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 show.
"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 good."
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 to diversity."
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 adults do!"
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 house
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 humble beginnings.
"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, and tolerance.
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 for adults."
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 from Universal.
As seen in OHbaby! magazine Issue 6: 2009