Sony // 2004 // 289 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Packard (Retired) // November 10th, 2004
It was Harold's bedtime.
When the world of young children's entertainment is largely dominated by the likes of Blue's Clues, Dora the Explorer, Bob the Builder, and SpongeBob SquarePants, it's easy for other titles to get lost in the mix. When the series runs on a premium cable channel and is based on books first published over 50 years ago, it's even more understandable that the title may disappear entirely amidst the blue dogs, bilingual explorers, and talking sponges.
If there's a toddler in your life, do yourself and the child a favor and pick up Harold and the Purple Crayon: The Complete Series. This 2-disc set, featuring all 13 episodes of the Emmy Award-winning series, is warmly narrated, beautifully rendered, and bursting with action and imagination. Sure to delight the little ones, this DVD deserves a place in any library already sporting titles geared to the younger set.
HBO Family's Harold and the Purple Crayon animated series is based on the classic books by Crockett Johnson. As the title succinctly indicates, the series features adorable four year old Harold and his insomnia-busting adventures with a purple crayon. This is no ordinary Crayola; with an unending curiosity and kooky imagination that only a toddler could possess, Harold's crayon allows him to draw objects and alter the world around him as he sees fit. In that respect, you could say he's a bit like The Matrix's Neo for the wee ones -- but without all the wire-fu and prophecy mumbo-jumbo.
Each episode has a central theme that springs from Harold's imagination or tackles his curiosity. Even the touchy subject of death is addressed when Harold's goldfish goes belly-up. Only after wild adventures, more than a few laughs and a scary moment or two does Harold eventually tucker out, drop the crayon to the floor, and drift off to sleep.
All 13 episodes from the series are spread across two discs as follows:
* "Harold and the Purple Crayon"
Harold's insomnia and resulting adventures begin in this inaugural episode. Blowing bubbles in milk and gorging on pie with a porcupine are great fun. Scary purple dragons? Not so fun.
* "Blame It on the Rain"
Although this episode shares the title of a Milli Vanilli hit single from 1989, the lip syncing here is more convincing. As Harold sets off to find the source of rain, two lost baby squirrels become entwined in his quest. Warning: Beware of the seizure-inducing spinning umbrella that appears twice in this episode.
* "Fly Away Home"
It could just as easily have been titled "Honey, I shrank the bald toddler!" Harold's world is super-sized so he can experience it from a bug's point of view. A harrowing scene of a character caught in a menacing spider's web and a sequence involving Harold lugging his burden to the inside of a mountain may trick you into thinking you're watching The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
* "A Dog's Tale"
Deceased pets and Lilac, Harold's stuffed pooch, have one thing in common: When it comes to playing fetch, they both suck. A bored Harold wields his crayon to conjure a livelier version of Lilac, but he soon learns that caring for a pet isn't all doggie bones and squeaky toys.
* "One Crayon Band"
Harold sets out to determine the source of the music drifting through his window. Parents, be warned: By the end of this episode, your kids may be ready to start drumming on your cookery as if they were the second coming of Stomp.
* "I Remember Goldie"
Harold's pet goldfish has gone to the great fish bowl in the sky, but our favorite toddler doesn't grasp the meaning of death. A mermaid takes Harold on a journey to explain the natural process of birth, life, and death. Without question, this is the highlight episode of the series.
* "Harold's Birthday Gift"
After Harold breaks a birthday gift, he reasons that, because it's technically still his birthday, there's no reason he can't have another party. Animal friends from previous episodes make up the guest list, but will their well-meaning intentions make up for the destruction of a piano, balloons, and a slew of gifts?
* "A Blast from the Past"
Like Jurassic Park's John Hammond, dino-enthusiast Harold wishes for a way to bring the beasts back from the dead. No amber and complex genetic engineering are needed here; a purple crayon puts Harold smack-dab in the land of the lost. In his search for a big, long-necked dinosaur to ride, Harold is confronted by an angry Triceratops, a motherly Pterodactyl, and a raging volcano spewing rock and lava.
