"Caillou's Family Favorites:" When Edutainment is All Edu- and No -Tainment
There’s a “Message to Parents” on the most recent DVD of PBS Kids’ Caillou, which explains that the show was based on the research of acclaimed child psychologist Nicole Nadeau. The show’s title character is meant to help children develop their sense of self-esteem, confidence, and independence, using vignettes of Caillou and his family going new experiences together and triumphing over the small-scale adversities of suburban life. The show and its lead are designed for children to relate to. It’s an incredibly family-friendly show that teaches its lessons with gentle grace, perfectly suitable for the children it is aimed at.
Unfortunately, all these things also ensure that it’s almost impossible for an adult to sit through very many of these episodes in one sitting. If some kids shows are all vapid entertainment with no educational value, Caillou seems to be the kind of thing that happens when the pendulum swings too far in the other direction.
Caillou’s Family Favorites contains four full episodes of the show, each of which is divided into three to four segments of his “adventures,” such as learning how to throw and fire a new ceramic mug, searching for the loudest thing he can find in the neighborhood, learning to ice skate, acting as the ringboy at a wedding, playing with remote-controlled sailboats in the park, and learning the value of being on time. Sometimes Caillou is the cause of trouble; sometimes he’s the solution to it; and sometimes he’s just a bystander. But he never has to deal with anything terribly severe and no crisis seems to last for very long. Still, even without reading the notes about the series, it’s pretty easy to see that the show presents easily digestible lessons on perseverance and managing those matters that a four-year old sees as major, life-threatening crises.
Perhaps the worst thing about Caillou is that its sense of humor seems to have been meticulously excised. There is almost never anything for either the children or the adults to laugh at. This is one reason why it’s always a pleasure to see Caillou’s grandfather appearing in an episode, since he seems to take a bit of pleasure in tweaking Caillou (not too roughly, of course). An exchange where he tries making Caillou guess what’s in a box while they ride to the park is actually kind of funny, as Caillou makes ever-more outlandish guesses like a helicopter or a real bear.
What makes Caillou more distinctive than the average pre-school cartoon is that it resolutely refuses to engage in the usual shenanigans of most pre-school cartoons. It studiously avoids musical numbers, manic silliness, and potty humor in favor of a more realistic and mundane view of the world presented at a deliberately slow-paced tempo. In fact, this show could probably only be done as a cartoon: no real four-year old could act in such a picture-perfect way regularly. According to the notes that accompany the DVD, the show’s approach gives younger children a role model and identification character to aspire to, while giving older viewers a sense of achievement for having made it through that portion of their lives intact. This may all be true, and Caillou certainly seems to act the way I remember my niece and nephew acting at the same age. However, the solid focus on how children will watch the show means it has very little to offer to a parent or other supervising grown-up, other than a safe few minutes of nap time while the children are watching the video. Come to think of it, that may make Caillou invaluable to a number of parents.
The presentation of the DVD is pretty straightforward. Like many Paramount DVDs, it begins with a series of commercials that can only be fast-forwarded instead of skipped entirely via the menu button, which is an annoyance that most other studios have (or should) really move away from. Episodes are full-screen, and all have multiple chapter stops so a favorite vignette can be found quickly. Extras include little biographical shorts about each of the characters, the “Message to Parents” that explains the thinking behind the show, and games and coloring pages for Caillou fans.
Like his parents, it’s hard to be excessively negative or down about Caillou. About the best thing that can be said is that it’s safe. You’d be very hard pressed to find anything offensive or upsetting about Caillou, and that seems to have non-trivial value to parents these days. Also, considering the general state of overstimulation the average child receives today, perhaps Caillou’s sedate, measured storytelling approach isn’t such a bad thing. Caillou is the animated equivalent of Ralphie’s brother in A Christmas Story: It’s perfectly swaddled against the elements, but it’s hard to have much fun when that means you can’t put your arms down.