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Showing posts with the label Edutainment

A StoryBots Christmas (2017)

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When we finished watching this new special from Netflix, we were left with a conundrum. Had we just experienced a kids show with a surprising scattering of subversive humor and references? Or a hit-and-miss parody of children's entertainment? Or a piece of tedious moralizing aimed at the very very young?

If it sounds like all those things couldn't possibly be contained in one 25-minute special, you understand why we were perplexed. We didn't hate it, but we didn't enjoy it either. We spent most of it staring at the television, heads slightly cocked to one side, saying, "Huh?"

The best I can put together without doing any research is the Storybots are animated characters from a children's series of the same name, and they answer questions from videos of young kids. They live in a place that is either another dimension or a hollow-earth world, which is connected to Earth via a series of vacuum tubes. In their own world, they're two-dimensional animatio…

PJ Masks: Gekko Saves Christmas/Gekko's Nice Ice Plan (2015)

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The only thing we knew about the animated show PJ Masks before turning on this episode was that it has a lot of toys targeted at the preschool set.

The premise is that three kids turn into animal-themed superheroes at night (once they don the pajamas of the title) and defeat super-villain kids while learning simplistic morals. It's based on a series of French picture books, and the show is a collaboration between Canadian and French animation companies and is distributed in the U.S. by Disney.

It's visually and structurally somewhat reminiscent of Super Why. Each 15-minute story has a clear moral from the beginning and a repetitive structure that will have some kids yelling at the characters in frustration.

In Gekko Saves Christmas, the villain Luna Girl is stealing all the Christmas decorations and presents. Catboy and Owlette easily stall the villain several times, but they need Gekko to take her hoverboard. He's too frightened of failing to really try to stay on the bo…

WordGirl: Oh, Holiday Cheese (2009)

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WordGirl is my go-to example when I want to argue good superhero stories can be told at any level of maturity. The series is unequivocally targeted at young kids - it's edutaiment, through and through, complete with vocabulary lessons repeated multiple times to the viewer. It's the kind of show you'd expect to be tedious and pedantic. Instead, it's ridiculous fun.

The reason WordGirl works is it understands its genres. The writers clearly understand the conventions of both kids television and superheroes, and they're eager to play with both. They're willing to mock PBS conventions in a good-natured way, and they're more than happy to embrace comic book tropes. The result is a series that plays like a pureed homage to Sesame Street, Powerpuff Girls, and Superman.
The holiday episode is a fine example. After the narrator introduces the episode's special words (curmudgeon and festivity, in case you were interested), the episode shifts to a brief battle be…

Sid the Science Kid: Sid's Holiday Adventure (2009)

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Sid the Science Kid is an animated show for preschoolers, so there are specific questions you might need to ask before judging it.

Question 1: Is it at all interesting for adults without kids?

I enjoy a lot of children's television, but this is not a show that holds any value for adults who don't deal with children, except on a technical artistry level. The show is produced by the Jim Henson Company, and the animation is actually generated in real time from motion capture and digital "puppeteering."

This allows them to film fast and give the characters a lot of physicality. On the other hand, it doesn't always translate to fine control. for example, I noticed one secondary character manipulating a prop in a particularly clunky way.

Question 2: Is it interesting for the target group?

I haven't polled anyone, but it's won some awards. I was rather struck with how real the kid characters' dialogue seems: the kids respond too literally or somewhat vague…

Super Why!: 'Twas the Night Before Christmas (2008)

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At one point while we were watching this, Erin turned to me and asked in disbelief, “You’ve watched this before?” What can I say, I used to work a lot of nights before we had Netflix; on many afternoons PBS was my background-noise companion.

Super Why! is one of the least interesting of the PBS kids shows that I’m familiar with from this era. It’s not so annoying that I would necessarily turn it off, you know, if my hands were covered in paint or something, but I wouldn’t seek it out.

The show follows Whyatt and his fairytale friends who live in Storybrook Village (which is a CG land hidden behind a secret door on a library bookshelf). In each episode, Whyatt (his big brother climbed a beanstalk), Pig (of the Three Little), Red (Riding Hood), and Princess Pea have a question to answer. They seek the answers by becoming the Super Readers, magically flying into another storybook, and helping the characters there.

And yes, we’ve got a bit of book-within-a-book-world going on. The story…

Jake and the Neverland Pirates: It’s a Winter Never Land/Hook on Ice, F-F-Frozen Never Land, Captain Scrooge (2011-2014)

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As an aficionado of both Disney and children’s television in general, I have to believe that there is something of quality in the Disney Junior lineup.

