's television industry, because they care so passionately about benefitting children, are some of the most cautious when it comes to screening things for their own kids. I'm much more discerning concerning quality than I was a few years ago before wading into this industry. And the consensus for infants is generally that it is completely detrimental. I believe that when Loretta was a baby we checked a Baby Einstein out of the library and I watched it more than she did, and we took it back and never felt we'd missed out on anything. Now with Isabelle (six weeks) we're simply going to adhere strictly to the no-television-before-2 1/2 rule. Spending time with kids at this age is so much more important than any visual media, no matter how good. And if you're really thirsting for something enriching, actual music, art, and poetry, besides the plethora of brilliant board books out there, are all readily available.

There's been a lot of online commentary on this "recall," but let me recommend Dade Hayes' book Anytime Playdate, which includes a lot of thought about media for kids this young and an extensive interview with the Baby Einstein's creator Julie-Aigner Clark. In fact, while I'm on the subject, rather than rag on Baby Einstein unfairly, because I think Clark's original intentions were good, let me include a forty-five minute video of an interview with Hayes introduced by David Kleeman of the Center for Children and Media (both of whom I met at Little Airplane last summer) from last year when the book was new. I haven't seen it all because of the length, but it looks good. Watch it here or on a larger screen on YouTube. With a lot of ranting going on out there right now it can be the kind of thing to put the Baby Einstein phenomenon in a rational perspective.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

"That's How a Pumpkin Grows" by Brian Vogan

With one week until Halloween I suppose I ought to turn my thoughts toward the autumnal and spooky. Last year I posted some video recommendations, for those interested in that, so this year I'm turning my attention to music. Specifically, a couple weeks ago Seattle-based children's musician Brian Vogan released a new music video of his song "That's How a Pumpkin Grows." It's from his debut CD "Little Songs"--a sophomore album will be out early next year--and was animated in marvelous multiplane 2D by Fashionbudda Studio, with direction and illustration by Alberto Cerriteno. I watched it with Loretta, and she particularly enjoys the pumpkin man running around in the background, as do I. Here's the video's YouTube page. Enjoy, and if you like it be sure to check out Brian's site and CD. Happy Halloween Week!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Star Wars Hitchcock Style

About four minutes into last Friday’s new episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars I started experiencing déjà vu (kind of like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo). I said to my wife, “Hey, this is Hitchcock!” Specifically, the episode, “Senate Spy” written by Melinda Hsu, was a reworking, plot point by plot point, of Hitch’s 1946 masterpiece Notorious, even with, to my memory, quite a few shots quoting the original film—especially the final shot.

Of course, borrowing plots and making homages is a time-honored practice in the motion picture industry. Heck, the entire Star Wars franchise wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for George Lucas borrowing from Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress. I’m currently reading veteran animation writer Jeffrey Scott’s 2003 book How to Write for Animation, and it gives allowance for such a procedure on page 36:

"You can take a familiar story and change its setting or its date or its characters, and make it fresh. For example, take Run Silent, Run Deep, the classic World War II film in which a sub captain (Clark Gable) is obsessed with the sinking of a Japanese destroyer that destroyed his previous vessel. Make it two starships, and it's a fresh idea....

"I borrowed an 'old' idea known as Raiders of the Lost Ark and changed the setting (to a basement) and the characters (to Kermit, Piggy, and Gonzo) and got a fresh idea that turned into 'Raiders of the Lost Basement' episode of Jim Henson's Muppet Babies."

