Tuesday, January 27, 2009

And More on Mary...

I haven't even gotten to Olivia yet, let alone H.C. Andersen part two, but when a ball's rolling I guess you go with it. Dick Van Dyke did an interview with CNN about Mary Poppins which is well worth the read.  If he and Julie Andrews would do the Broadway version I'd pay any price.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Mary Poppins and the Recession

Move over, Little Orphan Annie. Mr. George Banks is the new face of the current recession. That, at least, is the story in this perceptive BBC News article by Harold Evans. In short, he discusses the stage version of Mary Poppins as an analogy for all the Bernie Madoffs in the current crisis, going on to examine how Broadway itself is losing its luster: shows are shuttering as patrons, particularly tourists, are staying home. And that is certainly true; I have a friend who was slated to be the understudy for Tarzan in Disney's newest stage show, but the whole thing got shut down about a month ago--maybe it will see the footlights in a few years, when he can presumably audition again. But despite the loss of consumers, tickets around 42nd Street remain over $100 a pop, a price tag that has kept me from ever seeing a single show on Broadway in the three years I've lived in New York. Oh, to be a groundling...

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Hans Christian Andersen in Adaptation

I’ve been off literature for quite a while, and with KidScreen coming up I won’t have much time for lengthy posts, so I thought today I’d write up the first of two entries on Hans Christian Andersen. He’s one of my favorite authors, and my eyes were opened quite a bit last year when I rediscovered his work in the original. I’ll look at that next time, but today I want to examine the way in which we normally encounter his work nowadays, through adaptations into picture books, cinema, television, or other forms. 

This entry is not intended to be an all-inclusive discussion of adaptation theory, which has witnessed great developments in recent years. I find the investigation of adaptations fascinating-book-to-film, television-to-book, film-to-video game, etc., but what that means here is that I’d just like to look at Andersen’s stories in various media: when they work, possibly when they don’t, and why. I can’t claim to be authoritative but I do love Andersen’s work, including the many adaptations of it. His statue in Central Park, below, is one of my favorite little spots in New York City and in 2005 I greatly enjoyed the bicentennial exhibition at the British Library. For what it’s worth, if I ever get to Denmark the Little Mermaid statue on the Copenhagen pier is at the top of my to-visit list.

Hans Christian Andersen, of course, was an incredibly gifted and prolific Danish writer who lived from 1805 to 1875. He was born in Odense, Denmark’s third largest city, which lies in the middle of the country more or less halfway between Copenhagen in the east and the Jutland peninsula to the west. He was poor. His father died when he was twelve, and at fourteen he journeyed to Copenhagen and was eventually admitted to grammar school. His penchant for storytelling turned into one for writing, and he eventually became a successful author for both adults and children. The breadth of his work is truly astounding, though he’s probably better remembered for the quality of a dozen or so of his tales that have reached a status equal to much more ancient fairy and folk tales.

Purists sometimes assert that any adaptation—in general or of a particular author or canon—is by nature a corruption and should be avoided. I certainly don’t fall into this camp, although there are specific adaptations that I view poorly (not just of Andersen). As a principle or practice, though, I think adaptation can be highly useful, entertaining, and enlightening. In fact, when I was in an undergraduate children’s media class discussing adaptation it was precisely Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” that served as an example in its favor. The professor, Dean Duncan, showed us a clip from Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre, in which a marvelous Dick Shawn struts pompously down the avenue in his royal underwear: precisely the delightful kind of visual image you can’t get by reading the page. Here’s the cover, and it’s on YouTube; the action I’m referring to is about two and a half minutes in.

