Something Good for the Children

One man's opinions on the bewildering world of family entertainment. My philosophy: it should be good, first of all. If it teaches a valuable life lesson or educates, that's a fine bonus, but if I'm going to see it, too, I don't want to feel like clawing my eyes out.

Timeless Thoughts About Children's Literature

On a shelf in my office sits Collier's Junior Classics, a ten-volume collection of children's stories from authors both famous and forgotten, from all places and all times. My parents bought this collection when my sister was born, and now I read from this collection to my daughter, and maybe one day she'll read from one of these books to her child. Even just glancing at the spines recalls to mind the wonderment of youth:


The introduction printed at the beginning of each volume by series editor Margaret Martignoni is timeless. It is, firstly, as magnificent a defense of the value of children's literature--or literature in general--as I've ever read. But then it lays out, in unshakable language, the qualities that great children's literature must possess. Martignoni had been, among other things, a public librarian in Brooklyn, and her work on this series is a reminder of a time when the importance of libraries and librarians were still widely understood (I may be biased here, since I am married to a wonderful librarian.)

Martignoni begins her introduction by explaining the importance of literature for children:

We are children only once, and then only for a few brief years. But these are the most impressionable years of a lifetime. Never again will the world and everything in it be so eternally new, so filled with wonder. Never again will physical, mental, spiritual growth be so natural and unavoidable. During these years, habits become ingrained, tastes are developed, personality takes form. The child's whole being is geared towards learning. He instinctively reaches out for truth and, having no prejudices, seizes upon that which is good, just, beautiful. For these reasons, a child deserves what Walter de la Mare has called "only the rarest kind of best."

And then she lays out her criteria for great children's literature:

What do we mean by "best" in a book for children? Best books reflect universal truths with clarity and artistry. Such books reveal that man is essentially good and that life is infinitely worth living. They do not deny the existence of evil, but rather emphasize man's thrilling struggle against evil through faith, courage, and perseverance. They awaken the young reader's imagination, call forth his laughter as well as his tears, help him to understand and to love his fellow man. The reading of such books constitutes a rich heritage of experience which is every child's birthright.

As I've often said in my reviews of children's movies, it's easy to fall into the trap of rating films and books for children on the basis of what they lack--do they avoid bloodshed, vulgarity, and uncomfortable sexual innuendo? But we should start by asking what these stories have to offer: not what bad things they avoid, but what good things they do. A great book can do more than improve a child's vocabulary and reading comprehension. A great book can make its reader a better person. Great stories connect people with each other and with their inner selves. They explain the history and necessity of civilization better than any textbook could, and help children take their places within that civilization.

If you are a parent, teacher, or other adult with children under your care, what book have you given those children that could meet Martignoni's definition of "best"?

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Batman, the Animated Series: Wow, Was This Good

It's now time to begin Batman Week, and I for one am giddy with anticipation. Okay, maybe not, but I've been looking forward to this. Not to spoil the surprise, but there will be four titles in this series. The first is excellent, and the others are pretty darn good, awful, and solid but with a giant asterisk, in that order.



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Banacek: What Is Family Entertainment, Anyway?

Picture this... an American starlet is marrying a "shah." As a wedding present, the shah has given her a one-of-a-kind horse coach, studded with diamonds and other jewels, inlaid with gold, a fabulous treasure on wheels. The gift of the coach has been accepted and now must be sent aboard a cargo ship for its journey to their new home.



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Cat Week Is Over

With the posting of the Cats review, Cat Week is at an end. Up next will be a bit of a wild card, but something that goes to the heart of my feelings about family entertainment versus children's entertainment. Then coming soon after that, prepare yourself for...


Batman Week!

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Camp Scare and Abracadabra-Doo: You've Come a Long Way, Scooby

Scooby-Doo Camp ScareImage

The original Scooby-Doo shows were famously repetitive. The basic plot structure was identical for every episode, but besides that, they also would repeat the same (crummy) animation sequences. One particular animation sequence, of the whole gang walking from left-to-right, is usually played at least twice per episode. Every possible trick was employed to keep the number of animation frames to a minimum, like when someone crashes into something, we usually see a reaction shot instead of the crash.

Since then, much has changed. Starting in 1998 with Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, Scooby and the rest of the gang began appearing in a series of direct-to-DVD films. In some cases, the tried-and-true plot formula was followed, but not always. Perhaps more striking, though, was the upgrade in animation quality. The two films made in 2010, Scooby Doo: Camp Scare and Scooby Doo: Abracadabra-Doo, are very well animated. I don't want to oversell this -- don't expect something on par with Disney feature animation. But when you consider where the series started, it's an amazing transformation. In these two films, characters are shadowed and shaded, richly animated, travel freely in three dimensions, and I spot lots of computer-assist, like lens flares on flashlights in the dark. I honestly haven't been this impressed by t.v.-grade animation since the original Batman: The Animated Series. What's also great is that although the quality of the animation is updated, the characters have their classic look and feel. I can imagine the temptation was great to modernize the look, but that's been wisely avoided.

Okay, so the films look great, but what about the rest of it? Both of these films have good stories. I mean, let's face it, in the end we are still talking about Scooby Doo, and it's foolish to expect a plot worthy of G. K. Chesterton. All of the films in this series suffer from a basic problem, namely that some guy wearing a mask scaring people for nefarious ends really isn't enough of a story to fill out a 90 minute film. Some of the films handled this problem badly, namely by adding truly supernatural elements or idiotic subplots. But Camp Scare and Abracadabra-Doo come by their lengths honestly, by letting events unfold gradually, and allowing little character moments to fill in time. My only plot complaint is that the villain of Abracadabra-Doo is apparently motivated by the desire to make a little cash, which is fine, but is employing a scheme that looks like it would cost millions of dollars to implement. It's like a guy trying to transmute gold back to lead or something.

The characters are fun, with more depth than you might expect from the old show. Fred in particular has blossomed from the leader who never missed an opportunity to split the group up, to an over-eager, sweet-hearted goof. In Camp Scare, there's a running gag about Fred wanting to be a great counselor at the camp he attended as a boy, and gosh if I didn't almost start to care a little about Fred before I came to my senses and remembered I was watching a Scooby-Doo movie. And while Shaggy and Scooby are always the most annoying elements of any Scooby-Doo story, there are moments in Abracadabra-Doo where the pair are downright heroic.

Some notes on the casting: Casey Kasem has retired, and Matthew Lilliard, from the live-action Scooby films, has taken over voice duties for Shaggy. Although he has the vocal tics down, he doesn't really sound anything like Kasem. It's just something you have to accept. Also, Velma is now voiced by Mindy Cohn, best known as Natalie from The Facts of Life. It turns out to be a great fit. I was surprised--other than using Velma's trademark vocabulary ("Jinkies!"), she uses her normal voice, and she doesn't really sound like the original Velma. Even so, she sounds very natural for the character.

Rating for both films: 3/4. Bottom line: these two films are about as good as Scooby-Doo can get. They are still too much of a formula children's adventure to be worthy of the fourth star, as I can't imagine sitting through an entire 90 minute Scooby film without my daughter on the couch next to me. But for what they're aiming to be, they hit the mark. Bravo, Scooby! Have yourself a scooby-snack.


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