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"Olivia": That Won’t Do, Pig

by on January 25, 2009

Olivia, Nickelodeon’s latest preschool series, is a safe, professional, and highly polished bit of CG-animated fare, seemingly designed to keep tots contentedly sucking at the glass teat and conscientious parents relieved of any anxiety about their progeny being overstimulated or exposed to imitable images or behavior that could disrupt the smooth running of a suburban, middle-class household. It is based upon Ian Falconer’s award-winning picture books about a precocious piglet, and therefore comes doubly recommended for households where animated series are prized more for their pedigree than for their actual merits.

The title character is not herself a preschooler, and therefore probably stands more as an aspirational figure to the series’ intended audience than as an identification one. She is blessed with a great deal of nominal intelligence, energy, and creativity, along with many of the insecurities that children near her age can be expected to have. Her adventures, if you can call them that, in the network-provided screener are similarly rooted in the observed realities of small children. In “Olivia Measures Up” she worries that her little brother, Ian, will one day grow to be bigger than she will, and plots to stunt his growth; in “Olivia Plays Hotel,” she and her friends pretend to run a hotel when a snowfall leads to the cancellation of school. Small lessons are learned: that little brothers will remain little brothers even after everyone is grown up, and that waiting on demanding guests can be grueling, even when little brothers aren’t running around pretending to be ghosts. Insofar as any children are likely to be influenced by watching these two stories, they will probably be tempted to invite their own friends over and try opening their own “hotel.” Parents are likely to regard this as a good thing, at least until they are called upon to straighten up the play-time messes.

I’ve not read the books on which the series is based, but if the online descriptions are accurate, then I suspect the series must have lost some of the originals’ sense of whimsical irony in being translated to CG animation. And, for once, I am not inclined to pin the deficiencies upon the writers. Instead, if I were to assign blame, I would put it upon the animators.

The stories, as written, are a little bland, but they have creative touches, as when Olivia imagines her tree-sized brother stomping around or her closet turning into an ornate elevator. The stories also have more than a trace of mischief, as when Ian, inspired by some overheard talk, decides to revenge himself upon his sister by throwing a sheet over his head and terrorizing her friends as a hotel ghost. But it’s also far too easy to imagine these stories receiving a much more expressive treatment—more color and more exaggeration—than they get here. The actual animation, though smooth, is far too literal-minded, and the pacing is also nearly soporific. It takes forever for a character to move across the screen, for instance, and their movements are unwieldy. And so the stories, which on paper were probably sprightly and charming, turn out in execution to be much more timid than one might hope.

The characters designs also manage to be both grotesque and boring. Olivia, as she appears on the cover of the Falconer books, is a vivid and attractive exaggeration of a porcine princess. But the same design, when translated into a 3-D model, becomes top-heavy: I kept expecting this big-headed creature, as she tottered around on her tiny feet, to topple over. The CG design is also too faithful to Falconer’s spare style, which prevents Olivia and her family from having the range of movement, gesture or expression that would add color or subtlety to her emotions. Olivia, as she exists on screen, is a highly notional creature, a placeholder and a mouthpiece, rather than a rich character in her own right.

The series, to its credit, does aim for a light and whimsical tone, and its jazzy, Dixieland-inflected musical score helps keep things bouncing nicely. But the voice acting, though professional, is also a little too on-the-mark in mimicking the tones of well-scrubbed, well-behaved children and their gentle, doting, patient parents.

Despite its occasional moments of eccentricity, Olivia is a series that feels too touched with reverence for its literary original: too reluctant to make the changes necessary for an adaptation from page to screen, and too fearful of alienating parents by giving its stories a little sass and vinegar. It is by no means a charmless series, and those who let their children watch it will be able to do so with a clear conscience. But children are not the only people who best learn when challenged, and it would be better if their parents, too, were occasionally asked to give up some of their preconceptions about how safe a preschool show should be.

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