And that, of course, is the first and main reason to adapt: different media have different comparative advantages—things they each do well-that can exploit different aspects of the same story. And that’s as true of Andersen as anyone else. Film and television are visual media, and can create images—comic or beautiful—that literature must describe indirectly at best. The most explicit example of this in Andersen’s oeuvre is “The Red Shoes,” where the dancing must really be seen rather than described. I love the entire 1948 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, but on my first viewing I thought it a shame that the ballet sequence comes so late in the proceedings. For anyone with an interest in dance on film, the sequence should be front and center (yes, I realize it’s the climax); for children, it certainly can be extracted from the adult drama of the main storyline and shown by itself, for it is delightful and self-contained. The film as a narrative for adults is fantastic the way it is, but those minutes of pure ballet are a marvelous example of one medium-dance-doing something that Andersen’s medium—the written word—couldn’t manage alone.

Perhaps the best-known mantra of cinema is that film is a visual medium. Show don’t tell. To that end and in addition to Dick Shawn and Moira Shearer (above), we have marvelous examples of visual renderings of Andersen tales: Disney’s rendition of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” in Fantasia 2000 (that section, set to Dmitri Shostakovich’s second piano concerto, was directed by Hendel Butoy); Jean Renoir’s 1928 forty-minute silent version of “The Little Match Girl” (La Petite Marchande d’Allumettes), which was released as part of a DVD box set by Lionsgate in 2007; and the feature-length puppet film of The Emperor and the Nightingale (Cisaruv slavik) by Jiri Trnka from 1949, where not only are the puppets and visuals beautiful but the aural element of the bird’s song is another example of something film and music can do that literature cannot.

A second reason to adapt is that Andersen’s prose can be a bit heavy and verbose, especially for young kids. In reading Andersen I can see him sitting on a stool, a group of children huddled around him, spinning his yarns whichever way necessary to hold their interest. In modern practice it’s not quite like that. About a year ago I tried reading “The Little Mermaid” to Loretta and didn’t last a page. The opening description of the undersea civilization is fantastically written, but it was too verbose for a child of three—and I don’t think that’s just because modern children are conditioned by television for instant gratification; it’s because Andersen really truly does use big words, and a lot of them. Even a picture book we received of “Thumbelina” is on hold until Loretta’s a bit bigger; even with the word count cut by more than half, she still tries to flip the pages before we’re done reading the text, prompting an impromptu performance of the kind I just imagined Hans doing. So in general Andersen is too long, the only real exception being “The Princess and the Pea/The Real Princess,” which, at one and a third pages, is a model of concision . . . and possibly my favorite story in his whole body of work.

A third reason for adaptation is a fusion of the first two: changes in emphasis and length can obviously lead to changes in content, variations on a theme. Not all pieces of all Andersen stories are appropriate for all audiences, and often with a slight tweak they may be made more palatable. Corruption? Yes, but hopefully with a purpose. When that purpose is less than obvious, the result is admittedly troubling. Take for instance a cartoon of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Weston Woods and Scholastic Video. At the end of the fateful parade the Emperor undergoes an epiphany of humility and self-worth and straightens himself up, proudly finishing his march more pleased (to be naked) than ever. Andersen, in contrast, seems much more ironic:

“The emperor writhed, for he knew it [that he was naked] was true, but he thought ‘the procession must go on now,’ so held himself stiffer than ever, and the chamberlains held up the invisible train.”

Note that they’re going on with the charade even after the little boy unmasks it; that’s something you don’t get in most adaptations, but it firmly places the lesson that the emperor is still a fool. Further complicating the Scholastic cartoon is the fact that the two charlatans are thwarted in their escape by bad luck and lose all their ill-begotten money. In Andersen, they get away with it. In case we missed it, for Andersen the emperor’s a fool and is irredeemable. In the cartoon, he’s given another chance. (I forgive the entire production, however, because the emperor is also completely hilarious; it's worth it.)

