TV Character study
Children's TV and movies have undergone a real renaissance
in the past few years. Katherine Granich spoke to three of the
creative forces behind our innovative new children's programming -
two fun, educational TV shows and a film with a compelling message
for adults and children alike.
I let my daughter watch TV - some nights, it's the only
way I can manage to get dinner cooked and on the table. But, as a
parent, I worry about exposing her to too much TV, or the wrong
kind of TV, or TV that's going to come back to haunt me next time
we're at the supermarket and she sees an image of her favourite
character on a muesli bar box. Or a packet of tissues. Or a
toothbrush. (You know who you are.) So I jumped at the chance to
learn a bit more about the talented grown-ups behind three of my
daughter's favourite animated characters - Ford Riley, the creator
of Playhouse Disney's Special Agent Oso; Mary Harrington, executive
producer of Nick Jr's Ni Hao, Kai Lan; and Kate Dicamillo, writer
of the film The Tale of Despereaux.
His wife Holly's stuffed bear named Oso (spanish for "bear") was
the inspiration for Ford Riley's Special Agent Oso character, a
panda bear voiced by Sean Astin in the new Playhouse Disney
children's animated series. Drawing on his experience as the parent
of a son with autism, Ford wanted to create a show with a purpose
other than mere entertainment.
"My son Quinn was diagnosed with autism in
2005. The inspiration for the specific tasks in the show came from
watching therapists working with him, breaking down tasks - like
buttoning a shirt - into the smallest steps possible," Ford
explains. "Watching my son struggle with the things I took for
granted was a real eye-opener."
Ford was on the treadmill watching a James
Bond flick when the idea for Special Agent Oso came to him. "My son
wandered into the room and was fascinated by the film, but of
course I couldn't let him watch it as it wasn't age-appropriate. So
I got to thinking, wouldn't it be great if there was a real-feeling
special agent-type show for two- to six-year-olds?"
Ford's creation, Oso, is a stuffed panda
bear who works for U.N.I.Q.U.E. (United Network for Investigating
Quite Usual Events) and spends every episode on a special mission,
helping a child to accomplish an everyday task, like tying shoes or
mailing a letter. Oso doesn't just rush in and fix things, he
learns along with the child he's helping. Sean Astin, the voice of
Oso, said that when he first read the script for the pilot, he felt
like the part was written just for him - and his own daughters love
watching it. "Children feel a real connection to Oso, as he's very
honest and on their level. He doesn't pretend to be smarter than
they are, and he shows them that it's okay to ask questions and
take your time learning something."
Ford agrees. "A lot of parents have told
me that the idea of 'three special steps' is something that their
kids really respond to. It has a wider appeal; kids of any ability
can use it to help them with tasks beyond the scope of the
"Part of my son's autism diagnosis is
speech delays, and when we showed the pilot to him, it was the
first time I had witnessed him interacting verbally with the TV.
Oso said, 'Do you see where the envelope is?' and I heard this
little voice reply, 'There!' It was a huge breakthrough to witness
that. That was when I realised I've got to be on to something
Ford's experience with Disney is
impressive. Before creating Special Agent Oso, he developed the
animated TV series The Land Before Time, and also worked on
Higglytown Heroes, Teamo Supremo, Teacher's Pet, and Timon &
Pumbaa. So he understand's children's programming - and has no
qualms about sharing his opinion on the place of TV in parenting.
"Obviously you have to be selective about what you let your child
watch. The inspiration for this show was because I didn't want my
son watching James Bond. But I think it can also be a hugely
powerful tool for education. I've witnessed my own child learning
language skills from watching TV."
Special Agent Oso screens daily on
Playhouse Disney (SKY channel 45) at 10.25am and 6.30pm.
Mary Harrington has worked on some of my favourite animated shows
from adolescence - Doug, Rugrats, Rocko's Modern Life, and The Ren
& Stimpy Show - so I was really interested to hear about her
involvement as Executive Producer of Nick Jr's new show for three-
to five-year-olds, Ni Hao, Kai-Lan.
