For most parents, last year was eventful, to say the least. Not always pleasant, not always clear, but eventful. After all that stress of red states and blue states, it’s time to take a little detour to the land of folk heroes and a special bear’s house. “Tall Tales and Legends” won numerous awards when it aired on television and it is now available for home viewing. I watched two tales in this series. They are both delightful, and a nice way to introduce a new generation to classic American folklore. As we settle into 2005, we can all benefit from stories we view that brings out the best in all of us and highlights appreciation of others.
TALL TALES AND LEGENDS: JOHN HENRY, not rated, February 2005, $12.98 VHS, $14.98 DVD; ages 7 and up.
Take a retro ride with actress Shelley Duvall’s “Tall Tales and Legends,” and you won’t regret it. John Henry is one of the oldest African American folk heroes, made famous in song and legend. Now Danny Glover plays the steel drivin’ man with dignity and sincerity. In fact, grownups may wonder what happened between this wonderful character and performance and the final, silly entries in the Lethal Weapon series. Anyway, like most folktales, this story has many versions; this DVD follows one of the most popular ones as John Henry is born into slavery on a thunderous night and grows up to be a free man working on the railroad. He races a steam hammer to open up a tunnel in a mountain of rock. As the industrial age looms, he shows that a “natural man” with a 20-pound hammer in each hand can still accomplish more than a mere machine. Alongside Glover, there is a bravura performance by the lovely Lynne Whitfield, and Chicago’s own Lou Rawls adds his velvet voice to the story. John Henry and his Irish servant friend Quinn (Tom Hulce) provide a reasonable way to start to help younger children understand slavery.
Sylvia Says: A. Makes history and folklore come alive in a fun and positive way.
TALL TALES AND LEGENDS: JOHNNY APPLESEED, not rated February 2005, $12.98 VHS, $14.98 DVD; ages 5 and up.
Johnny Appleseed’s quality production values, slapstick comedy and witty dialogue will really pull you in. In this version, featuring Martin Short as the title character, the tale plays out as the case of a naive and hopeful youth rebelling against a dour dad and an unwanted Harvard education. Thanks to the intervention of Mother Nature (who prefers to be called Betty), young Johnny takes on a new last name and a mission to plant apples everywhere he goes. The underlying message is about sustainability, using what you need, respecting the Earth and peaceful coexistence with nature. However, when Short does his silly apple planting dance and Rob Reiner’s delightfully despicable villain sends hunters out only to see them bring back handfuls of mouse skins, the laughs come easily, and Johnny Appleseed ends up more pleasant than preachy. The story is solidly engaging and the nearly 50 minutes go by quickly.
Sylvia Says: A. A great celebration of youth and nature.
BEAR IN THE BIG BLUE HOUSE: EVERYBODY’S SPECIAL, not rated, August 2004, $9.99 VHS, $14.99 DVD; ages 2-5.
In a video landscape cluttered with “products” for our kids, quality still stands out, and “Bear in the Big Blue House: Everybody’s Special” is nothing but quality. Three tales take us into a house where children’s fears and curiosities are welcome, where it is OK to have our differences. In my favorite episode, the Bear bunch overcome their fears after meeting Benny Bat. Things start out a little awkwardly, with a question about how long he has been hanging around. But before you know it, everyone finds out they have things in common and break out in a new dance. “The Yard Sale” and “As Different as Day and Night” continue the theme of how important it is to appreciate each other, and how nice it is to try new things from time to time.
I was slow to get on the Bear bandwagon, until a discussion with my friend Paul, a father of two preschool-age daughters, made me realize that Jim Henson’s magic is as alive as ever in Bear’s big smile.
Sylvia Says: A+. Songs about colors and opposites, guides for social development and other concepts are helpful and appropriate for preschoolers.
Sylvia Ewing is a mom and a writer. She also is a producer at WBEZ Chicago Public Radio