Finding Lots to Love in "The North Star" & "The Scrambled States of America"
A common criticism of TV is that it will distract younger viewers from reading books. This criticism is a bit harder to sustain in the face of Scholastic’s Storybook Treasures series of DVDs, which faithfully adapt well-known and award-winning children’s books for the screen, sometimes through “pan-imation” over original artwork and sometimes in more fully animated renditions. The latest two DVDs in the series are real winners, presenting a batch of good adaptations of some terrific kids’ books.
The Scrambled States of America adapts four books by Laurie Keller. If some education is disguised as entertainment, Keller’s books are more like entertainment disguised as education. Unabashedly silly and with a nearly unnatural affection for bad puns, Keller’s books are thoroughly enjoyable for children of all ages, and their adaptations on this disc are faithful down to the numerous jokes she wedges into the margins. “The Scrambled States of America” shows what would happen if the different states all decided to take vacations to other parts of the country. While the original book is a personal favorite, the adaptation feels a bit long, mostly because I think the material works better in book form. On the other hand, the sequel “Scrambled States of America Talent Show” is an absolute riot, delivering exactly what it promises. In contrast to the first book, this one is much funnier in animated form, since the singing, dancing, juggling, and other zaniness translate beautifully to a moving medium. It also yields opportunities for different kinds of jokes that would only work in this medium, like the multi-layered gag of having Pennsylvania play John Philip Sousa’s “The Liberty Bell” on that historical monument, since that piece is probably better known as the theme to Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
“Do Unto Otters (A Book About Manners)” is cute, but feels a bit too much like a recitation of lists and jokes to really work very well as an animated adaptation. There are a quite a few funny bits to be mined from it, but it feels a bit disappointing sandwiched between the “Scrambled States of America Talent Show” and the next adaptation, “Open Wide: Tooth School Inside.” This last short is ostensibly about teeth, although it’s an excuse for more silliness and dental puns, and thank goodness for that. Narrated with dry humor by Michael McKean, this short comes a close second to “Talent Show” for being the most enjoyable on the disc, and also being the best page-to-screen adaptation.
The North Star contains five adaptations centering on the theme of following one’s dreams, and while the last two shorts on the disc are stretching it, the disc as a whole is an unqualified delight from start to finish. The title short adapts the book by Peter H. Reynolds, and if the metaphorical story of a boy making a journey through a forest is rather familiar and not too subtle, it’s also told with enough charm and good humor to be completely winning. “That Book Woman” is probably my favorite short on this disc, adapting Heather Henson’s book about the Pack Horse Librarians, who roamed the mountains of Appalachia to serve the literary needs of people who were literally miles away from their nearest neighbors. It’s touching and altogether wonderful: sure-footed, beautifully told, and proving once again that Librarians are Awesome. “Players in Pigtails” is a more kid-friendly version of A League of Their Own, telling the story of the Girls Professional Baseball League and what it meant to the women who played in it. Energetically narrated by Zooey Deschanel (who also sings two songs), it will be familiar material for anyone who’s seen the earlier film, but it’s equally inspirational.
I must admit some confusion over why the last two shorts fit the theme of the disc, but they’re both enjoyable enough that I don’t really care. “Yo! Yes?” is the only fully hand-drawn animated short on these two discs (the rest being either Flash or pan-imation over book illustrations). It’s a minimalist story about making friends, with only two characters on screen and pretty monosyllabic dialogue. The animation is excellent, and while I imagine the book might be a bit too slight to be really satisfying, the short can still feel like a full experience on its own. Finally, “Swamp Angel” recounts a Tennessee tall tale by Anne Isaacs and Paul O. Zelinsky, dominated by a hilariously over-the-top battle between the Paul Bunyan-esque title character and the massive marauding bear Thundering Tarnation. While I love the original that this story is based on and think that this adaptation is perfectly fine, I must admit some disappointment that this is only a pan-imation short over the original artwork. Swamp Angel (the book and the character) seems tailor-made for full animation.
Like the other Scholastic DVDs in this series, these shorts are all presented in full-frame with stereo soundtracks. Since most of these shorts were made quite recently, video and audio quality is excellent across the board. There are the usual karaoke-style subtitles that let kids at home read along with their own books. Bonus features include interviews with two of the authors that will probably only be of interest to the most dedicated of children, but which parents might enjoy. The “Scrambled States” DVD includes two interviews with Laurie Keller: one concerning her earlier works and one later interview going into more detail for the Scrambled States sequel (and her plans for a third and final one). The “North Star” DVD has an interview with Book Woman author Heather Henson, including some more historical information about the Pack Horse Librarians. The “Scrambled States” DVD also includes a bonus music video of the “Tooth School Anthem” from “Open Wide.”