* "Harold the Artiste"
Not satisfied with the "lumpy and lop-sided" circles in his painting, Harold reasons that the key to perfection lies in the study, and plagiarism, of more famous works of art.
* "Harold's Walk on the Wild Side"
Ever wonder what it would be like to be an elephant, giraffe, camel, cheetah, penguin, or monkey? If your answer is "no," press the chapter skip button on your remote. Otherwise, laugh along as Harold improvises an elephant trunk, chews on leaves, swelters in a hot desert sun, deals with mischievous thieving monkeys, and more.
* "Harold in the Dark"
When clouds obscure the glow from Harold's favorite night light, he and Lilac are forced to face mysterious sounds, shadowy figures, and, to a less-creepy extent, a hungry cow.
* "Future Clock"
Frustrated by the freedoms that grown-ups enjoy, Harold examines what it would be like to have cool grown-up professions like a train engineer, an astronaut, and a baseball player. Wouldn't it have been nice if the producers had included a more realistic job like that of a mundane, briefcase-toting nine-to-fiver suffocating amidst mounds of paperwork in cubicle hell? Oh, that's right, they did!
* "Cowboy Harold"
Sent to bed early for refusing to eat squash, Harold digs up every Wild West cliché in the book and indulges in the care-free life of a cowboy. Well, it's care-free if you disregard runaway horses, angry bees, and a menacing bank robber.
Before I introduce the evidence in favor of this DVD, I should note that I had absolutely zero familiarity with this character. Based on my four year old son's entertainment interests, I could tell you the name of every train on the island of Sodor, the three clues that would solve the puzzle within the first 30 seconds of a Blue's Clues episode, and converse in a bit of Spanish thanks to Dora the Explorer. From the title, all I knew about this series was that it involved a little boy named Harold, and that a purple crayon somehow fit into the proceedings. Having been through the discs, I speak for both father and son when I say it's a complete joy that we've discovered Harold and his whimsical adventures.
Sharon Stone lends her vocal talents (and up until now, I admit that I'd only focused on her physical assets) to each episode, and her narration is fantastic. Her genuine interest in the material shines through every word, and I could even "hear" her smiling during the happier lines. As much as I enjoyed it, Stone's narration isn't constant and often takes a backseat to the visuals. Even with minimal narration, her efforts create a strong "story time" vibe, as if a friendly librarian was captivating a group of youngsters with a tale from a great book. Animated children's programming based on a book is certainly nothing new (Thomas the Tank Engine, Max & Ruby), but Stone's warm and comforting narration gives this series the closest book-come-to-life feeling I've experienced in this type of series.
The artwork and animation is as inviting as Stone's pipes. Thick, bold outlines and lots of color infuse Harold's world. Character designs are simplistic, reminiscent of what a young child might draw should he be wielding the purple crayon himself. Harold draws simple, two-dimensional shapes and lines; a moment later, the objects complete themselves by filling in with color and adding dimension. One aspect of the art I particularly enjoyed is the occasional object with coloring that goes a tad outside its outlines -- again, it's something you'd expect to see if a child was handling the coloring duties. The animation is effective without being overly complicated, and I chuckled more than once at Harold's various facial reactions. Older kids might find the look of it all a bit juvenile, but toddlers and younger children will be enticed into Harold's world with ease.
And what a world it is! Harold's limitless imagination is the basis for each episode, and the activity rarely hits a lull. He often finds himself in precarious situations, and parents should note that the youngest of viewers may find some of those scenes intense. Of course, there's no real violence here. If a toddler can keep his eyes open and not wet himself while a hulking, snarling bear towers over the frightened Harold, there's a message to be learned: Things aren't always what they seem. In this case, said bear is actually walking past Harold on his way to show him where he can find the missing Lilac. Although messages such as this one must be identified by adults, others are verbally explicit: Stone reminds us not to slurp when drinking, and that it's rude to not offer food to guests.
I especially enjoyed the problem-solving aspects that are integral to every episode. Harold is often faced with a predicament that necessitates the use of his magic crayon to get him out. Sometimes his scribbling does the trick on the first try. Other times it fails, forcing Harold to come up with an alternate solution. It's wonderful that the series shows children that things don't always work out as planned, and that the proverbial "plan B" must be attempted. He might be animated, but Harold is very much human.
