Judge Kerry Birmingham plans to educate kids on the benefits of insurance through his series, Liberty Mutual's Kids.
"And that's the way it is on…July 4, 1776."
The best education is a sneaky education. There is a proud tradition of teaching children without their knowing it, indoctrinating them early with Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, slipping lessons about life and learning in between bright colors and the general distraction of entertainment. It's the boon of modern media that we're able to educate our children in this way and in supplement to the more formal education of school. Among the most basic building blocks of an American education are the particulars of the Revolutionary War, the basics (and the legend) of which are ingrained from a small age and are replete with revered names and phrases like George Washington, Paul Revere, the Declaration of Independence, and the Boston Tea Party. That these things are so common to an American education belies the general complexity and scope of the people, places, and events that precipitated and continued on into the American Revolution. Liberty's Kids attempts to make the sneaky education of your children easier by following the major events and figures of the Revolutionary War through the fictionalized account of kids who find themselves witnesses to some of American history's major turning points.
Facts of the Case
Liberty's Kids aired a total of 40 animated episodes on PBS Kids! between 2002 and 2003. Under the guidance of their mentor Benjamin Franklin (voiced by legendary newsman Walter Cronkite), James, a budding young reporter for the Pennsylvania Gazette , the French orphan Henri, freed slave Moses, and newly-arrived Englishwoman Sarah witness and participate in the birth of America from the Boston Tea Party to the creation of the Constitution. This six-disc set collects the entirety of the series and includes the episodes:
• The Boston Tea Party
As kids grow more and more sophisticated at an earlier age, it's becoming more difficult to offer them educational entertainment that's both palatable and actually accomplishes a modicum of education. Liberty's Kids isn't particularly sophisticated in terms of story or animation, but couching its history lessons in an ongoing narrative and providing a team of young point-of-view characters keep it entertaining for kids without coming off as overly pedantic. Of particular interest are the array of guest voices (or, as the packaging states, "award-winning actors and living historical figures") which range from head-scratchers like Sylvester Stallone as Paul Revere and Ben Stiller as Thomas Jefferson to multi-episode stints by Billy Crystal and Annette Bening (as John and Abigail Adams) and Dustin Hoffman (as Benedict Arnold). The esteemed governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, shows up as German officer, while Michael York, Liam Neeson, Whoopi Goldberg, and Gulf War veteran General Norman Schwarzkopf also contribute their voices.
The stunt casting is a nice treat for adult viewers who can smirk at Neeson's distinctive brogue bellowing "I have not yet begun to fight!" as John Paul Jones, but the strength of the series is in its holistic approach to early American history. Slavery is an issue addressed early and often throughout Liberty's Kids and personified in Moses, a free, educated black man whose story is maybe a more idealized and likely unrealistic portrayal of life as a freed slave. The shadow of slavery and the Civil War—a worthy follow-up series, perhaps—is present in these stories, and without much deviation these are the most basic, airbrushed versions of history as taught to young children: Cronkite's Franklin, mostly spouting adages from Poor Richard's Almanac, isn't seen cavorting with syphilitic whores, and the Revere story is more from the poem than actual history. The intricacies of truth versus history and the blurring of the two aren't addressed here, nor is it altogether appropriate; this is the tale of patriots vs. oppressors, where the English are so unequivocally villainous they might as well be crewing the Death Star. Those looking for a revisionist slant to history won't find it here, but it does cover all the basics that you (possibly) remember from grade school-a quick glance at the episode titles should trigger dormant memories of 5th Grade American History—while bringing up questions of loyalty, sacrifice, patriotism, and dissent that are just as relevant today as they were then. There's nothing flashy about these episodes: kids past a certain age might get restless, but attentive younger viewers could easily get caught up in the action, while adults a little dusty on the details (even famously knowledgeable DVD reviewers) will appreciate a refresher course coming from recognizable voices like Cronkite and Michael Douglas (he plays Patrick Henry). Its value as a capable entertainment and educational tool is enough to ignore the cringe-inducing "Revolutionary Rap" theme song by Aaron Carter, which has aged worse than Carter has.
Shout! Factory turns in an impressive package with this DVD set, which includes both a poster-map and a nicely designed 40-page booklet that offers episode summaries and an approximate Revolutionary War timeline to place the episodes. The special features include "Benjamin Franklin's Newsbytes," a faux newscast anchored by Franklin that offers more period detail (and if Walter Cronkite is doing the voice, why NOT introduce a fake newscast?). "Continental Cartoons" (a hangman-style guessing game), "Mystery Guest" (a historical figure guessing game), and "Now and Then" (briefly comparing life in 18th and 21st century America) segments reinforce the facts presented in each episode. The Newsbytes and the various games correspond to each episode and, while not as well-produced as the full episodes, they reiterate the major historical points and bolster the lesson of each episode. The "pencil test" animation sample from the "Midnight Ride" episode provides some grist for the animation process aficionados, while "A Look Back at Liberty's Kids with the Creators" is a clip-heavy but otherwise substantial making-of feature.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's definitely a bit of tokenism in the multi-cultural cast of characters—French, English, Colonists, Germans, slaves—and the inclusion of Moses is a problematic but necessary counter to the obvious spectre of slavery, the ignorance of which would have been irresponsible of the producers. It's admirable to note that it wasn't only rich, white land owners who forged America, but in its rush not to offend, Liberty's Kids loses some bite despite the various viewpoints it's trying to incorporate. The celebrity gimmick is occasionally worthwhile, but in the end Cronkite will always sound like Cronkite and Stallone will never, ever be Paul Revere.
Liberty's Kids isn't a flawless blueprint to the events surrounding the American Revolution, but as a series of bullet points served up with accessible melodrama, it does its job. As an educational program, it probably works best as an illustrative tool, a supplement rather than a replacement for a textbook. It's geared for younger viewers and teachers with more traditional views of the war and the Founding Fathers, and serves as a workable starting point for young children just getting started in their Historical education.
Liberty's Kids is guilty…of making learning fun!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• "A Look Back at Liberty's Kids with the Creators"
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