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"As Told by Ginger": Slow Times at Junior High

Animators have long concentrated their attention on boys …

Sorry, that sounds like a Michael Jackson reference.

Anyway, animation has usually focused on the young male audience, and it’s only in the last few decades that cartoons specifically targeting girls have become prevalent. Perhaps it was assumed girls bought fewer toys or were more literate. Whatever the case, female cartoon stars, such as super spy Kim Possible and rockers Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi, have become quite popular of late. Powerhouse Nickelodeon’s most recent project aimed at a female audience is As Told by Ginger, which marks its second DVD release with Far From Home.

The last decade has also seen a boom in teen soap operas, and As Told by Ginger (ATBG) is a product of that trend, too. The series follows everygirl Ginger Foutley and her friends as they stumble their way through the many highs and lows of junior high: friendship, rivalries, romance, family, life choices. Of course, this is no Daria but a safe, candy-coated portrayal, so only those too young to have set foot in a junior high are likely to be drawn in. The stories have just enough character to stand above the clichés, and older viewers may feel pangs of nostalgia for more innocent days. However, the stirring of memories aside, ATBG is vanilla and forgettable.

The disc contains three stories. In the one-hour “Far From Home,” Ginger wins a fellowship to spend a semester at the prestigious Avalanche Arts academy. Her best friends Darren, Macie, and Dodie are unhappy about the prospect of her prolonged absence. It turns out Ginger’s catty rivals Miranda (Cree Summer) and Mipsy got her the fellowship via underhanded means and hope to make the transfer permanent. At Darren’s urging, Ginger’s friends finally come around to support her decision to go to Avalanche, but he soon realizes he might be missing more than a friend. Meanwhile Ginger’s brother Carl and his best friend, Dodie’s brother Hoodsie, enlist the aid of Carl’s girlfriend Noelle and her telekinetic powers to enter the Winter Weird Fest. Noelle qualifies for the finals but is frustrated that Carl seems more interested in her powers than in her. The team starts to fall apart when Noelle gets a little too chummy with Hoodsie and Carl gets jealous.

Next is the ten-minute pilot episode “The Party.” Elite classmate Courtney mysteriously invites Ginger to her exclusive party, and Ginger hesitantly skips out on her usual sleepover with Dodie and Macie to attend. She is forced to drag Carl along, though, and is terrified of making a faux pas.

Last is the half-hour “Ginger the Juvey,” which plays like a more developed version of “The Party.” Courtney invites a surprised Ginger to her birthday party, causing Ginger to stress out about what gift to give the girl who has everything. Meanwhile Carl and Hoodsie plan to take photos for blackmail purposes, but first they have to get Courtney’s nosy brother Blake out of the way. Miranda, resentful of the attention Courtney pays Ginger, tries to lead the latter astray by suggesting she steal a bank’s ENTER sign as a gift.

Most of ATBG is typical teen drama that has been done many times over on programs like Degrassi Junior High. The one unique conceit is that the little brothers are not mere troublemakers—they are actually stark raving mad. I suppose this represents a female perspective on all the nutty things boys do, which may well appear to be full blown insanity to the outsider. It’s an interesting and daring viewpoint, for while screwballs like Bart Simpson are common enough in children’s animation, outright freaks like Carl are definitely not.

The large cast of characters thankfully does not employ the lame, valley-girl dialect of Kim Possible. Ginger herself is a likeable heroine, a typical teenage girl whom the target demographic can easily relate to. As such, she’s really not all that distinctive. Neither is the whiny Dodie, so it falls to the Velma-like Macie to crack jokes, usually in a hushed, self-deprecating manner. Carl, whether lathering up with hot chicken fat or licking the food off old dentures, is always up to something weird enough to gross out the young female viewers but not earn complaints from their parents. (He does tread dangerously close to this line when he reveals a fetish for his sister’s toenail clippings.) His partner-in-crime Hoodsie is the Patrick Star of the duo, rarely producing a coherent thought without prompting. Carl’s love interest, Noelle, is not only equally strange but actually seems to be some kind of alien life form, talking and looking not a little like Yoda. Courtney is a self-absorbed bimbo, and brother Blake is a snotty Richie Rich. The cast gets some ethnic diversity from sensitive guy Darren, who sounds like Shaggy and is adorned with massive braces, and the sinister Miranda, who sounds and looks like she has recently had an operation of a very private nature. Finally Saturday Night Live fans may be interested to hear Chris Parnell turn in a couple of brief cameos in “Far From Home,” although he’s no Phil Hartman.

There really isn’t much in ATBG to entertain adults. I’m certain Carl’s antics are intended to be humorous, but they’ll probably only amuse little kids. There are a couple of odd, funny moments, as when Hoodsie dresses up as a middle-aged man to hit on schoolgirls. I guess the censors missed that one. The best and funniest dialogue comes from Macie when Miranda stops directly in front of a bank on their quest for Courtney’s birthday present. She quickly exclaims, “Of course! An interest yielding IRA account linked with free checking! It’s what every girl wants… on the inside.”

“Far From Home” and “Ginger the Juvey” are smoothly if simply animated and quite attractive. However, I really don’t care for the bland Rugrats character design with the large heads and beady little eyes. Nickelodeon’s been milking it for a decade now, and it’s high time for a new look. “The Party” looks terribly cheap and crude by comparison; worse, Ginger looks less like a sweet young girl than a 40-year-old housewife. It seems to have been filmed before the end of segregation, because Miranda and Darren are mysteriously white.

The single special feature is “Who Took Ginger’s Journal?”—one of those “games” where you try to match up the characters with their descriptions. It’s harder than it sounds, and even less entertaining.

I’m sure ten-year-old girls will be riveted by As Told by Ginger: Far From Home, but that is about the extent of its appeal. There isn’t enough action to entertain younger kids, and it isn’t hip enough to capture the older set. Ginger is an excellent role model, and mothers may wish she would supplant Britney Spears in their daughters’ hearts. That, though, would remove one of the few interests their fathers can relate to.

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