Tuesday, April 28, 2009

New Kids' Station for Australia

KidScreen announced today that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation will be launching an all-children's network, ABC3, before the end of the year. That's very exciting news for the folks down under; I hope it results in more Australian productions that eventually find their way to Canada, the U.S., and U.K. Here's the story, which features an interview with Tim Brooke-Hunt. Pretty exciting, especially given the contractions of the economy.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Jack Cardiff and Ken Annakin

We lost two filmmakers last week, both British, both 94, and both who were mainly recognized for their work for adults but who contributed profoundly to children' cinema. 

Jack Cardiff, who I saw at a special ceremony in his honor in London in late 2003, was a cinematographer for Powell & Pressburger, Hitchcock (including my favorite of his films, Under Capricorn), and a host of other directors. He directed a slew of films himself, and I'm mentioning him here because of his work on The Red Shoes, including that great culminating dance sequence I've mentioned before as a wonderful introduction to children to ballet/dance on film.

Ken Annakin was a name I know less of, but his work was more often geared toward kids. He directed Disney's 1960 Swiss Family Robinson, which I vividly recall watching on 16mm, more than once, at an elementary school assembly. The other main piece was his Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952), although The Call of the Wild and others were profitably seen by youngsters. 

Here's a portion near the opening of Swiss Family Robinson (it's a bit like Old Yeller in the ocean; in a Disney film you've always got to save the dog). See what memories come rushing back. It's a great family film, quite worthy of seeing today. (Here the right side's been severely clipped off; see the full frame here.)

Friday, April 24, 2009

An Update on the Donnell Library

Last July 22 I wrote about the then-imminent closure of the Donnell branch of the New York Public Library, on west 53rd Street across from the Museum of Modern Art. I was saddened because the Donnell was one of my favorite branches where I'd spent quite a bit of time using the Internet way back in the day, checking out movies and books in Spanish, and especially hanging out in the children's room, including seeing a puppet show around this time last year on National Puppetry Day. The best part of the children's room was the original Winnie-the-Pooh dolls from the A. A. Milne estate. 

The library was scheduled to close for the development of a marquis hotel, a change that I still suppose was meant to capitalize on the wake of the MOMA's recent major renovation. All the branch's holdings were to be moved to other locations--and the children's material, including Pooh, has indeed gone back to its original location at the 42nd Street building, where it was housed in Anne Carroll Moore's day. Still, there are quite a few New Yorkers who were upset at the loss of the building itself and the centrality of having all those collections together.

Well, the Times today ran an update. It seems that the library closed on schedule (I walked over to look at it during the KidScreen summit half a block away) and then along came the recession. Long story short the hotel's pulled out and midtown is left without both a hotel and a library. So the people who were upset before are livid now. Here's the story, by Sewell Chan. It seems Donnell has become just another victim as municipal governments strive to figure out how to keep libraries open across the country. I wrote a brief post about that just over a month ago. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy Earth Day with Ferngully

Happy Earth Day, everybody! When I think about all the eco-conscious media available nowadays things seem to have come quite a ways from when I was a kid, when there was basically nothing on film or television (ah, but the Lorax, that ever-present Lorax...). So today I'd like to pay tribute to the first children's film I remember seeing with an environmental conscience, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. It was directed by Bill Kroyer and came out in 1992, in the wake of Disney's resurgence with films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. I was fourteen and enthralled by animation, so I saw this about five times in theaters and read everything I could about it in the papers; today it obviously isn't the best film of the era (that was obvious even then) but it has a nostalgic factor for me, it's a good example from the time of an alternative to Disney and Don Bluth, and the plot and moral are even more trenchant today than at the time (with the debate raging over spotted owls I seem to recall a lot of skepticism about the film's ideology; how to make a kids' film today about, say, cap and trade?). I therefore still recommend to any family with kids between five and thirteen. Here's the trailer, which may just make you feel like it's 1992 all over again, and YouTube has a series of ten-minute clips from it available as well, starting with this one.

For kids who want to go a bit deeper I can still recommend The Magic School Bus and other science programs, and in literature I always return to that Lorax, one of the only two Dr. Seuss books we actually own (and bought used, I suppose to save paper!). (The other is Scrambled Eggs Super, about poaching resources from wildlife for personal gain, so...)

I read this with Loretta about two weeks ago and found her understanding more and more of the application and relevance of it, which was an oddly yet profoundly touching little moment for me.

Finally, the Christian Science Monitor published a story today by Judy Lowe about kids' environmental consciousness in this post-Al Gore age. It's interesting to see some data about what kids and teens know about the environment and do to preserve it; thinking back to my own Boy Scout Environmental Science merit badge days, I think kids today are looking pretty good. 