As often as there are random changes in plot and themes, though, there are changes that are much more purposeful. This is due as often as not to Andersen’s religious and philosophical worldview; he can at times be heavily didactic, moralizing, or even mystical. To return to “The Red Shoes,” the whole tale is a morality play of sorts against impiety and blasphemy: the little girl who scoffed at religion in favor of hedonistic dancing is cursed with shoes that won’t let her hold still or, when she begins to reform, even attend church. She cuts her feet off and eventually dies amidst a spiritual epiphany and is taken to heaven. To Andersen such a lesson was the raison d’etre of the story, but it doesn’t sit well with little girls bent on becoming ballerinas. Thus Powell and Pressburger could maintain the tragic ending in their grown-up version, but versions for kids are much sunnier. In the Efteling amusement park in Holland, for instance, an attraction built around the story has a mechanical girl cut the straps off her shoes, which daintily keep dancing by themselves. No animatronic blood for the kiddies.

The same is true of the happy ending for Fantasia 2000’s “Tin Soldier” and other versions of other stories, but the best-known example of changing the ending has to be “The Little Mermaid.” Several years back I read a peer-reviewed discussion of adaptations of “The Little Mermaid,” of which I can recall neither the title nor the author, and there has since been another well-done one by Elisabeth Oxfeldt in Animation Journal. What I learned from the former article inasmuch as I’m recalling it correctly is that out of seven screen adaptations of the story, only one, an Australian cartoon, maintained the original ending, in which the mermaid abrogates her life in order for her beloved prince to achieve happiness—she essentially chooses to commit suicide rather than murder him, which would have allowed her to fulfill her contract with the Sea Witch and continue living her own life. In doing so she unexpectedly achieves a state of spiritual immortality that has thus far been unavailable to merfolk—she becomes a floating spirit (think of the name “Ariel”—used by Disney but not Andersen—in Shakespeare’s The Tempest) hovering around her prince and watching over him throughout the rest of his life and, more importantly, advancing herself through moral stages until she is united with God. This kind of transcendent progression through postmortality was not only acceptable but desirable in Andersen’s worldview, but it does not resonate particularly well with modern audiences, even religious ones. Hence the decision, six out of seven times at least, to change things around and allow the mermaid to remain a human and marry her prince after all. (A few months ago Carol and Loretta saw a Caribbean stage adaptation that went so far a field as to remove any and all mermaids from the story but, remarkably, kept the original ending by having the protagonist turn into a tree that could watch over and shade the newlywed couple.)

Here we have examples of three additional adaptations, an illustration by Edmund Dulac, the aforementioned sculpture from Copenhagen harbor, and an anime DVD cover, front and back:

So those are some of my thoughts about adaptation: there are times it’s appropriate for artistic and thematic purposes. Sometimes you can reap more meaning from the original story by approaching it in different ways, emphasizing different parts. Next time I’ll look at the joys of reading Andersen in the original.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Lego Obama

I wasn't going to post anything about the inauguration--Loretta said all the kids at school were bored (keep in mind she means the four- and five-year-olds)--but this is pretty cool. If you can visit Legoland California, which I believe is in Carlsbad, before Memorial Day then you too can take part in Minifigure history. Here's the full story, with video, and here's one from the Telegraph in England a few days ago.

The Man Behind the Moose

In my Readeez post I mentioned Moose A. Moose, which got me thinking more about Noggin's yellow mascot. I like host characters--Piper Possum, Ooh and Aah, etc.--and kind of feel bad that we didn't have any when I was growing up (we had a Saturday morning jingle with different accompanying animation: "After these messages we'll be . . . right back!"). So I'd like to know more about these fellows. That said, I don't know who the production company of Moose A. Moose and Zee is. I should find that out, but I can tell you that his voice is provided by Canadian actor Paul Christie. (This leads me to believe that Canada, a powerhouse in children's television production, is involved in the images/animation as well.) Moose A. Moose may be Christie's best-known character here in the United States, but you can check out his head shots, resume, and some of his grown-up work, mostly for television, on his website.

I like the curriculum, shapes and puzzles and social development. Loretta's old enough--five today--that she's moving past it, but she definitely knows some advanced shapes such as octagons that I didn't know at her age. 

