Yep, the Busy Little Engine has been busy, alright—busy crawling into Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger's brain with its load of catchy songs.
The Busy Little Engine
Facts of the Case
I received the Busy Little Engine DVD on Thursday. It is now Saturday, and my non-TV-addicted three year old has watched it at least three times. He's been singing the songs (and so has my wife, and so have I) all day. He's reworked his train table into a reasonable fascimile of the layout in the video. And he repeats the jokes at the dinner table, following each one up with "that pig is funny." In short, The Busy Little Engine has almost instantaneously become the pinnacle of our mountain of kid's DVDs.
This Borg-like assimilation of my child's imagination is somewhat unexpected. The Busy Little Engine comes in an unassuming package with no corporate slogans or FBI warnings. The feature follows a simple pig puppet and his wooden train pal, Biz, who learn together what trains are and what they do. Biz learns that his job is to pick up trainloads of ingredients and move them to factories (or "fack-rees" as Pig calls them). Biz's journey takes him from downtown Dinkytown to the farm, and through a city that looks suspiciously like Chicago. The whole thing is told in plain language with few sound effects or camera moves. It wouldn't seem to be a presentation that would hold a tike's interest for long.
Yet the three kids I've shown it to have been rooted to the screen. Creator Desmond Mullen, formerly of Industrial Light and Magic and a current producer for the Morehead Planetarium, makes an interesting observation: Pans, cuts, and other cinematic shorthand are not natural. We have to learn what they mean. Kids don't intuitively understand that a jump cut means something. Pig's straightforward manner and The Busy Little Engine's static framing mimic the way a child interprets the world. The proof is self evident: Kids dig this DVD.
That's great for kids and even better for parents. The Busy Little Engine isn't selling anything but imagination and curiosity about the world. Mullen is genuinely interested in what kids will get out of his DVD rather than what he can get out of kids. With its urban footage melded with the animated train Biz, The Busy Little Engine evokes favorable comparison to retro Sesame Street shows. My son was equally interested in the animated train, Pig's antics, and the real cars and people waiting at the train crossings.
The Busy Little Engine's humor bridges generations. In one sequence, the narrator and Pig look at a collage of crossing signs. Pig happens upon a pig crossing sign, which causes him to stand in the road and exclaim "I'm walking here!" I'm thinking Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, but to my surprise my son was laughing louder than I'd ever heard. Seriously, I thought he was going to hurt himself. Maybe fifteen years from now when he sees Midnight Cowboy, he'll think Hoffman ripped Pig off.
The songs by Jimmy Magoo are catchy, also. His folksy, do-wap number "Back on the Road" has gotten lots of lung-time at our house, but "Curiosity" and "The Busy Little Engine" are no slouches. I'm not familiar with Magoo's oevure, but I know he's crafted at least three infectious songs.
The Busy Little Engine is supplemented by a trio of sing-alongs (which might actually get some air play) and a "Making of" featurette. This featurette is really interesting because it shows how the toy train was placed into an actual environment. We also get a peek at the man behind Pig, who also narrates. It is a weird mental trick to see both characters talking to each other from Mullen's mouth, and really brings home how the feature was produced.
Because the images used in the DVD come from such a wide variety of sources, the video quality is a mixed bag. This matters not one iota, as the train is cleverly worked into each scene. The unassuming audio track is perfectly clean, and is a refreshing antidote to the shriek-fests that characterize some children's programming.
They say that everyone can make a movie with the proper self-discipline and desire. That may be true, but it is difficult to capture the alchemy of a child's curiosity while entertaining parents at the same time (or at the very least, keeping their homicidal bloodlust for the television in check). Whether its due to Magoo's songs, Desmond's careful planning, or sheer serendipity, The Busy Little Engine lands big. If you have a train-obsessed child, pick this one up immediately. Even if your child isn't a train maniac, The Busy Little Engine is a good bet.
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