Friday, April 17, 2009

Yo Gabba Gabba's Mormon Roots

I mentioned Mormon cinema in my last post; it is my other main interest besides children's media. How appropriate then that yesterday Mormon Times ran a profile of the LDS creators of Yo Gabba Gabba, Mormonism's best contribution to children's television to date. For those who are truly interested in children's television the article doesn't give much new information about the show, but it does at least mention the fact that Scott Schultz and Christian Jacobs' faith influenced their creation of it, as my faith has also influenced my own decision to work in kids' TV. I also think it's cool that in California's post-Proposition 8 atmosphere Yo Gabba Gabba is still the arbiter of coolness and hasn't been shunned in any way by guest stars because of its creators' faith. What that may indicate is that child rearing brings together folks of all belief systems: it is one of the few things we all have in common all across the globe. Here then is the article, written by Sharon Haddock.

A couple years ago I wrote a history of Mormon children's media from the 1910s to the present. I wrote it before Yo Gabba Gabba was on the radar but I still think it's an interesting history, with myriad film, TV, and radio productions over the decades. It's not yet available online but I'd email it to anyone interested; the print version was published in Irreantum: A Review of Mormon Literature and Film 9:1 (2007); you can order that specific issue here or find out more about the journal in general (I was the film editor for a couple years, and the literary stuff is top-notch) at the Association for Mormon Letters website

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Pixar and Girls

It has long been the subject of serious scrutiny that the Pixar films all feature male protagonists. There are some great female characters, to be sure (Boo in Monsters Inc., Helen and Violet in The Incredibles, and EVE in WALL-E, off the top of my head), but where oh where, folks have long asked, is the film actually about a girl?

So if it's long been debated I only bring it up now because of a posting written by film.com blogger Erin Nolan last month. She does a good job broaching the subject and expressing her dissatisfaction; she also links to another post of another writer who goes through the canon film by film to look at how Pixar has presented women thus far. 

Now, for a few months now I've been excited by the prospects of Pixar's thirteenth film, the 2011 Christmas release The Bear and the Bow. It's an action-adventure fairy tale story (let's hope it's not overly Shrek-y, for those of us who don't like Shrek) set in Scotland, and it features a heroine named Merida who wants to prove her worth in the world as something other than a princess; it actually appears archery, a presumably male-dominated sport, is her thing. Both of the bloggers I just sited express their displeasure at the fact that if Pixar is going to have a female protagonist they insist on making her a princess and setting her in a mythical land. I can see and respect the rationale for that. The bright side--or at least one among several possible bright sides--is that the film is also going to be Pixar's first directed by a woman, Brenda Chapman, who gave us Dreamwork's Prince of Egypt. I hope this doesn't come off as sexist myself, but I feel that having a woman behind the camera is one of the most important ways to ensure that the women in front of the lens are well represented. (Taking a step back from gender studies to Mormon cinema, a subject I know much more intimately and personally, this certainly has been the case: it could be argued that no film directed by a non-Mormon has ever yet accurately depicted the Mormon experience.) By way of support or contrast, I was obsessed with the publicity material for Disney's Beauty and the Beast when it was first released, and I remember vividly many, many articles lauding how liberated and feminist Belle was, comparing her with the heroines of past princess features; every single one of these articles sited the difference in screenwriter Linda Wolverton and her conscious effort to update and liberate the Disney princess. It's ironic that Belle is now grouped with the others as part of the problem, not the solution. At any rate, here's a portion of the press release announcing The Bear and the Bow, and here's the Wikipedia page for Brenda Chapman. (Caveat: that page describes her as the third woman to ever direct an animated feature, something I have a hard time believing; just flipping through Giannalberto Bendazzi's Cartoons: One hundred years of cinema animation reveals a whole bunch more.) 

Finally, I also thought it good to go straight to the horse's mouth, so to speak. I didn't scour the web for statements by Brad Bird or John Lasseter or Edwin Catmull or other Pixar bigwigs about the studio's stance on women, but I did remember reading an interview with Joss Whedon in Mother Jones a few months back that addresses the subject. Whedon, best known for creating the television version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoffs, has said that advancing women's roles is his greatest purpose in filmmaking. I suppose it's slightly less known that he also wrote Toy Story, arguably Pixar's most male-dominated film. It's interesting, therefore, to read the few comments he has on that process here (and his perfect knowledge of the irony of it) in the context of all of his other, much more overtly feminist, work. 

Here's crossing our fingers for Brenda Chapman and, frankly, everybody else! 