And the music is great. I think "Everywhere I Go" is probably the character's most popular song: at least I seem to have seen it for the longest, while others, attached to monthly themes, have come and gone. Loretta and I also really like the "Neighborhood Parade," however, and for quirky Halloween songs I don't think you could have done better than "I Don't Like Candy Corn."

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Readeez Is a Breezeez

I feel I must apologize for a week's hiatus (although I don't want to become one of those people who blog about blogging). It's a perfect storm here at our house between 1) a few deadlines for not one but three film criticism papers I'd like to publish this spring, 2) writing scripts and preparing for next month's KidScreen Summit (which means I started watching tween sitcoms), and 3) the kindergarten applications hitting the fan as we try to navigate this beautiful system called the New York City Department of Education. I could launch a blog just about that, but I limited myself to a facebook group instead (parents of Washington Heights/Inwood, unite!).

But in that time I've also done something quite rewarding, which is watch quite a few Readeez with Loretta. I'm grateful for Michael Rachap, Readeez's creator who hails from my old stomping ground near downtown Atlanta, for letting me know about this new DVD series, the first of which was released back in October. Here's a picture of Michael, a single father, and his daughter in Readeez character (that's Julian and Isabel) and seen through the eyes of illustrator Gerry O'Neill:

The DVD contains a series of short vignettes, together lasting about forty minutes. They feature O'Neill's still characters and limited AfterEffects-type animation (i.e. moving things around the screen but no full motion). The illustrations and layout, by the way, are crisp and tranquil--perfect. But the hook is in the presentation of written words in perfect synchronization with the characters' voice over. If Julian says, "How now, brown cow?" then that's what you see as well, timed exactly as he says it. He never does say that specifically, but the DVD does present original and well-known songs, rhymes, and sharp dialogue (Isabel is particularly articulate for six). None of them are available for embedding, but nine can be seen on this page of the company's website.

Rachap is a musician as well as dad and filmmaker, and his songs are well vetted: they're catchy and upbeat, use limited and memorable vocabulary, and display a fairly wide variety of styles and even instrumentation. Loretta most likes "How 'Bout That Cow?," "Hangin' Around," and the standard "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," all of which are available on the website. But I should add that I've had the song "Sandy Beach" in my head for three days now.

The words certainly don't pander to beginning readers; there's some challenging stuff here, and it comes quickly. The first time we watched the DVD we hit a rhythm about halfway through wherein the characters said a line and I paused the disc for Loretta to repeat it before allowing them to go on. That might not be quite how Rachap envisioned the process, but when we did it this way Loretta got so excited, so into it, that she bounded off the couch and was bouncing and dancing right in front of the television. This was also the first time we watched it, and I think that on subsequent viewings, when she knows the tunes and basic words (particularly in the spoken portions), she'll be able to keep up and go at the film's pace. She'll also start reading more and more of the words on the screen. At present, given our Pre-K reading level (I'm not technically what level that is), I pointed out some words to her, like the one-letter difference between "how" and "cow," but eventually thought it more important to let her go along with the words first before trying too hard to reinforce the phonics and/or sight words. After all, the show's slogan is that it's "learning disguised as smiling." And Loretta was definitely smiling. I actually started writing this post two days ago but when she walked through the room and saw the Readeez website open she yelled, "Readeez!" and wedged herself between me and the computer. Another twenty minutes were spent going through them, and now I'm writing this late on a Thursday night when she can't interfere!

