As a child, Judge Dennis Prince had trouble trusting the message and motives of talking, singing, and dancing animals. He also feared clowns and hated mimes.
It's quite an unusual thing,
While the Muppets have generally enjoyed a sort of "protected existence," it seems every other television show featuring full-body fauna of all shapes, colors, and dispositions has typically ended up within the crosshairs of both professional and armchair critics. From H.R. Pufnstuf to Barney to Teletubbies, these pervasive child-friendly creatures have routinely evoked the unbridled ire and irascibility of "big people" who, for whatever reason, have fired off at these characters and their creators with a vengeance that is difficult to understand and often quite unsettling to behold. But before these days of boundless blogging, and before the time of the no-holds-barred nefarious newsgroups (remember "alt.barney.die.die.die?"), came a show featuring full-body animal creatures who (accompanied by two human companions) explored the magic, mystery, and misunderstood meaning of young emotions.
The New Zoo Revue featured three costumed creatures who were just as unusual as the Mayor of Living Island, just as saccharine as the plodding purple dinosaur, and partly as ambiguous as the seemingly androgynous aliens clad in oversized Dr. Dentons. With a new DVD release of the show's first season, we investigate whether the NZR cavalcade should be subject to the same scrutiny, scorn, and scourging as its current batch of successors. It would be a harsh sentence to pass, that's for sure—yet that opening credit jingle is the sort that annoyingly sticks in your mind despite your best efforts to cleanse it from your consciousness.
It's the New Zoo Revuu-uue…coming right at you.
Facts of the Case
The Revue takes place in an unnamed little hamlet where two enlightened humans, Doug and Emmy Jo, guide and advise their animal friends: Henrietta Hippo, Charlie the Owl, and Freddie the Frog. The animals work, play, and learn in this little world of theirs, exploring thoughts and feelings similar to those that confront young offspring of the human sort. Together, the NZR gang comes to terms with all manner of trials, tribulations, and triumphs, including bad manners, pride, sharing, thinking, courage, and touching (?!). Through light-hearted humor, direct discussion, and fanciful tomfoolery, the animals learn, live, and love alongside their human mentors, forever growing into happy, healthy and well-adjusted…uh…mutant animals?
Unlike Sesame Street, which tried to cover the entire gamut of development (academic as well as behavioral), this show focused squarely on the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that confront young children; those that arise from within themselves as well as those foisted upon them by their playground compatriots. The show had some merit, and manages to retain it (somewhat) through its direct manner in dealing with topics like friendship, understanding, fairness, love, and hate. However successful it may have been in conveying its simple sermons to the pre-grade school audience, it unwittingly added a layer of confusion and complication (in this erstwhile casual viewer's mind, anyway) by presenting the three animal characters as uneven, unpredictable, and sometimes uncontrollable. Sure, that's the mold from which many of the worst yard apes are struck, but it doesn't play well in this format—which should be providing a sense of stability and consistency to the little ones who so eagerly yearn for (or desperately need) a concrete base of social metrics.
The character designs in and of themselves are a bit odd, too, causing expressions of consternation on the faces of little ones upon first sight. (Think of how your brow furrowed the first time you laid eyes on Pufnstuf—same thing here.) Add to that the clumsiness of trying to lip-synch an oversized puppet's mouth, its maw bumping and bouncing recklessly to keep pace, and it all tends to confound little viewers. But who are these three animals; those whom we meet in the verses of the opening theme?
Elegant and feminine is Henrietta Hippo…
Henrietta Hippo is, well, a full-figured Southern belle who seems to be unable to extract the chiffon hanky that is (apparently) caught deep within the pads of her right foot/paw/hand. (Look closely at the show's opening and you'll see her flail it directly into Doug's face.) She's not the most attractive thing, bearing lips that Mick Jagger would envy, and sporting nostrils so large that they could easily double as temporary housing for migrating prairie dogs. Undaunted by her physicality (by design?), she's a socialite who, though she aspires to be the embodiment of "Southern charm and hospitality," frequently tramples the rules of etiquette in her zest to be well-liked. Her overall character shortcomings, then, are within reasonable acceptable limits.
