By Jeff Unger, Video Reviewer, PARENTING Magazine - February, 2000.
Children's videos needn't sport the latest techno-wizardry to enthrall a young audience, as this year's award winners prove. The crop includes productions rich with scenes from real life, as well as amazing animation. Regardless of the medium, our 2000 Video Magic Award winners are distinguished by outstanding visual artistry, exemplary narration, creative musical accompaniment, and memorable stories sure to satisfy and draw in young viewers again and again.
PARENTING picks the following:
AGES 6 Mos to 6 Years
Baby Songs Good Night
This gentle and bewitching amalgam of music, animation, and live-action segments is perfectly tailored for the pajama-clad, ready-for-bed set. A short, smile-inducing animated scene precedes each of the ten gentle songs and lullabies that accompany relaxing (sleep-inducing) shots of children. Emphasizing positive themes such as friendship, and the beauty of the natural world, the songs are wonderful for winding down, whether for naptime or bedtime.
AGES 9 Mos to 4 Years
So Smart! All About Letters
This superior blend of soothing classical music and an enchanting stream of shifting, bright, colorful images will transfix even the youngest viewers, as lines smoothly morph into letters, and letters become words or objects. Children may also begin to make the connection between written characters, words, and what they stand for. Despite the basic subject matter, parental guidance is suggested - to make sure the wee ones can hear the names of the letters pronounced as well as the name of the items so creatively illustrated.
AGES 2 to 4
Bear in the Big Blue House: Potty Time with Bear
The subject is toilet training, and the teacher's a lovable bear with a kindly face and a demeanor to match. Bear serves as a gentle tutor, showing his adorable buddies - creations of the Jim Henson team - the whys and wherefores of the bathroom. The topic is handled with sensitivity, wisdom, patience, and humor - qualities that exasperated parents sometimes find in short supply. It's a sparking example of how to handle and important but sometimes awkward phases with consummate skill.
AGES 2 to 6
These eight short bedtime stories from recent and popular books make the perfect prelude to lights-out. The tales are beautifully animated in a merry style, and many concern a subject both ends of the age spectrum know all too well - the problems associated with trying to fall asleep when you're too excited or just not tired. Kids will smile at the sight of roly-poly Mole, whose red-striped pajamas are all but bursting at the buttons. And they'll giggle when they see the teeming menagerie Little panda's dad encounters after the young bear unsuccessfully tries counting sheep, cows, giraffes, and even dinosaurs.
AGES 3 to 5
Sesame Street: Let's Eat: Funny Food Songs
An unlucky Muppet lands Grover as a waiter and requests a terribly unhealthy meal, only to find that the special of the day is a series of high-wattage musical numbers touting the importance of good nutrition. Culled from nearly 30 years of Sesame Street program, the gloriously clever and silly songs make an often dry subject palatable, and the cajoling and stubborn refusals that fly between Grover and his customer will resonate with both picky eaters and their feeders.
AGES 3 to 6
Chrysanthemum the mouse gets teased without mercy for her polysyllabic name, until an understanding music teacher with an unusual name of her own comes to her defense. Backed by a lilting, high-spirited score, this gorgeously animated, 13-minute gem thoughtfully explores a subject familiar to children. Narrator Meryl Streep wonderfully captures the mix of emotions felt by Chrysanthemum, her parents, and her mouse peers.
Sesame Street: Kids' Favorite Songs
"DJ" Elmo is preparing a countdown of musical numbers for the Sesame Street rock station, and with the help of his neighborhood friends, he mixes a joyful, rollicking medley of fresh renditions of nine beloved songs performed by Telly, Big Bird, and other regulars from the show.
Wimzie's House: You're So Special
The irresistible pull of this unlikely cast of characters (including Wimzie, a purple-haired, red-antlered 5-year-old) comes from the inviting stories they act out that deal with issues young kids have to grapple with themselves, such as trying to win friends. Wimzie's wise and caring grandmother, Yaya, gently guides the children toward resolutions that emphasize the need for cooperation and understanding.
Sing a Song with Pooh Bear
As Pooh searches for a song to call his own, favorite denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood share their signature tunes. Carefully animated to faithfully represent the most familiar caricatures from the Pooh books, the tale stresses the importance of getting along with others and maintaining friendships. The distinctive, always engaging vocal artistry of Jim Cummings (the voice of Pooh) and Paul Winchell (whose sing-speak races through "The Wonderful Thing About Tiggers") make an exhilarating musical joyride.
Mama, Do You Love Me?
A young Inuit girl asks the title question and learns that the answer is yes, even if she disobeys her mom's instructions. Based on a popular children's book, this richly animated version stands high above ordinary adaptations by virtue of its careful attention to detail. Memorable music blends into the web of skillfully drawn scenes that capture the beauty of the midnight sun. This story is captivating; kids will want to know whether young Nyla can save her runaway puppy, even if it means ignoring her mother's warning about leaving the village - and dangerously drifting off on an ice floe.
AGES 3 to 11
Notes Alive! Dr. Seuss': My Many Colored Days
A young child describes his daily emotions in terms of colors: On days that feel brown, he feels "slow and low, low down" but on yellow days, "wheeee I am a busy, buzzy bee." Holly Hunter narrates the story, which is based on a Dr. Seuss story and set to original music, performed by the Minnesota Orchestra. A behind-the-scenes tour reveals how artists, computer animators, musicians, and writers worked together to produce this thoughtful performance.