The report then is that Readeez are immensely enjoyable, even addictive. The relationship between Julian and Isabel is fantastic, the loving coyness that evolves when your child can verbally spar with you and hold her own. The typeface is clear and large but unobtrusive, and there's no way children can be watching it and not be absorbing the relationship between the spoken words and the letters onscreen, even if like Loretta they're not sounding out the words as they go. As a parent I see the potential for the series to be my ability to control it (something true of the disc but not of the online vids), to pause and rewind and sound things out and point out spelling patterns and so on. As a filmmaker I think Readeez's greatest potential might be as a television interstitial: they're the right length, they're easily identifiable with strong characters, they're (relatively) cheap to produce (Michael can dispute me on that one), and they have a hook that will hold up across a long time. I could easily see this fitting in with interstitials on Noggin, Sprout, Nick Jr., and Playhouse Disney (Moose A. Moose, Emily Yeung, Can You Teach My Alligator Manners?, Peppa Pig and the like): A twenty-two minute show ends, kids are sad because it's the credits, up pops Isabel and the big bold letters I-S-A-B-E-L, and the kids jump up and, like Loretta, yell, "Readeez!" because they know they'll have three or five more minutes of great fun. Then you (meaning the broadcaster) can repeat throughout the day and week, cluster learning objectives, and spread out contrasting episodes like Rachap's live-action singing, spoken repartees, and so forth. That would seem sufficient in itself, but remember there's great potential in interstitials: that's how The Wonder Pets and quite a few other shows began life.

Not that the DVD is bad, of course. It's great fun to be able to go through the whole forty minutes, uninterrupted. The first volume sells for $18 from the company's website, and a second installment is expected in the spring. In addition to the existing Geometreez and Wordeez and other vignettes, it will introduce Historeez, Matheez, Jokeez, Mystereez and TongueTwisteez. Take the time to check out the website and consider purchasing the whole DVD; Readeez provides a calm yet articulate alternative to much of the frenetic entertainment children consume. For me, the underlying story is not about literacy but about the relationship between a father and a daughter, enjoying each other and making something wonderful, whether it be their relationship, a DVD, a word, or a song. And that is timeless.

Friday, January 9, 2009

A New Pooh

My favorite book in all of literature is The House at Pooh Corner, and I believe its closing chapter among the greatest works of the English language (as I discuss a teeny bit in this earlier post). So I, along with millions of other Pooh enthusiasts, am intrigued to say the least by today's announcement that a new book will be published this October. This is not a Disney work but a storybook authored by David Benedictus, with original "decorations" by Mark Burgess, authorized by the estates of A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard. 

I'll refrain from passing any judgment on it at this point because one will need to see the book itself to do so, but it's a lot like someone writing a sequel to Hamlet (note that John Updike did a prequel in Gertrude and Claudius; a sequel would have been a task of a higher order). Benedictus has set himself a high bar, to say the least. But at any rate here are two articles based on today's press release, from Jill Lawless of the AP and Stephen Adams of the Telegraph. The best of luck to Benedictus, Burgess, and everyone involved.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Etch a Sketch Goes Digital...

When I was a kid I spent innumerable hours with our family Etch a Sketch, Lite-Brite, Legos, and even the good old fashioned Lincoln Logs, not to mention a pencil and paper. 

I suspect all of these toys are still around, but they're increasingly inundated by high-tech company. This week is the annual International CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas, and there's plenty of kid-oriented gadgetry on display. Amongst the others is a new line of creative electronics from Mattel under the label Ucreate. The first two offerings allow kids to act as their own DJ's (move aside, Simon) and draw and program their own video games (ditto, Etch a Sketch). Just one taste of what's on the horizon these days.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Vote for the Best Warner Bros. Shorts

Jerry Beck is an animation historian and author of several books on that subject. He's currently working on another which ranks and discusses the greatest Warner Bros. shorts of all time (meaning postwar through the Sixties, really), and in creating his list he's consulting with industry leaders and other critics, but in his blog entry of last December 18 he said that he also wants to harness the Internet and get the vote of the common people (i.e. folks like me). So each and every one of us has until January 9 to go over to Cartoon Brew (the blog) and vote for the top ten, twenty, or fifty WB cartoons that have touched our lives. A list of eligible titles is also provided.