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Lauren Child and Ruby Redfort

Charlie and Lola is my favourite and my best. Imagine my chagrin when I wrote Tiger Aspect Productions in London last year and was informed that they are no longer producing new episodes of Charlie and Lola. I look forward to seeing their new effort, an African-themed animated show, but am nothing less than despondent about losing Charlie and Lola so quickly; I still maintain that it is hands down the best show on television (Sesame Street, being an icon, is out of competition). But that’s all right; there’s still creator/author Lauren Child, right? Well, her newest venture takes her beyond the C&L realm, and actually back to her roots before she created that property.

I learned from the March 20 KidScreen newsletter that Child has signed with HarperCollins Children’s Books to create a six-book series called Ruby Redfort. Here’s the story, by Emily Claire Afan, in full (original context here):

“In the lead-up to the Bologna Children's Book Fair next month [already past now], HarperCollins Children's Books has acquired the worldwide rights to Lauren Child's six-book series Ruby Redfort.

“An author and illustrator whose first books I Want a Pet and Clarice Bean, That's Me were published a decade ago, Child also created the Charlie & Lola picture book series that spawned the award-winning animated series currently airing on the BBC.

Ruby Redfort is actually a spin-off of Child's Clarice Bean, That's Me, starring an undercover agent and mystery solver who is Clarice's favorite literary character.

“Fall 2010 will see the series kick off with the first book's global launch, and HC is prepping a major launch campaign around the property with a high-profile PR and media marketing campaign.”

So the concept here is that Child will be writing the books that her literary heroine Clarice Bean has been reading for so long. Now, if any Tiger Aspect folks happen to be reading, for about a year now I’ve been longing to do the same thing cinematically and make a Bat Cat series. I am ready to start the bible at a moment’s notice… Write me!!!!

In the meantime, I don’t know what the new venture means for the fate of the literary Charlie and Lola, but let’s hope it doesn’t signal the end, just a diversion. Lauren Child’s website is a delight (though be aware that it’s flash-based and will fill your whole monitor), but it doesn’t provide any information on this new venture. For that the best article I found was this one, from March 20, which also informs us Child will get a million quid for her efforts. That’s not J.K. Rowling territory, but, my heavens, it’s certainly not bad for a picture book author! That’s US$1,416,499.

In addition, here’s an interview with Child from 2003, before Charlie and Lola took off and hence from the time she was working with Ruby Redfort’s source material. And here’s another quick little post on the announcement from the blog Children’s Books for Grown-Ups. The author Natasha Worswick says she wrote a paper in her master’s program on Child’s illustrations—that I would very much like to read. And there’s also a Telegraph article on the deal. Finally, a small little slideshow of some of Child’s artwork.

In any case, let’s hope Child doesn’t forget us Charlie and Lola fans—it’s how I got my daughter to eat moon squirters—and here’s wishing her the best of luck with Ruby!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Beyonce on Wubbzy

Nickelodeon announced the other day that Beyonce Knowles will be guest starring in a series of Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! episodes. She will be playing the lead singer in a girl band, and the eps will air Monday April 27 through Thursday April 30, with an hour-long special--Wubb Idol--topping it off on Friday May 1. 

Here's Nick's press release, which has the most information.

There are lots of short notices on the web, but here's a typical one from USA Today.

Bolder Media, the makers of Wubbzy, released this video as well, a quasi-trailer:

Monday, April 6, 2009

"Under the Stars" by Sunflow

I’d like to thank Nancy Falkow for alerting me about her new album of bedtime songs Under the Stars. She actually contacted me several weeks ago and I’ve taken so long to write about it because Loretta and I have taken our time soaking in the luscious songs. I should start, then, by clarifying that these aren’t precisely lullabies at all. That’s the first thing Loretta said when I played her a track because she is accustomed to more laconic accompaniments in her bedtime music; when we do listen to music at night, which is becoming increasingly rare as Loretta desires more and more stories instead, we generally use Golden Books’ Lullabies album from 2004, which is great not only for the quality of the music but because of the fact that all the tracks repeat sans lyrics for the album’s second half, a tactic which I think really helps lull Loretta into sleep as it gradually helps calm down her super-active little mind. (I’ve also written before about how I’ve tried to channel Julie Andrews in our nighttime routine.)

