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"My First Scholastic Storybook Treasures": Buy This Ad!

by on May 18, 2011
 

If there were any truth in advertising, My First Scholastic Storybook Treasures DVD Collection would itself be advertised as an advertisement: an inducement to buy some books. The cartoons in this collection have all been adapted from a variety of children’s titles, and some of these “adaptations” are so rudimentary that they are barely more than photographs of the books themselves. It is all the more of a pleasure, then, to report that even childless animation-heads will find quite a lot to enjoy in it.

The best offerings, naturally, include those titles that are actually animated. Most of these are fairly old—dating from as early as 1969—but they all look pristine. The best of the bunch has to be “Picnic”, which is so fully a cartoon that it doesn’t even have dialogue or narration. In this completely winning 12-minute short a family of mice take off for a country picnic in the family truck. Disaster nearly ensues, however, when the smallest member of the family—a doll-hugging toddler—falls unnoticed off the back of the truck. There is some suspense and fear as the heartbroken youngster watches his (her?) family drive off, but it is very mild and non-exploitive. Though the drawings are simple and the animation limited, its visuals are highly appealing and the main characters—the misplaced baby, the parents, and two grandparents—get some subtle and expressive acting. Not a lot happens, but what there is is very absorbing because it has been so carefully observed and brought to life. It is also lifted by Ernest Troot’s bluegrassy score.

Another winner is “Rosie’s Walk”, which is what a Roadrunner/Coyote cartoon would look like if the series had been commissioned by Sesame Street. In this 4-minute short an oblivious chicken takes a tour of the barnyard while being stalked by an accident-prone fox. It’s a neat little story, and an especial delight for the way the narration also studiously ignores the fox’s pratfalls. Children should like it very much, but even adults may laugh out loud at some of its more ironical bits.

“The Most Wonderful Egg” is more down-to-earth, being a barnyard fairy-tale about three vain hens competing to see who can curry the most favor with the king by laying the best egg. It resolves in a way that would set Brad Bird’s teeth on edge (spoiler: Everyone is a winner!) but it is charming and handsome in a low-key way, and it nicely surprises by showing three unexpected ways than an egg can be “most wonderful.”

Finally there is a real discovery for animation experts: Gene Deitch’s “Drummer Hoff.” I’m not sure if the Caldecott-winning original book was based on a European story but it feels like it, being a playfully repetitive little bit of doggerel (like “This Is the House That Jack Built”) about seven soldiers who put together and fire off a massive cannon. Viewers of a certain age who are allergic to Peter Max-influenced psychedelia may want to give it a pass, but it looks good for what it is, and it unfolds with the kind of inevitability that children will enjoy.

In the less-than-animated category the collection gives us a lot of more contemporary stories that seem to have been “animated” by imparting rudimentary “movement” to elements within photographed illustrations. Here, the pleasures come from the artwork and the stories and much less from the animated presentations.

The best one here is “Duck on a Bike” which has some great illustrations for a story about a duck who steals a bicycle and rides it around the barnyard. The story is a little too repetitive and action-less to be fully involving, but Walter Mayes’s vocals transcend mere narration to become acting as he takes the parts of the duck and the animals.

“Hondo and Fabian”—which juxtaposes the very different adventures of a dog romping on a beach and a cat getting into trouble inside a house—is also very good. The narration is dryly ironical, and though it may go over the heads of tykes, supervising adults will smile at the un- or under-stated commentary. Those who appreciate fine illustrations may also jot down the title so they can glance at it on their next trip to the bookstore.

“Splat the Cat” also has quite a bit of character, and may comfort small children who dread the advent of elementary school. The title character—who actually never splats—is a kitten who dreads his first day at school, fights it all the way, and endures the first day with tremulous fears before gradually realizing that it really isn’t all that bad. It has been obviously written to soothe just the kind of fears that Splat has, and so it ends on an anticlimactic note, but it is also wryly aware that children are often not easily comforted, and so keeps the suspense going much longer than you might think possible.

More disappointing, because duller, are “Goose,” “The Bear Snores On,” and “Wild About Books.” The first is just “The Ugly Duckling” retold with less melodrama and hence much less poignancy, and the only surprise comes at how softly it ends. “The Bear Snores On” has a great premise: Animals seeking shelter huddle too close to a sleeping bear; as they become braver they become more and more active, with results that threaten to become disastrous. But it doesn’t build or become as extravagant or inventive as it could, and the conclusion feels written by an author who was too terrified of frightening children to give it anything but a sentimental twist. And though “Wild About Books”—about zoo animals who fall in love with reading and writing stories after a book-mobile takes a wrong turn—is clever and praiseworthy in its intent, it is so reverential about reading that it begins to feel like a lecture. Even bookish youngsters may feel condescended to.

And then there are the three shorts that merely photograph the book illustrations while a narrator tells the story. “The Napping House,” like “Drummer Hoff,” is one of those escalating stories that repeat established details while adding new ones. The book undoubtedly has its merits—like “Hondo and Fabian,” the visuals are luscious—but its telling is too slow and predictable. Imaginative viewers may also find themselves drifting away as they ponder the spooky-but-undeveloped conceit of a house all of whose inhabitants sleep.

“Each Peach Pear Plum” at least develops its neat little premise: Each page presents a tableaux drawn from a fairy tale in which an out-of-place character is lurking, and the viewer is invited to find the Waldo-like intruder. (So, for example, Cinderella can be found dusting in a back corner of Mother Hubbard’s house.) It is a great game for a book, but the short entirely undercuts it, as the camera will track toward the intruding element and pick it out for a viewer who can thus be entirely passive.

“The Story About Ping” is the longest short in this collection, and it’s the one that most outstays its welcome. The book it is based on seems quite charming—a duck becomes separated from his family—but it really needs to be told by a parent who can move through its rather plodding plot more quickly than this telling can manage

I have to end by decrying the one really objectionable story in this collection: “Leo the Late Bloomer.” It speaks, I suppose to any parent’s anxiety about their offspring; Leo is a tiger who can’t read or write or draw or even speak. His parents comfort themselves by deciding that he is a “late bloomer,” and eventually stop watching him altogether as the seasons pass and Leo doesn’t show any improvement. And then, without once suggesting that he has done any work or been prodded or taught by any other animal, Leo is suddenly able to read and write and draw, etc., as well as the other children in the jungle. It’s a bizarre and deeply off-putting message to impart: that skill and education simply happen, and that parents and children are entitled to be lazy and should simply sit back and wait for cognitive abilities to “bloom.” I am hard put to find any other way of interpreting this story.

Extras include a Spanish-language version of “The Story About Ping,” and a five-minute interview/featurette with “Splat the Cat” author Rob Scotton. The latter would be easier to take if he didn’t talk so much like the (fictional) children’s author August T. May from the old Bob & Ray radio programs.

There are enough good things on this set to make it a worthwhile purchase—but it really does work better as a convincing advertisement for some very solid books. I suspect Scholastic would not be displeased to find parents treating it as just that.

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