I am much too indecisive to come up with a full ten titles, let alone fifty, but here are my top five:

1. Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century
Daffy Duck faces off against Marvin the Martian in a Cold War satire that remains the greatest such film of all time (okay, okay, it ties for #1 with Dr. Strangelove). It's also the greatest sci-fi spoof ever.

2. Duck Amuck
I guess this means I'm a Daffy Duck fan. This deconstruction of the animated form is one of the greatest postmodern films ever, rivaling Godard or Gerald McBoing Boing or Chris Marker, and it's entire hilarious and accessible too. (Throw all the music of the great Carl Stalling, by the way, in that same category.) 

3. What's Opera, Doc?
You want postmodernism and satire with a little nineteenth-century opera thrown in to boot? Then this send-up of Wagner is the best thing going for you, and the best Bugs Bunny (and Elmer Fudd) cartoon ever. There's even a little Shakespearean cross-dressing, seen above, for the Anglophiles. Fantastic music, great plot, etc., etc. Amazing.

4. Fast and Furry-ous
The original pairing off of the eternal nemeses Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner is still the best, in part for its internal merits and in part for the series it launched. Wile E. Coyote is the twentieth century's Sisyphus, forever toiling at the same interminable task with the same unsuccessful results. Albert Camus might as well have written about him as the original Greek legend, but he wrote six years too early (he published "The Myth of Sisyphus" in 1942, compared to the film's 1948 premiere). And it's a cartoon par excellence: the chase stripped of every of plot device.

5. Hare-Way to the Stars
I'm also a big Marvin the Martian fan, though he only made around six films. This is his best with Bugs Bunny, with fantastic design by Maurice Noble and, again, a great Cold War send up in its denouement with a Martian invasion Orson Welles or Joseph McCarthy or anybody could have only dreamed of. Plus Marvin is the antithesis of Wile E., the antichase par excellence. 

Now, this was not on purpose, but all five of these were directed by Chuck Jones. Thus we see who I'm really a fan of after all.

Having made that list I can start to think of lots more--Duck, Rabbit, Duck; Bully for Bugs; all things Pepe Le Pew and Tasmanian Devil--but I'd best go vote myself now. Here's Duck Dodgers:

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Best Children's Books of 2008

In addition to evaluating the best films, the end (or beginning) of the year gives us occasion to look at the best children's books of 2008. (Seen above is Marion Bataille's brilliant pop-up book ABC3D, perhaps the best working of the alphabet since Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.)

The New York Times published their list of books clear back in November, and it's certainly worth a look, ranging from young adult novels about terrorism to, well, pop-up books about the alphabet. Always delving into multimedia, they now evidently do a slide show as well. 

Here's an equally comprehensive list from Booklist Online. You can also garner opinions from the ALA, the School Library Journal, and the Christian Science Monitor. Obviously there's great stuff coming out in '09, but even skimming through these shows me I've a lot of catching up to do. Happy reading.

WALL-E's Oscar Buzz

Along with the new year comes the annual tradition of speculating about Academy Award favorites. There is an intricate science that goes into these predictions, particularly for the best known awards like Best Picture and Director, and it's nice to see that a children's film has become one of 2008's wild cards. Many Oscar trackers (shown above) are saying things like that there are more or less four films that we can expect to get the Best Picture nod, leaving room for one more, like WALL-E, that wouldn't normally get in there (due to anti-animation/anti-kids' film bias) but in actuality quite deserves to. It would be great if WALL-E crosses over from the Best Animated Feature category. Although I don't put much weight in the Oscars--I don't know what's won Best Picture since around 1992--it's still a visible enough forum that it would be wonderful to see an animated children's film crack that egg. It was Beauty and the Beast that first got me interested in children's filmmaking, and it would be great to see WALL-E follow in its footsteps with a nomination. 

Here is one article from Variety about how it fared with the Chicago Film Critics. And here's another about its Oscar potential from the L.A. Times