A classic animated and live-action tale that's a musical adventure!
Perhaps the highest praise that I, as a grownup with a low tolerance for kiddie shows, can bestow upon this made-for-TV children's adaptation of Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf is that it seemed far shorter than its hour-long running time. (By way of contrast, every tedious minute of the uninspired A Freezerburnt Christmas felt like fifteen.) This version of Peter and the Wolf, which won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Program in 1996, features a blend of live-action and animation, and while the changes made to the source material may be jarring to fans of Prokofiev's beloved classic, the kiddies will love it.
Facts of the Case
For those unfamiliar with the story of Peter and the Wolf, this famous tale, set in Russia of olden times, tells of Peter, a young boy living with his grandfather in the countryside, in a house by a meadow overlooking a mysterious forest. Peter loves exploring the meadow, despite his grandfather's warnings, and eventually gains three animal pals: a bird, a duck, and a cat. Their fellowship is threatened, however, when a Big Bad Wolf enters the scene.
The captivating "gimmick" of Prokofiev's musical telling is that each character is represented by his own musical instrument. Peter is represented by strings, the bird by flutes, the duck by oboes, the wolf by french horns, and so on. It's a cute idea that invariably entrances young children, hence the longevity of this work through the ages.
This updated version of Peter and the Wolf adds a wraparound subplot involving a single mom (Kirstie Alley) bringing her young son (Ross Malinger, the kid from Sleepless in Seattle) to the old country to meet his grandfather, played by a sprightly and only slightly curmudgeonly Lloyd Bridges. As grandfather and mom tell the tale of Peter and the Wolf to the initially skeptical kid, the story comes alive in animated sequences, with character designs by none other than Charles M. Jones.
While Peter and the Wolf doesn't come close to beating out Fantasia in terms of production values or adapting a musical work to the screen, and it's not my favorite animated adaptation of Prokofiev's masterpiece—nothing will displace the 1946 Disney version in my heart—it's largely faithful to the original and presents the music well. The Chuck Jones-designed animation goes a long way toward capturing the spirit of the story, and the live-action scenes are well-acted and beautifully shot.
The most significant departure from the source material is the wraparound story, and it's incorporated organically into the plot and doesn't feel tacked-on. These live-action scenes interrupt the narrative from time to time to allow the boy to react to what he's hearing and talk about it with his mother and grandfather, and it's a great way to guide children through the tale and help them over the rougher parts. (Thirty years ago this probably wouldn't have been necessary, but now that TV is the nation's babysitter I suppose children's shows need a bit of surrogate parenting.) Alley (who also does the animals' voices), Bridges, and Malinger give surprisingly heartfelt performances; a lot of feeling comes across in the few minutes they have onscreen.
Music is of course the centerpiece of Peter and the Wolf, and the audio on this title is excellent, presented in Dolby 2.0 Surround with clarity and oomph. Video, too, is well-presented here, in its original full screen aspect ratio with a clean and vivid print and minimal defects.
This DVD includes a decent set of extra features, including a featurette on the music of Peter and the Wolf that's very much aimed at kids (which will become evident when you hear the instructor e-nun-ci-a-ting each word in classic nursery school style) and is actually quite informative; a documentary on the making of the feature that is probably a little more exhaustive than is absolutely called for (do we really need a detailed discussion of the construction of the set, when the house figures not at all in the story?); and a surprisingly fun little game where you pair musical instruments with various animals.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For some reason, writer-director George Daugherty chose to remove Peter and the Wolf from its Russian origins and recast it in a vaguely Swiss, northern European setting. While this change doesn't wreck the piece, it does remove some of its unique character, and I'm not sure why Daugherty chose to do this when it would have been just as easy to keep it in. Perhaps in 1996 it was still a little difficult to imagine a tranquil pastoral folktale being set in the land of gulags and ICBMs.
Also, while the animated portions of the story are quite entertaining, the animation is not exactly top flight. No doubt the result of a TV-scale budget, the cheap-looking animation clearly marks the show as a television production, but Chuck Jones' excellent character designs (with the possible exception of the lame-looking Peter) save the day.
While it's not the definitive rendition of Peter and the Wolf, this adaptation is sure to entertain and delight young children, and give them a highly accessible introduction to classical music. Even better, it won't bore the pants off of grownups, either. This is a quality feature that I would recommend to any parent.
Peter and friends are found not guilty on all counts, but the Wolf is sentenced to life imprisonment in the nearest zoo.
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