Very wise and very smart is Charlie the Owl…
Well, Charlie would appear to be in his late forties or so, given his apparent academic prowess, punctuated by the ever-present commencement cap perched atop his noggin. Oddly enough (given that he's presented as the wisest of the bunch), he's the catalyst for much of the show's discord, often using his smarts combined with a bit of cunning to put the hapless Freddie up to all sorts of unenviable, and perhaps unethical, tasks (the "Freddie as lackey" effect). While such behavior can be used to drive home lessons of fair play, thinking for oneself, and so forth, it tends to inadvertently instill a tendency to distrust those in authoritative and academic positions. Sorry, Charlie; but this sort of behavior simply will not fly.
Not so smart with lots of heart is Freddie the Frog…
Then there's the resident simpleton. Freddie certainly lacks the enviable, albeit clandestine, talent of "Michigan Frog;" and the "F" emblazoned on his sweater is immediately reminiscent of the Fred the lion, feeble sidekick to Super Chicken (his "F" was humorously embroidered backwards, though). This easy-to-fleece frog is the most mercurial of the bunch, exhibiting extreme mood swings from day to day. His role, obviously, is to represent raw innocence within the community, but his actions often undermine the needed reinforcement that even a simpleton with a good heart can and should conduct himself with some semblance of emotional and mental stability. Sometimes, this frog simply flips out.
On to the humans now:
They learn from their friend Doug…
Well, Doug (Doug Momary) is the true Master of Ceremonies here; he co-created the show in the first place. He's the true song-and-dance man, pulling the levers and plotting the series and writing the songs. He looks like something out of your 1969 graduating class, sporting a "low-flow" head-hugging coif, a tightly trimmed cookie duster, and standard issue dark-rimmed dork glasses. He's no Adonis to behold, though he must have some other hidden quality (*ahem*) that attracted—or distracted—Emmy Jo. He generally wanders about looking for "coaching moments" with his animal compatriots.
…and his helper, Emmy Jo.
Here, then, is the most-cited attraction of the whole show. Emmy Jo was likely responsible for the most enduring life lesson the show had to offer its young male viewers. Embodying a striking Diana-Rigg-as-Emma-Peel sexiness in her short mini-skirts and alluring velvety knee-high go-go boots, actress Emily Peden (the real-life spouse of Doug, by the way) was the source of the initial stirrings in the loins of little boys across the nation. She's not much of a performer, really; and she was often afflicted with a "flip" hairdo that would have made Mary Tyler Moore's Laura Petrie gnash her teeth in envy…But who really cared? She was a waist-down wonder to behold. She had a pretty face, too, accentuated by to-die-for cheekbones that either inspired or incensed little girls (and their mommies, I suspect). Emmy Jo is apparently consort to Doug (it's good to be Doug) and offers feminine balance to the learning opportunities that abound.
Overall, the production value of the show is rather slight; not as polished as that presented by the Children's Television Workshop. The musical numbers can sometimes invoke toe-tapping, but no one on hand can really hold a tune. The animals sometimes bump into one another or scramble to avoid collisions with set pieces, but manage reasonably well overall. Trivia buffs also enjoy the fact that the resident postman, Mr. Dingle (let's not even go there), was played by none other than game-show/date-show emcee Chuck Woolery.