But this made us want to scurry back to the complex plots and emotions of Sofia the First.

It has some of the repetition and talk-to-the-camera of Blue’s Clues, without any of the charm. In between, it’s a series of thin premises and slapstick scenarios that aren’t in the least interesting or funny.

It’s also, of course, a crime against a treasure of art and literature, although I’ve seen Disney’s Captain Hook in enough contexts that I can divorce it somewhat from Peter Pan in my brain. Even if he seems to have a little safety knob on his hook in this.

The show stars three kids and a parrot who live on “Pirate Island” and go on simplistic adventures in Never Land. (Yes, it’s “Neverland” in Peter and Wendy, but the show’s title card clearly reads “Never Land.”)

The kids are “pirates” where pirate has been redefined to mean believing i…

The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About Christmas! (2012)

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This is a special, double-length episode of a show I knew existed (as I often have a vague sense of programming affiliated with PBS) but had never seen. I had the impression it was educational. I’m not sure about that, but it is boring.

It starts off relatively inoffensive, if bland. Nick and Sally are two kids who are friends with the Cat in the Hat, and they arrive at his Christmas party and are promptly put to work as waiters while he sings about how awesome his party is. They think this is awesome. Kids at home: when doing favors for your “friend” is the super-fun part of your relationship, maybe rethink the friendship.

Anyway, all the guests are animals, and a bunch of them are introduced during the song and subsequent party games. These include an annoying young caribou/reindeer, a mouse, a crab, and a bunch of other animals in passing (I wasn’t paying close attention, it didn’t seem important). The guests leave, and the kids offer to help clean up, but the Cat sends them home …

Bear in the Big Blue House: A Berry Bear Christmas (1999)

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If you’ve hung out here with us for any appreciable time, you have probably noticed that while we are open to anything with a Christmas flavor, we each have our specialties. Partially because of what we have history and context for, partially just our individual taste. Erin tends to handle the true Christmas classics and the modern mainstream comedies. I take lesser-known classics, the BBC and movie musicals. We occasionally flip for the truly terrible stuff. Erin deals with most horror. I take children’s media, particularly when it involves Henson.

Bear in the Big Blue House is a Henson Company production that aired on the Disney channel from 1997-2006. I may have seen some episodes in 1997 and 98. Yes, I was a teenager, what of it?

It focuses on the titular Bear and his varied friends: a tiny mouse named Tutter, a baby bear, Ojo, two otters, Pip and Pop, and a lemur with a speech impediment who goes by Treelo. They all live together in a, yes, big blue house. The episodes tend to d…

Becoming Santa (2011)

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I stumbled across this on Netflix, where it stood out like a sore thumb. I'm used to seeing Christmas stuff there, of course, but this really jumped out at me. Why? Netflix, for those who don't know, gives everything an estimated rating, based on your personal ratings of things you've watched previously. So in a sea of items marked with one or two stars, this was rated at four. We put it on before we even realized it was a documentary.

The movie follows the adventures of Jack Sanderson as he sets out to become one of the countless Santa Clauses who appear every Christmas. Occasionally, the documentary cuts away to interviews with a slew of experts and Santas who have been at the game longer.

There's an awful lot to like here. The documentary begins with Jack having his beard and hair bleached, a process that turned out being pretty unpleasant (well, unpleasant for him - it was hilarious to watch). He then took a two-day course in becoming Santa Claus and headed to the…

The Magic School Bus: Family Holiday Special (1996)

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This special episode of The Magic School Bus was equal parts awesome and awful; a bizarre work of propaganda that removes the education from edutainment, yet is strangely intriguing.

There's a moment in this episode where the titular vehicle is hit by its own recycling-nullification ray and transforms into junk. That's an absolutely perfect metaphor for the episode. Maybe for the series. But damned if it isn't fun to watch.

The episode begins right before holiday break. It's definitely a 90's conception of the "holiday," too, complete with pine trees, green and red decorations, multicolored lights, and an near endless number of Christmas tunes with new recycling-themed lyrics. I don't think they said the word, "Christmas" once, though they did mention Hanukkah several times. My favorite shot in the special is one of a chalkboard with a picture of a menorah and other Hanukkah paraphernalia surrounded by a Christmas garland. They tried so har…

Mythbusters: Holiday Special (2004)

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Huh. I was not actually expecting that one to be so boring. Only it was, in fact, really boring.