What appears to be the case here is that Hsu is casting a bit broader net than Indiana Jones, reaching back into the classics of American spy thrillers to find new lightsaber-less directions to take the Clone Wars series: The episode centers around Padme and Anakin. The Jedi Council is wary of a spy in the Senate and asks Padme, who used to be involved with this fellow romantically, to act as a spy and determine if he is in fact in league with the Separatists (the bad guys). She rekindles their romance, to Anakin’s chagrin, and travels with him to another somewhat dodgy planet, with Anakin along as their pilot. There the Senator meets with his Separatist friends and reacquaints them with Padme. They, of course, decide to poison her for leverage over the Senator, to force a better deal with him. . On her way to dinner that night Padme receives the poison (in a cup delivered near the staircase), and then afterwards manages to find the Macguffin (Hitchcock’s word for the plot device, itself relatively unimportant, around which the narrative revolves), here a hologram plan of Count Dooku’s new droid foundry, all while Anakin watches pretty helplessly from the sidelines. She falls ill and the Senator confronts his Separatist compatriots, then eventually Anakin walks boldly into the palace and physically carries Padme away, visually challenging anyone to try to stop him. The Senator quickly gets the poison’s antidote and begs for them to take him along, but Anakin and Padme board their ship and leave him behind to face the Separatists who now believe he betrayed them.

Notorious stars Ingrid Bergman as the American daughter of a convicted Nazi and Cary Grant is the government agent who convinces her to enter espionage and infiltrate a group of her father’s former affiliates who have relocated to Brazil. The two fall in love (including one of film history’s most famous kisses), but Bergman is forced to initiate a romance with the character played by Claude Rains (this just a few years after their antagonistic turn in Casablanca). As Grant forces her deeper and deeper into her role, her nerves start to fray; she’s eventually forced to marry Rains in order to maintain the charade. Gradually the Nazis—Rains and his domineering mother, that is—start to suspect her and deliver her doses of poison, initially in a cup of milk brought up a long stairway to her room. (Hitchcock actually put a light inside the milk, for added emphasis.) But she manages to find the Macguffin, during a dinner party, which happens to be some enriched uranium, as I recall, cleverly disguised in wine bottles. Long story short she gets sicker and sicker until Grant barges into the mansion, walks up that long staircase, picks her up, and walks back down, visually challenging anyone to stop him. Rains begs for them to take him along, but they drive off, leaving him to the mercy the Nazis who stand behind him and now know his indiscretion.

Obviously, it’s a direct homage, done quite on purpose. As Catherine Taber, the actress who plays Padme, says, “Dave actually had me watch Notorious before we started working on ‘Senate Spy.’ He wanted me to see the way the pressure builds—especially when love is involved.” (Read the whole short interview here.) In fact, in this second season all of the Clone Wars storylines will apparently be branching out into new areas. Read this interview with supervising director Dave Filoni for more insight about that, but the basic idea is that the folks at Lucasfilm want to show more than just Anakin waving his lightsaber around, so there will be more stories about politics, more about the clones, more about other Jedi we haven’t seen as much of. Which is all pretty heartening.

The entire enterprise to broaden The Clone Wars’ storylines is quite encouraging, but you have to be wary when taking your source from something as exquisitely done as Notorious. For instance, both productions feature a shot of the heroine holding the key to the Macguffin behind their backs—literally a key for Ingrid Bergman, an electronic memory device for Padme Amidala—but Hitchcock’s shot is an immense indoor crane move down several stories, over a crowded ballroom, ending in a close-up on Bergman’s hand; because of the technical problems, such as maintaining focus, that it surmounted and its sheer beauty, it’s one of the more famous shots in cinema. Clone Wars, by contrast, references it in a simple cutaway close-up, close enough to bring the original to mind but prosaic enough that it necessarily disappoints. While that’s a visual/aesthetic issue, there are also problems with the narrative proper, particularly the final two minutes. As Anakin carries Padme down the steps the Senator easily obtains the antidote by merely flashing a blaster, a development the Separatists should have anticipated: as it is, it seems they capitulate a little too easily. Second, it feels much less organic for Anakin to leave his romantic rival there on the launching pad than it was for Cary Grant to refuse Claude Rains a ride. In that moment Anakin comes across as more mean spirited and downright cruel than necessary, as his response was not as motivated as Grant’s was. It was only much later that I remembered that, oh yeah, he is Darth Vader. It just didn’t come across as a “Premonition of Darth Vader” moment in the script.

