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|Kevin Krock, editor|
What do you get when you combine an international literary icon named Winnie the Pooh, Bunraku (Boon-ra-koo) — a centuries-old Japanese puppetry technique — the power of modern digital video and computers? The answer is The Book of Pooh, Disney’s latest adaptation of A.A. Milne’s classic characters.
Produced and developed by “Bear in the Big Blue House” creator Mitchell Kriegman, the original Book of Pooh TV series made its debut on the Disney Channel in 2000. The show takes the traditionally animated characters we have all grown familiar with, and turns them into fully articulated, three- dimensional puppets who spend their time in a vibrantly colored, three- dimensional, computer- drawn version of the Hundred Acre Wood. Each episode has a couple of stories focusing on either one of the characters, or a child- appropriate topic. The stories, kept fairly short for young children’s short attention spans, are simple and appropriately structured. Additionally, the producers try to include splashes of educational material when the opportunity arises.
The visual aspects of the show are also targeted towards children rather than adults. The puppets’ designs are based on the classic Disney characterizations, so they look familiar to the young viewer from the opening credits. Their voices are also done by the same folks, like Jim Cummings (Pooh, Tigger), who have been voicing the characters for the past several years. The puppeteers do a great job of giving the characters natural- looking movements and expressions; a difficult feat when up to three people are required to move one puppet.
The computer- generated virtual sets use fairly saturated and bright colors — almost to the point of distraction for adults — that still maintain a soft, hand- painted illustration quality. A minor visual issue is the periodic disappearance of thin character parts, such as Tigger’s whiskers. This is an artifact of the digital process that removes the green- clad puppeteers and green backdrop from the camera image to replace with the computer- generated virtual set. While not a fatal flaw, it can be a bit distracting for adults, although children will probably not notice.
The advertising for this DVD implies “an all- new, full- length adventure,” but it is, in fact, a series of six short stories rather than a single, long one. Actually this is probably better for most preschoolers, since they tend to only sit still long enough for a story or two. Thankfully, each of the stories is a separate DVD chapter. The individual stories are loosely tied together by the premise that Christopher Robin bookmarked his favorite story about each character. Rather than waiting for Christopher to return home and read the stories to them, Pooh and the gang decide to read the stories themselves, with the help of the movie’s narrator.
Spoiler alert — each of the six stories follows different plots:
There are a couple of goodies worth noting. The first is a pretty nice 10- minute documentary called “When Pooh Was Very Young,” which covers Pooh’s history from A.A. Milne’s inception of the character through The Book of Pooh. It has several interesting tidbits, and provides good background information for the parents.
The other goodies are strictly for children: a set of simple puzzles with matching shapes, connect- the- dots pages, and coloring pages. Each of the games is narrated, so children can understand how to play them. All are designed with easy first pages and subsequent pages that increase in difficulty.
The Video, Audio and Interface
There is nothing terribly special about the video. Like the TV show, it is in full- frame, and issues related to the video are caused more by the virtual set imaging rather than the transfer to DVD. As one would expect for a direct- to- video, the colors are bright and solid with no major flaws.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, but the only surround effects that I noticed were during the scenes with music. Most of the audio comes from the front speakers, but it is clear and should sound fine on any system. Since this title is designed for children, the producers were probably not concerned with the lack of surround activity on a 5.1 audio mix.
The most impressive value- added feature on this disc is the interface, which opens with a nicely animated scene of The Book of Pooh book opening up and presenting the top menu to the viewer. A narrator then tells the viewer what each of the selections are, and how to select them. For children who cannot read, Disney provides an icon, such as a honey pot or carrot, with the narrator explaining what the are for.
For example, viewers are informed that selecting the leaf plays the movie, and next to the leaf is the word “Play.” Only the main menu and the Bonus Features menu are narrated. All of the menus have some type of upbeat musical accompaniment, and the menus themselves are bright, clear, and laid out in a simple hierarchy. The interface is actually one of the better executed children’s DVD interfaces that I have seen.
The Final Evaluation
From the minute you pop this disc in your player, it is clear that this disc is truly targeted at younger viewers rather than at parents or older children. With the narrated menus, games, etc. to help children find their way around the disc and the movie being a series of short stories for short attention spans, the disc is pretty solid as a children’s title. Overall, though, the stories, songs, and visual presentation on the DVD are virtually indistinguishable from the TV series, so do not expect this disc to push The Book of Pooh into new territory with better graphics, puppets, and so on.
If you and your children love the TV series and cannot get enough of it, then this disc is for you. If you have not seen the TV series or do not have access to the Disney Channel, you may want to at least give the disc a rental spin to check out Pooh and the gang in this unique visual presentation.
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