Welcome to the Read That Again! guide to children's film, cartoons and videos for younger viewers. Looking for good movies that won't warp their little brains too badly? Here are a few of our faves...
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By the way, we're always looking for new stuff to watch... If you have recommendations, please feel free to write and tell us about your favorites.
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Sort of a standard-issue computer-animated princess/fairytale deconstruction flick, with a lively mashup of the Rapunzel story. Here, she's a spunky gal with magical powers, and is able to dish it out and match wits with a raffish, Han Solo-ish/Aladdin-y rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold named Flynn Ryder. The dialogue is zippy and a bit forced, but thankfully not laden with poop jokes or the same sort of suffocating pop culture references as the Shrek films. It's not great, but it's entertaining and not offensive or objectionable... Certainly worth a whirl. (B)
"(The Best Of) Tennessee Tuxedo And His Tales"
(Classic Media, 2006)
I had forgotten how great these old 1960s cartoons were!! Ah, Tennessee Tuxedo, that delusional, irascible, fast-talking con-artist penguin who was always dreaming big and trying to bust out of the zoo in order to make his dreams come true... And Chumly, his dim-witted, loyal companion who sticks by Tennessee no matter what. In every episode they get into some sort of Lucy Ricardo-meets-Sargent Bilko type of trouble, then go consult with the marvelous Mr. Whoopie and his magical 3D TV for some kind of a solution. Each show would include a fairly accurate scientific lecture (how telephones work, how LP records were made, etc.), enriching young minds while remaining downright kooky in that way that old 'Sixties cartoons could be. Great stuff that holds up really well, several decades later. (A+)
They Might Be Giants "Here Come The ABCs" (Disney Sound, 2005)
The first of their explicitly educational albums, this has some of the roughness of a TV pilot, as well as the promise of of a good first season. I didn't find most of the alpha-songs tremendously catchy or coherent, they're more in line with the band's more toss-offy material, but they're okay. Likewise, the accompanying videos are a bit choppy, although you can see what they're getting at, a sort of hip, less didactic version of Schoolhouse Rock for the DIY-indie crowd. Stay tuned, though: the next disc (Here Come The 1-2-3s) is a real doozy! (B)
They Might Be Giants "Here Come The 1-2-3s" (Disney Sound, 2008)
This album is great -- an absolute home run. TMBG explores mathematics and mathematical concepts with the same sort of freewheeling playfulness as in their fabled solar-themed "Why Does The Sun Shine?" song, from years gone by -- they impart real information along with a sense of wonder and inquisitiveness that will pull little listeners in and, doubtless, inspire countless kids into careers in science, or, perhaps, pubic accounting. The melodies and catchy and the animation is brilliant and cheerful, with humorous interludes with two nearly-identical puppets that play the parts of John & John, the Giants themselves. The record starts off with some interesting explorations of abstract concepts such as "Zeroes" and the more philosophical "One Everything," which explores that mind-blowing ontological concept of a universe, one "thing" that encompasses everything. Other numbers are examined on a less cosmic scale, back here on Earth, but the songs are goofy and fun, and the animation perfectly matches this vibe. This CD-DVD combo is a lot of fun, particularly the video content. It's the kind of thing where parents will wind up walking around humming the songs themselves, and may want to watch the video more than the kids do(!) Highly recommended! (A+)
They Might Be Giants "Here Come Science" (Disney Sound, 2009)
