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Best New Animated Series of 2009: "Olivia"

This week, Toon Zone News looks back at 2009 by reposting our reviews of what we felt was the best that the year had to offer.

The staff felt it was a thin year for new animated series. How thin? Well, we came this close to naming Phineas and Ferb the Best New Animated Series of 2009, even though … um … it debuted in 2008. Maybe we should have named it the Best New Animated Series anyway, since this was the year it hit its stride, and did well enough to actually land in our blogging colleagues’ list of the Best Animated Series of the decade.

Technically, honors go instead to Olivia. Reprinted below is Ed Liu’s review of its first DVD release.

Olivia is the latest of Nickelodeon’s animated series for pre-school and younger viewers, and fits perfectly with the rest of the lineup in being safe and innocuous entertainment, if not terribly exciting or likely to get anybody riled up for good or bad reasons. The series is based on the series of children’s books by Ian Falconer, and seems to capture the spirit of the books while expanding and extrapolating on them for the purposes of a kids’ TV sitcom. Nickelodeon has released the first DVD of Olivia, containing four episodes of the show with one debuting on this disc.

Eat your heart out, Schroder!The title character of Olivia is a precocious, headstrong young pig who lives in a safe, stereotypical suburb with her family: Mom and Dad, younger brother Ian, and baby brother Michael. She also has a best friend, the slacker Julian, and a “frenemy” in her next door neighbor Francine. Any given half-hour of Olivia is divided up into two separate stories, mostly hinging on Olivia’s attempts to ensure that everyone’s attention stays on her and her vivid, imaginative daydreams that sometimes spill over into her real world activities. Along the way, she mostly learns the same sorts of safe lessons that are common in most Nickelodeon pre-school TV series: don’t be mean to your younger brother, it’s better to share things, being mean to your younger brother catches up with you, fess up when you break something, it doesn’t pay to be mean to your younger brother, jealousy is an ugly emotion that doesn’t lead to anything good, you can’t mail your younger brother to Siberia even if he is more talented than you musically, and don’t be mean to your younger brother. Some themes tend to pop up more frequently than others.

At its best, Olivia feels something like a combination of Peanuts and Winnie the Pooh, putting adult words and thoughts into animated children voiced by actual kids and turning them loose to meander around with less of a sense of narrative drive and more of a carefree exploratory spirit. There is a little sense of whimsy to each episode, usually centered in the mostly silent lead-in segments that begin each sub-story, in Olivia’s imaginative daydreams, and in Olivia’s “Rules of Life” asides to the camera (“Rule of Life #3: If you’re going to sit next to a little brother eating spaghetti, you better wear a raincoat”). This sense of whimsy is reinforced by the soundtrack of lite Dixieland jazz, which is easily one of the best things about the show although it could stand to be a bit more boisterous. The voice acting is perfectly good, although children voicing children seems to be the norm today and nobody stands out as someone like Nicky Jones does on Chowder. The only casting choice of note is Yvonne Craig as Olivia’s grandmother in the first episode – a bit of a shock for those of us who grew up with her as the bombshell in Batman or Star Trek. Olivia doesn’t quite hit the same heights as the cartoons that it reminds me of, largely because those cartoons have a subtle depth to them, while Olivia is almost exactly what it seems to be on the surface. The strong sense of sarcasm that infuses Peanuts and the oddball logic that drives Pooh are both absent in Olivia. Episodes play out almost exactly as an adult would expect them to, with many feeling like they just stop wherever they are once they hit the 10-minute mark.

Yvonne Craig still can't get away from dancing, but the taiji-chuan scene is funnierThe CGI animation for Olivia is one of the more interesting things about the show, especially because it doesn’t look like what we expect of CGI. The character models are directly inspired by Falconer’s original illustrations, although the series is presented in full color rather than the largely monochromatic illustrations of the books. Shading, textures, and lighting are deliberately absent, with any sense of depth or texture suggested more by he watercolor-inspired palette and coloring techniques. The result is a dramatically flattened space that makes the screen look like an image from the printed page come to life. The CGI is given away occasionally by occasional simulated multiplane camera effects or the kind of camera movements that would be difficult or impossible to do well in hand-drawn animation. The one sticking point for me is in the character design. All of the characters look almost exactly the same, with only their clothing and size distinguishing them (Julian’s darker skin tone being the exception that proves the rule). This aesthetic can work better on the printed page, as it does in Falconer’s books, but it also means that the show can’t take advantage of the way animation communicates character traits through design and movement.

Olivia is a pretty no-frills DVD, presenting the show decently with in its original full-frame format and a Dolby Digital stereo soundtrack (although the slightly wider stills available to the press make me wonder if Olivia is another TV show that’s animated in widescreen but inexplicably released full-frame on DVD). There are no subtitles or languages other than English, but the disc does include a chapter stop within each episode — a rarity in most Nickelodeon DVDs. The only extras are the usual set of forced trailers when the disc is inserted and an Olivia photo gallery with some information about the cast of the show as written by Olivia.

Olivia isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it succeeds at what it aims for in being gentle, harmless entertainment for little ones. Fans of the book easily be able to transfer their emotional attachment to the series, and the little Olivias of the world will probably find much to like in their on-screen porcine counterpart.

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