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"Jakers!": Lean Ham on Heavy Wry

by on March 2, 2008

Saints preserve us, but is it actually possible to make an educational kiddie show that won’t bore the little ones stiff, rot their brains, or drive their parents out of the house? I would never have credited my own eyes, but here comes Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks to prove the art of pedagogical but entertaining storytelling is not indeed dead.

Jakers! is not a new series—it airs in the United States on PBS Kids on many stations, and Treasure Hunt on Raloo Farm isn’t the first series DVD Paramount has distributed—but it is new to me. Likelier than not I won’t be seeking more of it out, but I can enthusiastically recommend it to any similarly uninitiated parents who care about what their child is watching.

That’s because Jakers! manages to hit a very rare sweet spot: It can salve a parent’s conscience by avowedly imparting wholesome lessons to growing tots, and it does so without being priggish, condescending, or obvious. It also has genuine entertainment value to keep the kids watching. And, not least—because, really, a conscientious parent should be watching their children’s programs alongside them—it’s smart and savvy enough to keep adults pleasurably caught up as well.

The “Jakers!” of the title is not actually a character but the catchphrase/exclamation of Piggley Winks, who is the main character. He’s a grandfather nowadays, living in what I take to be modern-day Ireland with his daughter and two young grandsons. The latter two rascals invariably get into some kind of problem or mischief, which their old granddad will use as an excuse for a story describing when he was a kid in a similar situation. The stories, then, are actually flashbacks to when Piggley was a boy—er, piglet—of about seven and living on a farm.

The lessons, without being any less valuable for the fact, are presented indirectly and with a gentle humor; they are also typically more like reminders than out-and-out morals. So, in the episode “Treasure Hunt” Piggley realizes that chores can be fun if you make a game of them; in “Our Dragon’s Egg” he is brought up short by the fact that wildlife is called “wild” life for a reason; in “Growing Pains” he discovers one shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to grow up. So ineffable are some of these lessons that I’m not even sure I can summarize them. I’m not sure what Dannan learns in “Dannan Does a Jig,” for instance, except that maybe fun can be its own excuse. Nonetheless, anyone who has ever worried about looking foolish in front of others will find some comfort in that story.

The show’s weight is enhanced by its careful characterizations. Piggley and his friends Dannan (a duck) and Ferny (a calf), though engaging, are grounded in reality. They are clever and they have some sass, but they aren’t the smartass wiseacres that so many kid characters are obliged to be these days. They also have distinctive personalities. Piggley is cheerful and industrious, though he also has a child’s preference for shirking his household duties. Dannan has a sharp tongue and, without being mean about it, is quite good at puncturing Piggley’s pretensions. Ferny is gentle, and perhaps a little slow and sentimental, but also deeply loyal and admiring of his friends. Their personalities contrast nicely with Wiley the Sheep, the leader of the farm’s flock, who is pushy, egocentric, and sweetly stupid all at once. Better still, Mel Brooks, who plays Wiley, gives the hearty oatmeal that is the rest of the show a good dash of salt.

The series’ writers are also very good at constructing stories that can lead Piggley and his friends to a concluding moral in a way that doesn’t constrict them; indeed, the stories are very good at playing within the kids’ open-minded imaginations. In “Our Dragon’s Egg,” for instance, Piggley and his friends, while playing knights-and-dragons in the ruins of an old castle, find a large egg, which, still caught up in their playacting, they take to belong to a dragon. Dutifully, they try to do right and hatch it out, even as they are terrified that the baby dragon will eat them after it pops out. Misunderstandings and misadventures proliferate as Dannan disappears, Wiley comes to believe he has laid the egg, and Piggley’s kid sister Molly tries to collect food for their soon-to-hatch new pet. Meanwhile, in “Growing Pains,” Piggley decides he’s old enough to run the farm when his dad breaks his leg, and the writers delight in humbling the ambitious piglet with an ever-escalating series of plausible but crippling mechanical breakdowns on the farm. But even when giving themselves over to free play, the stories never become out-and-out ludicrous, and the jokes are kept firmly at the margin.

Most of the show’s humor is played out at a child’s level, but the makers also keep it at a pitch that will entertain adults. “That’s the honk of a mother’s angel,” Wiley coos when the abovementioned dragon—which turns out to be a cygnet—hatches. “Or maybe a ’38 Buick,” he adds with a vaudevillian’s timing. Nor are the writers above going for scatological humor—and, almost uniquely these days, they do it right. In “Treasure Hunt” Piggley tries to get Ferny and Dannan to help him sweep up the stall belonging to Finnegan, the donkey. “Uh, Piggley, what is this stuff all over the floor,” Ferny asks with quiet horror as he stares at the soft brown lumps on the ground. “Oh, it’s just hay and straw and, uh, you know, other stuff,” says Piggley with cheerful evasiveness. As they sweep up, Piggley launches into an improvised, nonsensical explanation for why a pirate would hide his treasure map under a chicken. “Would you listen to that,” the exasperated Dannan finally exclaims. “Just keep shoveling, Piggley.”

Production values on the show are modest, and movements can be a little stiff. But the animators have attractive character designs to work from, and they are able to draw some subtle expressiveness from the 3D models. Besides Brooks, the voice casts boasts such names as Melissa Disney, Tara Strong, Russi Taylor, Charlie Adler, Kath Soucie, and Candi Milo, who do an outstanding job without mugging it up. Maile Flanagan and Peadar Lamb share the role of Piggley as a child and an old man, respectively, and are absolutely winning. The Irish folk-rock theme is tuneful and does a good job of setting the show up.

“Educational” and “cartoon” are not two words that I like to see showing up in the same sentence: education, like oxygen, is a good and necessary thing, but it is possible to have too much of it in too high of a concentration. Jakers! at least remembers that children don’t like being lectured to, and keeps its pedagogy palatable by telling good stories and letting the lessons speak for themselves.

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