But Under the Stars is something completely different from all of these. The artists most often cited as precedents for it are Carol King and Harry Nilsson. I’m not completely conversant with these performers—though I try to be eclectic jazz is still my specialty (I tried to listen to the Dixie Chicks with Loretta on Saturday but she insisted on Duke Ellington; last week the same thing happened with Alison Krauss)—but from my own experience I would describe the music as belonging to a beautiful place somewhere in between James Taylor, Nora Jones, and, since I’m mentioning her, Krauss. It’s folksy and contemporary, with tinges of blues: you can hear Joan Baez, especially in the guitar work, or even Bob Dylan or Simon and Garfunkel in it. Falkow has sung backup for Astrud Gilberto, and perhaps the best thing I can say about Under the Stars is that it is what I imagine Gilberto would sound like if she ever cut an English folk album. Take the timbre of Gilberto’s voice and combine it with the acoustic guitar work of a George Harrison or Eric Clapton, and you have Under the Stars.

Well, half of it. Under the Stars is the first recorded collaboration between Falkow, a Philadelphia native now resident in Dublin, and the Dublin native Fran King; the combined duo’s name is Sunflow. They met by chance a few years ago in a Dublin train station and eventually started working together. Here is an example of the result, “Now Sleep,” sung by Falkow:

Another of Falkow’s pieces, “I Wish You Love,” has a lightness of touch that perhaps moves it out of the lullaby realm, but it complements the other pieces wonderfully and is one of my favorites on the album. I’m not certain, but I believe the majority of the harmony is sung in open fifths, giving it a bit of a bluegrass feel without any of the traditional instrumentation. It’s a nice blend in that sense.

I’d also like to include one of King’s pieces. Most of the other reviews I’ve looked at compare his work with Paul McCartney and the Wings, a comparison that seems very apt, particularly the opening track “(When You’re In) Slumberland.” Here’s a more upbeat number, “Dreamboat”:

It’s the kind of number that you can both dance to with your child and send her off to sleep with.

Some of the best reviews I found of Sunflow were posted on Out With the Kids and It’s About Music. Of course, there’s a great deal of info on the group’s MySpace page and on Nancy Falkow’s homepage. To read another press release or to order or download the entire album go to CD Baby. You can sample all ten tracks there as well, something definitely worth doing.

I hope Falkow and King are planning on more work. The world of children’s music is creatively booming and I believe its business has proven more resilient to the recession and implosion of the recording industry than adult music has, though it would be a stretch to say that it's doing brilliantly. I therefore hope there’s enough commercial incentive to keep these two interested in other albums of daytime music, covers, or other genres (to stay abreast one can sign up for a newsletter on Falkow’s site). I don't know about Irish or British television, but here in the States, Yo Gabba Gabba and particularly Jack’s Big Music Show are crazy if they don’t snatch these guys up, although the perfect fit would of course be Sprout’s Good Night Show, perhaps hooking up for the next round of Pajanimals, as I'm under the impression Sprout really wants to increased original and themed content for the nighttime block. The potential sphere for bedtime music is essentially limitless, and Sunflow has given us another reason to keep exploring that world far into adulthood.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Save Saved by the Bell!

Well, it’s not really in trouble, but that was a catchy title. The truth is that in writing yesterday about the station that now produces iCarly and True Jackson, VP (and since I’ve been finishing a True Jackson spec script this week) I started thinking about what on earth I watched when I was that age. A lot of family sitcoms and things—Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Growing Pains, Alf, and the like—but also kids/teen stuff like Punky Brewster and a little Saved by the Bell, which turns twenty this year.

So last week Jimmy Fallon, the new host of Late Night, proposed his show host a Saved by the Bell reunion. Here’s the clip:

So Dennis Haskins, who played principal Mr. Belding, is obviously on board, but the Late Night producers want fans to sign a petition on their site to induce other former cast members to sign up too. Elsewhere, I also found someone’s summary of what the cast has done since the show (see it here), but I can’t vouch for its accuracy at all.

Here’s a compilation video someone made, which I’ll share to get those nostalgia juices pumping. This was never my favorite show, I’ll admit, but just watching thirty seconds of this made me feel like I was in high school again.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Nickelodeon at 30

Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of Nickelodeon, the premiere cable network geared exclusively toward children. I’ve been thinking about this event for the past couple weeks, and I suspect that no other station, in any country, has had as much influence on children’s television—and hence all of children’s media—as Nick. I say that with full cognizance of PBS and Sesame Street’s fortieth anniversary this fall, and that’s probably hyperbole, but the point I want to really make is that it would be hard to overestimate Nick’s importance in the history of children’s media, particularly in the past PBC decade (Post-Blue’s Clues).

Rather than launch into a major history lesson, I want to start with my own introduction to Nickelodeon: watching Double Dare at the house of my only friend with cable TV in the mid1980s. (Though this is from the 90s, long after I’d moved on to "cooler" things like Animaniacs.)

We weren’t like die hard every day fans, but it did subtly change our perception of 1) what was cool, and 2) what a game show (today read “reality TV”) could mean for someone our age. 