Has Mythbusters always been boring, but I only watched it at times in my life when I wasn’t very picky? Although come to think of it, Mythbusters has always been something that I either heard about or would occasionally watch a clip from, not a show I ever sat down and watched.

In this episode, a great deal of screen time is dedicated to building a Rube Goldberg device centering on the Mentos-soda reaction and a few holiday knick-knacks. It has to be designed and built and talked about and then tried over and over. These segments are dull, un-whimsical, and annoying.

Meanwhile, the kids on the show “test” a bunch of other “myths”, although I think they might have been scraping the bottom of the internet for some of these.

Can you break your foot (or a small dog) by dropping a frozen turkey on it?
Well, considering the weight and density of a frozen turkey, I’d say, duh.

What crazy remed…

Lindsay's Review: My Friends Tigger & Pooh: Super Sleuth Christmas Movie (2007)

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It’s rarely so clear to me that Erin has no fundamental appreciation for children’s media that’s actually aimed at children.

Because I really enjoyed watching this. Okay, a lot of it was laughing at bits that weren’t necessarily meant to be funny, and some of it was laughing at Erin, but that is enjoyment nonetheless.

You know what? I am actually completely okay with variations on Winnie the Pooh. This is a franchise in which I would be a major hypocrite if I tried to pretend to be a purist. After all, I was raised on Welcome to Pooh Corner (“Be Too Smart for Strangers!”) and I loved The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (“He’s round and he’s fuzzy, I love him because he’s just Pooh Bear! Winnie the Pooh Bear!...) and I was in a stage production loosely based on the stories when I was about... nine, I think? (I was the bee who pointed out to the other bees that Pooh was hiding behind the piano.)

So, I’m fine with Darby, and I’m fine with trying out different sorts of plots.

And you …

Erin's Take: My Friends Tigger & Pooh: Super Sleuth Christmas Movie (2007)

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I think Lindsay's reviewing this as well, since we had very different impressions of this made-for-DVD movie. She enjoyed it, while I consider its existence an affront to all that's good in the Universe.

Here's the thing: I'm a pretty big fan of the Bear with Very Little Brain, and I've got some rather strong feelings regarding how Pooh and his friends should be adapted. The makers of this thing apparently feel differently. For example, I believe that Pooh and Tigger should NOT be part of a team that's sort of a combination of Mystery Inc. and a bunch of superheroes, as that represents a profound and disturbing lack of understanding of the world of Winnie the Pooh.

Here are a few other points I differ with the makers of "My Friends Tigger & Pooh":

Modern clothes and technology should not exist in Pooh's world.And expedition to the North Pole should not end at the literal North Pole.The characters should not be famous.New characters should rare…

Nature: Christmas in Yellowstone (2006)

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Hey, Christmas is even in the title! This totally counts!

I love Nature. Even if you don’t, I recommend you watch the first part of this. It has one of my favorite scenes that has ever been on Nature or any other nature program, ever. It’s the part with the fox. I love it. I’m not going to tell you more.

The rest of the program is great too. It follows animals searching for food and shelter in Yellowstone National Park in the dead of winter. Bison, elk, wolves, bears, birds, otters and humans all make appearances. I was actually surprised how much I liked following the photographer Tom Murphy as he showed how he camps out in the snow, both to get amazing photos and just because he loves the area. The scene with the people who came out with telescopes to look for wildlife on Christmas day was pretty fantastic as well.

The narration tips over the edge into pretentious once or twice. By and large I’m willing to overlook silly narration in a good documentary, but the bit about the solst…

Barney: Night Before Christmas (1999)

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I've hated Barney on principle for years now, but until now, I haven't actually seen an episode, nor did I know anything about the character beyond the fact he was an annoying purple Tyrannosaurus Rex who sung badly and cultivated the company of young children. But I didn't know, for example, that he was a normal-sized plush toy who gets turned into a not remotely full-sized dinosaur by the children's imagination. Nor did I know that he has similar dinosaur friends, one of which is named BJ.

You know, I think the fact that the show's producers couldn't think of a single good reason not to name a character "BJ" tells you a lot about the people who made Barney and their understanding of America's youth.