AGES 4 to 7
Liddy, better known as Little Witch, would like to please her mother and three aunts by being a proper mean and grouchy witch, but that would interfere with making friends. What's a witch to do? Based on Deborah Hautzig's popular books, the quickly paces and brightly animated story is sprinkled with corny jokes right on target for the viewers' age range, crazy broomstick flights into outer space, and a shining underlying message about the importance of friendship.
AGES 4 to 9
Bartok the Magnificent
In this spin-off of last year's animated feature Anastasia, Bartok, the wise-cracking little white bat, must rescue the kidnapped prince of Russia. Prodded by his pal Zozi the bear, Bartok takes on a series of challenges and learns, to his surprise, that his bravado can be turned into genuine courage. A moral - appearances can be deceiving - so injected into Bartok's steady stream of quips and rousing songs, which match the hero's zest and enthusiasm.
Champagne and the Talking Eggs
The connections between a sparkling animated version of a Creole folk tale and live interview with Champagne - the real-life daughter of a woman in prison - is subtle but ultimately uplifting: In the folk tale, a young girl is kind to a bag lady, who, in turn, gives her three magic eggs soon coveted by her mischievous brother. Following that, Champagne describes the difficult first years of her life. Both episodes suggest that children must not let their circumstances deter them from pursuing their dreams.
AGES 4 and up
Tomie Live in Concert
Tomie dePaola, best-selling author and illustrator, wields his impish smile and wealth of stories to enthrall an audience of 500 children and adults. His childhood recollections, of surreptitiously drawing on his bedsheets and behind his bedroom wallpaper, are told with great fondness and silly facial expressions. With patience and good humor he demonstrates how to draw characters that convey a range of emotions, and reads his most famous book, Tom and Strega Nona, with an enthusiasm and emphasis that only a book's author could muster.
AGES 5 to 9
All About the Earth
A blend of film, animation, charts, photos, and other graphic elements, including eye-catching shots of Earth from outer space, comprise a kaleidoscopic and intriguing tour of the planet and how it works. Simple language and easy-to-understand demonstrations explain what cause night, day, winter, and summer. Careful, unrushed pacing will keep budding scientists from being overwhelmed by the wealth of information packed into just 23 minutes.
AGES 5 to 10
Families of Japan
This live-action look at life in Japan will appeal to American kids first for the obvious cultural differences - in clothes, furniture, housing - but the ultimate draw will be the realization that many aspects of life are the same in both nations. There's no hype, no Hollywood, just a surprisingly enticing behind-the-scenes glimpse of life in another land from a child's perspective.
AGES 5 and up
Mr. Toad's Wild Ride
Despite the efforts of his woodland pals, the rich and extravagant Mr. Toad can't control the urge to indulge his passion speedy motorcars. This madcap live-action fantasy, based on the Kenneth Grahame's book The Wind in the Willows, features and exceptional cast of comic actors. Lavish sets and all sorts of witty touches - a talking sun, busts with moving eyes - complement the timeless story.
Veggie Tales: Larry-Boy! And the Fib from Outer Space
Refreshingly absurd animated vegetables use Christian teachings - and lunacy - the resolve a series of moral and ethical dilemmas. In this episode, Junior Asparagus' penchant for fibbing lands him in hot water. The eye-popping animation is among the best ever done strictly for video, and the nutty, out-of-this-world characters are visually and emotionally appealing as well. As screwy as they are, though, they're down-to-earth when it comes to dealing with life's curveballs. The biblical message - the truth will set you free - is low-key until the very end, when two veggie characters quote scripture and explain why telling the truth is God's will. (NOT CURRENTLY CARRIED)
Tales of Wonder
Storyteller Gregg Howard, a Native American of Cherokee and Powhatan descent, relates nine fables to a gathering of children and adults. He teaches his audience how to indicate, in Cherokee, that they are ready to listen, and in a rich, warm voice, shares myths and legends that explain natural phenomena: why the rabbit has a short tail, where corn comes from. An artist sketches spare scenes that complement the simple elements of each tale, while a flute's low, understates notes enhance the performance without disrupting the listeners' focus on Howard.
AGES 6 and up
A Bug's Life
A kingdom imperiled. A misfit hero. A princess waiting in the wings. With wit and skill, the animation studios who created the groundbreaking Toy Story spin these elements into a lighthearted, rousing tale of an ant colony threatened by a voracious gang of grasshoppers, and the underdog who must save their home. The innovative animation and visual humor will keep kids mesmerized.
Mulan, a headstrong young girl with little talent for domestic arts, dresses as a man to join the Chinese army and fight the invading Huns. This Disney production relies on familiar successful elements - funny sidekicks, stirring music - but also takes a refreshing risk in making the hero a young girl who doesn't have the voluptuous body of most Disney females (Pocahontas and the Little Mermaid, for example). Eddie Murphy is hilarious as the voice of Mulan's little dragon buddy, and the action sequences are spectacular, though some kids may be frightened by the monstrous Huns and battle scenes.