Thursday, July 30, 2009

Wild Pacific

Did you like Planet Earth? Are you looking for some more BBC nature shows? Wild Pacific continues their string of excellence and offers a fascinating in-depth study of the flora, fauna, geology, and people of the South Pacific. The US DVD release has been retitled from the original BBC broadcast appropriately named South Pacific, perhaps to avoid any angry letters from aging US musical fans duped into a purchasing error. Unlike the US broadcast of Planet Earth, the new series retains the original British narration. Unfortunately, the narrator isn’t BBC legend David Attenborough, but the new kid with the preposterous moniker of Benedict Cumberbatch does a serviceable job.

The series has six hour-long episodes that try to assign a different theme to each one (“Castaways”, “Strange Islands”), but the formula is largely unchanged from show to show, basically stringing together an enchanting mix of rare land and sea animals with some information about their specific Pacific homes and humanity’s impact on them. Like Planet Earth and other BBC nature productions, the show has a definite evolutionary stance that may grate on some sensitive creationists out there, but there’s no denying that the footage is absolutely breathtaking and in some cases groundbreaking.

As noted in the first episode, the Pacific is largest ocean on Earth, and the series goes on to explore the isolation of its islands, the perilous journeys wildlife and humans have gone through to reach them, and what happened to both after their arrival. While the distance between its islands can be hundreds or thousands of miles, life made it to most places, although it didn’t always stay that way, as evidenced by the man-made desolation of Easter Island. Where life did flourish, it often adapted in unique ways that are explored in the series, such as giant crabs that crack open coconuts and insect-eating caterpillars. The series doesn’t just travel to Tahiti and Fiji, it digs deep and explores the entire ocean, even landing on a miniscule and remote island with only a few hundred inhabitants.

Also similar to Planet Earth, each episode contains some bonus footage at the end detailing the challenges they faced in filming a particular segment of that episode, for instance some stunning surfing footage in the first episode that required them to build a custom underwater rig for their hi def camera, avoid the jagged reef under the shallow water, and come back a second time weeks after they intended to shoot in order to capture the best waves.

Deserving of special mention: this DVD series arrived on our shores a mere two months after its original UK broadcast, a delightfully speedy turnaround. Wild Pacific is now available on DVD and Blu-ray, but if you have Blu capability you’d be doing yourself a disservice to even consider it on DVD, especially considering the Blu-ray’s relatively modest $5 list price premium over DVD.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Super Why!: Jack and the Beanstalk & Other Story Book Adventures

One of the newer shows in the PBS kids lineup is also one of their best from both educational and entertainment standpoints. Super Why! follows the adventures of four Super Reader friends who band together to solve storybook puzzles based on familiar titles such as “Little Red Riding Hood”. Although the show is only two years old, it has garnered significant recognition such as the Parents’ Choice Silver Honor Award and National Parenting Center Seal of Approval and was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Preschool Children’s Series. It’s presented in an appealing format that will allow discerning parents to happily join in the viewing experience, unlike some other painful shows out there (I’m looking at you, Dora).

Each episode opens with the star character, a little boy named Whyatt, encountering a problem that needs solving with the help of his three friends: Alpha Pig with Alphabet Power, Wonder Red with Word Power, Princess Presto with Spelling Power. Whyatt, aka Super Why, has his own Power to Read and the characters frequently address the viewer for assistance as well, making your child Super YOU with the Power to Help. The four friends have their own vehicles called Why Flyers that allow them to enter the storybook of their choice where they interact with the characters while searching for Super Letters to help them solve the word puzzle of the day which also ties into the problem resolution.

The presentation of the program really shines, as it’s rendered in a colorful widescreen CG world that really pops in HD. It doesn’t feel like a cut-rate production in any way, and in fact can go toe-to-toe with the best of anything else on Nick Jr. or the Disney Channel. The character designs are well done and the vocal talent is perfectly matched to their animated avatars.

The best part is the show’s strong emphasis on reading comprehension, as it constantly asks children to spell out the letters they find and compare the differences that happen when the characters change key letters in words, then replace those words in sentences. While it’s geared toward children in the 3-6 age range, younger children can also join in the fun as the show moves at a forgiving pace that allows even the youngest viewers to grasp the gist of the adventures. Nick Jr. and Disney may boast of shows that promote positive social values, but Super Why! is one of those far too rare shows that actually packs in some core educational content, dovetailing nicely with fellow PBS stalwart Sesame Street.

The new DVD, which is the first widespread US DVD release for the show, contains four full half-hour episodes: Jack and the Beanstalk, Princess and the Pea, The Three Little Pigs, and Little Red Riding Hood. In addition to the episodes, the DVD includes Interactive Games, Music Videos, Printable Activities and Coloring Pages, and Resources for Parents. The extras are largely inconsequential, but the episodes are entertaining and well worth repeat viewing. Super Why!: Jack and the Beanstalk & Other Story Book Adventures is now available on DVD.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dollhouse Season 1

Upon viewing some preview footage of Dollhouse at last summer’s San Diego Comic-Con, one plucky young lass boldly noted to attending creator Joss Whedon and star Eliza Dushku that it didn’t really grab her and asked why she should watch the show. Whedon was visibly taken aback, but the girl had a valid point. Coming from a creator with a messiah-like following due to his ability to weave intricate dramatic mythologies with comic and even musical touches, Whedon’s concept for the show seemed more than a bit pedestrian. After a delayed premiere to retool the show’s framework and reshoot the pilot, the show limped through its early hours before gaining a bit of traction near the end of its abbreviated 12 episode season. Now the complete first season along with the original unaired pilot and an unaired 13th episode, “Epitaph One”, is coming to DVD and Blu-ray in advance of the show’s 2nd season premiere and final shot for redemption.

Dushku stars as Echo, one of a group of fetching young people residing in the titular dollhouse, a clandestine organization where they are implanted with alternate personalities at the whim of their benefactors. Their own personalities have been removed and stored on what appear to be hard drives, leaving them fairly mindless drones during their downtime. Why Echo and the others agreed or were coerced to join this insane program isn’t really covered in season 1, although the shady organization is explored more thoroughly as the season progresses. There’s something inherently icky about the dollhouse’s concept, as it’s clear the mind-wiped dolls are frequently pimped out for sexual assignments, so it will be interesting to see how or if this is justified in season two.

For a Whedon show, it’s far too humorless in its early outings, and it fails to draw viewers into its mythology due to its focus on Echo’s personality of the week. Sure, it’s a fine acting showcase for Dushku to show off her range, but watching her as a hostage negotiator, backup singer, and blind cult worshiper in the initial weeks does little to encourage repeat viewing. It’s only near the midpoint of the season that the writers seem to wake up and inject more focus on the far more interesting company rather than Echo’s personalities. The best creative jolt is reserved for the final two episodes of the season, when fellow Whedon alum Alan Tudyk joins the cast as the criminally insane Alpha, a rogue doll set up as the big bogeyman of the show due to his previous killing spree within the dollhouse. I had serious misgivings about Tudyk in this role based on his largely comic resume, but he ends up stealing the show with his unhinged and surprisingly threatening performance.

The Dollhouse season one set is available on both DVD and Blu-ray on July 28th, 2009. My advance materials didn’t contain the two unaired episodes or any extras, which apparently will appear on the 4th disc in the set, but the extras reportedly include deleted scenes and standard “making of” featurettes. The show may not be what rabid Whedon fans have come to expect from their leader, but it does have a chance to grow into a solid performer if the writers can get it right.

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