Kids' Vids

To be seen & heard

I cannot decide whether young children are gainers or losers now that they have been ghettoized by popular culture. When so much of TV and film is scabrous, parents rightly want to control what their youngsters see and, in response to this need, the world of Kid Vid has emerged. So there are thousands of videos in stores and libraries meant exclusively for children, and that’s good, isn’t it? But most of them will turn the brains of your offspring into the sort of gray matter found inside the head of a gerbil, and that’s bad, isn’t it? Worse, many small children insist on their parents’ watching with them. The Teletubbies have their fascinations (are those creatures babies or aliens, or does it make any difference?) but you don’t want to spend three hours watching six Tubby videos in a row, do you? So, maybe parents are the real losers when it comes to the entertainment ghetto of Kid Vid.

For the sake of parental and grandparental sanity, I submit the following list of videos that won’t destroy sanity or insult taste. Not on it are theatrical releases such as Shrek which have already been seen and judged on the big screen. Rather, these are films made either directly for video or drawn from TV programs that have been skimpily reviewed and advertised. They are all works of art that can be seen over and over again by adults as well as children. I speak from experience.

Abel’s Island, directed by Michael Sporn (Random House Home Video, ages 4-9), is about a rodent Robinson Crusoe. Abel is stranded on an island for a long time, dreams of home and his beloved wife, shows great ingenuity, sinks into near-despair, pulls himself together, triumphs. There is nothing whimsical about any of this, though there is plenty of humor. Children are made to feel Abel’s desperation, his mood swings, and the elation of his final triumph. The animation is simple yet supple, always adequate to both the poignant and the adventurous aspects of William Steig’s great story. Not for kids who have been spoiled by the latest socko-bango computerized special effects, this cartoon feels handmade and demonstrates that an adventure story really thrills when you can care about the character to whom the adventure happens.

The Adventures of Mark Twain is directed by Will Vinton (Paramount Home Video, 8 and up). Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher are stowaways on a flying machine piloted by their creator and headed for Halley’s Comet in the last week of Mark Twain’s life. During the voyage, Twain evokes his own fiction to explain how he feels about the world he is leaving. The range of the writer’s artistry and temperament is better suggested here than in Ken Burns’s recent documentary. For my money, this is still the best Claymation film ever made.

The Chronicles of Narnia, 3 volumes, adapted by Alan Seymour (Wonderworks Productions, distributed by Bonneville Worldwide Entertainment, all ages), is extremely faithful to both the storytelling and ideas of C. S. Lewis. This is an adaptation of the first four books of the chronicle, from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe through The Silver Chair, so you won’t be stuck explaining to squeamish tots why Lewis’s mass murder of his own characters at the end of The Last Battle is really a jolly thing. Special effects are adequate, the acting uneven but sometimes marvelous. The Lewis magic comes across.

Famous Fred is written, designed, and directed by Joanna Quinn (Sony Wonder, 6 and up). Fred, a feline Elvis, has dissipated himself to an early grave. His manager, a show-biz savvy guinea pig, recounts the crooner’s (yowler’s?) life to his animal fans and human owners. But the story is barely over when the first Fred sighting is made. Hilariously cheeky and innocently bawdy.

In Father Christmas, supervising director Dianne Jackson (Family Home Entertainment, 5 and up) presents a British Santa Claus portrayed as your typically Brit grumpy old man. Between Yules, he tours the vacation spots of the world, desperately seeking to avoid cold, snow, rain, and kids.

The First Christmas (Billy Budd Films, Inc., all ages) is an animated version of the Nativity story, informed, not frozen, by piety. A brief, unpretentious and lovely production, partly financed by the Catholic Communications Campaign and the Christophers, this should be of use to kindergarten and early elementary classes in parochial schools and perhaps other Christian schools.

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship (Cosgrove Hall Productions, all ages) is not to be confused with the comparatively pedestrian Rabbit Ears version of the same Russian folk tale. This superb production uses stop-motion and Claymation more tactilely than I have ever seen. As a young peasant uses the supernatural powers of his companions to win the Tsar’s daughter in marriage, you can sense the crunchiness of snow, feel the thunk of an arrow hitting its mark, delight in the rustle of a bird’s wings.

The entire From the Brothers Grimm Collection is worth a look. Director Tom Davenport roots about a dozen of the Grimm tales in the American past. I particularly recommend the "Bristlelip," set in the antebellum South of plantations and cavaliers, and a "Rapunzel" with an entirely human and therefore entirely scary witch. But proceed with caution: when the original tales are brutal, so are the adaptations. So, not for all ages.

In Grandpa (Sony Kids Video, 4-8), the beauty of the Edwardian era unfolds for a little girl as her grandfather reminisces. Dianne Jackson’s genius achieves here an almost Proust-for-kids quality: The past floats in on a sprinkle of snow, evaporates, then reappears at a tea party and refuses to disappear even after the old man dies. Peter Ustinov does the elder’s voice, indelibly.

Linnea in Monet’s Garden is written and directed by Lena Anderson and Christina Bjork (First Run Features, 4-10). Art history for kids doesn’t get any more fun than this.

Next up is Maurice Sendak’s Really Rosie (Children’s Circle Series, 3-7). "Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!" and so Rosie and a bunch of Brooklyn urchins perform the Sendak Nutshell Library books to the music of Carol King. Rough-hewn bliss with an undercurrent of sadness that comes with the Sendak territory.

In The Mousehole Cat (Goodtimes Video, all ages), an actual village named Mousehole becomes the site of a modern myth, as a local cat intercedes for her fisherman master with a God of Storms, who also happens to be a cat. Don’t ask me to explain why this ridiculous set-up manages to be both quaint and epic.

Ruby Bridges is directed by Euzhan Palcy (a Walt Disney Home Video, 8 and up). During the civil rights struggle, a little black girl is chosen to integrate an elementary school. The Norman Rockwell drawings of Ruby’s ordeal inspire the overall look of this touching drama. Director Palcy keeps everything direct, candid, piercing.

The Snowman, directed by Dianne Jackson, is adapted from the equally great picture book by Raymond Briggs (Columbia Tristar Home Video, all ages). This is the Rolls-Royce, the Citizen Kane, the Cordon Bleu of cartoons. As the description on the video box puts it, "a young boy’s snowman comes to life and escorts him on a magical flying visit to the North Pole." Yes, yes, but...the essence of North, the feel of Ultima Thule, the reign of Winter Solstice-that’s what this masterpiece is. Although the symphonic score by Howard Blake is justly famous, it’s the imagery that really sings in your head. (Note: if your kids are saddened by the ending, show them Father Christmas immediately, in which the snowman comes back to life.)

The Storyteller, volumes 1 and 2 (Jim Henson Home Entertainment, 6 and up). As far as I am concerned, these adaptations of fairy tales from the German and British traditions were the best work of Henson’s career. I saw them twenty-five years ago on ABC and, gradually, I convinced myself that I had really dreamed the best moments of the shows, for nothing so wonderful could have been allowed on TV. Well, I was right to this extent: these films are a dream but one you can zap into your VCR any time you wish.

The entire Peter Rabbit and His Friends series (Goodtimes Video, 2-7), created by Dianne Jackson, is worthwhile, but the adaptation of The Tale of Gloucester is a masterpiece (and not to be confused with the banal musical starring Ian Holm). Dianne Jackson died before completing this series, and The Tailor, dedicated to her, became her memorial.  

Published in the 2002-03-08 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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