"As a producer, I like to look for
compelling characters and things that I think would translate well
into animation. I feel really lucky that Nick Jr integrates
characters and great storytelling, and that they are also very open
The title character, Kai-Lan, is a young
Chinese-American girl with a posse of animal friends who have
adventures together each episode, and a wise, benevolent
grandfather, YeYe, to guide them. "The creator of Ni Hao, Kai-Lan,
Karen Chau, just loves animals, and has strong memories of animals
from her preschool years. The show has a monkey, a koala, a
tiger... And they're all adorable," says Mary. They all have their
own personalities, too - my daughter's favourite character, Tolee
the koala, wears panda slippers and likes to pretend he's a panda.
Yes, even animals on TV like to play dress-up.
Ni Hao, Kai-Lan integrates language and
cultural elements, teaching viewers simple Mandarin words and
phrases in a friendly, accessible way. Mary explains, "There are
four different areas of curriculum involved in the programme:
Social-emotional, language, cultural, and interactive. A lot of the
storylines are about emotional intelligence, teaching coping
mechanisms, and behaviour.
"Ni Hao, Kai-Lan has many different areas
of language within it - we have a target word in each episode, so
Kai-Lan interactively elicits that word throughout the episode.
Then there's a visual representation of the word, so the characters
will, for example, move around to depict an action word. Target
words are repeated, not just in each episode, but continuously
throughout the series. We promote bilingualism by sprinkling words
and phrases throughout the series again and again - such as "Ni
hao" (hello) and "Xie xie" (thank you)."
And Mandarin Chinese? Isn't that one of
the most diffIcult languages to learn? "Well, yes, in my case it
has been!" Mary laughs. "And I have heard that Mandarin is one of
the hardest languages out there for people to pick up. But of
course the kids watching Ni Hao, Kai-Lan are at the best age to
learn a language. They just get it so much more quickly than we
Mary says she can't tell me who her
favourite character is. "I love them all - they've become like my
children, and I can't possibly choose between them."
Ni Hao, Kai-Lan screens on Nick Jr (SKY
channel 41) at 11am.
Mouse in the
Although mice and rats are usually reviled as filthy vermin,
they're often treated quite differently in cartoons, books, and
movies. Angelina Ballerina, Mickey Mouse, Pinky and the Brain,
Maisy, Fievel, Stuart Little... I could list at least 50 more (go
on, try me, I did my Master's thesis on Art Spiegelman's MAUS
graphic novels). The point is, mice have a special place in
fiction, and Kate Dicamillo, the author of the 2003 book The
Tale of Despereaux, has created a character who transcends his
"My best friend's son asked me for the
story of an unlikely hero with exceptionally large ears. In my
mind, that sounded like a mouse. I was raised on all of those mouse
stories - Beverly Cleary's The Mouse and the Motorcycle, etc - and
mice are psychologically perceived as small, powerless, bothersome,
and annoying. In a way, that's very much how kids feel."
The Tale of Despereaux is exquisitely
layered, telling the story of a mouse who braves the dangerous
human world to rescue a princess from harm. With oversized ears, an
undersized body, and choosing to read books instead of eating them,
Despereaux is ostracised from his fellow mice for being different,
and for his interest in fairy-tale ideas like chivalry, courage,
Seeing her book brought to life on the
silver screen when The Tale of Despereaux was turned into an
animated film in 2008 was surreal for Kate. "The whole thing is a
fever dream. You're alone in your little house, in your little
room, writing a story. It's strange enough when it goes out
into the world as a book, but up on screen it is immediate,
powerful, and somewhat overwhelming.
"The movie is entirely different from the
book, but at the same time, is very much like the book. What was in
my head when I was writing the book is what I'd see on screen
exactly as it was in the book. It's like a translation into a
different language, which deepens the story I told."
Despereaux's world isn't an easy one,
though. Early on in the film, an adult character dies, and this
event impacts on the entire plot. Kate explains, "As a kid, I was
always frustrated with books where everything was clean and happy
and unrealistic. I'm always trying to explain that stuff to my own
'kid self' - what it means to be human, and how to be a human being
in our broken world. It's as much as a challenge for kids as it is
But children will take it to heart, as my
daughter did. "It's a dark world," says Kate. "But it's a world
shot through with light."
The Tale of Despereaux is out now on DVD
As seen in OHbaby!
magazine Issue 6: 2009
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