Special mention must be made of the stand-out episode "I Remember Goldie," which deals with the subject of death and all of the questions that inevitably spawn from children as a result. To adults, it's just a goldfish, but the episode gives weight to Harold's loss as he struggles with trying to find Goldie in his crayon-based world. The mermaid character accompanies Harold on a journey that answers his questions and explains the process of birth, living, growing old, and death from a purely biological standpoint; there are no religious overtones here. Still, the writers have deftly included a scene in which a Harold-rendered Goldie says goodbye and swims toward the top of her fishbowl and a brilliant, golden light. The scene gives parents an opportunity, if they wish, to explain to children the significant of Goldie heading toward that light. These are sensitive issues, and the folks behind this episode must be commended for giving the opportunity for discussion of religion and life after death without making it obvious or forcing it down viewers' throats. Harold's beautiful actions at the end of this episode brought tears to my eyes and iced the cake of an already poignant episode.
From a technical standpoint, there are no issues with the video and audio. Each episode appears in its original full frame aspect ratio and is appropriate for this kind of programming. The video is sharp, clean, and colorful. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo offering is crisp, and while it won't rock your house off its foundation or have the neighbors pounding on the walls for you to turn down the volume, it's sufficient for this material.
Aside from the previews for other kiddie DVD offerings on Disc Two, there are no other DVD-based extras. There is, however, an extra worth mentioning: a sixteen-page activity booklet that includes coloring pages, mazes, matching games, connect the dots, and a few blank pages for kids to create their own works of art. The challenge level of these offerings is appropriately low, and young ones will enjoy the chance to take out the crayons (at least the purple one) and partake in these creative and educational diversions. If you're a somewhat-anal DVD purist like me, you might shudder at the mere thought of defacing the original booklet that accompanies this disc. I'd suggest making photocopies of the booklet so that you can keep the original pristine and, at the same time, allow your child to repeat the activities or share them with siblings and friends.
The only major gripe I have with this series is the couple of musical numbers in each episode that somehow bring things to a jarring halt. The dull, forgettable songs, which often sound similar and make me think of "Schoolhouse Rock" numbers that didn't make the original cut, are accompanied by a silly animation montage (think whirling shapes, goofy transitions and wipes, oodles of stars, and camera moves like the ever-popular "pull-back-on-an-object-until-we-see-it's-part-of-something-else" trick.) Thankfully the songs aren't overly long, but they interrupt the flow of the story and serve no purpose other than padding the episode's run time. At first, I thought I was simply spoiled by my recent viewing of Aladdin and its excellent roster of songs, but when I noticed my four year old turning his attention to an old suitcase and some Happy Meal toys during these music moments, I realized it wasn't just me. That's a shame, especially when all other aspects of the series -- the vocal talents, the art and animation, and the stories -- work so beautifully.
On a minor note regarding the stories, they can be a bit "out there." Adults will probably find more than a few eyeball-rolling moments (baby squirrel synchronized swimming, anyone?), but remember that these stories are spawned from a toddler's imagination and expect the unexpected. Besides, silly grown-up, this show is for little ones, and the intended audience will eat it up and ask for seconds.
Finally, I must admit I'm disappointed that there are only 13 episodes of this series. That's a good complaint, of course, and even with 13 episodes, you're still getting almost five hours of solid, engaging entertainment.
The uninspired musical montages hardly detract from the evidence presented in this case. Stone's narration over the cute, colorful visuals and wild stories will enthrall toddlers and satisfy parents looking for an alternative to more popular fare. If you're struggling with explaining the subject of death to a child, the spectacular "I Remember Goldie" episode is reason enough to purchase this series. Highly recommended.
Not guilty! Once the purple crayon drops to the floor and Harold drops off to sleep, the good folks at HBO Family and Columbia TriStar are free to go.
Review content copyright © 2004 David Packard; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 289 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* 16-page Activity Booklet
* HBO Family: Harold and the Purple Crayon