This special starts at the home of one of Barney's friends on Christmas Eve. All her friends are coming over to help decorate and for Christmas dinner. I'm assuming they're all orphans whose parents were eaten by dinosaurs, because other…

Gadget Boy's Adventures in History: A Gadget Boy Christmas Around the World (1998)

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Continuing our string of Christmas episodes on the "Christmas Cartoon Collection" from series I've never heard of, we reach "Gadget Boy's Adventures in History," which is apparently a spin-off of the series "Gadget Boy and Heather," which I've also never heard of.

You may be asking yourself, "What the hell is Gadget Boy?" And the answer is, "You don't want to know."

But since I'm a horrible person, I really want to tell you. Gadget Boy is basically a reboot of Inspector Gadget, only instead of being an incompetent adult cyborg inspector who's constantly being saved by a brilliant human child, he's an incompetent child android constantly being saved by a competent adult woman.

In case you were still wondering, he's still voiced by Don Adams.

So, let's review: Inspector Gadget was an animated spin on Get Smart, itself a parody of the spy genre. The Adventures of Gadget Boy and Heather was an attempt t…

The Busy World of Richard Scarry: The Big Apple Christmas Caper, Santa Needs Help (1997)

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I had a bunch of Richard Scarry books when I was a kid. They featured anthropomorphic animals in either short, simple stories or in labeled pictures that taught vocabulary. I am not terribly familiar with this animated adaptation of said books.

We found this Christmas half-episode on a DVD of various holiday cartoons. It’s two short stories that add up to under 15 minutes. The opening is cute and catchy, and some of the humor was kind of cute as well. This episode didn’t have much to recommend it to a viewer who was not a small child, though.

The first story took place in New York City, in which some unknown force was stealing things by floating them up into the sky. A french detective arrives to solve the case, and after a few false starts, finds his nemesis in a dirigible with a giant magnet. It’s not actually as exciting as I probably just made it sound. The detective is slightly bumbling, the villain doesn’t really have a plan, and the final sight gag of things ending up returned…

Elmo Saves Christmas (1996)

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Like almost everyone who remembers Sesame Street before Elmo took over, I'm not really a fan of the red furball. I generally find him kind of cloying, and I wasn't really looking forward to an entire hour devoted to his adventures.

But this won me over quickly. While it's certainly not on par with Christmas Eve on Sesame Street or a Muppet Family Christmas, this absolutely carries on that tradition. This is everything Sesame Street should be: funny, endearing, and a tad subversive. Oh, I suppose it's got a lesson or something for the kids.

Right off the bat, the premise is explained in a loose frame story narrated by Maya Angelou (I don't think her presence really adds anything to the special, but then tossing guest stars in bit parts is common practice for these specials). Contrary to the title, the story is presented as the time "Elmo saved Christmas, then nearly lost it, again." And the special absolutely delivers on that promise.

Elmo is presented as…

Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (1978)

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I have serious memories tied up in this special. This means I even like the sappy parts. It's such great classic Sesame Street, though, that I suspect you'll like a few of the sappy parts too.

I was going to start off by saying that the opening with the oversized skating costumed characters is pretty useless, but on re-watching, Bird Bird skating with the little girl is pretty cute, even though it isn't the same little girl he's friends with through the rest of the special.

Living in New York City adds a whole other level to watching Sesame Street, and something like this from the 70's makes the original target audience (inner-city kids) really clear. There is a sequence based in the old subway, with beat-up turnstiles and a guy who sells tokens. (The subway car and the station are obviously sets, but I don't know about the platforms.) I love that it's set so firmly in New York.

I love Oscar in this, he's so delightfully snarky. I even love him tryi…

Fraggle Rock: The Bells of Fraggle Rock (1984)

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The Fraggles are usually pretty great, and this episode is no exception.

In this Christmas/Solstice themed episode, Gobo questions the utility of their holiday, The Festival of the Bells. He sets out to challenge the myth and find out whether or not the Great Bell actually exists.

There's a surprising amount of existential angst in this episode for a children's show starring puppets.

Meantime, Doc and Sprocket do a bit of exploring of different holiday traditions, and Doc teaches Sprocket about the link between Saturnalia and Christmas in about ten seconds. It's awesome.

There's more than a bit of sappy “look inside for the truth” type stuff by the end, but it really amuses me that not having their festival has actual measurable implications.

Also, I'm a sucker for Fraggles, and a sucker for Solstice-themed holiday episodes. I really enjoy the main song of the episode: “There's a Promise” aka “Raise Your Voices” is fun. And Cantus is in it! What's not…