That said, there is a great deal to say positively about this production. It’s admirable when show runners are going to take a risk like this, in this case making a low-key personal drama rather than a high-stakes and high-action battle scene like most Star Wars fans expect. Subverting the generic expectations here is more risky and hence more rewarding than in something like Muppet Babies appropriating Indiana Jones. Now, I’m all for lightsaber duels, but it’s encouraging to envision what other detours are in store this season. I don’t know that we’ll see blazing lightsabers on the face of Mount Rushmore, but one can only hope that it might be nearly as good.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Wild Things

Well, as everyone at all interested in children's film knows by now, Spike Jonze's adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are is finally--finally--in theaters. It was a long and turbulent process, as has been well documented, but the result looks worth it. I haven't seen the film yet, so I can't really comment on it personally (I haven't even seen Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs yet!), but this is a book that has a lot of resonance for me. I loved it as a child, enough so that in my senior year of high school I proposed it as the theme for our week-long homecoming celebrations and wound up drawing eight-foot pictures of all the creatures to adorn the hallways and editing my first videos of clips of various "wild things" (wildlife films, Muppets, etc.) to the song by the same name by the Troggs. Suffice it to say that I gained new respect for Sendak's artistic abilities, something that has quintupled since I started really getting into book illustrations.

Anyway, the film. It's getting mixed reviews and the main complaint seems to be that it's not exactly for kids, i.e. that it's too scary or morose. I'm glad that--evidently--Jonze and co-writer novelist Dave Eggers did not drag Max and his friends through the psychoanalytical wringer like, for instance, Ron Howard did with the Grinch a few years ago, ruining that film. What we have, according to Jonze, Sendak, and everyone involved is a movie about childhood, one that doesn't soften the blows or tie up all the loose ends, one that can be kind of dark but which is appropriate anyway, because childhood is kind of dark sometimes. As a parent of a young-ish child I'm cautious about whether it would be appropriate for her, therefore, but for anyone over six or seven I think it would most likely be a great experience.

Anyway, lots of reviews and articles are out there about it, but I'll link to a few to avoid making people google it themselves. There's a mix here between praise and condemnation--I guess viewers will just have to figure it out themselves.

Reuters that was right there on Yahoo's homepage

Patricia Cohen at the New York Times on Sendak turning eighty last year

And finally Manohla Dargis at the Times with the actual review

Frank James at NPR reviewing the reviews (with links of his own)

Kenneth Turan at the Los Angeles Times basically giving it a thumbs down

And, placing the best last, David Denby's not-so-positive review at the the New Yorker, which they thankfully put online and which has garnered, I think, the most discussion--at least it has in my own little circle. Plus I like the picture. But besides reading every New Yorker review for the past two years I've been reading old Pauline Kael reviews as well, and I just think The New Yorker is a fun place to briefly talk about film.

Here, by the way, is Sendak, who is fiercely defending Jonze's film.

And here is Jonze, trying to get one of his recalcitrant actors into character. 

Now, speaking of The New Yorker, for New Yorkers I've saved the best little bit until last (even better than Denby's review). There are still a couple weeks left (through November 1) in which to see Sendak's original illustrations on display at the Morgan Library. This is worth going to because it's not just the finished illustrations in the book but earlier drawings and sketches as well, plus drafts of the story. It's an amazing opportunity that everyone here in the city should rush to. (Plus there's some William Blake there to boot!) Check it out on the Morgan's website. Here are two examples.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

More Diary of a Wimpy Kid

If you've been avoiding young adult literature or galavanting off to Cannes to learn more about kids' TV, then you may have missed the release on Monday, October 12, of the latest book in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney. In it Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is back at it, getting bullied at school, slacking around the house, and finding ways to avoid doing his cryptology homework. Oh wait, that's actually Greg Heffley--got some wires crossed. But the kind of anti-drama Kinney goes in for should actually be much more grippingly dramatic than learning that the Washington Monument is--gasp--actually a giant phallic symbol. If you're going to read any new book this fall, you'd do best to start with this one, whatever your age.

I of course was one of those folks not aware the new book, number four in the series and subtitled Dog Days, until yesterday; I certainly didn't know a film version was in the works until this very moment. So with apologies I'd like to now share some reviews and things I've come across, starting with one on the same page of yesterday's Times that I cited yesterday. 

Comic Mix on the film

And then the books' official website