"Olivia" and "Babar" - Help Yourself to the Pig, but Don't Miss the Elephant
By now, it really shouldn’t be much of a surprise to see that Nickelodeon’s Olivia is jumping on the “princess” bandwagon, since that seems to be a pretty reliable way to separate little girls from their allowance. The title story on the little pig’s latest DVD, Olivia: Princess for a Day, actually turns out to be a kind of remake of The Prince and the Pauper. A royal family is visiting Olivia’s town, and the resemblance between the two leads to a plan to switch places for a day to see how the other half lives. The social consciousness of Twain’s original is lost in this version, since the distinctions between her life and that of the princess seem mostly academic, and their respective realizations that they prefer the comforts of their home seem driven mostly by inconvenience. The story is mostly harmless, otherwise.
The remaining 8 stories on the disc (one of which is listed as this DVD’s only bonus feature) are more of the usual from Olivia, as the title character ends up in various situations and gets out of them through sheer cheek and an occasionally grating bossiness. The best of them are probably “Olivia’s Tip Top Tapper,” as Olivia has to deal with an injured leg before a big dance recital, and “Olivia Becomes a Chef,” as she tries to cook a special birthday dinner for her mother. Even if she ultimately fails, she does so in the appealing way that younger children do when their reach exceeds their grasp. She is the most infuriating in “Olivia Goes International,” when she constantly changes her mind on which country she will represent for her school geography project, thus forcing her mother to make a new ethnic dish each time she flip-flops (although this does lead to the funniest scene on the DVD, as her mother throws in the towel and phones for Indian takeout at one point). In the end, she goes representing the United Republic of Olivitania: a rather silly resolution that should have also earned her a failing grade in geography for obvious reasons. But she’s Olivia, so people just roll their eyes and let her get away with murder again. Olivia is privileged enough that she doesn’t even realize how privileged she is, and in the worst of these episodes (like “Olivia Goes International”) one begins to think that her parents aren’t doing her any favors by indulging her.
The DVD presentation doesn’t surprise much. The show looks pristine in a full-frame presentation in stereo. As already noted, the only bonus feature is an extra episode. The usual Nickelodeon DVD annoyances (no chapter stops within episodes and forced trailers before the disc starts) are still present, although the absence of chapter stops is more forgivable because each individual story is pretty short.
Much better royalty will be found in eOne Entertainment’s DVDs of the 1980’s Babar cartoon that aired originally on HBO. I recall thinking they were quite enjoyable at the time, and revisiting them now reinforces that opinion. Based on the series of children’s books by Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff, Babar focuses on the adventures of the title character, the Elephant King of Celesteville. The show alternates between tales of Babar’s childhood and tales of his children in the kingdom, with the occasional episode focusing on Babar the King and all intended to illustrate a moral. The mix allows the show to remain fresh, despite its limited cast and settings, and all the stories are executed with charm and grace to spare through lovely animation and excellent voice acting work.
It will be best to start with Best Friends Forever, since that DVD presents half of Babar’s backstory in “City Ways,” as Babar learns to live among humans with the assistance of the kindly Madame after his mother is killed by poachers. “Between Friends” is an amusing tale of how Babar’s wife and his friend Zephir the monkey nearly had a serious falling out as children. “Friendly Agreement” is one of the funnier episodes, as Babar and his queen Celeste leave for some R&R, leaving the country and the kids in the hands of Babar’s advisors Cornelius and Pompadour. Small spats between the two lead to bigger ones and eventually to a full schism before a major crisis brings the two back together. Finally, “An Elephant’s Best Friend” is interesting for its moral on standing up to bullies. The neighboring King Rataxes has seized a shipment of pomegranites that belongs to Babar’s people, and Babar refuses to his advisor’s pleas to negotiate for their return, thinking that it’s wrong to give in to a bully. The resolution to the situation relies on a lost pet warthog and a few red herrings laid by Rataxes and his smarmy advisor, with plenty of opportunity for some broad slapstick and even a tiny bit of genuine emotion along the way.
The second DVD, School Days, tends to focus more on inter-personal relationships. “School Days” recounts Babar’s first encounter with bullies in a public school. It’s moral may come off as a bit muddled and unintentionally sending the wrong message. However, the show defuses such criticism nimbly by lampshading it at the end, since Babar’s kids misunderstand the point themselves to Babar’s dismay. I actually appreciate the fact that the show allowed a somewhat flawed episode like this through rather than scrubbing it thoroughly of anything vaguely resembling a bad influence, which would have produced something unconvincing, antiseptic, and lifeless. “Kings of the Castle” delivers its lessons through laughs, as Babar and Rataxes switch places for a day and learn that it isn’t easy to walk in someone else’s shoes. “Every Basket Has a Silver Lining” is a story about sibling rivalry between two of Babar’s sons, with a slightly too pat ending but a good lesson nonetheless. “Peer Pressure” returns to Babar’s younger days as he recounts the story of joining a gang and has to make a tough decision between loyalty to his friends and doing what he knows is right.
The DVD cases state that these episodes are “digitally restored and remastered,” but if that’s the case, then the originals were probably not visual dazzlers to begin with. The image is not terribly fine, with a toned down color palette and even showing some film grain. However, none of the episodes look bad and the 2.0 Dolby Digital soundtrack is clear as a bell. Each 4-episode disc clocks in at about 90 minutes, which is a bit on the light side to my tastes. More disappointing is the fact that these DVDs are just selections taken from across the show’s six-season run. I’d much rather that eOne had delivered a first season set, or even just two volumes of the show in season order. While there doesn’t seem to be a lot of continuity between episodes, it seems odd to leave out the start of Babar’s story that came in the pilot episode before “City Ways.” The only bonus feature for either disc is an 8-page coloring book.
Babar is an old-school delight that has lost none of its charm over time, and even if I have minor issues with the packaging, I certainly have none with the show itself. I’m glad eOne is at least making some of the show available, and hopefully sales will be strong enough to justify proper season sets in the future.