This is pretty cool. It’s a little Nick-produced behind-the-scenes documentary about Double Dare from 1989. There are more segments of it floating around YouTube somewhere.

Now, amazingly, when I googled combinations like “Nickelodeon 30” I came up with nothing, so it doesn’t seem like the network is doing much to publicize its anniversary. (The closest I got was a fan page asking people to list their top thirty favorite Nick shows.) The Nick website had nothing also, just info on last week’s Kids’ Choice Awards, the new Penguins of Madagascar show, and the like. Although one could profitably check out this Penguins sample video as a way to gauge, for instance, how far the station has come in the past twenty-some-odd years.

So there’s not much online about the history of Nick itself, with perhaps Wikipedia being the best brief source; it also has pages about all the satellite channels like Noggin and TV Land.

Here, then, is my summary from chapter two of Dade Hayes’ Anytime Playdate. All credit goes to him, and I won’t quote any of his material directly. (The book is well worth reading, and I’ll be writing about it soon.)

The station essentially started as a single program, called Pinwheel, although its leaders wanted to branch into increased children’s production to vie against PBS children’s programming. The station’s first head was an advertising veteran named Cy Schneider who had already made a name for himself at Ogilvy & Mather developing children’s advertising, among other things. The most prominent foreshadowing of his Nick work was a 1955 commercial for the Burp Gun, considered the first toy commercial ever aired, and the Hot Wheels television show he’d done in the 1960s for network TV, essentially nothing more than a half-hour commercial for toy cars. Pinwheel was a long way from that, though. It was an hour-long live action puppet show, with animated segments. Here’s a nine-minute compilation video—sorry the sound doesn’t come through too well, but Bill Cosby (who has a doctorate in education) is great, as is the original animated Curious George:

The show ran for four years and won a Peabody but didn’t sufficiently differentiate the new station from PBS. Schneider came to television with an obvious advertising bent, but ironically much of Nickelodeon’s fare was so “wholesome” and educational that kids stayed away. (Schneider wrote a memoir entitled Children’s Television: The Art, the Business, and How it Works.)

The station grew gradually until the mid-1980s (my Double Dare-watching era) when Geraldine Laybourne started steering things. Her main contribution, according to Hayes (p. 32), was to start branding and gearing the station to twelve-year-olds. Previously it had been rather rudderless (astonishingly, given Schneider’s advertising background) and hence ineffective in reaching its target demographic. So Laybourne decided to make the station something cool, something kids wouldn’t be ashamed to watch (i.e. it wouldn’t skew too young, be a “baby channel”). And it happened at a time all kids’ TV was booming with Reagan-era deregulation—and, ironically but not coincidentally, PBS saw its funding slashed. She also strongly emphasized animation, increasing its production many-fold (think of Rugrats and Ren & Stimpy, for instance). Nick Jr. launched as a daytime programming block in 1993, and from that point the station has grown exponentially. Herb Scannell took over in 1996, so it was under him that Blue’s Clues, Dora, and, most recently, the entire station of Noggin were launched. Now, whether we want to call Blue a “tipping point” or not, it did alter the face of kids’ television, and in this decade Disney has made a strong run at Nick’s market dominance from the 90s; I haven’t really looked at Nickelodeon’s Kid’s Choice Awards, for instance, but Disney (Hannah Montana, for instance) did well against their hosts/rivals. PBS has also managed to launch Sprout on cable, and Discovery Kids and others are eating into Nick’s share here in the states. That said, I don’t think they’re hurting overly much, in either the preschool or older demographics, and international growth remains strong; one of my first posts on this blog was about the launch of their fiftieth station, in Arabic in the Middle East.

That brings us to the present, and I can’t really give a survey of all things going on the air at present (ironically because I have to finish a sample script for a company that is one of their main live action producers), but that Penguins episode is a good indication of the breadth of material on the air now. I’m excited about the many shows being announced by firms like Little Airplane in the past couple weeks. As I said months ago in one of my very first posts, there’s more good stuff out there than we could ever get to in a lifetime, and I think Nick is right at the heart of it. I think the world would have been a better place without the advent of Ren & Stimpy, or even SpongeBob for that matter, but I’m willing to put up with those in order to see Steve Burns and the Umbilical Brothers and Toot and Puddle and Yo Gabba Gabba (Jack Black’s on this Friday!). I’m glad I had Mr. Rogers to watch when I was a kid, and I’m glad, since he had passed away, that Loretta has had Steve. That’s one case where Nickelodeon picked up the banner and carried kids’ television exactly where it needed to be. Thanks, guys.