I’ve had a wonderful time reviewing videos for you since I was lucky enough to join the Chicago Parent team in March 2004. In fact, the only clouds in my blue sky were the occasional promising videos that turned out to be major disappointments, and the unbelievable number of packages I received with material intended for babies under 2, who should not be watching videos. Still, I loved all the watching, all the discussion, all the writing. With that said, here are my favorites of 2004.
FAMILIES OF VIETNAM, rated G, $19.95 VHS, (800) 765-5885, www.familiesoftheworld.com; ages 4-14.
Children are in tune with what is going on in the world, even if they don’t always understand it. Given all the talk about Vietnam lately, “Families of Vietnam” is a wonderful opportunity for families to learn how people live in a place that has been in the news a lot. The video takes us into the world of 4-year-old Bi and her family. They live in a rural area along a river. Le, on the other hand, is a 9-year-old who lives with her folks in the city. We see Vietnam from their young perspectives as they do chores, go to school and play. It’s one more reminder of how alike we all are.
HOME ON THE RANGE, rated PG, $24.99 VHS, $29.99 DVD; ages 5-12.
Like many Disney movies, the songs and guest stars are the big draws here. Still, the story is entertaining. The setting is the Old West, complete with outlaws and farmers trying to save their land. Three very different actresses—Jennifer Tilly, Roseanne Barr and Dame Judi Dench—give life and personality to bovine beauties Grace, Maggie and Mrs. Calloway. In a twist, they chase after a bad guy to win reward money to save their Patch of Heaven dairy farm. This story has just enough adventure—and plenty of double entendre rude humor—for slightly older kids, too.
FRIEDA, THE TWINKLE TOES BALLERINA, rated G, $19 VHS, (708) 301-8181; ages 3-5.
“Frieda, the Twinkle Toes Ballerina” is modestly produced, but it works. This is a local effort from a dance instructor. Marianne Kyler is charming and has a real rapport with her young dancers. She is comfortable with the camera and the students seem to be having fun. Ballet basics are covered. There are plenty of good ideas here for anyone who wants to get a youngster up and moving. The video is only available by phone. The price includes shipping and handling. ELOISE AT THE PLAZA, rated G, 2003, $19.99 VHS, $24.99 DVD; ages 4 and up.
This movie is faithful to the book’s whimsical sense of a special place and time. Eloise is a wiseacre with a heart of gold. She can be naughty, but without underlying meanness. She takes great joy in finding out what happens when you pour water down a mail chute. Christine Baranski fits right in with the retro New York feel of the movie as Prunella Stickler. Parents will recognize Julie Andrews as Eloise’s nanny and Jeffrey Tambor, currently on FOX’s ingenious “Arrested Development.” Sofia Vassilieva brings the title character to life.
MISS SPIDER’S SUNNY PATCH KIDS, rated G, $9.94 VHS, $14.95 DVD; ages 2-5.
Miss Spider and her husband, Holley—yes, this Miss is married—have a web full of babies. The cute couple and their five kids bring the book series by David Kirk to life. Squirt, one of the feisty youngsters, gets in trouble trying to help someone weaker than himself, putting his own family in danger. This is a sweet take on a story as familiar as the classic Pokey Little Puppy from Golden Books, but the animation and parents’ perspective is all about today.
IS YOUR MAMA A LLAMA ... AND MORE STORIES ABOUT GROWING UP, rated G, 2004, $9.95 VHS, $14.95 DVD; ages 2-7.
The Scholastic name remains a stamp of approval for books, and these days, videos and games. All four stories in this collection have a message about growing up or helping children feel better about being different, whether it means learning more slowly than others, or looking different from your family. It is a nice addition to your collection, especially when you are looking for lessons on diversity and self-esteem. The DVD has bonus features, including a read-along and a Spanish version of the story.
SESAME STREET: WHAT’S THE NAME OF THAT SONG? rated G, 2004, $9.98 VHS, $12.98 DVD; ages 3-10.
One of the neatest things about Sesame Street is the variety of stars eager to make their mark on the program. That means you, your tweens and your toddlers can all have a great time with this special offering of Sesame Street songs. This video spans genres from the Dixie Chicks’ country twang (performed alongside three Muppet hens) to jazzy Diana Krall, to Broadway’s Nathan Lane. Talk show superstars Katie Couric and Conan O’Brien pay a visit, along with Patti LaBelle, Queen Latifah and Ben Stiller. Of course, there’s also Ernie, Elmo, Big Bird and the rest. This is a great gift that gives something back: Sales benefit the nonprofit Sesame Workshop, which runs programs to benefit children around the world.
BZOTS: ESCAPE A GO-GO! rated G, $14.99 DVD, www.bzots.com; ages 4-14,
Bzots is a locally-produced DVD featuring robots who are the right mix of cool and adorable for fans of different ages. It’s a favorite for everyone from my collegiate daughter to the 6-year-old she babysits. Skree and Wkewke make a friend—pun intended—when they build a third robot to join them in their escape from the factory and the evil leader who runs the Globocrud company. Bzots has some nice finishing touches; I like the intergenerational “factory workers” who make lively and colorful extras in their factory jumpsuits.
AGENT CODY BANKS 2: DESTINATION LONDON, rated PG, $22.98 VHS, $26.98 DVD; ages 7-14.
This time, our hero is on a mission to stop a diabolical (is there any other kind?) plot in an English boarding school. Frankie Muniz is able to make his role as the CIA’s ace adolescent agent interesting and energetic. Agent Cody Banks is the cousin of “Spy Kids” with a dose of the spirit of cartoon hero Jonny Quest thrown in for good measure. Muniz is the man of the moment for kids from 7 to 17 and has the acting chops to keep this action flick afloat.
POPULAR MECHANICS FOR KIDS: SLITHER AND SLIME AND OTHER YUCKY THINGS, unrated, $12.98 VHS, $14.98 DVD; ages 8-14.
Kids love gross stuff and so do I. From the Museum of Science and Industry to “The Magic School Bus,” getting dirty and upping the yuck factor has been a popular way to help young people answer science and nature questions for ages. “Slither and Slime” sends kids on a journey that includes visiting a big water tunnel under construction in New York, and following the path of a ping pong ball as it makes its way through the sewers.
The young hosts are much more enjoyable than adults, and the production is well done. This is perfect for tweens, but I think curious younger kids will like it too.
Sylvia M. Ewing is a mom and a writer. She is a producer for WBEZ Chicago Public Radio.