John and John get pretty hardcore brainy on this one, which is a definite bump-up in terms of the age group it's aiming for... This is an album unapologetically zeroed in on nerdy science kids, though also accessible to the less-technical among us. Electricity, evolution, the light spectrum, photosynthesis, chemistry and the table of elements each get a song; also included are explorations of more general themes, such as the scientific method and the value of empirical research. There's also, of course, a version of their classic "Why Does The Sun Shine?" (The Sun is a mass of incandescent gas...") which is cool, but even cooler is the follow-up song, in which they actually correct the science behind the first tune, and attempt to explain that, indeed, the Sun isn't a ball of gas, but rather of plasma. I'm not sure I 100% understand about this weird form of matter, but I love that TMBG are proof-reading their own lyrics. It is telling (and a little sad) that following the eight-year anti-science resurgence of the Bush years, the Giants felt compelled to start this album off with a song called "Science Is Real," which posits the benefits of understanding the physical world -- given the historical context, this could be taken as a polemical song, though mostly it's just a good, catchy tune. That's true with most of these songs, and when your little scientist starts walking around humming the names of the elements, or explaining how trial and error works, you'll be pleased. Not as snazzy musically as the 1-2-3s album, bur still pretty fun, with some great visuals and graphic design. What's next? Philosophy? Economics? I'm there! (A-)
"Thomas And Friends: The Birthday Express"
(Hit Entertainment, 2011)
Here's one for the toddler crowd, a collection of Thomas The Tank Engine stories, including one with a birthday theme (where the trains deliver a mysterious present to a big party...) and not only that, but DVD set also comes with a real wooden whistle, so your kid can toot-toot-toot around the house, just like Thomas! All very British and polite... A nice gift for some little engineer in your life. (B+)
"Timmy Time: Timmy Steals The Show"
(Hit Entertainment, 2011)
A spinoff from the Shaun The Sheep series, Timmy Time focusses on the toddler lamb Timmy, whose role in the Shaun cartoons is usually to cry about something, broken toy, missing treat, that kind of thing. Here, Timmy confronts the social complexities of nursery school, with a super-cutesy cast of barnyard babies, including his best friend, an enthusiastic, super-talkative duckling who likes to wear aviator glasses. Their preschool has two teachers, a demure owl and a gangly, sympathetic (B)
"Timmy Time: Timmy Steals The Show"
(Hit Entertainment, 2011)
A spinoff from the Shaun The Sheep series, Timmy Time focusses on the toddler lamb Timmy, whose role in the Shaun cartoons is usually to cry about something -- a broken toy, a lost pacifier -- until somebody fixes the problem for him. Here, Timmy confronts the social complexities of nursery school, with a super-cutesy cast of barnyard babies, including his best friend, an enthusiastic, super-talkative duckling who likes to wear aviator goggles. Their preschool has two teachers, a demure owl and a gangly, sympathetic, um, crane? The kids get into typical preschool conflicts -- fighting over toys, fingerpainting, circle time, and Timmy behaves imperfectly, learning lessons in life as he puzzles his way through each day. Now, I thought Shaun The Sheep was already pretty well suited for preschoolers, but Timmy does take things down a notch or two: the artwork and animation are much simpler, as are the plotting and pace. Gone are the tiny, fine-grain details in the backdrops, and the characters are much more plainly rendered. However, the comic timing is is familiar, and nursery-school age toddlers will find the scenarios -- in a school or daycare setting much like their own -- to be captivating. Good for true toddlers, though it may be hard for older viewers to work their way backwards from Shaun to Timmy Time. (B)
"Timmy Time: Picture Day"
(Hit Entertainment, 2011)
(Walt Disney, 2008)
With this new computer animated film, Disney is trying to bridge the gap between younger girls, who love the princess stories ("Cinderella," "The Little Mermaid", etc.) and older, 'tweeny types who are now into edgier material, such as the Bratz dolls and Hannah Montana. The group this movie is aimed at, five-to-eight year olds, have been tilting towards the teen-oriented material, and this is an attempt to bring them back to a younger mindset. It's a welcome effort, certainly for many parents who may feel their kids are "growing up too quickly," exposed to sophisticated or violent material that isn't really appropriate to their age groups. Tinkerbell is a good option, one that both parents and kids will welcome: it's wholesome, formulaic, cloying at times, but generally enchanting and refreshingly nonviolent.
