Hidden gems on DVD

Videos - March 2005


Sylvia M. Ewing


I like to think of the Chicago Parent reader as a very special audience. I like to think of myself as a friendly, if opinionated, family advisor. This marks my one-year anniversary of reviewing quality videos you don’t want to miss, and hopefully helping you wade through the hundreds of titles that become available each month.

To mark the occasion, this month’s theme is hidden gems—videos you may not have heard about, but don’t want to miss. Thanks for reading, and a special shout-out to my younger readers.

THE BOY WHO WANTED TO BE A BEAR, not rated, February 2005, $19.95 DVD; ages 9 and up.

I loved this story—loved it, loved it, loved it. And now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, I’ll tell you why. First of all, “The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Bear” has a great provenance; it comes from the same people who made the excellent movie “The Triplets of Belleville” and has a haunting score from the composer of “Winged Migration.”

But it’s the story that captivates. It’s a story about family, love and loss—something we can all relate to.

As the story begins, snow is swirling everywhere, and there is a real sense of urgency as a pregnant polar bear slips and slides in a storm, urged on by her mate because they are on the run from a pack of wolves. Not far away, in a modest shack, an Inuit woman is home alone, facing the imminent birth of her baby.

The polar bear cub is stillborn, and its mother is inconsolable. The human baby is born safely, but his mother’s happiness is marred by the sad sounds carried across the ice.

The keening of the grieving bear reminds the Inuit woman of an old legend, and her heart fills with worry. But her husband, who has returned from the hunt, brushes aside her fears, and they are both swept away on a tide of joy … until the polar bear’s mate is driven to do the unthinkable and steals the baby boy away.

What follows is part logic, part fantasy and all good. We watch birth, death and decisions that can change everything.

This is the story of two families and the boy they both think of as their own. One family is a human couple who follow the old ways out on the ice as their modernized relatives follow a new way of life in town. The other family is made up of the polar bears and a friendly bird who hangs around like a wisecracking uncle.

This is a challenging tale on many levels, as it shows how hard and how beautiful Mother Nature can be. I hope you give it a chance. It is one of the most rewarding and appropriate tales I have seen in a long time.

Sylvia Says: A+.  

DENISE AUSTIN’S FIT KIDS, not rated, December 2004, $14.98 VHS and DVD; ages 8-14.

If you are looking for a way to make fitness fun, this is it. Denise Austin is a user-friendly exercise expert who may be familiar to some of you from her many cable shows. She always seemed to make working out enjoyable. Now, as a member of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, she has developed a workout just for kids, and she brings her optimistic and sunny style to the serious issue of childhood obesity.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not one of those “do it because you should” videos. This is one your kids will want to do. The DVD has a music video feel, but it’s actually a sneaky way to enjoy a workout.

Even a Chicago snob such as myself enjoyed the Times Square setting for the workout (talk about a place that has cleaned up its act), and Austin has two daughters and is a natural with kids.

The moves should work for anyone who likes dance, yoga, traditional sports or just running around. The music is varied enough so that there is something for everyone, from hip-hop to rock.

Sylvia Says: A. This is a positive way to introduce exercise. The special features include a 20-minute workout that’s a little more adult friendly, perhaps for you to tackle after they’re off to bed or before they wake up in the morning. POCKET SNAILS, not rated, February 2005, $12.95 VHS, $15.95 DVD; ages 2-5.

Two things about this DVD stand out for me. The name is, well, an unattractive concept unless you are a certain age. But the pacing is distinctive, too.

Pocket Snails is not frenetic, but a slow and steady story that also helps kids learn the alphabet.

It’s just what you’d want for toddlers and preschool children. Pocket Snails has won a number of awards from Dr. Toy, the Dove Foundation and others, and I think they’re well deserved.

The story centers around a little boy named Jake and his three little friends, Gordon, Dale and Buttons. The friends may be snails, but they are brightly colored with sweet expressions. They are on an adventure where wildlife appears as uppercase and lowercase letters in different settings. The snail trio, Jake and an unseen narrator are the only characters. They take pictures of letters and sing songs. And then they do it again and again. And, just in case, once again.

Once you get over the fact that the snails live in Jake’s pocket, you can really appreciate the slow and steady—almost literary—way that the trio shares the letters of the alphabet.

My friend Kate does not usually watch videos with her son and my friend, 4-year-old Theo, because she thinks most are too fast paced. This is the kind of video she may like; it’s really useful for reinforcing alphabet recognition skills as young ones prepare to read.

Sylvia Says: B+ for video education that will not shorten attention spans. This is not an all-ages video; it is very much a tool for learning the alphabet. The youngest viewers deserve special attention. Music CD available.  

Sylvia M. Ewing is a mom and a writer. She also is a producer at  WBEZ Chicago Public Radio.

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