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Easter DVDs --
Keepin' 'Em Quiet After Ham

We've got Easter coming up, a time when the family may dress up nicely, gather at their House of Worship, then return home for a neo-pagan ritual in which eggs are given tribal tattoos, lulled into a false sense of security that they may escape into the backyard, then hunted down and devoured. Then there's the basket full of goodies, mostly sugary and/or chocolatey, at least if you're a decent parent. To my friend Doug Livingston, enjoy that Easter banana, buddy, and don't eat that Hershey bar all at once.

But after the hysteria and honey-glazed ham has come and gone, what to do with the children? This is America. We show them videos. And here are three recent offerings on DVD that may keep the little ones quiet without making your brain run should you accidentally catch a glimpse.

The Easter Bunny Is Coming to Town
Adults of a certain age have a fondness for the works of Rankin-Bass, those wizards of bizarre stop-motion puppetry that brought Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to life, and gave us the dueling theme songs of the Snow and Heat Misers. They didn't just do Christmas specials, though that was definitely their forte in their heyday - then again, what other holiday can spark such great mythologies?

Twice, however, they ventured into Easter, first with Here Comes Peter Cottontail, which featured Vincent Price and Danny Kaye, and which I'll admit I thought this DVD was under a new title. The Easter Bunny Is Coming To Town must have hit at that awkward few years in which I didn't care about cartoons, or at least when I was busy with high school and we didn't yet (gasp) have a VCR in the McCaw household.

In a strange way, it's a sequel to Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, tied as it is by the presence of Fred Astaire as the narrator, the same postman who has told generations of children the truth about Kris Kringle. This time he turns to the Easter Bunny, named Sunny by the inhabitants of Kidville, a place where only orphans live, and apparently never grow up. Except the postman did, so…well, as often happens with me, this would be the point where my wife hits me and says, "you think too much…"

Kids will absolutely enjoy this, but the older ones might start to notice how many story beats this has in common with Astaire's Santa Claus story. Instead of the Winter Warlock, Sunny has to face down a mean old bear named Gadzooks, whose heart is melted by the gift of a nice suit for Easter. The residents of Kidville might as well be Kringles, and the grim childless kingdom on the other side of the mountain should have been ruled by the Burgermeister Meisterburger.

The real oddity - and this often happens with these Rankin-Bass specials, products of a simpler time - is the inclusion of Hallelujah Jones, a hobo that moves into Kidtown. Tattered, bedraggled and obviously unwashed, he helps Sunny overcome the obstacles placed by other adults, and reveals that he and his hobo buddies are the best gandy-dancers in the world. If you don't know what that is, well then, this video will be more educational than you thought.

The songs are catchy enough, though none of them quite have the hook of "One Foot In Front of the Other" or the brilliant "Miser" songs. For me, one bonus is that Sunny is voiced by Skip Hinnant, a member of The Electric Company best known as Fargo North, Decoder. So the kids might not get a kick out of that, but I do. Skip, where are you now?

Johnny and the Sprites -
Meet the Sprites

Absolutely just in time and probably overdue because of its hypnotic power, Johnny and the Sprites hits home video. Spun out of a series of five-minute shorts, the show features John Tartaglia as a would-be musician who goes to a country house in order to write songs. However, the house is surrounded by a magical garden that accesses a grove of Sprites, mystic and naïve creatures of various shapes, sizes and colors.

Every episode features songs, gentle life lessons and an uncanny ability to mesmerize small children. This DVD features five episodes from the show - is it worthwhile to release complete seasons for kids' shows like this? - and each one follows a similar formula. But the songs are always catchy and the Sprites pretty bold characters.

Gifted puppeteer Tartaglia spent time on Sesame Street, too, where he honed his craft before originating the roles of Rod and Princeton in "Avenue Q." While he doesn't bring that devilish sensibility to this show, he does project sincerity and enthusiasm for Johnny and the Sprites, absolutely why it works so well. When a creator is this earnest, kids eat it up.

Unstable Fables - 3 Pigs and a Baby
Since they sold the Muppets to Disney, the Jim Henson Company has to try and create a new franchise. They revive a staple of Henson's work here with the concept of Unstable Fables, though it bears a strong resemblance to co-producer The Weinstein Company's earlier theatrical efforts Hoodwinked and Happily N'ever After.

Post-modern fairy tales are tricky ground to walk, but when done well, they're really satisfying. That's not quite the word to use with 3 Pigs and a Baby, though it has some bright spots. A snarky sense of humor runs throughout without being too adult, but at the same time the script doesn't seem to be written by somebody who really understands kids.

After reviewing the events of "The Three Little Pigs" pretty much as we know them, if you accept that the Big Bad Wolf was part of a larger paramilitary wolf operation, the wolves hatch a diabolical plan for revenge. Taking a cub and leaving it on the steps of the house of bricks, the lupine villains intend for the cub to grow up and let his real pack in to eat the pigs.

Sure, it's silly, but on the surface, it's a funny idea to pit fairy tales along with an 80's French farce. However, small kids will get very distracted by a central question: what wolf mommy gave up her baby for this plan, and why isn't she looking for him? In reality, only one female wolf seems to be around - "Teen Girl Wolf" - and maybe one and a half if you count "Musical Comedy Wolf," played by Tom Kenny doing his best Paul Lynde impersonation.

Breaking the string of double-adjective wolves, the mastermind seems to really be Dr. Wolfowitz (Kenny again), a character stolen directly from Dr. Strangelove. Meanwhile, the pigs are a well-meaning bunch of stereotypes, with a surfer dude (Steve Zahn), a metrosexual (Jon Cryer) and an anal retentive bricklayer (Brad Garrett).

They all live in a pig neighborhood, though cows exist too as contractors. Nobody seems to notice that baby Lucky isn't a pig, including Lucky himself. Those big teeth, those big claws, that need to howl - he's just going through a difficult adolescence.

The character design doesn't quite work, either, though it's not so annoying with the pigs. The wolves have mouths separate from their snouts, making them look sort of like bizarre clowns with wolf noses. As seems to be happening more and more often with less expensive CG animation, the figures move only slightly better than those in a Rankin-Bass special, which makes the featurette on the animation well-meaning but embarrassing. Not as embarrassing as Jesse McCartney talking about his character motivation as Lucky, but still…

Call it an ambitious effort, as the disc includes a preview for the next one, a sequel to "The Tortoise and the Hare." That one looks like a more solid piece, with better character design. Despite a cursory framing sequence, the Henson Company also needs to decide if these are all going to inter-linked. Is it an anthology or a franchise? There's a difference, and they need to commit to it.

Derek McCaw

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