The story is simple... Tinkerbell the fairy is born out of a dandelion seed, and learns about her life in the bustling fairyland of Pixie Hollow (based on the extensive Pixie Hollow book series). There are plenty of magic sparkles and dazzling magical lights, a full contingent of friends -- both a set of supportive gal pals and a couple of nice, nerdy guys that she works with in the tinker shop -- and a few benign but slightly intimidating authority figures (the tinker shop boss, the fairy queen and the duke in charge of the annual spring celebration). There's only one "bad guy," a mean girl who is jealous of Tinkerbell and tries to undercut her successes, but no real violence or menace -- no one gets hit, or shot or physically menaced, and the mean girl gets her comeuppance in the end. The story also revolves around Tinkerbell's efforts to fit in. She is klutzy and insecure, yet also rebellious because she doesn't accept her role as a tinker (mechanically-inclined fairies who fix things around Pixie Hollow) and she also doesn't accept the limited role that other fairies see for the tinker group. With her natural talents and undying optimism, Tinkerbell eventually wins over her critics -- and even her own self-doubt -- and manages to win the day. Her problem-solving skills and positivity make her a welcome role model for little girls (and boys, too, if they're into fairy stories...) and bode well for a continuation of this new Disney franchise.
The CGI animation is reminiscent of the "Shrek" films, with a few extra sparkles and sequins thrown in for good luck... It's not quite as dazzling or satisfying as the hand-pained masterpieces of the Disney classics of the 1940s and '50s, but it's still pretty captivating. And while the music is a bit more contemporary and pop than I'd like, it's okay. Much of the score has a Celtic twist to it, in the pop crossover-y Mary Black/Capercaillie/Clannad style, and that may be of interest to families with folk music/ren fair leanings... Overall, it's a pretty nice film. I'm glad we got it for our little girly-girl to enjoy. (A)
"Tinker Bell And The Lost Treasure"
"Tinker Bell And The Great Fairy Rescue"
The third film in the new Pixie Hollow series is a winner. Predictable and a teensy bit cloying, but it delivers what it should and has a reasonable amount of emotional heft. Here, Tinker Bell is inadvertently captured by a little English girl named Lizzy, who lives in an isolated farmhouse with her emotionally remote father and dreams of fairies all day long, drawing fairy pictures, writing fairy stories and holding pretend fairy tea parties while her entomologist dad pins butterflies to corkboards and catalogues their wingspans and color patterns. We are led to believe that Lizzy will hold Tink prisoner and cut her off from all that she loves, in a taffeta-covered version of Sid's room in Toy Story. But Lizzy, as it turns out, really is a sweet kid and she really does "get" the whole fairy thing, communicating with Tinker Bell despite the fact that fairy language just sounds like little ting-a-lings to the human ear. Their friendship provides a slightly unexpected twist to the plot, and while it's not hard to see where things are going to go with Dear Old Dad, the movie is still enjoyable and thankfully free of gratuitous sex or violence. Certainly, if you enjoyed the other two movies, you'll love this one, too. (B+)
"Les Aventures De Tintin, v.1"
These animated cartoon adaptations of the much-beloved Tintin comics books are surprisingly good. While there's a higher level of detail and craftsmanship in the original books by legendary Belgian cartoonist Herge, these lively cartoons capture the essence of the stories and stay true to the tone (and text) of the books, and hit many of the same comedic notes. The animation is simple but effective, and the "live" action aspect brings something new and fun to the stories -- the cartoons don't have the same immersive, mesmerizing effect as the books, but they are fun and won't disappoint most longtime Tintin fans (or their Tintin-fan parents!) Also nice is that each episode is presented in both English and French versions, which is a great educational tool for anyone who wants to learn French. The voiceovers are generally good, although I think the French voice actors are better (Captain Haddock, in particular) and the graphic design is strong, taking its cues pretty closely from the Herge originals. One downside is that the faithfulness to the Herge books means that many of the borderline racial stereotypes remain intact as well; if it's a concern, you can talk your kids through it, otherwise, if you've read the books, you know what to expect. In a world awash in poorly-conceived, clumsily executed adaptations of great works, these cartoons stand out as gems -- exciting, engaging and amazingly true to the source material. Definitely recommended! (A+)
"Les Aventures De Tintin, v.2"
"Toy Story 2"
"Toy Story 3"
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