Although this is a show aimed at teaching, the team of nice people at Brentwood Home Video still have some lessons of their own to learn. As the NZR theme song goes, "we have fun learning what we don't know." Clearly the youngsters at BCI (yeah, that's their company acronym) don't know much about the expectations of consumers when it comes to DVD quality. Eager to present the full first season within a single boxed edition (as they should), BCI makes a critical mistake by cramming all 59 episodes into the confines of six flipper discs—which amounts to nearly 24 hours of programming. Although this isn't an unfathomable task, the compression artifacts that besmirch these presentations betray a less-than-educated approach to the release of this series, whether it was designed to appeal to the nostalgic pangs of grown-ups or to capture the attention of today's kindergarten crowd. The image here is soft, sometimes smudgy, and generally inconsistent—arguably the fault of the 1972-vintage video source material. (The episodes are frequently upstaged by video "pops.") While such shortcomings can usually be excused (and often embraced) as a "faithful representation" of what was seen originally, that's never an excuse for further devaluing this content by marring it with all manner of aliasing and blocking. Apparently the episode dealing with sharing didn't make its point well enough, at least with respect to the pitfalls of being stingy over the amount of bits needed to make a visually pleasing presentation. BCI goes on to add insult to injury by inserting a needless "BCI" watermark in the image's lower right-hand corner for the entirety of each episode. Grrr. The audio is a bit uneven, too, coming right at you in a Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono mix that, while usually clear and decipherable, vacillates between shrill peaks and murky valleys. At this point, I suppose it would be silly to expect anything better of this set.
Regarding extras, there are a few on hand, beginning with a current interview with co-creators Doug Momary and Barbara Atlas. Doug has aged reasonably well, I guess, but bears an uncanny resemblance to Groucho Marx from his You Bet Your Life days. Barbara Atlas seems a bit scattered, frequently cutting off Doug in mid-sentence. They share some background information on the history and intent of the show, in a piece that's likely designed to appeal to nostalgic adults (but which would be of little interest to younger viewers). Then there's an "About New Zoo Revue" information piece that is nothing more than an on-screen text crawl (including an inexcusable typo) that just repeats the information contained in the Momary/Atlas interview. A cute inclusion is a printable coloring book—the illustrations can be called up from a PC and printed for the little ones to enjoy. Missing from the extras are any outtakes, bloopers, or unusable footage that could rightly have be deemed New Zoo Revue—After Hours. Purportedly, the actors within the skins of Freddie, Charley, and Henrietta had something of a raw sense of humor, and were prone to break into brow-raising, and less-than-educational, conduct and commentary after the scripted scene was in the can. Surely such content would have no place in a boxed set intended for kids—yet its potential existence makes a compelling case to see it unearthed sometime, somewhere.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Am I cranky or what? Sure, it's just a kiddie show, and certainly your little curtain climbers are unlikely to even consider the critical observations I've presented here. Still, just because the viewership is young, I find no need to shortchange them. Granted, the content of the show is probably just fine to show to today's youth (it's blissfully free of villains, confrontation, and any heavy commercial marketing blitzes) and it did receive acknowledgments from the FCC and NEA (National Education Association), not to mention invites to perform live at the White House on two occasions. It's important that such quality programming, whether new or old, is available for today's youth; free of bias, jaded sentimentalities, or profit-bearing agendas. This package from BCI, though, seems to have been hurried through production and (by my standards) betrays an attitude that young people aren't as deserving of high-quality products as are adults. Baloney! I think BCI fudged here—perhaps hoping that the nifty sound chip stuffed into the outer slipcase (it plays a snippet of the theme song) would be enough to distract little onlookers. Shame, shame, shame.
I was never an ardent fan of this show (I was ten years old before it appeared and, therefore, a bit too worldly to be drawn in by its exploits), but I am a fan of vintage television and a strong supporter of sound and solid children's programming. New Zoo Revue is certainly deserving of some merit for focusing on behavioral development, leaving pre-K academics to the likes of Sesame Street (even though I still believe it's a bit unsteady in its messages and presentation from time to time). The disc set, however, is far below today's standards for the medium, and raises my ire as it tries to slip one past the kiddies. That's just naughty.
The peaceful New Zoo community is found innocent of wrongdoing here, but is strongly urged to conduct itself with more consistency and deliberateness when interacting with each another. The community of Brentwood Home Video is found guilty of preying upon both unsuspecting youth of today, while pandering to the nostalgic naïveté of yesteryear's youth, through indifference to product quality and one's responsibility to appropriately represent the good messages intended by New Zoo Revue. And I still can't get that theme song out of my head.
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